The Last 10K

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This is my personal perspective on the last 10K of the marathon race, with my suggestions around what you can learn from this experience.

1 Introduction

When racing the marathon, the last 10K (6.2 miles) should be very tough. In a well raced marathon, the last 10K should involve an increase in perceived effort and possibly a slight drop in pace.

2 The Limiting Factors

In racing, there will always be one or more things that limit your performance, and understanding these limiting factors may help focus your training. So after your next marathon, review what happened and work out what was your limiting factor or factors. This is not an exhaustive list of the things that can go wrong, just the most common.

  • Muscular Fatigue. This may be most obvious the day or so after the race. If you have Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, this is an indication that your muscular system was a limiting factor. Dull pain in the legs is also a symptom of muscular fatigue.
  • Fuel. Feeling hungry is the most obvious symptom. Running out of carbohydrate can make the legs feel 'dead', and can also reduce mental capacity. Feeling depressed or defeated can be a symptom of carbohydrate depletion, as can the inability to solve simple math problems. A rapid rise in Heart Rate could also be a symptom of carbohydrate depletion, but there are many other causes.
  • Hydration. Feeling thirsty is not a problem as long as you are able to take on fluid so you’re your thirst is sated. If your thirst persists you are probably dehydrated or electrolyte depleted. Another symptom of dehydration is a steady rise in Heart Rate for a constant pace. Checking your body weight before and after a race may help, but it's usually hard to weigh yourself soon after a race. (Your body weight should drop a few pounds through Glycogen depletion.) If you have swelling in your hands, this is most likely Hyponatremia due to a lack of salt. See Practical Hydration.
  • Fortitude. The last 10K can be as mentally demanding as it is physically punishing. Beware that feeling mentally unable to continue can also be a symptom of low blood sugar.
  • Overheating. Heat makes hydration and fueling more of a problem, but even if you have both of those under control, heat still takes its toll. Symptoms include nausea, panting, slowing down without other explanation.

3 Possible Solutions

3.1 Muscular Fatigue

3.2 Fuel

3.3 Hydration

  • Starting the race well hydrated is important. This means not just drinking sufficiently before the race, but also ensuring your electrolyte intake is adequate.
  • Drink to satisfy your thirst. You may have to slow down at Aid Stations to take on adequate fluid. The seconds you save by not drinking can be lost later in the race due to dehydration.
  • Beware Hyponatremia and make sure your electrolyte intake is adequate.

See Practical Hydration and The Science Of Hydration

3.4 Fortitude

  • Count down the miles to the finish, and ignore the miles you've covered. I believe this is also an important aspect of pacing. Feeding your subconscious information about the remaining distance helps to gauge the right effort.
  • Picture yourself on a familiar course you run in training, positioned with the same number of miles to go as you have to finish the race.
  • Don't think about all of the remaining distance, but focus on a nearer goal. Run to the next aid station, the next mile marker, the next lamppost. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time"
  • Disassociate yourself. Picture yourself somewhere else, such as lying on a beach in the sun. However, be careful to check that the suffering you are disassociating from is not a significant injury! Also, you need to keep a small part of your mind aware of your pace and situation.
  • Find a phrase (mantra) to repeat to yourself. "I can do this" for example gives your mind something to focus on, while keeping things positive.
  • Be aware of negative thoughts and do not focus on them.
  • If the race has them, join a pace group. A pacer can provide encouragement and distraction.
  • Listen to music – it works well for me. There are some tunes that inspire me to dig deeper and push harder. I have a playlist called "ender" for the finish of a race (yes, it's a reference to Orson Scott Card's character)
  • Train harder – the tougher your training is, the more you will be prepared mentally for a race.
  • Running a 50K (31 miles) can break the physiological barrier of the 26.2 distance.

3.5 Overheating

  • Find a cooler race. Seriously - you will always be slower in warm weather. The best you can do is to slow up less than those around you, which is useful if you are concerned about your place on the leaderboard rather than your absolute time. 40f is generally considered the idea temperature - Impact of Heat on Marathon Performance.
  • Do Heat Acclimation Training to get used to Running in the Heat. This will offset some of the slowdown from the heat, but not all of it.
  • Follow the Running in the Heat tips

4 Running 26.2 Miles

Note that when I say 'racing the marathon' I don't mean running 26.2 miles in an organized event, but covering 26.2 miles as fast as you are capable of. With training, running 26.2 miles can become easy, with no difficulty in the last 10K. However, racing any distance is always brutally hard.

5 Hitting the wall

The phenomenon known as 'hitting the wall' is where your pace falls precipitously towards the end of the race. There is only one root cause of hitting the wall; Going out too fast. If you've trained for the distance and you go out at the right pace, you should be able to maintain it, abet with a struggle, for the 26.2 miles. (The right pace might be a run/walk or walking the whole race of course.)