You can click the play button below to listen to the interview or read the full transcript below.
Ken: Hello everybody, this is Ken Richardson with UtahRunning.com. I’ve got Mike Spence on the line. He’s an elite athlete who calls Utah home. Mike competed at Princeton University where the steeplechase was his main event, and he came here to Utah to train with Hall of Fame Coach Chick Hislop. How are you doing Mike?
Mike: Good Ken.
Ken: Thanks for taking the time today to talk with us and all of the fans out at Utah Running.com. I just have a few questions to ask you and hopefully I’ll get some great answers from you and insight for everybody who visits UtahRunning.com.
Over the last few years your focus has kind of switched from the steeplechase to the marathon. What prompted that switch? What inspired the decision to change to marathons?
Mike: I’ve always been a guy, a distance runner who favored the longer endurance events over speed events. It’s been a long time coming. Throughout my career, I’ve had people saying you should try the 10K when I was in college. Or you should try the marathon when I was out of college.
The steeplechase has always been my passion for track and field. I’ve always believed that’s what you should follow, not necessarily what you’re best suited at. Hopefully those two things go coincide but for me it was that the steeplechase was where my passions were. That’s what brought me out here to Utah.
Following those passions has led to everything else. I came out here to train with Coach Hislop and that was a big decision for me. I’d never been to Utah before then except a family vacation when I was a little kid. That was a big career change for me but after a few years of steeplechasing, 6 years.
In 2008, after the Olympic trials it became apparent that it was going to take a real jump to make the A standard in the steeplechase, the Olympic A standard. The marathon standard, by comparison, is something I feel confident that I can hit. That’s the goal now, to train for 2012, that A standard is everything. If you have it you go, if you don’t have it you don’t have a chance of going really.
I think that it’s time for me to move up. I had a talk with Coach Hislop last fall, the fall of 2009, and he actually revealed to me at the time he’d been thinking the marathon might be a good switch for me for some time, but that it was a decision I myself had to make. He never prompted me to do it until I came to him on my own and said I wanted to give it a try. I actually thought he might be disappointed that I might be leaving the steeplechase, but he thought it was time to try the longer distance. That’s why I made the move.
Ken: I know he loves the steeplechase too, so I’m interested to see how the marathon goes for you. You actually recently ran the Duluth marathon. What made you choose that particular marathon as your debut marathon?
Mike: First of all it’s funny that you call it the Duluth marathon because it’s actually Grandma’s Marathon; there’s no such thing as the Duluth marathon, but I called it Grandma’s to start with and I got so many jokes about being in a race called Grandma’s Marathon that I started calling it the Duluth marathon too, just so people knew that it was an actual race in an actual city.
Grandma’s Marathon is one of the top races in the country. It’s probably the fourth or fifth most competitive marathon in the nation from top to bottom, after the big three, and then Twin Cities is up there with it. It’s a highly competitive field. All the best marathoners in the U.S. would run there at some point in their careers.
That was a big draw. I really wanted to run a fast, competitive race. The other thing is it worked with our timing. I needed a race that was in the springtime and it was a bit late. It was June and I was kind of hoping for something a little earlier but June enabled me to hit a couple other U.S. Championship races that were being held in the spring. It just hit the calendar pretty well.
Also, I like Minnesota. It’s nice. My wife and I have a friend who has a place up there in Duluth so we had contacts there. It’s one that Kristi my wife wanted to run for a long time. In fact, she was scheduled to run it last year but she had to pull out at the last minute due to an injury. We felt like it was kind of taking care of some unfinished business by getting up there to the race and it seemed to fit this year.
Ken: It’s kind of a timing thing but also a draw because it’s a major marathon with a deep field.
Mike: Yeah, and it’s a beautiful course too. It runs right along Lake Superior. It’s a flat course. Everything seemed pretty good. The only concern we had was it’s in June so June in Minnesota, you never know what you’re going to get as far as weather, and Coach Hislop was a little concerned about that. Previous years there have been a couple of times when it’s been in the 70’s at race time and that’s not what you want. Historically it could be 30 degrees up there, be snowing in June in Minnesota, but it might be 80 degrees too.
Ken: I’ve got a slew of questions to throw at you and maybe you could tell me a bit about them. Maybe you could tell me about your training leading up to the marathon, maybe your weekly mileage, the types of workouts, what was your longest run, just some details that would help out some people listening to us today.
Mike: It was big news for me to switch. My training changed completely. One thing Coach Hislop told me from the start when I came out here to train the steeplechase was that steeplechase training was not compatible with longer distances. You can pull off maybe some 10K’s there but to train for a marathon and a steeplechase, you’re really can’t train for both 100%, the speed work and the technique work required for the steeplechase is too intensive to be able to support high mileage that you need for the marathon.
My training changed completely. That was actually one of the reasons I did change to the marathon was because I prefer marathon training. As much as I love the steeplechase, I love the race, not the workouts as much. The longer workouts associated with the marathon are much more my type.
I enjoyed pushing my mileage beyond where it had ever been before. I ran starting October/November, when we made the decision, so October/November of 2009, I pushed my mileage which had previously peaked in the 90’s, between 90-100, began running consistently in 120, 115-125 range. I did that throughout the early spring. Then I had to drop my mileage down and started sharpening.
Ken: What do you think are some of the workouts that best prepared you for the marathon?
Mike: Tempo runs. We had all kinds of variations of tempos that we did, but those were the best workouts that I found. For the steeplechase, intervals on the track, tempo runs still have a place but intervals on the track are where you hone your skills in the event. Tempo runs on the road were where I found my best marathon preparation. Instead of doing four or five mile tempos like I had as a track athlete, we worked our way up. We did 10 mile tempos, 12 mile tempos, and then eventually settled in and started doing 15 mile tempos by the springtime. So 15 mile tempos at just under race pace, about 10 seconds per mile faster than race pace was what we settled into as one of our key training workouts to see where I was at.
I really enjoyed that workout. It was one that we were working hard from an early point in the workout but never – you were always on the edge of that envelope. It was sustainable, comfortably hard is the way I’ve heard Ed Eyestone describe those tempo runs. That’s a good description for it. I think that was the best workout as far as preparation for the race itself. Those tempos were a little bit faster than race pace, and then other ones when we got closer to the race day; we actually slowed them to race pace so I could really feel what race effort was going to feel like, so I would be able to find it in the race and wouldn’t be distracted by someone running 10-15 seconds faster or slower per mile when I was in the actual event.
Ken: So you’ve done that training, you’ve done those tempo runs to get you ready for the marathon. Obviously you’ve done a bit of mental preparation. What types of goals did you have going into the marathon? It’s your first one. What goals did you have yourself? You’ve mentioned training for 2012, but for that marathon what were some of your goals?
Mike: This is tough. The first time you do an event, you’re learning so much that Coach Hislop and I didn’t set a lot of concrete goals going into it. The first priority was survival and to have a positive experience. I think that was our primary goal, to have a positive experience in the race.
To that end, he had me set up on a very conservative pace considering the training I had done. He had me set up on just under a 2:20 marathon pace. 2:19 flat is the Olympic trials qualifying time for the marathon. I had it in my head I wanted to get my qualifier out of the way in this race. But if I did that, Coach Hislop wanted me to do it by negative splitting the race, so by accelerating the last six to eight miles of the race.
That goal was very secondary to having a positive experience. There was much more I could draw from a 2:19 or a 2:20 race that I finished in a race than where I go out at 2:15 or 2:16 pace and don’t finish the last 10 miles. That was our nightmare scenario, was a marathon that didn’t count for anything because we didn’t get across the line. That was our priority, to finish it and be able to draw from it going into the next one.
I think that was a good goal in retrospect because we didn’t meet the goals that I thought I was going to. I really couldn’t imagine not being able to run 2:19, but it’s a long race. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and I don’t know exactly what did go wrong. I was on pace, maybe a touch fast but not outside of the danger zone as far as I was about 30 seconds fast through the half marathon, so not terribly quick.
I felt very good through the first half of the race. Then I really struggled about the last eight miles, unexpectedly. It felt like key muscle fatigue, it wasn’t overall fatigue; it was key muscles that felt like they had nothing left in them. But I was able to finish the race. I still ran 2:22 and I learned a lot from it so it was good that we went out as conservatively as we did because if I had gone out much faster I don’t know that I would have been able to finish.
Ken: Definitely the 2:22 is incredible. Anybody who sets out to do a marathon, that’s a great goal to finish it; 26.2 miles is a long ways. Did you change anything in the last week as far as training, nutrition, hydration in that last week?
Mike: Our training tapered pretty significantly about a month before the race. My mileage, which again had been in the 120’s; going into the race we dropped. The month leading up to it I didn’t have anything above about 100 four weeks out and then dropped. Percentage wise I was down about 20% at the start of the month and then down to about 50% of my peak going into the race itself, the week prior to the race. We cut it pretty drastically there.
Workouts we cut – no more volume. Everything was about race pace going into it, again to familiarize myself with the pace the marathon was at. Actually, going into the next one, that’s one thing I would do differently. I would do a bit longer period of race pace effort because I still have a little bit of struggle finding that pace over the first couple of miles. I did lock in after a few miles, but it took longer than I expected.
So short tempos at race pace, tempos that felt – everything – two or three weeks before the race feels incredibly easy you’re so fine tuned and the work load has just diminished so much that you get to a point where you’re itching to get out there and race. If you taper properly, that’s the way you should feel. You can direct all that energy into the event itself.
Ken: That’s a great description of what you want to do and how you’re going to feel as you taper for the marathon, kind of itching for that race and ready for it. Tell me, you talked a bit about your race experiences. You were a little bit fast through the halfway point. What types of things were you doing as far as refueling during the race? What did you eat the morning of the race?
Mike: I’m in a very fortunate situation as a distance runner because my wife is a dietician so I’m spoiled when it comes to fueling on a daily basis. I didn’t change very much going into the race. We eat a very good diet, a good healthy portion of carbohydrates at every meal, lots of healthy – carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats, and all in the right proportion for a distance runner. My wife knows everything that I’m eating and we do eat very well.
I didn’t have to change anything nutritionally going into the race week. The night before we found a nice little café in Duluth that had – I think I had quinoa a grain dish that had a lot of different vegetables in it. It was very high carbohydrate. I don’t carbo load but still you want to have a diet that’s high in carbohydrates. I did have that the night before. It was a good mix of vegetable proteins in there and it was good, light but good, healthy, carbohydrate rich pre-race meal.
Ken: Eating what you’re used to.
Mike: Exactly, and that’s key. Quinoa is a grain that not everyone eats all the time, but we actually have it as a regular part of our diet. For me, that was not anything unusual but what we would normally eat. But it was funny going out to this restaurant; it’s not the kind of restaurant that Coach Hislop would typically choose. He was willing to allow me to make the pre-race meal selection but I don’t know if he had quite the options he was used to on the menu in this particular café. But that is important.
We scout those restaurants out in advance before we get to a place to see where we want to be and make sure we’re eating something we know works with our training. I eat the same thing before a race that I eat before a major workout. I don’t change anything.
The morning of the race, I have my pre-race routine which is to have a couple packets of instant oatmeal in the hotel room, a banana, and then sip on a Gatorade or carbohydrate and electrolyte rich drink right up to the race time and I think I had some kind of a gel with a bit of caffeine in it right before race time, to give me a little final fueling and get me a bit more go.
Ken: Do you take any gels or shot bloks or something like that during the race?
Mike: Yeah, that was definitely something I practiced thoroughly beforehand, to get used to it. So many marathoners will tell you if something doesn’t agree with your stomach that’s the end of your race. We had four gel packs spaced throughout the race. I had water. The race conditions is actually one of the things I alluded to before. Duluth – we weren’t terribly unlucky but it was 65 degrees at race time which is a little warmer than you want for a marathon. It’s not too bad for a steeplechase but for a marathon that does get a little warm.
I dehydrated a little more quickly than I expected to. I was taking water early on about every four miles and I was taking gel every 10K. I think I started my first water at four miles and then pretty much every other mile from that point on I was taking at least a sip of water and gel about ever 10K.
That was the protocol for rehydration but I really – it turned quickly from sips of water – I had Elite water bottles placed so I was taking all those and I did not anticipate needing – I was getting a lot of water at my water stations because I had water bottles that I had practiced with and they worked out perfectly, so I was getting 2/3 of a bottle at every Elite water stop. I still needed to supplement with the cup every other mile in between. I became very thirsty late in the race. It was a windy day, and it wasn’t sunny but it was humid and windy. I definitely felt it over the last 10 miles. I could feel my arms getting a little tingly and the dehydration there.
Ken: So the weather conditions made a bit of a difference in how you were able to run those last 10 miles?
Mike: Yes, there was a breeze. It wasn’t terrible but they said afterwards that it was gusting to 15-20 miles an hour and it was a head wind the entire 26 miles. You’d run a straight line in but when it came along the edge of the lake, it was much more in your face than it had been. The first 10 miles had a tree-lined buffer to keep the wind off of you. The last 16 were completely exposed. I think it took a little bit more out of me than I realized.
It didn’t feel so bad at the time because it had a cooling effect that was refreshing but I think it did take a bit of my energy reserve away from me. It was a bit warm. I could feel my arms – you shouldn’t be tingly from your elbows down and I felt that for the last eight miles of the race. I couldn’t tell how much of that was the breeze passing through the hairs of my arm, and how much of it was actual dehydration. I became a little concerned and that’s when I started taking extra water.
Even though I had a good water protocol, I had tested it on 25 mile distance runs before the marathon and I thought our protocol was spot on and wouldn’t change anything about that, but when the temperature reaches a certain point there’s just no way physically that your stomach can handle the amount of water that you need to replace what you’re losing.
Ken: You mentioned a couple times testing or practicing. You test those as far as the water and the gels. You test those on your distance runs prior to the race?
Mike: Yes, every distance run over 90 minutes I take a gel and if I’m going over 90 minutes I take it at the approximate points where I would want it in a marathon. I’ve gotten very used to taking it. I take it on the run so I get used to fumbling with the gel pack while I’m still trying to move and keep a consistent pace. I do it every run, no matter how serious it is, but especially in the four to six month lead up to the race we would have measured courses where Kristi actually rode her bike with me on one of my key 25 milers before the marathon. That was one where we really tested it out. I paid attention to all my body signals and she wrote down each point where she gave me water, each point where she gave me an electrolyte drink. We alternated those two and then each point where I took a gel. That’s very important. There are so many stories of people who their stomach – even if they do have a good protocol for replenishment, if they haven’t practiced it their stomach won’t be able to handle it.
Ken: I sure appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share some insights with everybody at UtahRunning.com, and really some great lessons from your first marathon experience. Is there any advice that you’d offer up to anybody that’s planning their first marathon, kind of your last words of wisdom?
Mike: That practice is a big one, what I just mentioned, to make sure you practice especially in the two months before the event. Practice as much race simulation as you can, so not actually going 26 miles in the last month or so but whenever possible, whether it’s practicing race pace, or race replenishment.
The other thing is to really research. I think choosing the right marathon is so much of it. There are so many marathons out there now. Depending on what you want to get from your race, I think that even though I didn’t have the results I wanted, I was able to fall back on the friends I had in Duluth, and it was a beautiful race. It was still a positive experience so it wasn’t a bad selection for us, even though I didn’t attain every goal that I wanted to there.
I think that course selection is really important and people should look at if you’re going for a time, if you’re trying to qualify for Boston, it’s really important that you select a race that is going to give you the best opportunity to do so, not a hilly marathon. Pick a fast one if time is your priority. But if you’re just trying to finish one, pick a moderate one that’s scenic, one that’s going to be an enjoyable experience. If you have the budget to travel, there are some amazing ones out there that you can do. We use our distance running as an excuse to see the world whenever we can. It makes the event so much more fulfilling if you choose the race that suits you the best and not just based on what someone else has told you but on what you’re looking to get out of it and what your personality dictates.
Ken: Great, Mike Spence we really appreciate you taking the time and we wish you luck as you train for 2012.
Mike: Thanks so much Ken.