Running a Sub-Three-Hour Marathon

Only two percent of people who toe a marathon starting line will break three hours. As Matt Skenazy found out, joining that club isn't easy.

Dale Engler takes third in the 2009 Melbourne Marathon     Photo: Shane White/Shutterstock

Sub-three is a goal with no reward, a personal vendetta against the clock.

It all started with Paul Ryan. In August 2012, the Republican vice-presidential candidate told an interviewer that he had run a marathon in: “under three, high twos. I had a two-hour-fifty-something.”

Now, I’m okay with my politicians being better than me at balancing a budget or having more neckties, but I’ll be damned if they’re faster than me. Luckily, it soon came out that Mr. P90X had only run a 4:01:25. Phew.

But later, in the spate of editorials about what it meant for a politician to lie about a marathon time, one fact jumped out at me. Writing at RunnersWorld.com, Mark Remy pointed out that though thousands aim for it, only two percent of marathon finishers in 2011 ran under three hours. Two percent! “Running a marathon is hard,” Remy writes. “Doing it in less than 3 hours is really hard. No, I mean hard. Like really freaking hard.”

Three hours is an odd and somewhat arbitrary goal. You have to be fast and dedicated to a pretty all-encompassing training plan, but aside from the number two leading off your result time, there are zero practical reasons to aim for it. A Boston qualifier for my age group (18-34) is 3:05 and runners who win local marathons run in the 2:30 range. Sub-three is a goal with no reward, a personal vendetta against the clock.

“You need to train with the same dedication as a Ryan Hall or a Shalane Flanagan,” says Hal Higdon, owner of a 2:21 marathon PR and author of 36 books, most of which are about running. “You also need at least a smidgen of talent. Not as much as the Kenyans have, but a smidgen.”

I had run one marathon, in 2008, when I was 21-years-old, and came in at exactly 3:29:34. Now, the call of the clock was sucking me back in. I wanted to run a sub-three.

Nearly a year after the Ryan interview, I finally settled on the Mountains to Beach Marathon in Ventura, California. The race has a net loss of 700 feet over the 26.2 miles and—perhaps more importantly since I live at 7,000 feet—it’s at sea level.

I had been running the trails around my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, semi-regularly through the winter, but if I wanted to break three hours, I knew I had to step up my training. I settled on a loose interpretation of one of Higdon’s programs that emphasized a progressive mileage buildup, plenty of running at race pace, and track and hill workouts once a week.

To run a sub-three-hour marathon, runners need to average about 6:50 per mile. On a practical level, I had no idea what that felt like, so I got a New Balance GPS watch that showed my pace, distance, and overall time. Steadily, over weeks of eyeing the clock, I began to understand what a 6:15 pace felt like versus a 7:15 pace, and could reliably ballpark my speed without the watch.

I need to emphasize my “loose interpretation” of Higdon’s program. I sit behind a desk for ten hours each day, and sometimes it’s Sunday, and you’d rather go sport climbing, or biking, or do anything instead of running. I justified the flexibility in my plan by telling myself that a happy runner is a good runner.

Unfortunately, as a consequence of my “happy runner” philosophy, I started to feel unprepared about a month before the race. My weekly mileage was 15 to 20 miles lower than the 60-to-70-mile weeks that Higdon prescribed. And though I could reliably kick off thirteen 6:15 miles, who was to say I could run that speed for twice that distance?

In need of some last-minute advice, I called Geoff Roes, a 37-year-old, Clif-Bar-sponsored elite ultrarunner who has smashed numerous course records at races like the Western States 100 and Susitna 100 during his career. With his low, calm voice, speaking with him was like talking with a therapist. He advised me to relax, stop worrying about my lack of preparation and my nagging head cold, and just enjoy the experience.

“Just mentally decide ‘this won’t ruin my race,’” Roes told me. He went on to suggest that I dial in my race-day outfit and nutrition plan in advance, to eliminate any surprises.

So I did. I slept more, stopped drinking alcohol, and ate my vegetables. As the race approached, and I began the tapering phase of my training—which included lots of reading with my feet up on the couch—I started to feel as if I was spending weeks at a spa instead of prepping to become a two-percenter. Surely something was wrong.

THE GUN WOULDN'T GO OFF UNTIL 6 a.m. on race day, but I was out of bed at 4:15 a.m. Following Roes’ advice, I put on the same clothes I had been training in for the last three weeks—black shorts, white top, grey socks—and ate my pre-planned breakfast of one banana, half a Clif Bar, and half a cup of coffee.

My ride dropped me off at the start line at 5:30 a.m. After a quick warm-up jog, I elbowed my way towards the front of the pack. The starting chute was narrow and, chip time or no chip time, I didn’t want to get stuck in the stampede.

I had barely started to run when I ran into my first problem. While I had been waiting for the marathon to begin, my watch had automatically reset from “run” mode to “time” mode. It took me nearly a mile to figure out my pace, and I wouldn’t know my overall time until I got to the finish line. This sounds like a small thing, but after sticking to a routine that dictated which pair of socks I wore on every training run, it sent me into panic mode. I repeated Roes’ words like a mantra: This won’t ruin my race. This won’t ruin my race.

I began clicking off the miles at a steady 6:20-per-mile pace. I had planned on starting more conservatively, but I felt good and the race adrenaline carried me on. The sunover the Sespe Wilderness and gently filtered through the leaves of hundred-year-old oak trees. I’ll slow down later, I thought.

But I didn’t. I kept a pace that hovered between 6:10 and 6:35 per mile down the Ventura River Valley and towards the ocean. I don’t like eating while I run, but at mile 15, I ate most of the mocha Clif Shot that was in my back pocket. (True to Roes’ advice, it was the same flavor I had been training with for the last month.)

That’s when I started to hear voices. The race up to this point had been a quiet affair: My fellow runners were too winded to talk, and the silence was only broken by the occasional onlooker with a cowbell. But behind me, someone was having a conversation with themselves.

“My brother just bandited a half-marathon in Boston. Ran in 72 minutes flat. I told him, ‘you know you’re gonna run that fast, why not just pay the eighty bucks?’” Someone else grunted in response. I couldn’t imagine who was so chatty at mile 18. I slowed slightly and three runners came up alongside me.

It turned out that the Talker had just started at mile 15 and was pacing his buddy to the finish line; they were aiming for a time of 2:50. I told him I was shooting for a sub-three-hour finish.

“That’s easy!” said the Talker. “Just take it conservatively until the last four miles. The race won’t even start until then.”

This simultaneously reassured me and made me incredibly nervous. With just a third of the marathon to go, I was keeping pace with the 2:50 group. But if the race didn’t really start until mile 22, I had a lot farther to go.

At about mile 20, other runners started to hit the wall. I began to pass competitors that I hadn’t seen since the starting line. Not me: I felt great. I had even left the Talker and his buddies behind.

It was at mile 23 that things started to turn south. My legs started to feel like cement, and my brain couldn’t even conjure up Roes’ mantra. I dropped down to a 7:30 pace, but it felt much, much slower.

Since waking up that morning, I had consumed less than 350 calories while burning over 3,000. My body had run out of carbohydrates, and had started to break down muscle, probably in my legs, to make up the deficit. (Days later, I talked to Bay-Area-based nutritionist Sunny Blende, who told me that the body burns around 1,000 calories an hour while running, but can only ingest around 240, meaning I should have been popping an energy gel every 30 minutes instead of just once.)

By about mile 24, I wasn’t concerned with breaking three hours; I was afraid I wouldn’t finish the race at all. I watched glassy-eyed as runners I had caught earlier passed me by. At one point, a woman in black shorts and a black sports bra ran by, her stride smooth and confident. “Catch that girl, Matt. Catch her,” said a voice behind me that I assumed was the Talker. (By that point, I could have been imagining it.) Normally my competitive instincts would have spurred me to kick after her, but I had nothing left. She glided away. I learned later that she was the first overall female finisher.

Mercifully, the finish line appeared just past the base of the Ventura pier. I crossed, too exhausted to even see the official clock. My watch was useless, since I had started it who-knows-how-long after the starting gun. I stood at the finish, swaying as a volunteer removed my chip from my shoe.

Stumbling through the finishers chute, I managed to track down the man who finished right behind me, and asked him what time he had clocked.

“Two fifty-two,” he said.

Beautiful, and with eight minutes to spare. The pain in my legs still throbbed, but I barely noticed. Take that, Paul Ryan.

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