How the Pros Train for Their First Boston Marathon
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The professional women’s field for the 2023 Boston Marathon is stacked with some incredible athletes. While many of these elites may be finishing the race before most of the masses get to the Newton hills on April 17, they may share more in common with those amateur runners than you might think.
Several of the women in this year’s pro field are running Boston for the first time. And they share some of the same concerns about the course, training strategies and excitement to run the 127-year-old race as those first-time Boston Marathoners that will line up behind them on April 17.
The pros, they’re just like us!
Heading for the Hills
Following the Boston Athletic Association’s (B.A.A.) announcement of the Women’s Professional field, 2:25 marathoner Laura Thweatt shared an Instagram post on January 14 announcing her participation in this year’s race and asking her followers who have run Boston before for their “best pieces of advice/wisdom.”
“I was definitely concerned with the downhill portion of the course. That’s all I feel like you hear about is the downhill early in the race, and then Heartbreak Hill,” Thweatt says. “So that’s kind of what I was asking people their advice on was just how do you run that first half appropriately with the right balance of obviously being aggressive enough to be in the race, but not so aggressive that you hit mile sixteen, when those hills start, and you’re like ‘Oh, no.’”
Thweatt, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, says her training is going well, helped in part by her coach’s own Boston Marathon experience. Steve Jones, who ran Boston several times finishing as high as second in 1987, also trained for the race while living in Boulder and has helped Thweatt structure long runs to mimic the Boston course profile and take advantage of Boulder’s “massive climbs” in the hopes of making the Newton hills feel small.
While recording a podcast together, Thweatt says two-time U.S. Olympian and accomplished Boston Marathoner Kara Goucher shared some words of wisdom that have also stuck with her. Goucher reminded Thweatt that Boulder’s hilly terrain makes it a great place to train for any marathon and encouraged her to stick to the stuff that has worked for her in other marathon builds. “’Don’t overthink it,’” she told Thweatt.
A visit to Boston also helped calm any insecurities Thweatt was feeling about the course. She had the chance to see the hills for herself, running almost all the course across several training runs and driving any miles she didn’t see on foot.
It is not uncommon for many professional runners to visit Boston during their build-up to see the course for themselves. In January, Aliphine Tuliamuk, who ran the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, made the trek from Flagstaff, Arizona to run the roads to Boylston Street. While we might think of it as just a business trip for an experienced athlete like the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon champion, Tuliamuk says that despite being alone for her training run, she still got goosebumps upon crossing the finish line.
“Especially when I was crossing the finish line, my heart was skipping beats because it’s like, this is going to happen in a couple of months…This is no longer just something I’m thinking about,” says Tuliamuk, who owns a 2:26:18 personal best. “Boston is one of the most prestigious marathons in the whole world. And I get to run it as a professional athlete. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.”
Like Thweatt, Tuliamuk’s coach Alan Culpepper also fared well at Boston, finishing fourth there in 2005 and fifth the following year. Her training too, includes more downhill running than other training blocks to prepare her for running with tired quads later in the race. Tuliamuk, who placed seventh woman overall and first American at the 2022 New York City Marathon, considers herself to be a good downhill runner.
However, she acknowledges the strong field at this year’s Boston Marathon and says she knows to be competitive, she needs to have enough in the tank when the moves are made. Culpepper told her “If you get to Mile 22 and you feel good, you could have a really good day,” which is true for runners vying for a spot on the podium or hoping to run a personal best.
Feed the Fire
Another runner in this year’s pro field who is very familiar with Mile 22 of the Boston course, despite having not yet run the marathon, is Erika Kemp. Kemp, who previously trained with the B.A.A. and used to live right near Mile 24, says she runs that part of the course all the time on easy runs. The 28-year-old won U.S. road running championships at 15K (2019) and 20K (2021) and recently decided to make the move up to the marathon. Where better to debut than her hometown race?
Like many first-time marathoners, Kemp, who recently lowered her half marathon PR to 1:10:14 in Houston in January says the biggest change in her training for the new distance has been the increase in volume, taking her weekly mileage from 75-80 to 90 miles per week.
As her training got underway, she found herself waking up hungry in the middle of the night, and realized that the additional mileage meant she needed to take in additional calories too. But like many runners, she doesn’t always have the time or energy to prepare the most nutritionally perfect post-run snack. Rather than have that get in her way, instead, she chooses to eat what is easy and appealing to get the job done.
“The focus was getting those calories in, in a relatively easy way, just because you’re so tired and you just need the extra food. So I kind of thought less about quality nutrition, because I think in general, I do a very good job [eating] balanced meals and all that stuff,” Kemp says. “But for these extra snacks, I just need something I want to eat and something that’s quick and convenient to fill those holes. So I’ve gone back to some of my more nostalgic childhood favorites, like Captain Crunch, Frosted Flakes and Pop Tarts. And my favorite lately has been Uncrustables.”
Kemp also notes that fueling while on the run is another big component of what she needs to practice before her first marathon. She says she started practicing opening gels on normal-paced runs, and even that was awkward at first, but she’s getting the hang of it.
Second-time marathoner and Massachusetts native, Jessie Cardin, is also excited to run in front of a “home crowd” and agrees with Kemp on the importance and challenges of fueling on the run. Following her 2:33:34 debut at the Chicago Marathon in 2022, Cardin says learning to fuel properly during the race is one of the most valuable lessons learned in her first go at the distance and continues to practice as she trains for her first Boston Marathon.
Prior to running Chicago, she rehearsed grabbing her bottle and drinking enough while on the run, as well as consuming the type of fuel she planned to use on race day. Cardin, who trains with the Hansons-Brooks program in Rochester Hills, Michigan, acknowledges that even with the best preparation, things can go wrong and perhaps an even more valuable lesson is in how you respond to those unfortunate, unplanned circumstances.
During the Chicago Marathon, her hand cramped as she went to get her bottle at 30K preventing her from grabbing it and instead knocking it off the table. While she could have freaked out about the mistake, Cardin feels it is one of her strengths to stay calm in those moments.
“In those kinds of instances, you have to talk yourself out of it [with thoughts] like, ‘No, you’re going to be fine.’ And ‘How many times have you done this? This is what we trained for’… It’s just kind of how you react to that,” she says. “And that is going to decide whether your race is going to be seen as a win or a loss for the day to you.”
While Cardin says she uses her faith to help her find that calm and levelheadedness, other runners may use mindfulness or meditation practices to help them stay in the moment and not spiral to worst case scenarios before they happen.
For Tuliamuk, it has been parenthood that has helped her accept that there are so many things in life out of her control, especially as it relates to training. Whether that means taking a workout slower than the pace prescribed because she is fighting a cold or skipping a double because her daughter’s daycare was closed for a snow day, she is getting better at not worrying about the curveballs life sometimes throws at her, she says.
“If I don’t get in a run, just because I don’t have the time because I’m being a mom, that’s OK. It’s not going to make or break me,” she says. “I just try to remember that I have done so many runs, I’ve put in a lot of training over the years that if I miss running one day, because I’m being a mom, it’s not really that big of a deal.”.
Tuliamuk emphasizes that we all go through different challenges regardless of where we line up in the starting corrals. For Thweatt, the challenge before her Boston build was finding the joy in running again after a disappointing race at the Chicago Marathon last fall. The fifth-place finisher at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials says she too focused on the results, got to Chicago extremely stressed and, not surprisingly, didn’t have the race she hoped for.
You don’t need to be a professional runner to become overly focused on the outcomes and lose sight of the process. And many would agree with Thweatt, who says running is “too damn hard” not to love what you’re doing.
So for her Boston build, she is focusing on having fun, a good reminder for runners training at any level.
“I feel more and more like myself every week. And that’s been really fun for me to just get myself back. And preparing for Boston has really helped me with that,” Thweatt says. “I’m in the best place, psychologically, I’ve probably been in like two years. So it feels really good to just be putting the pieces back together. I haven’t raced Boston yet. But I’m already really grateful for what it’s given me.”.