How I (Barely) Qualified for the Boston Marathon: Training Plan Overview

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I started this blog post many times and dropped it, asking myself, “But why would anyone care?” I squeaked into the 2016 Boston Marathon. I barely made it, only eight seconds within this year’s cutoff time. One potty stop or lingering a few seconds too long at a water station or two, and I would have been out of a dream. How would my training, then, be of help to anyone?

I don’t have an answer to that, other than, I just wanted to sum up my experience – if not for others, then for myself. A forever reminder that what I once thought impossible, was not.

So here it is: the marathon training plan that helped me squeak into the Boston Marathon and a bit of the story behind it. I hope it helps you in your marathon training and goals!

The long story short

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing:

  • My marathon training cycle was 10 weeks long;
  • I ran every day, with the exception of three days off; one after a race and two for travel;
  • I ran on average 45-55 miles a week;
  • My top-mileage week was #8 (two weeks to go before race day), with 58 miles;
  • I did three to four quality runs a week (tempo, speed intervals, long runs), in between were easy (recovery) runs of anywhere from 30 to 60-90 minutes;
  • One two-a-days day almost every week, with a morning quality run (progression or short intervals) and an evening easy run, to get used to running on tired legs;
  • Most long runs included progressively longer intervals of three to five miles run at race pace or faster;
  • Only one 20-miler, 12 days before the race;
  • In the last four weeks pre-race, each week had one long run (16 to 20 miles) and one medium-long run (12 miles)

A crazy thought

The Boston Marathon has always been on my marathon bucket list. But with a marathon PR of 4:22 and half-marathon times at just below the two-hour mark, I just thought of it as a distant dream. I could never qualify.

I’m an average runner: not fast; definitely not Boston-fast.

Last year, my triathlon group got a new coach and, with his training — swimming, track workouts and biking hill repeats, as well as the weekly plans he developed for my many races — I slowly began cutting time off my PRs. In June, my half-marathon best went from 1:55 to 1:49:35. While building up mileage for a half ironman in October, I ran a half in August and took another 16 seconds off. Tiny as this improvement was, it planted a thought: my average pace, an 8:20 min/ mile, was roughly what I would need to run a Boston-qualifying marathon. Could I?

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I took the question to Coach and he said that would be an awesome project for 2015. So once I wrapped up my 2014 racing season, I took some time off of structured training, registered for the 2015 Santa Rosa Marathon in August, and built my entire race calendar around it.

Building a base; confidence; belief

I spent the first three months of 2015 working on my speed and building up to run a strong half marathon. At the end of March, I ran another PR, 1:42:12. This was a big confidence boost. If I could pull off a half at an average 7:48 min/ mile, I could run a marathon at 8:15?

I raced very little in the months that followed, but trained hard. I completed my fourth half Ironman at the end of May, with what I thought was a solid time given the course and conditions, and a week later, had a great run at Escape from Alcatraz. Then I racked my bike and marathon training officially began.

Run every day

One of the things my coach told me before we started this marathon cycle was that I would run every day. I am used to training seven days a week, so that didn’t scare me. With triathlon, though, we have swimming or easy-ride days that act as active recovery days, at least from the pavement-pounding of run training.

I ended up taking three days off running for the 10 weeks of this marathon cycle: one after a 10K race on week 2 (I rode my bike to work that day; a great way to loosen up the legs), and two rest days during which I was either traveling internationally (15 hours on a plane), or in a car for a day-long road trip.

Recovery runs
The key to surviving a 7-days-a-week running plan: easy run days must be just that, easy. Feel good? Hold back. Don’t be tempted to go faster just because you think you can. Ironically (or logically?), my easy runs slowed down quite a bit as the weeks progressed and I began to feel the miles – and fatigue – pile up. In the beginning, I was knocking off easy runs at 8:40-ish pace; towards the end I was running 10-minute miles on heavy legs.

Quality runs

My program was built around three to four quality runs every week. There was a lot of speed work and running at tempo pace, since speed is where I needed to make progress the most.

Tempo runs: usually 5-7 miles at a pace that is 45 seconds to a minute per mile faster my goal marathon pace. I started my tempo runs at 7:25 min/ mile and gradually brought that down to 7:15 min/ mile. My goal marathon pace was 8:10-15 min/ mile.

Progression runs: start at an easy pace (1 min slower than marathon); gradually pick up to marathon pace or tempo pace. A 45-min progression run would be 15-15-15; a one-hour progression run might be 30-10-10-10, etc. Often, I would have a progression run scheduled on a day between an easy/ recovery run and a hard quality run.

Intervals: short intervals (200s or 400s) helped me work on speed; longer intervals (1-mile repeats or a ladder) added an endurance factor to the mix.

Short races: I ran one 10K race at the end of Week 2 of my training, to gauge how my speed was coming along. In Weeks 5, 6 and 7, I ran 5K races on Saturday; those were in place of short-interval work (200 or 400 repeats). Warm-up runs of 1.5-2 miles pre-5K and cool down runs of 1-2 miles post race rounded out mileage for the day to 6-7 miles.

Key long runs: Some long runs were at an easy pace, but several key long runs were made up of interval work at race pace; for example: 18 miles = 3 mile warm-up, then {3x 4 miles at 8:00-8:15/ 1 mile recovery at 9:30}.

One single 20-mile long run

I admit, I was nervous about not running “long” all that much. A few years ago, I followed a marathon training plan that had three 20-mile runs, in addition to all other weekend long runs of 15 to 18 miles. That got me injured, though, so this time whenever I’d ask Coach when he would finally have me run 18 or 20 and he’d invariably say, “You will, don’t worry about it.” — well, I didn’t.

I didn’t run my first truly long run — 15 miles — until week 6 of training, only four weeks to go before race day. After that, I ran 16, 18, and 20 in the week before the race.

Hills and long-run intervals

The Santa Rosa Marathon is flat, but I ran on a hilly terrain at least once a week or so. (Hills make you stronger and faster, blah blah – most importantly, trails are gentler to your feet and joints, and when the weekly mileage creeps upwards of 50, that matters a great deal.)

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

One of my long runs (16 miles) was on trails, with about 2,400 feet elevation gain, and one 18-miler was a somewhat hilly road run, with roughly 1,400 feet elevation gain. The rest of my long runs were structured to the T. After a short warmup (usually two miles), a run would have three intervals of three to five miles at or slightly faster than race pace, with one mile recovery. My last long run, 20 miles, descended each race-pace interval from slightly above, to slightly below, training me to pick up the effort as the run progressed and, basically, get used to suffering.

Mid-week mid-long runs

Despite not doing very many long runs, every week I had what I called a medium-long run of seven to 12 miles. The shorter of those, usually seven to nine miles, were often tempo runs or longer interval workouts, and the longer ones (10 to 12 miles) were easy-pace recovery runs. This added mileage and quality to my weekly schedule without having me spend too much time on my feet on a single run.

Boy, when I write it all out like that, it seems like a lot of work… It was worth every drop of sweat!

[tweetthis]”Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.” -Mahatma Gandhi[/tweetthis]

14 thoughts on “How I (Barely) Qualified for the Boston Marathon: Training Plan Overview

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  • November 3, 2015 at 6:17 am

    hey- i stumbled upon your blog by searching “why am i craving pickles after a long run”. i am reading through now, and i think that these blogs are helpful for me (an intermediate runner) and the community at large- to know that you are not alone in your training / cravings / injuries /struggles / rewards. thanks for posting.

    • November 3, 2015 at 9:38 am

      thanks for stopping by πŸ™‚ I often crave pickles after I run, myself ;)) I believe it’s the salt that does it!

    • October 29, 2015 at 8:45 am

      Thank you! Yeah, I guess this one time I was Boston-fast, with 8 seconds to spare πŸ™‚

  • October 22, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    I really appreciate this post, thank you.

    You mention your easy runs were 10 min miling on tired legs by the end of the training cycle. If you had such a run on Monday for example, were your legs always fresh for the speed session on Tuesday?

    Also, love the new look.
    Cathryn recently posted…Desperately seeking AutumnMy Profile

    • October 26, 2015 at 11:55 am

      I don’t really have one answer to that. All I know is that somehow, I managed to get through the prescribed paces (be it on a long run, or speed, or tempo run — with few exception, where we figured out the reason later to be either really hot/ humid weather, improper fueling on my end, etc). Basically, my legs felt tired on an easy run and I was slogging through 10 min miles, but in the same week I would be running 8:15 pace on long-run intervals, or faster on track. I guess so much of it all is in the head!

    • October 21, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Thank you! It was tough but I kind of put the blinders on and chased after it — now I’m taking a few easy months and then the cycle starts all over again πŸ™‚ Hope your half training goes well!

  • October 20, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Congrats on the BQ! I haven’t had running mileage like that in a long time. My new coach is upping volume right now but we haven’t started in with any speedwork yet. Doing one thing at a time. Congrats again, very impressive!
    Kelli recently posted…Changing Coaches…Week 1My Profile

    • October 21, 2015 at 8:49 am

      Thanks! Sounds like your coach has the right approach – build up a good base in the offseason, then work on speed can begin πŸ™‚

  • October 20, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    congrats on the PR and BQ. thats a pretty intense training plan. how much did you taper at the end if at all? with 3-4 quality runs a week was there enough time to feel recovered between workouts? or was that the point? to get used to the feeling of running marathon pace on tired legs?

    • October 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks! I agree that it was intense – but it was also short, just 10 weeks. (I had a half-Iron before that, and Escape from Alcatraz…) My taper was a week. I ran the 20 miler 10 days before the race and one 12-miler the same week, then the week of the race was pretty light, with one short progression run, one short fartlek and a couple of super short easy runs with some strides. I’ve been training with a short taper for a couple of years now and feel it works better for me than a 2-3 week-long one… As for recovery: sufficient in the first few weeks, progressively harder, by weeks 8 and 9 on the plan I was quite tired and my easy runs got slower and slower — but I was still knocking out the tempo runs at the prescribed paces, so I guess it was fine. Taper week came just at the right time, though πŸ™‚


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