See my TrainingPeaks BMW Berlin Marathon file here – lots of cool data to look at!
See A Coach’s View to a 2:12 Marathon for a recap from my coach’s perspective.
See Matt Llano Tests Change of Approach for Berlin Marathon article from Flotrack in advance of Berlin.
See With Shalane Flanagan’s Help, Matt Llano Prepares for Berlin Marathon for an inside look into my last few weeks of training leading into the race.
It’s been about three weeks since my race in Berlin. I apologize for not getting a blog up sooner. I’m working on changing my mindset and my approach to writing these blog updates. To be completely honest, every time I think about sitting down to write one, I’m reminded of all of the intensive writing I did in college (in both English and Spanish), and the thought of writing a couple pages worth of my thoughts doesn’t seem all that appealing to me. The difference here, though, is that now it’s less about me being forced to write something, and it’s more that I want to keep you guys in the loop as part of my team’s mission to share all parts of our journey with you.
To start things off, why Berlin? I’ve gotten that question a lot over the past few months. Even yesterday I was getting some treatment at Maximum Mobility in Phoenix (John Ball is a miracle worker!) and one of the assistants asked me, “So…why Berlin over Chicago?” The conversation with my coach, Ben Rosario, started the week after I placed 2nd at the US Champs Marathon in LA (6th overall if you include international athletes). Ben’s idea for this Fall was for me to run heavy mileage and especially challenging workouts to really have me ready and firing on all cylinders for the Olympic Trials in February. Focusing on strength during that phase would put me in a good position when I returned to the starting line in LA, albeit as an underdog since I would have entered with a 2:16 personal best. My idea was a little different. I knew immediately when I finished my second marathon that I wanted to run another before the Trials to gain more experience and lower my PB (and hit the ‘A’ standard of sub-2:15 in the process). In my first marathon (Chicago 2014), I learned what it felt like to run 2:10-2:11 pace for 20 miles, and then I became very acquainted with “the wall,” in the process learning about the importance of nutrition and hydration during the race. In my second marathon, I learned what it felt like to run a championship-style race where time didn’t matter and I was able to just focus on competing and finished the race without slowing much over the second half. What could I learn from a third marathon? Ben and I both agreed that I could gain a lot from getting another marathon under my belt, so then we just had to pick one.
Since timing was of the essence, we really only ever entertained the idea of a marathon in the early Fall, giving me plenty of time to recover in time for the Trials. We were pretty quickly able to narrow it down to Chicago and Berlin because we felt they would give me the best opportunity to run fast and gain confidence for the Trials, and the timing of both left over 4 months before the Trials. The edge went to Berlin for me because, in addition to running fast, I also wanted to gain the experience of traveling before a major event just in case I have to do so for a certain upcoming marathon in Brazil – wink, wink!
Despite threatening rain all week leading up to the race, when I woke up on race morning, the weather was pretty agreeable – temperatures were in the high-40s to low-50s, with the wind clocking in at 8 mph. The air was crisp, and I knew we were ready to have a good day!
I progressed through my typical marathon warm up (10 minutes of easy running plus light stretching and drills), stripped down to my Hoka One One uniform and racing flats, and headed for the starting line. As I crossed through the media zone and onto the course, I heard a voice over the loudspeaker say, “If you are feeling bad, just give up. You only have one life, but there are many other marathons.” Wait, what?! That’s not quite what you want to hear as you’re about to put your body through the wringer! In any case, I laughed it off and breezed past my coach and Josh Cox, my agent, apparently without them noticing. I did a few strides and circled back to where they were standing with panicked looks on their faces. “We never saw you come out here; we were getting worried!” they said. At that point, there was really nothing they could say. The work was already done, the months of preparation and pep talks were in my mind, and all we did at that point was exchange looks with one another. I knew what the expressions on their faces meant, just as they knew what mine meant.
I positioned myself decently well on the starting line, half a step behind Eliud Kipchoge, the eventual race winner. Quick side note: I had a little fan-boy moment after the race when Eliud came down to dinner and specifically sought me out to say hello (Ben Rosario can confirm this!). The conversation was short because of a significant language barrier, but it did happen. One of our mutual friends, Soh Rui Yong, a running star from Singapore who now trains in Eugene, OR, told him to say hi to me, so I guess he was keeping his word, but I digress. I also made sure on the starting line that I was in close proximity to several others with whom I hoped to run the majority of the race (we’d spoken in the days before the race to discuss a plan): Shaddy Biwott, Gabe Proctor, Reid Coolsaet, and Scott Overall. The only person we couldn’t find was our pacer.
Once the gun went off, we scrambled off the line and immediately the conversation started, “Where’s our pacer?!” He was instructed to take us through 30k, hitting the half-way point between 1:04:45 and 1:05:00 (3:04 to 3:05 per kilometer), but we couldn’t find him in the pack of a few hundred people around us. The race itself implemented a plan to prevent this from happening, as the pacers were wearing referee-like black and white striped singlets, but alas, he was nowhere in sight. Thinking he was up ahead of our little pack, we sped up a bit to find him, and were able to ease in behind him around 800 or 1,000 meters into the race.
From there on, I’d say it was relatively smooth sailing, with one exception: the elite fluid stations. In my past marathon experiences, with smaller elite fields, this hasn’t been an issue. Let me briefly explain this process for anyone who may not be familiar. In many high-level marathons, a certain number of pre-selected athletes have the opportunity to provide their own water bottles and fluids to be used on the race course. Normally an athlete is assigned to a specific table number and position number; for example, it might say something like Table 3, Position 5. That means that your bottle will be the 5th bottle on the third table. Pretty simple, right? This can be an important factor in a marathoner’s success, enabling them to use a carbohydrate/hydration source that they’ve used in practice and trained their stomach to tolerate, rather than relying on what the race provides (usually Gatorade, Powerade, or something of the like).
In my opinion, Chicago has done the best job with tables so far, placing theirs in the middle of the road and staggering the bottles so that some are better approached from the right side of the table and some are better to approach from the left side of the table. This helps to split up the pack a bit and decreases the probability of getting in someone else’s way and causing them to fumble their bottle or miss it entirely.
In Berlin, they had all of the fluid tables on the right side of the road (common among many road races), and this race allowed something I’ve never experienced before: selected athletes were assigned a cyclist who would hand their bottles to them at each fluid station (every 5k) throughout the race. Because my super-agent Josh Cox is awesome, he was able to secure one of these bikers for me, who did a phenomenal job seeking me out every time the pack approached a station (thanks, Stefan Vogt!). It was still challenging, though, because we had a huge pack for a large portion of the race. There was lots of juggling for position heading into a fluid station, which prompted me to start making my way to that side of the pack 1 or 2 kilometers out from each station and getting towards the front of the group to limit the number of people who could inhibit me. I know others had issues with getting their bottles, but ultimately it’s something we all have to navigate and deal with at one point or another.
Fast forward to the end of the race, and I finished 13th place overall (first American) in a new personal best of 2:12:28. In doing so, I eclipsed my previous PB by 3 minutes and 44 seconds – not too shabby. I’ve had a bit of an internal struggle with how I feel about this performance, though, which I think also contributed to my hesitation in writing this post. On one hand, I ran faster in this marathon than I ever have before, and that’s an accomplishment I can be proud of. But on the other hand, I still wanted more and know that my body is capable of it, so I wasn’t completely satisfied. Here are my 5k splits throughout the race:
10k: 30:43 (15:12)
15k: 46:03 (15:20)
20k: 1:01:35 (15:32)
25k: 1:17:12 (15:37)
30k: 1:32:51 (15:39)
35k: 1:48:18 (15:27)
40k: 2:04:51 (16:33)
Now that I’ve had some time to digest the race and my feelings about it, I think (and maybe this is obvious) that my approach going into the race affected the outcome. Let me explain. As I prepared to run Berlin, all my coach and I were really thinking about was time. Similar to Chicago last year, this race was all about striving for a 2:10 marathon. In my first marathon last Fall (Chicago), that served me pretty well for about 20 miles as I clicked off 4:57 miles. In Berlin a few weeks ago, that served me well for about 36 kilometers – I made it much farther on pace this time around and never really hit “the wall,” which is a good thing. However, in both scenarios, what I lacked was competitiveness over the final miles. For months in training and then for miles during the race, I was so focused on hitting certain time goals that when it came time to compete towards the end of the race, I mentally disengaged. My problem in both of those efforts was that ultimately I forgot that I was RACING, and instead I was too focused on time-trialing. I thought, “I’m running Berlin, where last year the winner (Dennis Kimetto) ran a world record 2:02:57. I’m not really going to be in the race; I’m racing against the clock.” Why wasn’t I thinking about competing for a top-10 finish? Or a top-5 finish? Accomplishing either of those at a World Marathon Major would have been a big deal!
The realization above didn’t really come to me until I watched this year’s edition of the Chicago Marathon, where Luke Puskedra (formerly of the Nike Oregon Project) ran a phenomenal race, finishing in 5th place with a 5 minute PB of 2:10:24. When the marathon got hard, Luke competed. He fought for every place ahead of him and earned his shiny new PB. I have no doubt in my mind that competing over the last few miles propelled him to the finish line. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself; he was racing, and it paid off big time.
In this sport, I think it’s important to try to always be learning and evolving as an athlete. Just like I hope you guys can learn something from me, I look to other athletes to learn from their experiences. Runner’s World published an article last month detailing some of the things I’ve learned from my friend, cooking/baking partner, and sometimes-training-partner Shalane Flanagan, and learning from Luke’s success is no different. If I can glean something from another person that makes me a better athlete as a result, why wouldn’t I?