How I went from a 4:49 marathon to running a BQ

A commenter asked me last week to write up a straight-forward post looking at the path I took to qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  I realized that I’ve dribbled the information all over my blog but I’ve never bothered to do a comprehensive post.  I read a similar post by Teal at Miles to the Trials, where she details her path from a 4:09 marathon to qualifying for the Olympic Trials, and so I’m going to model my post after hers (and by the way, if you haven’t read hers, you should – talk about freaking motivational!)

I ran my first marathon a little over six years ago, at Walt Disney World in Orlando.  My most recent marathon was last March in Albany, Georgia.  I’ve run about one marathon a year since 2010, which is when I decided that it made sense to pay someone a bunch of money to let me run 26.2 miles as fast as I could.

In that time, my approach to training has changed dramatically.  I went from someone who was beyond psyched just to finish a race without dying to someone who is now trying to see just how fast she’s capable of running.  The gestalt of my transformation as a distance runner is comprised of a million little changes, everything from the way I eat to the kind of shoes I wear when I’m not running.  I guess you could say I was made, not born.

Anyway, let’s begin, shall we?

1. Walt Disney World Marathon 2010
Goal: To finish
Time: 4:49:21 (11:02/mile)
Training plan: Hal Higdon Marathon Novice 1

I didn’t keep a training log for this race so I couldn’t even begin to tell you what my weekly mileage was.  One thing I do know for certain, though, is that I ended up overdoing it and injuring myself, to the point that I couldn’t even stand on my injured leg when I was putting on my pants or shaving in the shower.  This happened when I was supposed to start doing my serious long runs, so I went into this marathon never having run further than 15 miles.

I supplemented the running I was able to complete by spending a lot of time on the elliptical (which is probs why I hate it so much now – I always associate it with injury).  I planned to use the Galloway run-walk method on race day. I had been using for all of my half-marathons and found it a useful tool for helping me cope psychologically with distances I’d never run before.  (I later used it for both of my ultras.)

The race: Race day ended up starting off with record-breaking cold temperatures, with wind chill that was below freezing.  I was so cold I was crying before the race even started. The air was so cold that the aid stations were like tiny ice rinks because all of the spilled water had frozen on the asphalt.  Fortunately the sun came up when we were at about mile 13, and I had a delightful last half of the marathon, just totally thrilled by the fact that I’d covered so much distance by foot.  I cried when I finished.

Crossing that finish line really changed the way I looked at myself.  It also introduced me to the weirdly masochistic pleasures of running a full marathon and made me thirsty for more.  That said, I would never recommend that anyone go into a marathon as lightly trained as I was, and if they were going to do it anyway, I would strongly suggest they run-walk it.

2. Big Sur International Marathon 2012
Goal: 1. To run the whole thing without stopping; 2. To break four hours
Time: 4:18:13 (9:51/mile)
Training plan: Hal Higdon Marathon Novice 1

I felt like I hadn’t really given Hal Higdon a fair shot so I tried his training plan again.  I kept a training log, which is sadly lost to the digital ether as the computer it was on crashed sans backup.  However, I do know at my peak I was running about 35-40 miles a week.  I was running between 3-4 times a week – the standard 2-3 runs during the week plus a long run on the weekend.

I didn’t get injured during this training cycle but I did unfortunately find myself beset with a horrible case of seasonal allergies for the first time in my life.  They were so bad that I felt like I had a sinus infection for weeks on end. I kept trying to train, though, which just exacerbated the situation. Finally my ARNP, after having seen me sobbing in her exam room for the fourth time in three weeks, told me NO RUNNING.

This time I managed to get in a 17-mile run.  I also was terrified of Hurricane Point, which everyone had built up into this huge beast, so I did a lot of my long runs on the various tall bridges around Florida as simulcra of hill running.  (Hey, you do what you can.)  I’m not gonna lie, though – I had the crappiest attitude.  Brian trained with me a lot and so he had to spend hours listening to me whine: about the heat, the wind, the hills, blah blah blah.

The race: I went into this race having run a bunch of sub-2:00 half marathons (and a new half PR of 1:46).  I thought I had it in me to achieve both of my goals: to break four hours and to run without stopping.  I ultimately achieved neither goal, as I had to walk starting at mile 20 thanks to a blast of 30-mph wind right in my face, but it was a 30-minute PR and I would have been a fool to complain about that.  Ironically Hurricane Point wasn’t much of a problem for me, but all of the little roller hills in the last six miles decimated me.  Just a heads-up for those who may want to run it sometime (which I strongly suggest you do).—-

An earlier version of this post contained a 600-word sidebar here that I later realized was better as a post of its own.  Basically, it was around this time that I discovered the importance of nutrition in helping me feel good. Plus I also realized losing a bit of weight would help me run faster.  Better nutrition + weekly speed sessions = 15 pounds that came off and have stayed off.  There’s more to say, but again, a post of its own.


 3. Marathon Bahamas 2013
Goal: To break four hours
Time: 4:08:32 (9:29/mile pace)
Training plan: Hal Higdon Marathon Novice 2

It was at this point that I started actually incorporate a variety of runs into my training program: long, slow runs that were actually slow; speed work where I actually tried to run hard.  My body had acclimated to all of the unique stressors of running to the point that I could do regular speed work without pounding myself into the ground. My speed workouts weren’t really structured, though – just some fartleks once a week.  The Higdon plan didn’t have a lot of specific workouts, so I was mostly flying by my butt with these, just sort of making it up as I went along.

This time, work got in the way of me being able to train the way I wanted to, as we were launching a new site and I was project lead on it.  I squeezed in my runs whenever I could, but the longest run I completed during this training cycle was an 18-miler.  I found myself getting up early for the first time in my life so I could get my runs in before work.  It was incredibly important to me that I break four hours.

The race: The weather had other ideas, though.  I was on track to make my goal until mile 22, but then the sun came out and there were no clouds and it was a humid, disgusting 80 degrees outside.  No amount of training had prepared me for that, and I finished the last few miles of the marathon in a total funk.  (And yes, I knew how ridiculous it was to be so frustrated about running a marathon in the Bahamas, not to mention setting a new PR by 10 minutes.)

4. Clearwater Marathon 2014
Time: 3:54:52 (8:57/mile)
Training plan: Hansons Marathon Method

By this point, I was ready to try something a little more advanced with my training.  Runner’s World had been hyping up the Hansons Marathon Method, with its principle of accumulated fatigue, which is basically a fancy way of saying “running long on tired legs.”  I decided to use myself as a sample of n=1 and see how it all worked out. 

For the first several weeks, I followed the program with about 90% adherence.  I was running five times a week, which was more than I’d ever run before, and I was running both weekend days.  That’s one of the hallmarks of the Hansons plan.  The big sales pitch is “no twenty-mile runs!” but they leave out the small print, which reads “but you’ll run 16 miles on Saturday and 10 miles on Sunday!”  My weekly mileage peaked between 55-60 mpw, and my legs felt it. 

I was able to handle the workload for a while, until one day when I had a nine-mile speed workout.  I came home feeling brilliant and strong.  And then I went for a run the next day. After a quarter-mile, my left knee was in so much pain that I had to stop. I had once again overdone it.  I took a couple of weeks off, and then after that I dropped the speed workouts and replaced one run a week with the elliptical. Things were okay after that.

By this time I had started dabbling a bit in multi-sport, so I had been riding my bike and swimming some.  That worked with Higdon, but Hansons had no room for cross-training.  I came to regret this when triathlon season started up later that summer.  Plus I lost some of the muscle I’d worked really hard to build, which was disappointing.

The race: it went brilliantly.  I felt strong the whole time, all the way across the finish line. The accumulated-fatigue principle meant that when shit got hard at miles 20-24, my body didn’t crumple up and fall apart, and I was able to keep running strong all the way to the end.

Ultramarathons #1 and #2
Training plan: Relentless Forward Progress

Once I recovered, I kept running high volume (for me – 55-65 mpw) through May of that year. In that time, I ran the Long Play 33 1/3 trail run and then the Keys 50.  At the time I just wanted to try ultrarunning, but in retrospect I saw that I’d spent the better part of a year building up some serious endurance.  By the time I went into my marathon training cycle for the Albany Marathon, I had a very solid endurance base in place, which gave me a good platform for what was going to be essentially a speed work phase.  

The other part about this is that running these two ultras endowed me with a lot of mental toughness, which has undoubtedly been my most valuable asset in the past year and a half of racing and training.  (And really, in life in general.)

5. Albany Marathon 2015
Goal: To BQ (for me was 3:40, but I knew I needed to be under that by several minutes)
Time: 3:34:34 (8:11/mile)
Training plan: Run Less Run Faster (Beginner)

I joined the Kennedy Law Racing team in the middle of 2014, and this was the program around which the team’s running workouts were structured.  We had a speed work session on Mondays, a tempo run on Wednesdays and a long run on Saturdays, and then sprinkled in between was a lot of cross training.  Right away that style of training paid off, with PRs at all distances but the 5K (and even then I ended up being first female overall at three smaller 5Ks that season). 

Plus, I found that I liked it.  All the paces and distances were laid out for me, and my job was to simply go do the workouts the best I could.  I found that I liked the long runs the best, because the paces were pretty aggressive in a way that scared me but also made me feel really confident and awesome. I finally completed my first 20-miler in a marathon cycle, and I ran it in 2:56.  That was a huge confidence booster for me.  I capped out at 37 mpw, which is not a lot for a marathon training plan, but none of those miles were easy.

Because I also wanted to do well in the upcoming triathlon season, I took the cross-training just as seriously as the running, with hard rides on the indoor trainer and lap swims at least once a week.  The plan called for two sessions of cross-training per week, but I did more like 3-4.  My knee bugged me a bit during this training cycle, so I started taking prehab and stretching more seriously as well.

The race: it was as perfect of a race as I could have asked for. The conditions were great and the course was mostly flat, and I felt strong and fast the whole time.  I still remember running past the aid station at mile 25 and screaming, “I’m going to qualify for Boston!”  I am reluctant to use the word “effortless” in regards to a marathon but I was shocked by how manageable it was for me to run like that, especially since it was a 20-minute PR. 

It was after that race that I started wondering just what else I was capable of.  After all, if I could run a BQ on my fifth marathon – and honestly, my second one where I’d actually trained seriously – then what else was possible?  I doubt I have any more 20-minute marathon PRs in my future but I do suspect that I have it in me to go faster, which is why I’m targeting sub-3:30 for Boston in April.


I hope this was useful for anyone who made it through all 2,300 words.  If you have any questions I am happy to answer them in the comments below.  I don’t claim to be an expert on this stuff, nor do I want to give the impression that I have some kind of fail-proof blueprint for running a BQ on your fifth marathon, but I am definitely happy to share my experiences with anyone who might find them valuable.

42 responses to “How I went from a 4:49 marathon to running a BQ

  1. Glad to hear your results on Run Less, Run Faster. I am giving it a whirl for my spring marathoning. Hoping for results after years of running Hal Higdon programs (Novice to Advanced 1). Those three runs are no joke.

  2. You trained with more intensity and overcame Injury by cross training. Congrats – consistent improvement is very motivating psychologically.
    And running Boston is one of the greatest days a runner can ever have . Enjoy It!

  3. Love this post! It’s so easy to see someone running good times and assume they’ve always been able to do that, even though that usually isn’t the case. Seeing the progression like this is really useful!

  4. This is great! Thanks. I look forward to reading more about your nutrition discoveries. It always feels like that sort of stuff should be a no brainer, but the 15 lbs I’ve packed on distance training tells me it isn’t.

    • Thank you! Honestly, it’s nothing all that ground-breaking. I’ll say ahead of time that I didn’t do anything particularly special or revolutionary, but I’ll probs post about it in the next week or so and then we can compare notes on the subject.

  5. I think that I will be looking into the runn less run faster method as my training progresses. I want to get back into my long distances, but not give up the speed I have gained. Great post!

    • Thanks! Definitely look into RLRF and see if it works for you. I know some people for whom it hasn’t worked but I feel like it’s all so individualized that you can only find out by trying it for yourself.

  6. It’s cool to see how far you’ve come. You’re so speedy now that I hadn’t realized you ran a bunch of marathons before breaking 4 hours! It looks like you’ve really figured things out now. It’s interesting to read about your experiences with Higdon vs. Hansons vs. RLRF. When I first started running more seriously, I tried RLRF. I moved onto Higdon next, and now I’m going to try Hansons. After reading what you’ve said, I realize I may have a sub-par tri season this coming year, but I’m willing to go all-in on the running to see what happens. Maybe I’ll have to try RLRF again in the future. I wasn’t doing tris when I used it before, so it would probably be extra beneficial now that I am. It seems to be working for you!

    • Thank you! Regarding Hansons – it might not have the same effect on you that it did on me. I was still in the process of trying to build myself up as a triathlete and so going six months without riding my bike pretty much set me back to zero. It might be different for you this time.

      That said Hansons got me the goal I really wanted, so if you are looking to have a seriously run-focused block of training, then do it. It’s great for that. I actually worked on my form a lot during Hansons and became a lot more efficient, which is a big plus of that program that I didn’t remember until responding to your comment. Your form might already be good, so I don’t know, but mine was a hot mess.

      Anyways I’m looking forward to seeing your progress with this next cycle of training, and I’ll be cheering you on!

  7. GReat post. I have done countless half marathons and 9 Around the Bay 30km races but haven’t had the guts to do a full marathon yet. I love the run less run faster method…maybe, just maybe it will get me there. Thanks again for a great post.

    • If you’ve done nine 30km races, I am absolutely confident you could do a marathon. There’s no doubt in my mind. No doubt that first one is scary but goodness, it feels incredible to cross that finish line.

  8. Great write up, thank you. Also congratulations on using ‘gestalt’ in a sentence. I think this comment was the first time I’ve used this word.

    People interested in qualifying for Boston may like this post from my friend Aleks who detailed her training plan quite specifically. I hope you don’t mind me posting the link, I thought it might be useful but please feel free to delete if you prefer.

  9. Thanks for sharing this! I have just one 4:38 marathon (omg it was terrible) under my belt, and I anticipated a 4-4:15 finish. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me but I hope I can be one those people someday with giant marathon progress stories like yours.

    • Thank you! You know, now that you’ve gotten that first one out of the way, you know what to expect and you’ll be prepared for when you try again. I remember being gobsmacked by my first attempt at actually running a whole marathon, how my body and brain crumpled on me at mile 20. When I tried to run a whole one again – during marathon #3 – I was actually ready for it (but was thwarted by the weather, 😦 ). Keep it up, you’ll achieve your goals!

  10. I was so excited to see this! This is a great breakdown, all 2,300 words of it. I’d love to know more about your cross training when you get a chance. How hard do you go? Do you focus on anything in particular? What’s been the most effective?

    I’m trying to take my running more seriously this year, adding in speedwork/recovery/endurance work as well as some cross training. It’s actually reassuring to see how methodical and “slow” progression looks when you’re in it, but how clearly it occurs if you take it as a whole.

    Also, you mentioned in your post about the shorts (LOVE THEM, btw) that you’d love to keep in touch. Yes, let’s! is my internet identity, we can connect there and figure out what works. I’m so excited for Boston for you this year!

    • Hey! I’m glad to see another comment from you, and thanks for your email address! I will definitely be emailing you shortly.

      To answer your questions: I’ve tried to do tempo rides, which are rides that are about 75-80% of my max effort, for about an hour, sometimes mixing it up with intervals. And right now I do master’s swimming 2-3 times a week, which can mean anything from hard, fast intervals to drill work to long, slow sets. Basically my goal is to really get my heart rate going when I do the cross-training.

      Last season I focused mostly on the bike, because the bike is my weak leg as a triathlete and I knew that if I wanted to be a halfway decent triathlete I needed to get way stronger on the bike. That continues to be a focus for me. The side effect is that I can now run pretty well off the bike. I think it helps that both activities are leg focused.

      I’m also doing more strength training this time around, but not powerlifting style strength training with heavy squats and the like. A lady I know who went from being at about my level as a runner to a triathlete to being, like, first overall female at a bunch of things swears by her strength training routine, so that’s inspired me to really double down on it and to be consistent.

      OK I’m looking forward to emailing with you offline!

  11. Fab post! I love how you have learnt what works for you as you’ve gone along. And to PB 5 times in a row?! Lots of hard work went in there!

    • Thank you! I’ve been very lucky to have set new PRs each time I’ve run a marathon. I figure I’m due a marathon where I don’t PR, but I really hope that doesn’t come during Boston!

  12. Lots of great information here, thanks for writing it all out! It was probably fun to look back and see how far you’ve come too.

    • It was definitely interesting to see! It can be easy to take progress for granted and so sometimes it helps to stop and take stock of things so you can actually appreciate the work that has gone into making one’s accomplishments possible.

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  14. I love this! Thanks for sharing your journey. My goal is to BQ and my current marathon PR is 4:03 (which I’m very proud of since I went from 4:53 to 4:03). I still have a long way to go for a BQ! My next marathon is in June and am using Hansons. I’m honestly not expecting to BQ in June, but will work my way there over the next couple of marathons. Just need to find a good fall marathon!

  15. I loved this and thank you for sharing your journey. My question, as someone who has turned into a decent-ish cyclist after taking it up in my 30s (after drinking and smoking my way through my 20s), is how do you feel about the whole ‘WHAT IF I had done this sooner’ scenario?

    Does that ever play out in your mind? Is it ever useful/motivating to you to think like this, or do you avoid having regrets?

  16. Love this so much–thank you for sharing! I’ve raced 2 marathons shooting for sub 4:30 and have come up with 4:44 and 4:45. I’d love a 4:00 marathon, but I’ve yet to break that darn 4:30. So frustrating as I have a few sub 2 hour halfs and 5ks that indicate I could do it.
    This post and your journey gives me hope 🙂

  17. Awesome read, thanks for sharing this! I’m stuck in the 4:30-4:45 range and would love to get in the lower range of 4! I own that book Run Less Run Faster, maybe I should give it a read, huh? Thanks!

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