5 Game-changing lessons that helped me finally run my dream marathon time

By Emilia Benton


The 2022 Chevron Houston Marathon was my 11th time racing the distance and my eighth time doing this specific race. But racing marathons hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing since I ran my first one in New York City at age 23 – in fact, I’d say the majority were disastrous, as I had a lot to learn about training for and racing the distance over the last several years. Below are five of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my 12-year journey to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time.

Don’t race your easy and long runs

This is a lesson that I think the majority of newer runners, myself included, often just have to learn the hard way. I think a lot of runners today get too caught up in the comparison trap of social media and don’t want to post “too-slow” paces on Strava.

It was only once I purposely slowed things down and began doing my easy long runs at a significantly slower pace that I finally began to nail speed workouts and goal races. For example, when I ran my current marathon and half-marathon personal records, which are 3:30 (8:00 per mile pace) and 1:39 (7:35 pace), respectively, all of my long runs averaged around 9:15 to 9:20 pace, unless I had a specific race-pace workout built in. Even though I do have bigger goals in mind, you still won’t catch me running sub-9:00 miles outside of a speed workout these days.

Respect the conditions, both in training and on Race Day

I don’t know about anyone else, but even after more than a decade of living in Houston, I never feel like I truly acclimate to running in our hot and humid summer conditions. As such, I’ve learned to adjust all expectations and just expect to run a bit slower in the hotter months, especially in speed sessions. The same goes for Race Day, especially if you get an unseasonably warm one after several weeks or months of more ideal conditions, as we did for the 2017 Houston Marathon. That year, I stubbornly stuck to my original race goal and pacing plan. I unsurprisingly blew up and fell apart by mile 20, ultimately finishing about 20 minutes short of my goal time.

For much of the last five years, I’ve said I wished I’d kept going straight at the mile 8 split and unofficially run the half marathon that day. However, having gained a bit more training wisdom since then, I can confidently say I could have had a better day (even if not a PR) if I’d been more realistic about my race plan on the day we were given.

Meet yourself where you’re at

I’d had the goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon pretty much immediately after I ran my first marathon. Even after I finally learned some of the lessons I outlined above, I knew my then-current races didn’t indicate I was there yet when it came to going after that 3:30 qualifying time. Chipping away at it and running a well-paced 3:49 and 3:45 in the years leading up to my most recent race taught me a lot about how to execute a marathon and build the necessary confidence to finally do it.

Embrace the power of the negative split

My last two marathons (Houston 2019 and Houston 2022) have been my best races for two reasons: The advent of “super shoes”…and the fact that I approached them with a negative split strategy, starting the first couple of miles 30-45 seconds slower than my goal pace before settling into that pace. I ultimately finished both of those races with a second half that was 2-3 minutes faster than the first, finishing feeling full of run and like I could have kept going.

Even starting out right at marathon goal pace has never worked out for me when it comes to finishing strong, so for the love of the marathon, don’t even think about going out even faster in an effort to “bank time.” Trust me; it’s so much more fun to feel like you’re flying rather than dying on Allen Parkway and passing people in the final 5K rather than in the first!

Finally, run with joy

The 2022 race was the first time I went in feeling more excited than nervous about running the marathon. In addition to my running coach’s motivating words of “You can run 8-minute pace all damn day,” I carried the mantras of “It’s supposed to be fun” and “It’s just another long run,” and ran just about the entire race with a smile on my face. It’s wild how fast the miles will tick by when you’re enjoying yourself after a season of smart training tactics and with a solid race-day execution plan in place.

Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance health and fitness journalist and USATF Level 1-certified coach.