Steve Spence’s Best Race, and How He Achieved It
Spence was ready to give up on the marathon. Until he turned his training upside down.
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Steve Spence is one of five modern-day American male runners to have won a marathon medal in a World Championships or Olympics. In 1991, he took home bronze in a sweltering Tokyo World Champs. (The other four are Frank Shorter, Meb Keflezighi, and Galen Rupp in the Olympics, and Mark Plaatjes in the World Championships.).
But Spence doesn’t list Tokyo as his best race. Or even his second best. And mastering the marathon definitely didn’t come easily to him. In each of his first five marathon attempts, he was reduced to a walk late in the race. As he remembers: “I’d go from ‘I’m fourth at Boston at 23 miles and feeling great’ to, within minutes, ‘Let’s just finish without walking’ and then, ‘Oh, what the heck. I have to stop to stretch my calves.’”
Spence couldn’t figure out what was wrong. At the suggestion of his agent, Don Paul, and the well-known marathon guru, Dr. Dave Martin, he decided to invert his marathon training. Instead of building endurance early, followed by tuneup races and a taper, he did the bulk of his long runs closer to race day.
The result was Spence’s Best Race in his sixth marathon — a winning 2:12:17 in the 1990 Columbus Marathon. “It’s a tough call because ‘best’ is so subjective,’” he notes. “But at Columbus, I combined overcoming adversity with learning from past mistakes and executing my race plan. I also got the most out of myself physically and mentally.”
Surprisingly, Spence gives a Second Best Race ranking to an effort that took place 13 years later in the Raleigh Relays. He was 41 at the time, racing against collegians, and managed to negative-split a 10,000 meters on the track to finish in 30:18. “Raleigh was a fun effort,” he says. “I ran the last three laps progressively faster in 69, 67, and 65.”
Spence is also known for running a sub-5-minute mile 43 years in a row. He started as a 14-year-old in 1976 and continued through 2018 when he was 57. He has been a longtime coach at Shippensburg University (Penn.), and his daughter Neely Spence Gracey has a marathon PR of 2:34:55. She was born in April, 1990 — on a day when her father ran the Boston Marathon.
How Spence trained for his Best Race
In 1990, Spence was about to give up on marathon running, but agreed to race Chicago in October. A warm fall led to seasonal allergies that waylaid his Chicago plans, but then a cold snap stopped the allergies, and he was able to train strong again for the Columbus date, a month after Chicago. Almost overnight, his training pace dropped from 7:00 at a 140 heart rate to 6:00 at the same heart rate.
Spence had built his speed during the summer road-race season, so now he turned almost exclusively to endurance. For three weeks from mid-October to early-November, he averaged 125- to 135-miles per week. “We figured that I didn’t need a lot of speed to run 5-minute pace in a marathon,” he says. “I needed the endurance to get through the last few miles.”
Spence’s pre-marathon peaking sessions
Spence did the expected weekend long run, mid-week medium run, and a highly specific race-simulation workout on the track. On the weekend, he aimed to run longer than his expected marathon race. Usually he continued for 2:30, starting easy at about 7:00 pace, and finishing with the last 30 minutes under 6:00 pace. Overall, he averaged about 6:20 pace, or 60 to 80 seconds per mile slower than marathon race-day pace. He ran on a flat towpath.
Midweek, he switched to a very hilly state forest, where he ran for 2 hours at about 5:30 pace. “Sometimes I’d be going as much as three or four miles of steady uphill at a sub-5:00 effort, and then I’d let it roll on the downhills.”
On Friday, he ran 2 x 20 minutes on a track at slightly faster than marathon pace. He’d practice his drinking-on-the-run by setting up a fluids table where he grabbed a big bottle (10-12 ounces) and drank it at 1.5 miles and 3 miles in the 20-minute tempo effort. He didn’t put just one bottle on the table; he loaded it with a bunch of bottles. Then he practiced reaching for and grabbing his specific drink bottle as he passed the table. “I’d snatch the bottle, run about 100 meters with it to get my breathing and rhythm back under control, and then shoot down the 10 to 12 ounces.”
Spence’s taper lasted only 10 days. He did about 75% of normal mileage two weeks out, and 50% the last week. Most everything was timed to a training and carbo depletion phase, then a repletion phase. A week prior to the marathon, he completed a 90-minute depletion run with about 60 minutes at 5:20 pace. Four days pre-marathon, he ran 6 x 1200 meters in 3:42 (just under 5:00 pace) with a 400 jog. Immediately after, he began his carbo loading regimen.
Carbing down, carbing up
Since he had bonked in his previous marathons, Spence tried an exaggerated carboloading plan before Columbus. It required that he deplete his glycogen supplies first, and then reload them the final four days prerace.
During the depletion stage, he ate mainly leafy salads and a special eggplant parmesan prepared by his wife, Kirsten. Since he had tapered down his training, he also consumed 50 to 60 percent fewer daily calories during this stage. He knew the depletion would make him feel grouchy and lethargic, and it did.
To replenish, Spence switched to normal meals, plus a quart a day of Exceed, a carboloading drink. He felt that the beverage, rather than more bread and pasta, kept him from feeling bloated. “I had practiced with the Exceed in training before my long runs, so I was very comfortable with it.”
His physical and mental plan for the race
Spence says he’s only half joking — but also completely serious — when he reports that his marathon goal was to finish without walking. “I wanted to nail the preparation, including the training, the carbo depletion, and then the carb-loading plan,” he says. During the marathon, he stayed diligent about getting his fluids and drinking down 10 to 12 ounces per bottle. “I also had to manage my emotions and stay patient through 23 miles,” he notes.
He had confidence in his upside-down training plan, and practiced positive mental imagery about the race. “I pictured myself running with my competitors, many of whom were friends from the U.S. road scene.”
A key race moment, and how Spence responded
At the 20-mile mark, Marc Curp dropped the pace from 5:00s to about 4:40. Spence was preparing to respond when he felt a twitch in his right hamstring. “That was a good reminder that I had planned to manage my energy to at least the 23-mile mark,” he recalls. “I stayed focused on my plan.”
At 23, he started working his arms harder, and getting up on his toes. Two miles later, running in second place, he noticed that he was cutting into Curp’s lead of 30+ seconds. They were on a long uphill grind, and Spence concentrated on his form and turnover. “I reminded myself to be patient, to focus inwardly, and to monitor my body.”
He caught and passed Curp with a half mile to go, and hit the tape in 2:12:17, which would remain a lifetime PR. “I was elated to get the win,” Spence says, “but I felt for Marc because I was all too familiar with the helplessness of glycogen depletion.”
Advice for others chasing a Best Race
First, says Spence, “Define what best race means to you. Then follow a “process-oriented approach rather than an outcomes-oriented approach.”
Among other things, make a plan that reflects what you’ve learned from past training cycles. Be sure it emphasizes paying attention to all the many details. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and take a risk. Also, recognize that setbacks are inevitable, and that every runner must be prepared to learn, adapt, and thrive.
“Finally, focus on what is reasonably within your control, and don’t compare yourself to others,” says Spence. “Comparison is the killer of joy and dreams.”