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A Plan for a Marathon PR

BY AJ Johnson

Stephen Scholz was on a journey to break four hours at the 2013 New York Marathon. After two close attempts he used a plan from Hal Higdon, overcame an injury and lined up more prepared than ever.

Stephen Scholz started his running career like many others. The Bridgeport, Connecticut native had been a runner since his late teens but never had any real structure or goals. He began his running journey with 5 and 10k races before running his first marathon. After his second marathon Scholz upped the bar, set a goal and trained with more purpose. Using a Hal Higdon Marathon plan Scholz set out to run a PR and break the 4 hour barrier. Like any journey worth taking, it wasn’t easy.

Moving up to 26.2 Miles

After years of running shorter races Scholz had progressed to the half marathon. Then in 2007 a colleague of his ran the New York City Marathon. After watching her train and race he made the commitment himself. “We went down and watched her and to see the crowd and environment of the marathon- the combination of all of that- it just clicked and I said ‘I’m going to do a marathon,’” remembers Scholz.

Using input from colleagues and co workers who had run the marathon and a simple Word document to plan his training, Scholz finished the 2008 NYC Marathon in a very respectable 4:01:38. The next year was filled with other endurance adventures but in 2010 Scholz once again lined up to tackle 26.2 miles through the five boroughs of New York. His goal was to break four hours. He came close- finishing in 4:07:27

Again Scholz took a break from the marathon, focusing on cycling and triathlons for the next year. But soon though the marathon was calling again. By this time he had transitioned from his old tracking system and had begun using TrainingPeaks on what he called a “casual” basis. “It was progress from using this Word doc journal system that I had to saying ‘I’m sure there’s an application that can make all of this a lot easier.’ I created an account and it really worked for me.” After signing up for the 2012 NYC marathon Scholz started looking for the next step to take on his journey towards a sub 4 hour marathon.

Making a Greater Commitment

For his third attempt at the NYC Marathon Scholz sought expert help and instruction. “I was at a point where I said I want to utilize what resources are out there that I can use to optimize my training and kick it up to the next level,” he commented.

Researching for training information lead him to long time running coach Hal Higdon’s website. “I came across his website and I saw his picture and his bio and I read his entire biography and I’ve read every single word on his website,” said Scholz. “To me it was a combination of his experience as a runner, what he had accomplished in his life and also something about his work ethic and his methodology and the way he pursues his interests and passion. Something told me this guys knows what he’s talking about and I’m going to trust him for my training journey.”

Scholz decided on Higdon’s 18 Week Intermediate Training Plan, purchased it and applied it to his TrainingPeaks account. Immediately he saw how having expert instruction made a difference. “It was the basics of the stuff that I’d been doing, but the structure of it just made perfect sense. It was like an ‘aha’ moment,” he said.

Scholz printed out the 18 week plan and put one up at home and one at his work desk along with a yellow highlighter. The structure of where the speed work occurred, when the long runs were, when the rest days were was confidence inspiring for Scholz. “There’s a lot that is psychological,” said Scholz. “Being able to look at something and say ‘This seems like a really good training plan to work with,’ you’re already off to a good start and feeling good about what you’re about to do. Here’s the next 18 weeks of my life by day, by mile, basically.”

Unfortunately, Scholz did not get the chance to showcase his new speed and endurance. Just days before the race Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, causing millions in damage and forcing organizers to cancel the 2012 NYC Marathon. Runners were offered a choice: get a refund or be entered into next year’s race. Scholz chose the latter, knowing he had unfinished business.

Back in Training

After a brief layoff of training and some casual training through the winter and into early spring it was back to getting in the miles. Once again Scholz was using a plan from Hal Higdon, but this time he decided to use the Advanced version of the plan he’d used earlier. “I got a little aggressive. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I knew I could always dial it back down since I knew what the intermediate plan was like.” The plan was similarly structured but the mileages and the tempo of some runs were a bit longer and faster than the first plan he’d used.

One major difference this time around was Scholz’s attention to tracking his progress and analyzing his runs. “I would sync my watch as soon as I was done,” he said. “I couldn’t think about doing anything else until I plugged my watch in. It became this discipline of knowing it was downloaded so I could always go back and look at it.”

He also learned the discipline to hold back when needed. For many runners, pushing when they shouldn’t is a common mistake. Having the discipline to hold back at times is often what leads to breakthroughs. “One of the things that I find interesting is you have a three mile run and you have a great weekend and you feel so good and you say ‘I’m just going to blast this run’,” said Scholz. “But you learn the reason why that’s not good. Just because you have the gas and feel good at that point, it’s not about any one single individual run. It’s about that big picture. It’s about printing out the 18 weeks of what you’re going to undertake and how it fits together. No one piece is going to be the difference maker.” That long term view would help him down the road.

Another Obstacle

It started at as one of those little niggles that runners often feel. Around 10 weeks into the plan his left knee was hurting after a run. After running through it for several days he took a few days off hoping to rest up. His weekend long run ended after just 5 miles due to the pain. Scholz knew he had to rest.

Knowing he would have take time off to heal and worried he would not even be able to start, let alone finish the marathon, Scholz considered giving away his start spot. Trying to stay positive was difficult. “Your mind is telling you that you should be out there doing these miles,” he said. “You have this training plan that is up on the wall that was your best friend that’s now your worst enemy looking over at you telling you all the miles that you’re missing.”

Yet Scholz got through it by listening closely to his body and trusting that he was doing the right thing. After seeing a doctor and getting confirmation that there was no major injury and the pain was from his IT band, he was told to rest another few weeks before trying to run.

Decision Time

After nearly three weeks off of running, the training began again. With around 7 weeks left until race day a big decision had to be made. “My concern was that I’d missed some of the longer runs and also I was at a crossroads because I was just about to start the taper,” said Scholz. Should he still taper even if he hadn’t gotten in the long runs or should he start back where he left off and try to get in more miles? Some of his running friends recommended he push the limit and get all the miles in. Ultimately though, the conservative approach prevailed. He started back where the plan was in the cycle, willing to forgo the extra miles in return for more time to recover from his injury. 

Race Day

Even with his injury, Scholz was optimistic. “I felt really confident just knowing that I had used the tools of the Hal Higdon training plan and logging all of my runs in TrainingPeaks so I was able to go back and see all of that progress.” Looking back over the same 18 weeks span from his 2012 training Scholz could see that his pace had improved. “I could look back and say ‘here’s where I was then, here’s where I am now’.” But he also had the doubt of the injury still lingering.

For his third time running the NYC Marathon, Scholz did away with his iPod. He had worked hard and persevered through adversity to get to the start line and he wanted to feel every step, every breath of this event. “I didn’t want any distractions from what I was doing. I really wanted to be dialed in,” he said.

His plan was to start more aggressively during the first half of the marathon with the idea that if the pain came back he could dial it back a bit. Coming through the first half of the marathon he was feeling strong. By mile 22 he started to actually increase his pace. One of his fastest miles of the entire race was during this period. In the last miles, Scholz knew he would break four hours. “I was trying to balance the adrenaline rush and the excitement of the time that I thought that I was about to accomplish with the thought that pushing it too hard could be disasterous,” remembers Scholz.

His description of the final stretch is one that many runners can relate to. “It’s like a cheesy TV montage,” he said. “It’s like a montage of 18 weeks of training, long runs on hot days through the summer, tempo runs, hill runs, sprints at the track. It’s making time to follow a schedule, the picture of Hal from his website, TrainingPeaks entries, all of the training and all of this energy and excitement and people cheering for you and seeing the finish line and giving it everything you have and feeling really good about an accomplishment.” Crossing the finish after 26.2 miles, Scholz had shattered his goals of setting a new PR and breaking 4 hours with a final time of 3:27:38.

Post Marathon

The transformation from casual runner to marathon participant to a runner setting out on a journey to accomplish a major goal has certainly had an impact on Scholz. “For myself, having gone from running a marathon for the experience and enjoyment of it to now looking down at my watch and telling myself ‘I think I can break 3:30’- it changes everything.”

Once again the marathon is on hold. Scholz is looking at other marathons to spice things up. He’s also turned his attention to bring a 10 mile running event to his home town, “I’m trying to transition a bit and become a bit of a race organizer. Having gone through this experience I just found it so motivating,” he said.

Stephen Scholz is really no different from any other runner. He set out to achieve a goal, used his resources as well as he could, made smart decisions and executed on race day. His journey is one that any runner can take, and that’s the beauty of endurance sports. While we all have different goals and challenges to overcome, we all understand that the journey is the reward.

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About AJ Johnson

AJ Johnson has been a USA Triathlon certified coach for more than 15 years and is also certified by USA Cycling. He has worked with hundreds of triathletes and cyclists, from beginners to professionals, to help them achieve their goals. His coaching and training plans are designed to provide a balance between training and the needs of every day life so athletes can achieve their best and enjoy their journey. Find out more about his coaching options and training plans.