Running in the 'Meda: Training for Bay to Breakers

Running in the 'Meda: Training for Bay to Breakers

Marty Beene

The author running Bay to Breakers in 1999.

For my next few posts, I'll be writing about a Bay Area running institution that many Alamedans enjoy every year: The Bay to Breakers (B2B, in today's shorthand). It's coming up on May 18, so it's too late to talk about training for it for this year. But many people may wonder what it takes.

The B2B is a 12 kilometer race, or about seven and a half miles. What does it take to complete it? There isn't any mystery: You need to be able to run that far. Beginners would simply need to build their running mileage to that point. Whenever I have trained for a distance that is further than I have run before, I liked making my longest training run a little shorter than the goal distance so that the race itself is a significant achievement. If you follow that approach, you should do just fine by building your longest training run to about six miles.

For runners who want to try for a particular time goal, longer distances and faster runs are needed. But how long and how fast?

Well, it depends. For runners who are just beginning to shoot for certain time goals, completing a few runs longer than the 12k distance and a few faster efforts will be enough to take some time off of a previous result. For more experienced runners, completing several runs longer than 10 miles and doing weekly or even semi-weekly speed sessions are needed.

Let's take my own goal as an example. I am hoping to be able to finish in about 52 minutes, which is a hair faster than seven minutes per mile. I have built up my longer runs to a point where I've completed a few 10-mile runs, an 11-mile run, and - last Sunday - a 12½-miler. These longer runs were done at a pace such that the last few miles felt easy - for me, this was between eight and eight and a half minutes per mile. For speed training, I have primarily used tempo runs.

A tempo run is not as fast as race pace, but one during which you can't carry on a conversation. Last Friday, I completed a four-mile tempo run at an average pace of about 7:15 per mile. I have also mixed in rest days and active rest days (i.e., exercise, but not running).

For times that are a little slower than my goal, the longish runs are still needed, and the faster running concept still applies. If, say, a runner's goal is to average eight minutes per mile, running the tempo runs at about 8:30 pace is probably about right. For those runners who have never tried to run faster, it would be a good idea to start with a tempo run that is about a mile, then add to the length of that tempo run gradually over several weeks to get up to the four- or five-mile distance.

Some runners will be shooting for times well down into the six-minute range, and even below that. For those runners, building up to even longer runs is recommended. These runners should be comfortable running 15 miles. In addition to tempo runs at about 15-30 seconds slower than goal pace, speed work on a track is probably a necessity (although you'll have to leave Alameda to find a modern track facility open to the public) because running much faster than seven minutes per mile requires some real foot speed. Doing repeats of 1,000 meters and even shorter distances will build that ability.

People sometimes ask me about practicing hill running for the B2B - isn't it a hilly course? If it's convenient to run on hills, then you should, but only because it is generally a good idea. However, there is only one hill on the B2B course, so training exclusively on the flats of Alameda won't kill your chances of a fast time.

Check in next week - the Friday before the race - for my recommended strategy for running the B2B course. Until then, tell me in the comments what you've done to train for it.

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty's best B2B was 47:13 in 1999; he can be reached at