Running a Sub-3 Hour Marathon

My big fitness goal for 2023 was to do something that a few years ago would be completely unthinkable for me — to run a sub-3 hour marathon. To set some context, I only started running in early 2020 and I never did any sports my entire life. I managed to run almost 600km that year. Then in 2021, I got into triathlon and managed to run over 1600km. In 2022, I continued doing triathlon and again ran over 1600km. I really enjoyed the sport, and was fortunate enough to be able to complete a full Ironman in late 2022 in Lisbon (I did it in under 13 hours, which is not super impressive, but my main goal was just to get through it).

Now, this year, I set out to focus almost purely on running. And I wanted to run much faster than I've ever run before, since I was never too focused on speed while doing triathlons. I had previously ran a half-marathon in 01:33:34 and a full marathon in 03:33:05, so the 3 hour goal for the marathon felt right.

(January-April) 2023 Vienna Marathon

Between January 1st 2023 and April 23rd 2023, I followed a training plan that I found online with a friend. I followed the workouts extremely consistently and was able to run not one, but two half-marathon races in 1 hour, 23 minutes and change during this period. I also ran very high volume, and I hit almost 120km of total mileage in my peak week of training. The "marathon paced" workouts, which are basically sessions where I ran between 5 and 10 kilometers at "marathon pace" (4:15 minutes per kilometer) felt good. These were certainly not easy, but also not too hard.

On April 23rd, I was in Vienna and ready to go. I was well-rested, well-fed and quite confident about breaking 3 hours. The weather was basically perfect, the route is extremely flat and this event was also really well organized. The hotel I was staying at was a mere 30 seconds walk from the race start, so I couldn't have asked for more idyllic conditions.

The race started out really well but given that there were no official pacers for the sub 3 hour target, I had to pace myself. This is really challenging for novice runners for a few reasons:

  • Running an extremely consistent pace for 42 kilometers is just very hard. The energy of the crowd gets us going and we might step it up too much, or getting distracted by our thoughts might lead us to slow down. A good running watch can help here, but it's no magic bullet.
  • The psychological effect of running in a group can help us achieve our goals much more easily, as it improves mood and motivation. Also, in windy conditions, it can help with shielding the people in the back of the group.
  • The GPS on the watch is not perfect. During a long race, it's likely that it will be wrong by a decent margin. So, the ideal way to know that you're "on pace" is by clocking every kilometer on your watch according to roadside signs along the route. Official marathon pacers do this very well, but it's not something most amateur runners will know how to do.

Having said that, I think I paced myself pretty well. But, despite being on track to hit my goal after 35 kilometers of running, I hit the famous "wall" that a lot of endurance runners are all too familiar with. My stomach started cramping, I felt nauseated and depleted of energy. I had to slow down, almost walk a bit, and figuratively crawl myself to the end.

My Vienna 2023 marathon race

I finished the race in 03:15:49. I was very disappointed, but ultimately perplexed at why I had lost all my energy. Nutrition is a big part of endurance sports, and I had somewhat practiced this part of the sport by taking in gels and energy bars during longer runs. Admittedly, I didn't do enough of this since it's not really enjoyable to take these gels often (they can be sweet, but not tasty like a dessert). A few things might have happened:

  • I may not have hydrated enough for my stomach to handle all the gels I took, or I might have taken too many gels.
  • I may not have taken enough gels, or timed them properly.
  • I took a few gels that I had never taken before, which for some very unique reason can cause my stomach to get upset.
  • I may simply not have been in shape for this goal. My mileage was not as high as it probably should have been during the training block.

Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above. Still, this was a big improvement over my previous marathon PR (personal record), and most importantly, I managed to run 35 kilometers at my target marathon pace (4:15), which would come to mentally help me a lot in the coming months. So, I now feel good about this result.

(July-October) 2023 Lisbon Marathon

Between May and June, I continued to run but in early July I started preparing more seriously to hit my goal again. This time, I didn't follow any training plan but rather coached myself and roughly laid out my sessions at the start of each week. To me, running is pure joy, and if I structure my workouts in too great detail, a lot of that joy is lost. I also use running as a way to listen to 7-10 hours of podcasts per week, so I frequently adjust my weekly plan based on when different pieces of content are released.

While practicing for Vienna, I didn't really consider long runs as workouts. I'd simply go out for 3 hours at a comfortable pace. For this new block, I transformed almost all of my long runs into proper workouts, by including medium-sized marathon pace intervals into them. For instance, 4 weeks before the race, I did a 35km run with 10km marathon pace blocks as part of it. From the research I've done, this type of workout is really important and I feel like it has helped me tremendously. Furthermore, I also made sure to practice race-day nutrition during these workouts.

Besides this, I made very few other changes to my routine. I just made sure to run enough every week (usually always over 100km per week), and to try to stay healthy. This was particularly hard, as I was diagnosed with tendinitis on my left hip's gluteus medius in early July. This made some of my runs painful, but I was quite successful in managing the injury. In fact, just one week before the race, my phisiotherapist performed a final assessment of my injury via an ultrasound, and considered it basically healed.

So, when the big day arrived, once again I felt confident (but strangely, not as much as in Vienna). For the 2023 Lisbon Marathon, the weather was not great as it was way too hot (19-25 C), and the wind was running against us for the majority of the race. However, this time, there was an official sub-3 hour pacer which I was very eager about.

I immediately got on this group, and just rode for the course. That is, until the 35th kilometer. Here, I lost the group for a few seconds and because of the heavy wind, it was completely impossible to catch up with them. I was a little bit angry because the pacer seemed to be going too fast (they ended up finishing the marathon in under 02:58:00, which is probably too quick for the advertised pace). Still, I knew this was when the real marathon would start. Initially, I doubted myself and I wondered if it was worth it to keep pushing just to hit a 3h05m-3h10m mark and probably injure myself (I was in a lot of pain on my right achilles). I was hurting all throughout, and almost depleted of energy, but I dug deep, trusting all the training that I had done for this.

After trying to run together with a few different people, and experiencing all kinds of crazy emotions, when I reached the 40th kilometer, there was an official race clock with the time of 02:49:00. I did the maths and figured I could "easily" hit my target pace, and with this newfound energy, I pushed to the finish line and finished in 02:59:03. After crossing the line, I couldn't be happier to see my wife and celebrate with her and some very special friends.

My Lisbon 2023 marathon race

What a day, what a race. And I must finish by thanking Margarida. Her support throughout all my crazy running adventures has been essential, and she made everything not only much easier for me, but also a lot more joyful. Thank you so much!

Me finishing the Lisbon Marathon 2023