When you first start thinking about running a marathon, just finishing the race on two legs might be your main concern. But as you picture yourself crossing the finish line, a mental image of crossing far behind the rest of your age group might start to keep you awake at night. While someone has to be last in any race, knowing where the center of the pack is and striving to keep yourself there can help allay your fears.
Type of Marathon
On the surface, this might seem silly-- all marathons are the same distance, after all -- 26.2 miles. But all marathons, though equal in length, are not equal. Some, such as the Chicago, Boston or New York City marathons, draw elite athletes from all over the world. Others feature mostly local runners who might not hang out on the same playing field. The course can also trip up your time; if you're used to running a flat course, a hillier or more challenging course can decimate your final time. The overall average also includes women of every age; not too many women get faster as they get older, although it could depend on what they're chasing.
Average Marathon Times
If you're happy being average and you're planning on running only in the local county fair marathon, between four and five hours is a good number to aim for. In 2011, the average time for all marathons in the United States by women aged 20 to 35 ranged between four hours and 44 minutes to four hours, 48 minutes, according to MarathonGuide.com. If you're planning on dragging grandma along with you, the average time for all women in all marathons in 2011 was four hours, 52 minutes and nine seconds, Marathon Guide says. You can find the times for everyone who ran the race last year on the race website, so you can know what you're up against.
Running in the Majors
If you only run with the big dogs, you'll have to bring your A game and up your times to keep up with the pack. The 2012 times for women between the ages of 20 and 35 at Boston were significantly less than the national average for all marathons. To keep up in the elite races, you need to cross the finish line between three hours, 47 minutes and four hours, one minute, according to the Run Tri website. And that's why everyone and their brother doesn't run Boston.
If you're a serious -- and reasonably organized -- runner, you undoubtedly have log times for all your runs for the last year. You know your average mile time to the millisecond. But multiplying that number times 26 won't tell you how long it will take you to run a marathon. To get a feel for the difference those extra miles make, you need some long training runs -- 18 miles or more -- to measure yourself against. Plan to do most of your long runs at a pace 30 to 45 seconds slower than your planned marathon pace, the Boston Athletic Association recommends. Add periods of tempo running -- running at the pace you plan to maintain during the race -- in the middle or at the end of your long runs.
A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.