This past fall I had the pleasure to start working with Brendan Gregg. Already very accomplished, Brendan was going through a transition and didn't want to be fully coaching himself but also wanted a lot more autonony than in his previous set up. My personal style is very hands off just by the nature of my life, I work full time and have a one year old and a three year old in addition to coaching. However I think the real reason Brendan contacted me was that he had done some experimenting with, and really wanted to explore, the Canova style of training more and he knew that was the school that I came from.
Coming into the cycle Brendan was quite fit. He had run a near PB 13:48 5000m on the track in the late spring, early summer and he finished his summer cycle with a solid 48:14 10 mile at Cherry Blossom. Prior to this cycle Brendan had already had a terrific career with a 2:11:38 marathon best from the 2019 Chicago marathon, a 28:03 10000m best from 2015. In addition he had a long line of national class performances going back to high school. This resume made Brendan far and away the most accomplished runner I had ever been asked to write a schedule for. I'm generally careful not to ask for too much info about why a runner is looking for a change. The assumption I made was that Brendan wasn't too happy with how his last two marathons had turned out. They were both solid, a 2:13:27 14th place finish at the Olympic trials and a 2:13:49 20th place at the marathon project, but my guess is that coming off a 2:11 he was probably expecting more.
Brendan was targeting a run at CIM on December 4. This was very much a hometown race for him and he had run there twice before. A 2:18:33 8th place in 2016 and a 2:13:28 5th place in 2018. Given that he was a local, his resume and that he already had a solid finish there before the goal for the race had to be to go for a win. Additionally I personally very much wanted him to get a personal best. I knew this might not be possible simply because the lead pack at CIM doesn't always run at a pace that gives you a real shot at sub 2:11:30 but given that the winning time does fairly regularly dip under 2:12 I was very hopeful.
Brendan had been following a fairly traditional Aussie system for most of 2021 up to Cherry Blossom and he had added in a couple of workout variations at my request when we first decided that I would do a training plan for him for CIM. These were an early marathon alternation session and a 30km fundamental tempo (aka easy tempo) at around 5:30 pace.
As I mention in the title Brendan is a coach. I used it as the title not because he does online coaching but because he thinks like a coach, talks like a coach and approaches his running like a coach. In fact he comes from a family of coaches as I believe his father was his coach in high school and perhaps it is this linage or perhaps it is just his way of approaching things but whatever the reason when I was talking to him it was sometimes hard to remember that I was talking to someone looking for help as an athlete not as a coach looking for support with his coaching. As such I ended up approaching working with him very much as I would with a coach.
We emailed back and forth a handful of times and then had a very good zoom conversation where we discussed exactly what he was looking for. Based on what he told me I wrote him a schedule that was very much a traditional Canova specific phase adjusted to fit what Brendan had already found to be true for him. Namely that he was most comfortable running around 100 to 120 miles a week and that he did best with 2 days of lower intensity after each workout.
The only complicating factor in the schedule was the 25km Riverbank run which we agreed we would under focus on in favor of the marathon. In the end I think I over hedged the training away from speed and because of it Brendan underperformed here. That said I would much rather that outcome then missing in the other direction and have him run a burner at the 25km and then run out of glycogen at 22 when he got to CIM and have him crawl into another 2:13/14 type run.
Summary of Training by Week
(Sunday to Saturday)
Week September 12 to 18
Recovery week - 71 miles
Race- Sunday the 12th Cherry Blossom 10 mile 48:13
Workout- Thursday the 16th 1 hour moderate progression run average pace 5:19, starting around 5:45 and working down to sub 4:50 for the last mile plus.
Week of September 19 to 25
Back training- 102 miles
Sunday the 19th- 30km easy tempo (around 90% mp) 5:30 pace- quads still sore on downhills but controlled
Wednesday the 22nd- Deek's quarters(8x400 with eight 200m float recoveries for a total of 3 miles) 14:11 for the three miles. Recovery 200's ranged from 36 to 40 with most in the 38/39 range, "on" 400's ranged from 66 to 68 with most of them at 67.
Saturday the 25th- Marathon alternations- scheduled as half mile on, half mile recovery but Brendan had a great 0.55 loop so he did 24 laps of that. The fast loops were at 4:35 to 4:45 pace. The "recovery" laps were at 5:15 to 5:25 pace. He averaged 4:58 for 13 and 1/4 miles.
Comments- This was the first real taste I got of what a workout monster Brendan is. Particularly the Saturday session. I would have been fine with that for the last workout before the marathon so to see that on the first go was startling. I knew he had been doing alternations via the Aussie system for his last cycle but it was still a crazy impressive session.
September 26 to October 2
Tuesday the 28th- Moderate tempo run scheduled for 5:25 to 5:15 pace. Brendan started at 5:20 to 5:25 and worked down to the 5:05 range averaging 5:14 per mile for the whole run. He reported feeling heavy but not overly so.
Friday the 30th- 10x1k at critical velocity, 2:50 to 2:55, Brendan reported that he felt like he could have kept doing this for quite a few more but that trying to run one in 2:45 would have been very hard. Which pretty much defines how you should feel during marathon training.
October 3 to 9
Monday the 4th- 33km Canova marathon fartlek. 10km at 3:25 per km, 5km of 1min hard, 1min moderate averaged 3:05 (2:51/3:23), 5km moderate avg. 3:26, 5km marathon pace- avg. 3:02, 5km moderate, avg. 3:30, 3.2km(2 miles) marathon pace or max effort- 3:11 avg. You can see how Brendan was pretty cooked at the end of this. Now it was a warm day and he was very aggressive through the workout but I think this also highlights the problem with a lot marathon programs. You need a good number of these long hard marathon specific workouts to get the adaptations that you need to be able to really run a great marathon. This session shows Brendan was in great shape but not quite ready to rip a marathon, yet.
Thursday the 7th- 70min progression run starting out around 5:20 pace and working down to just under 4:50 per mile. 5:01 average for 13.95 miles.
A small thing of note. Brendan ended up with 119.94 mies this week. A big week for him. What I think is worth thinking about is that he didn't try to stretch a run or add a little jog someplace to get 120. When you are training really well the miles are just a number that happens not something that you chase or put much thought at all into.
October 10 to 16
Sunday the 10th- 5x5k at marathon pace with 1km recoveries at around 90% marathon pace. This was scheduled as 4 to 5x5k and Brendan said after a couple of reps he was feeling like it would take all he had just to do 4 but that he felt stronger as he went on and ended up not ony doing 5 but finishing very well. This happens quite often when you start getting into marathon specific shape. splits- 15:22(3:25), 15:09(3:20), 15:12(3:22),15:15(3:21)15:08. What matters in this session is the recoveries. If you can't hit the fast recoveries then you are not getting the specific impetus you need for the marathon work and by extension you won't be in shape to run the marathon you expect down the line. Brendan did this one perfectly! This was the point at which I started to get very excited about this cycle. There is no where to hide in this session and he just nailed it.
Wednesday the 13th Aussie Quarters- 8x400m with eight 200m recoveries run quickly as well so that the whole run is 3 miles. Brendan ran 14:06 which is a crazy monster session. This was very much done marathon style as he was "only" running 65 to 66 on the reps with recoveries at 37 to 40. To be clear that means he was recovering at 5:00 to 5:20 per mile.
Saturday the 16th- marathon alternations- scheduled as 12 miles of 1/2 mile at 4:40, 1/2 mile recovery at 5:20 to 5:30. Brendan was very tired and considered dropping the workout but decided to give it a go and was able to do 10 1/2 miles, which is nearly the whole session. This is a spot where Brendan's coach like mindset really made a huge difference. Rather than feeling deflated because he didn't hit exactly what was on the schedule he was actually pretty pumped after this session because he did so much after feeling so tired on the warm up. Our point of view has a snowball effect on our emotions and that can make all the difference in getting through a heavy marathon training cycle.
October 17 to 23
This week we took a down week to rest up for the USATF 25km championships. Brendan did a light 2 mile at race pace, 9:40, on Tuesday and then the race was Saturday. It was a disappointment. Brendan ran 1:17, 4:58 pace, at or just a bit slower than our goal marathon pace. I knew that he was unlikely to challenge for the win or run much under 1:15 because we were in deep marathon training so he wasn't going to handle lactic acid well and he was going to be fatigued going in but when I first saw this result I was really concerned. After we talked I felt much better. After an easy first 3 miles in 15:00 the pack surged and ran 14:00 for the next 3 which off normal training would be no big deal for a guy like Brendan but with little anaerobic capacity it shot his legs, and stomach. He actually ended up having to stop in a porto-potty. This made sense given how we had trained. I had hoped the Aussie quarter sessions would be enough to get him through this, and if the pace had been steady 4:50's give or take 5 seconds they may have been, but they weren't but given how it had unfolded I wasn't worried about his marathon fitness.
October 24 to 30
The only workout this week was a light 10x1k at critical velocity, 2:50 to 2:55 per km, on Thursday which was a good indication that lactic acid was the problem at the 25km as Brendan nailed these running 2:50 for basically all of them and feeling easy. It was time to get back to work.
October 31 to November 6
Sunday the 31st- 2 hours and 10 mins (projected race time give or take- I prescribe 2:10 for anyone looking to run 2:15 or under, 2:20 for those looking for 2:15 to 2:20) at 90 to 95% marathon pace. I prescribed 5:20's per mile which was a bit conservative and Brendan was more agressive averaging 5:14 for 24.9 miles. This is not the hardest session to do in the cycle but it is the most taxing on the body and recovery off of this one takes a while.
Wednesday the 3rd- 12 mile run with the last two miles at marathon pace. Normally this would be a super easy session but coming off Sunday I thought it might be surprisingly tough but Brendan reported it was easier than he expected which made me very happy because I worry a lot about not recovering well enough from that Sunday session.
Saturday the 6th- Bill Squires' Tiger in the Cat long run- as you can tell from the name this session doesn't come from Canova but it is very much the same type of session as his long specific fartleks. This was a cornerstone session of many of Squires' great marathoners and also Charlie Spedding credited it with giving him the ability to race a marathon. You start with 2 miles at marathon pace then do a long fartlek of 1,2,3,4,5,5,4,3,2,1 mins hard with 5mins at a good steady pace between each for recovery and finally 2 more miles at marathon pace. This is VERY tough. Brendan ran 20 miles in the 1:45 that this took, so 5:14 pace again. That means his fastest 46 miles for the week averaged at least 5:14 per mile. He was ready. We just needed to stay healthy.
November 7 to 13
A much lighter week coming off the two HUGE long runs last week.
Tuesday the 9th, 15 mile moderate tempo run at 5:16 pace. This looks impressive at Brendan's paces but in terms of % of race pace many people run this hard every day. It holds back their progression but it does give you an idea of the effort level on this. Really just an uptempo regular run.
Friday the 12th- We had the Aussie Quarters session schedule but Brendan flipped it out for a Monaghetti fartlek which he covered 4.17 miles in the 20 mins. They are very similar sessions and can be interchanged almost anytime.
November 14 to 20
Monday the 15th- Scheduled for 5 to 6 x 5k at marathon pace but slick roads and heavy legs ended the workout after only 13 miles. Dissapointing for the last marathon interval session but you can't get through a cycle like this without bombing one. It is important to remember you are in the condition indicated by your best workout in a cycle. If conditions, or fatigue knocks you down that doesn't impact your actual fitness.
Thursday the 18th- 80min progression run 15.5 miles, 5:09 pace- Started out in the 5:30's and worked down to 4:45ish by the end. It sounds like it was a wet rainy fall day that saps your will to start the workout but actually is enjoyable as you get going and I think this effort did a good job of washing away the memory of Monday's poor session.
November 21 to 27
Sunday the 21st- the last real workout- 13.5 miles of 1/2 mile, on/off marathon alternations. Brendan's on's ranged from 2:16 to 2:23 and his recoveries ranged from 2:31 to 2:37 and he averaged 4:53 per mile for the 13.5 miles. This is just a savage session. It gave me great confidence that he would be very tough to beat.
Thursday the 25th- AM workout was a 7 mile progression run going from about 5:25 pace down to 4:40 pace and averaging 5:03. PM workout was 5 miles steady 5:40 to 6:00 pace then 3 miles at marathon pace- 4:50's per mile. These are both pretty light but combined you get 10 miles or so of marathon paced running without killing yourself which is nice.
November 28 to December 4
Wednesday the 1st- 5k marathon dress rehearsal - 15:13 nice and easy. Just a reminder of the rhythm as we close in on race day
December 5 RACE DAY!!!
2:11:21 Run away victory, 2nd place ran 2:12:52. There was a small group through the half in 1:04:58. Based on the official splits and the video clips I have seen Brendan was either in the lead or within a step or two of it from the start. He was the official leader at every split from the half marathon on. He reported that he felt very good but that his legs did feel heavy enough in the closing miles that he wondered if he could respond if someone came up on him. My guess is that if the pack had kept rolling he could have gone 1 to 2 mins quicker before reaching his real physical limit on the day but that is just a guess. It is possible this really was right about as fast as he could go on the day. My feelings are that this was a perfect outcome. When you can't win your focus on a time goal, when winning is possible then time doesn't matter. I was glad he got a PB but obviously given the pace of many of his workouts I think in a time focused race he could have run faster.
Every cycle has lessons, good and bad. They also set you up with questions for further consideration. I think this cycle left me with a number of questions. For the bad we underperformed at the 25km. We knew it was a risk and though I would certainly have preferred a 1:14 there if getting it had meant a 2:13 at CIM that would have been a very poor choice. The question is did we err too much on the side of marathon prep could we have done things slightly differently and have run better at the 25km without hurting the marathon. OR was it sort of the luck of the draw with how the race unfolded and we just needed a steady pace.
Similarly the time. It was a PB but only by 17 seconds. Based on the workouts and the fact that CIM is a very fast course I would have really liked a faster time. Knowing this was his first cycle through on the system I wouldn't have necessarily expected that he could hold the exact pace of his workouts to the tape, which would have put him in the 2:08 to 2:09 range but I really would have liked a 2:10. That said this wasn't that kind of race. Show me a guy who runs 2:10 from the front and I'll show you a 2:07 marathoner. So though I can't ask anything more from Brendan's race it does leave me wondering a bit about his real fitness. This is unusual for me because I don't get to work with too many guys like Brendan. Generally my athletes are running in the pack and there might be reasons that they run a bit slower than they are capable, course, conditions etc.. but they are easier to quantify.
In the end I think this seems most similar in my mind to the first cycle from another athlete I coached, Dan Harper. Dan also targeted CIM and he was also coming in with a decent PB, 2:22. He also hit nearly every workout and really over achieved my expectations. Then ran really well on race day, 2:19, but not quite what I thought he could do. With Dan the next cycle really allowed the gains to be locked into his system and even though he didn't really workout much faster than he had in the first cycle he ended up running a 2:17 at Grandma's. I hope that we can see the same type of progression in Brendan's second cycle.
If you are interested in Dan Harpers training he wrote a book about the two cycles that I referenced and you can get on amazon, https://www.amazon.com/My-Road-Olympic-Trials-Training/dp/B08YJ2VLVL