Posted by: Joe English | November 30, 2007

Coach Joe’s Tucson Marathon Story

The Tucson Marathon is coming up this weekend. I would normally write a race preview for it, but I thought instead I might share my own Tucson Marathon story. I ran both the Tucson half and full marathon long before I started my blog, so I’ve never shared the story. I think in telling it in this narrative form that you’ll get what I would tell you about the race anyway: it’s potentially a lot tougher course than you may think.

I still vividly remember my thought process going into my Tucson Marathon experience. It was almost like Christmas and I like a child with visions of sugar plums and fairies dancing in my head – except long stretches of downhill and a new personal best were on my mind. I had heard the tales of people blowing away their personal bests by 5, 10, even 15 minutes. I was a strong runner, and in great shape, I would blow mine away too!

The year was. . . oh it doesn’t really matter . . . It was a typical Tucson morning. Cold at the start, about 35 degrees. After the long ride along from the finish to the start, we sat in our school buses for as long as we could, before we had to get out in the cold and try to get warmed up. I dropped my gear bag and then ran a few warm-up runs to get my legs moving.

When race time came upon us, the gun went off and we started out like a pack of wild things headed down the road. . . or rather up the road. This down-hill course started with a little uphill right away. But then it dropped perilously, losing elevation faster than I lose money when I go to Las Vegas. Those first two miles or so dropped about 300 feet in elevation and there was lot more than that to come.

I tried to stay at my target pace, but the pace felt SOOOO easy. ‘I COULD pick it up. I SHOULD pick it up. I’m barely breathing running down these hills,’ I thought to myself. Thoughts of that big PR were swishing through my adrenaline soaked brain.

I knew the first rule of marathon running: never run faster in your races than you’ve run in training. ‘But, how am I supposed to get that HUGE PR on this FAST course, if I don’t pick it up?’ I questioned myself.

Nevertheless, I let the hordes race ahead of me. I tried to stay at least somewhat close to my pace.

All was good as I cruised along the gorgeous desert highway toward Tucson. The beautiful mountains were to my left. The valley extended in front of me and to my right. It was a magical morning, as the sun began to pull itself up over the mountains and break the chill from the morning air.

Alongside me was another runner. I don’t remember his name, but we were running together stride to stride. What I remember about him was his Ironman Canada finisher’s jersey. ‘This was a guy that knew the pain of long-distance racing,’ I thought to myself. I also remember him being built somewhat like me: large quads from all that cycling. He was a strong runner, built like a brick fortress.

I remember running through the half-way point and being a bit ahead of my target pace. OK, I’ll be honest, I was about 10 minutes ahead of my target pace. That’s A LOT! Even trying to restrain ourselves, the Ironman and I were running much too fast. But the pace still felt easy and in control.

Then I noticed something. Mile 14 was about 10 seconds slower than the last and I didn’t think that we had slowed down. ‘Hugh. What’s going on here?’ I pondered.

At mile 15, we had lost another 15 seconds from our pace. I was shocked when I locked at my watch.

Then the Ironman next to me said something strange. “My legs feel a little weird.”

I reflected on this statement. In fact, MY legs felt a little weird too. It was like my stride was shortening up and my legs were getting stiff. My energy level was good, but my legs were just starting to feel a little funny.

At mile 17, the Ironman said something terrifying, “well, that’s it for me.” And just like that he stopped to walk, as I kept on running.

‘Hugh’ I thought to myself again. The Ironman guy was walking and my legs were feeling funny. ‘But I’m still well ahead of my PR pace,’ I thought in consolation.

At mile 19, there was a dramatic moment. It was like the bottom falling out of an elevator beneath me. The legs, MY legs, just quit working. I stopped running.

‘Hugh,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is not that good.’

For the next three or four miles, I walked along the desert highway. My legs were completely stiff and seized up. I pondered what might have happened. Things were going so well. Everyone had told me that this course was SOOO fast. All that downhill would help me speed along to a new PR and now I was walking.

I finally did manage to run again. I found that by sort of leaning back and using my hamstrings, I could jog fitfully. I painfully jogged the last two or three miles of the race. I crossed the line with tears in my eyes. Not tears of joy. Not even tears of pain. Tears that said I was thankful that this race was over.

I didn’t set a new PR on that beautiful Tucson morning. I did still manage to qualify for Boston, but that’s what happens when you’re 10 minutes ahead of 2:50:00 pace half-way through the marathon. You can walk a few miles and still qualify for Boston. But it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting what everyone had promised: a speedy new personal best on this fast downhill course.

So here are a few words of caution to anyone heading out to Tucson this weekend. Downhill running is tough on certain types of runners. It’s tough on larger runners and runners with big muscular quads. It’s also tough on those who have not spent any time running downhill. So if you’re not a slightly built runner with small quads, I would caution you to really take it easy on this course. The hills will brutalize you if you’re not careful.

And for everyone else, remember the first rule: don’t run faster than you have in your training, no matter how easy it feels on race day. It will come back to bite you late in the race, believe me.

Good luck runners as always!

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA



  1. Joe,
    I’m so gald you wrote this. I remember that experience of yours. So many runners simply don’t get it. They are in fact duped by the advertisements by these very races selling themselves as “fast Boston qualifier” courses. Bah! Humbug!

    This is why my programs for all these purported fast downhill courses include very specific downhill training. The funny thing is that it really doesn’t take too much to help out a lot. Most runners think downhill running is so easy, you don’t need to practice it.

    I’ll have a number of runners in the full and half this weekend in Tucson. We’ll see if they are disciplined enough to STAY ON PACE. If they feel good at 20, I allow them to pick it up. Very seasoned runners I’ll let go after 15 miles… but not before!!!! As you learned the hard way.
    Coach Dean

  2. Back in the day, huh?

    I know I don’t have anything to worry about here, but I just enjoyed the story. At any athletic level, this is sound advice. Thank you for the insight!


  3. Thanks Coach Joe. I studied your race and several others as my brother talked me into trying to qualify for Boston. Since I had to knock 15 min. off my PR set 10 years ago when I was 47, I had to not only train differently, but I had to pick the right race and run it very smart. I knew that I’d need an extra 1 min. over pace on the uphill sections of the Biosphere and I was able to bank a little in the first 6 miles. I reached the half marathon mark on pace and was able to stay on pace each mile after that banking a few seconds here and there which were critical coming into the finish that had many walkers on a too narrow course. I took Pilates for the 6 month prior to prevent knee injuries and build core strenth and I practice running up and down hill courses of 5 mile length on a regular basis in addition to following Hal Higdon’s Advanced Training I program. I also practiced 20 mile runs without bathroom stops! I just qualified with almost 2 minutes to spare (4:13)!

  4. I guess I should have read this last month. Of course, I wouldn’t have listened. I’m a much slower runner, but had a similar experience. I finished about 30 minutes slower than my PR and an hour slower than my expected time.

    Live and learn.

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