New York City Marathon: Tune-up Races Help Training

Running a tune-up race is a great way to prep for a marathon. Photo by Sergis blog.

Running a tune-up race is a great way to prep for a marathon. Photo by Sergis blog.

Seven weeks down, nine to go.

Training for a marathon is long process. Much like my training for the 2010 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7, most runners spend at least 16 weeks, or the better part of four months, agonizing over every detail—longs runs, speed workouts, tempo runs, strength training, cross training, stretching, nutrition, sleep, avoiding injuries, avoiding illness, you name it, all for a few hours of agonizing glory. As the old U.S. Marine Corps adage goes—which my boyfriend and fellow marathoner-in-crime loves to quote—“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

While all that weakness is busy leaving our bodies, we’re hoping that what we’re doing actually works. That come race day, we’ll be in our best shape to conquer 26.2 miles. All that pain better mean some gain.

But how do you know if your training is serving you well? There’s nothing like a big tune-up race to check in with your training. Running a race before your big marathon gives you an intermediary goal to work toward, and will let you know if your training is working, what marathon goals you should be targeting and what potential race-day problems might pop up.

I’ve done tune-up races of many distances, but I’m keen on a half-marathon about half way through training when my long runs call for 12-14 miles. Yes, I’ll have far longer runs later in training—up to 20 plus miles—and those are good practice for race-day too as I replicate my planned hydration, food intake, clothes, etc. But I find that asking my body to run more than 10K at race pace, not training pace, gives me the best check-up.

I’ve been using the FIRST program to train for the marathon. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve voiced my concerns about the plan. I struggled with running just three days a week and at times felt like I wasn’t running enough. But I faithfully stuck to the FIRST training schedule, doing three keys runs each week at a targeted pace, plus some cross training. Their motto, “Run less, Run faster,” is far more appealing than the Marines’.

And my big tune-up race told me that yes, sometimes less is more.

The Tune-up

On Sunday, I ran the OASIS Montreal Half-Marathon as my big litmus test going into the NYC marathon. The results? Big. Huge. Monumental. I nabbed my best time at the distance by more than seven minutes.

The 1976 Olympic Stadium was the finish for the OASIS Montreal Half-Marathon.

The 1976 Olympic Stadium was the finish for the OASIS Montreal Half-Marathon.

The racing conditions in Montreal were close to ideal. Yes, there were some strong wind gusts of up to 33 mph crossing the Jacques-Cartier Bridge at the start. But after the 3K mark, the wind only gusted in bits and spurts. The race saw a high of 64 degrees with partial cloud cover that made for an alternately sunny and shady course.

I ran conservatively, opting for a goal I knew I could accomplish and continuously reigned myself in during the first half of the race. And that big 5.5-mile climb that I was so worried about? Thanks to my training, it wasn’t so bad. Being mentally prepared for it was half the battle. Knowing I’d have a few straightaways scattered among the series of inclines gave me the power to push through to the 10.5K mark, when the course started making its way downhill.

Though, one last hill before the 18K mark nearly did my legs in. I had been clipping along at an even pace with over a minute in the bank on my goal time of 2:06:36 (a 6 minute per kilometer pace). But I lost a minute and a half trudging up that hill.

The finish in the Olympic Stadium, where American marathon legend Frank Shorter won the silver medal in 1976, was easily the best part of the race. Running down the ramp and into a stadium filled with a cheering crowd is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like an Olympian. I crossed the finish in 2:07:10 with a new personal record in tow. Best of all, it felt relatively easy. It felt like an effort I could sustain over the course of a marathon.

The Goal

Now that my litmus test has been taken, it’s time to plot ahead to the big show: the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7.

I’m gunning for my fourth consecutive marathon personal record, and a big one at that; based on my finish in Montreal, I’m looking to drop a half hour from my time. But since the adage is to have three varying goals in mind, here goes:

1) Finish under 4 hours. This is pie in the sky. My Yasso 800 workouts suggest I have it in me, putting me just under 4 hours. But my other race times—including Montreal—do not. This isn’t a real goal, but it’s there in the back of my mind as something I’m working toward. Maybe someday…

2) Finish under 4:30. This is completely realistic. Every race predictor I’ve looked at has me finishing a marathon between 4:20 and 4:30 based on my finish in Montreal. If I actually bust that out on race day, I’ll be one happy lady.

3) Finish with a PR. This is even more doable. All I have to do is beat 4:51:02, which I clocked at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last year. I was on pace for a 4:30 marathon until mile 19 when my groin totally cramped up. I limped out the last few miles massaging my inner thigh, and managed to eke out a 7-minute PR.

The Litmus Results

Tuning up in Montreal let me know that my training is on target, my shoes are comfy and my hydration routine is good. In addition, the race gave me concrete realistic goals for the marathon. It also clued me in to a potential problem. Like last year in Chicago, my groin started tightening in Montreal. I now know that Chicago wasn’t a fluke—my adductors are my Achilles’ heel. I’m going to start paying extra attention to them through strength training and stretching, so that I’m not dealing with it a second marathon in a row.

I also discovered that I love running metric. A tempo run earlier in the week on the Tomifobia Nature Trail in rural Quebec first clued me in. The scenic trail marks every kilometer, and I was delighted by how quickly 8K, as opposed to 5 miles, seemed to go by—even in full sun on a 90-degree day. Clicking off kilometers is so much more palatable than clicking off miles. They’re smaller bites to chew, and allow you to focus on the next mini-goal sooner. I was able to chew up the Montreal Half-Marathon much more quickly as a result. If only the marathon were marked every kilometer in addition to every mile. A girl can dream.

With my training and goals thoroughly in check, now all I have to do is keep on keeping on.

Montreal, merci beaucoup! It’s time to enter a New York state of mind.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed three marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning. To listen to an interview with Karla, check out The Marathon Show, available for streaming or download on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.


09 2010

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    Wow! Congratulations on your Half Marathon PR. Get those crampy adductors out of your mind. You don’t want to dwell on anything negative or else it might become a self-fulfilled prophecy. I went through a rough patch when I was doing 50 milers close together and got a hamstring cramp a little after 30 miles in a couple of them. Then I began to look for it…”Here’s where I usually get a cramp” and Wham! I’d get one. Just focus on how great, smooth, and strong you are. It appears everything is working so far – don’t change anything! I’m pulling for you. BTW, let’s shoot for that 4:30 goal, not 4 hours this time around. Best of luck (no, luck has nothing to do with it) – AL

    • Karla Bruning
      Karla #

      Thanks, Al. That’s good advice about the adductors. It is easy to get hung up on stuff like that. And I’m definitely thinking 4:30. Sub-4 is my “someday” goal. The last I want to do is go out fast after a pie in the sky time and then bonk!

  2. 3

    Congrats; that’s huge! Still haven’t gotten over my jealousy that you got to run in Canada while I was stuck in Houston.

    Keep rocking!

  3. Gabrielle #

    Good luck! I used to live in northern Manhattan and ran with the Van Cortlandt Track Club. I recommend Van Cortlandt Park & Fort Tryon Park if you ever get tired of running in the other boroughs!


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