Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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What you can learn from elite runners – The 2011 NYC Marathon

I love watching great marathons, especially the New York City Marathon because of the lack of pacers, which results in mano-a-mano racing. Not only is the competition thrilling, but watching elite runners can be a great learning experience for coaches and athletes alike. Often, when I watch big marathon races on television, I feel like an NFL coach studying tape to help better prepare my athletes for the task ahead.

The 2011 New York City Marathon provided the perfect learning opportunity for marathoners of all levels. With the men’s and women’s races unfolding drastically different, it makes for great comparison and analysis. Likewise, the lessons gleaned from analyzing the races can be applied directly to your preparation and racing strategy. In the 2011 NYC Women’s race, we saw first hand just how flawed the “time in the bank” theory is, while the Men’s race exemplified how running negative splits can help you shatter your personal bests.

In case you missed the coverage, here is a brief breakdown of how the races unfolded and how choosing the correct or incorrect marathon race strategy can affect the outcome of the race:

Women’s Race – Time in the bank doesn’t work

If the recent financial crisis has showed us anything, it’s that banks are evil. I’m just kidding, but in all seriousness, the theory of “putting time in the bank” during the first thirteen to sixteen miles of a marathon race is critically flawed. The bank will take your money and leave you crashing the last 10k, just as it did the stock market. The 2011 NYC Marathon Women’s race was a perfect example of this flawed strategy.

Mary Keitany’s goal on race day was to win the race and to set a course record, and she wasted no time establishing her dominance. The course record at NYC is 2:22:31 and Keitany scorched the first 13 miles in 1:07:56, which is 2:15:52 pace. I bet many of you readers would be pretty excited if you could say to yourself half way through your race that you had 6 minutes and 30 seconds “in the bank”. The theory of time in the bank makes so much sense logically – Keitany had more than 6 minutes to fade and still be under her goal. Unfortunately, the marathon isn’t a logical event.

Even at 15 and 16 miles, Keitany was still more than 6 minutes faster than record pace and she had what seemed to be an insurmountable 2:24 lead on the next pack of women. The race seemed all but wrapped up and a course record was undeniable.

Unfortunately, the marathon distance exacerbates any and all mistakes. By mile 21, Keitany was beginning to slow her record pace and her projected time whittled to 2:19. Still, many runners would think they are in good shape at this point and be confident about finishing under their goal time – she still had 3 minutes in the bank. However, miles 23-26 slowed Mary to a crawl and her time in the bank evaporated, as did her lead in the race.

Keitany fought hard and ran tough, but she eventually finished third place with a time of 2:23:38, more than a minute over the course record. Keitany’s strategy of putting time in the bank failed and left her without the win, or the course record (incidentally, this mistake cost her $150,000. Next time you think you have it bad when you run poorly, think again, haha).

The Men’s Race – Negative split leads to a course record

The 2011 Men’s NYC Marathon was quite the opposite affair compared to the women’s race. The men raced in a tight pack of 10 runners through halfway, reaching the 13.1 mile marker in 63:17 – 2:06:30 pace.

The leaders ran relaxed through the early miles and marshaled their energy for the second half of the race. At 20 miles, the real racing began and 7 runners broke from the pack to assert their dominance on the course. That pack of 7 rattled of splits that were 15-20 seconds faster than what they had been running (4:30-4:40 pace) and brought them well under course record pace.

At mile 24, eventual winner Geoffrey Mutai broke away and crushed the previous course record by finishing in 2:05:06. His second half split….61:48.

Comparison – Controlled first half beats time in the bank strategy

In case you had any doubts about which strategy would work best during your next marathon, consider learning from the world’s best. Despite having more than 6 minutes in the bank at mile 15, Mary Keitany bonked the last 3 miles and finished in third place and over the course record. On the other spectrum, Geoffrey Mutai ran a conservative first half and dominated the last 10k to smash the course record.


When you’re visualizing and crafting the strategy for your next marathon, make sure you plan to run as intelligent as possible and give yourself the best chance to succeed. As a RunnersConnect member, you’ll receive a detailed marathon race strategy with your training plan and you have instant access to our staff of expert coaches to help you develop the right plan for you.


When you’re visualizing and crafting the strategy for your next marathon, make sure you plan to run as intelligent as possible and give yourself the best chance to succeed. As a RunnersConnect member, you’ll receive a detailed marathon race strategy with your training plan and you have instant access to our staff of expert coaches to help you develop the right plan for you. Learn more about our coaching options here.

Side note: I’ve had some athletes in the past question whether analyzing elite performances is applicable to the training and racing of the “everyday runner”. My response, absolutely. While elites are unbelievably fast and talented, they are still humans and the same physiological principles apply to both the regular runner and professionals.

Using elite runners as examples is ideal because of the abundance of data available. We can get detailed splits, qualitative interviews, and have a good understanding of their goals and training background. For example, in NYC, we know that the goal was to win and to break the course record. Using random runners in the field is much more difficult since we lack substantial information about their training, fitness, and pre race goals.

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References

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