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When Marathon Training is a Team Sport

No matter what your goal, preparing for your first 26.2-mile race is better with friends. Here’s how the Hansons-Brooks women helped each other get ready for the 2021 Chicago Marathon.

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It’s been a long time since Kevin Hanson has coached a bunch of young elite athletes to a debut marathon, but on Sunday in Chicago, he’ll watch a group of women cover 26.2 miles for the first time, together.

“It’s made me feel young again,” he says. “It’s fun and exciting for me as well.”

Along with his brother, Keith Hanson, he founded the Hansons-Brooks group 20 years ago in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Since then, they’ve famously guided the careers of star distance runners like Desiree Linden, two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion, and Brian Sell, who raced at the 2008 Games.

On Sunday, it’s back to square one. Hanson will support first-timers like Olivia Pratt, Anne-Marie Blaney, and Megan O’Neill. Michele Lee, who has raced 26.2 miles four times before, will join them, too, while veteran Dot McMahon will compete on Monday at the Boston Marathon.

“I always try to teach the event before we swing for the fences,” he says. “That’s where we’re at with this group right now.”

They waited a year longer than they thought they would, but the women welcomed the extra time—some to sharpen speed during track season, while others found an opportunity to tend to injuries and health issues. For everybody, it has also been a chance to gradually build the training volume required to race the marathon, getting weekly tallies up to 110 miles at the peak of the buildup.

The group chose Chicago for their debut because they could focus on training merely for the distance instead of also factoring in training for terrain like the hills of Boston, for example. Chicago is about as flat a marathon as you can find, and it’s about a four hour drive from their home, allowing the athletes to preview the course before race day, too.

The team has worked together to grind out the workouts and the long runs, which has been an instrumental part of learning the event. It’s easier to go far together, as the saying (somewhat) goes. And after all those miles, they’ll rely on each other on the streets of Chicago to achieve their goals—which include, primarily, to get one marathon experience under their belts, but also execute their coach’s race strategies.

Here’s how teamwork has influenced marathon preparation for the Hansons Brooks group and some ways they intend to work together to conquer the 26.2-mile distance.

A group of women training together for a marathon
A few of the Hansons-Brooks women are racing the Chicago Marathon together in their debut at 26.2 miles. They’ve used teamwork to get through the buildup and will also support each other through the race.
(Photo: Courtesy Brooks)

Keeping it light.

The women on the team meet at 8 a.m. most days, but Pratt especially looks forward to workouts, which happen about once every three days. That’s when the men, women, and coaches come together for a session, so all hands are on deck.

Speed sessions are a gauge of fitness and athletes often take a lot of cues about their goals from how they perform. It can become stressful if the group lets it escalate. They try not to.

“It’s like a mini reunion and it’s a lot of fun,” Pratt says. “The coaches are such jokesters. We’ll be getting really intense in a workout and they’ll just start cracking jokes at us to try to get us to calm down.”

Pratt, who competed in the 10,000 meters at the 2021 Olympic Trials, tends to get excited toward the end of big workouts, but McMahon has spent this marathon training cycle trying to instill more patience in her.

“Dot can tell when I’m starting to get excited and maybe about to take off more than I should—she’s really good at stopping me in my tracks,” Pratt says. “She’ll say something soothing like, ‘You’re doing fine, you don’t need to speed up.’ It’s easy to just lose focus and speed up when you just need to run the pace you’ve been assigned.”

And Pratt has come to cherish another team tradition toward the end of the long run.

“With a quarter mile to go, Dot always tells us to give thanks to the running gods,” Pratt says. “I always look forward to that moment.”

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Taking supporting roles and making conservative goals.

After the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020, Lee suffered some setbacks and had to take a long break from training. She coped with injuries and also worked on her mental health.

“My last race was the Olympic Trials marathon and it went very poorly for me,” Lee says. “The Trials was the biggest race of my life so far and I let those nerves and the pressure get to me, then I got injured shortly after that. I had to work on myself a lot, get on some medication, and start talking to some people. I’ve really turned a corner.”

For the Chicago Marathon, Lee’s objectives are different. She’s there to help O’Neill finish her first 26.2-mile race, so her goals are not her own.

“I’m there to help Megan and I can’t wait to be part of her race,” Lee says. “If we can get her to follow her race plan, that will be a good day for me.”

Hanson’s plan is for Pratt and Blaney to stick together through 20 miles and then if either of them feel like taking off from there, they can (shooting for 2:35 or faster). O’Neill will have Lee’s help until the last 10K of the race, going for 2:40.

“The game plan is real simple,” Hanson says, explaining the conservative strategy. “To learn the event. If they still have wheels at 20 miles, they’re allowed to make a run for that last 10K.”

Or as Pratt puts it: “We could have trained to go faster but [Hanson] wants us to learn how to train for a marathon first. It’s not even necessarily about the time I run, but my greatest goal is to focus on the process of racing this marathon and then perfecting that process as much as I can.”

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Preparing for the pain.

After 20 miles, the three new marathoners will tread into new territory. They have the same concerns as the rest of us: hydration, fueling, and stomach issues; tolerating a new level of fatigue; and on and on.

As a group they’ve asked a lot of questions and leaned on the experiences that Lee and McMahon have shared. They derive confidence from what they’ve accomplished together during the buildup but also from the feedback from the veterans and coaches.

“I’ve been trying to instill patience in Megan because she struggles to hold herself back. I urge her to relax and hit the paces we’re supposed to,” Lee says. “Dot and I have told her numerous times that one or two seconds too fast early is going to be 20 seconds too slow later. We drive those kinds of things home.”

On Sunday in Chicago, Pratt is feeling reassured just because Blaney will be right by her side, as she has been through the entire training cycle.

“If I’m running in a group of 15 people and I hear a certain footstep, I’m going to know that it’s Anne-Marie,” she says. “I’m not being sent out in Chicago to fend for myself.”

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