Founders of the popular running website LetsRun.com will pay $100,000 to a 47-year old father from suburban Philadelphia, Mike Rossi (a.k.a. The Viral Marathon Dad), if he can complete a marathon in 3:11:45 within the next 12 months. Here's why: In April, after Rossi pulled his kids out of school to watch him run the 2015 Boston Marathon, the principal of the children's elementary school sent Rossi a terse letter explaining the absences would be unexcused and that an accrual of unexcused absences could result in legal action. Rossi, a wedding DJ and radio personality, posted his response to Facebook, saying, "I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school." The reply went viral. Rossi garnered attention from the Today Show and was nominated for Dad of the Year by the Boston Sun Times.
But as Rossi basked in the attention, a problem arose. Rossi's Boston qualifying time from the Lehigh Valley Marathon in September, 2014 raised red flags on the LetsRun.com forums. Fellow runners noted that Rossi's 3:11:45 marathon (a 7:19 mile pace) at Lehigh Valley far exceeded any personal bests at any other distance. Additionally, while every other runner at the Lehigh Valley marathon appeared in photos taken by the slew of commercial photographers along the course, Rossi didn't show up in a single image other than at the finish line.
In a lengthy investigative article posted last Friday, LetsRun.com unequivocally accused Rossi of cheating in the Lehigh Valley Marathon. The site noted that the point-to-point course conveniently runs parallel to highway I-78, and that it did not feature any mid-route timing mats (a common method of deterring course cutters). In concluding its online indictment of Rossi, LetsRun.com posed a challenge: If Rossi can replicate his Lehigh Valley run within the next 12 months, the website will pay him $10,000 a year for the next 10 years.
Rossi has adamantly proclaimed his innocence, hired a lawyer, and cast himself as a victim of defamation from LetsRun.com — "a notoriously biased and sensationalist website," Rossi told Runner's World. Yet, he hasn't said whether he'll go after the challenge, or not. And so, here, Mike Rossi, is where we need to have a serious chat. We get it Rossi, your feelings are hurt. Everyone thinks you cheated, you say you didn't. But do not take your eye off the prize: $100,000!
Alleged cheating aside, you need to run about 32 minutes (or more than a minute per mile) faster than your undisputed marathon PR, a 3:43:52 at the Philadelphia Marathon in November. But don't fret Viral Marathon Dad, we're here to help — and offer some useful training tips to everyone else in the process.
We consulted two of Philadelphia's top running coaches, John Goldthorp and Cory Smith, to find out if it's possible for a middle-age man to dramatically reduce his marathon PR in a year's time. We also learned how, if there was a hundred grand on the line and you had to run the marathon of your life, you'd you go about doing that.
Both Goldthorp and Smith felt the challenge was stiff, but not impossible. When Goldthorp ran his first marathon, as a relatively untrained young man, he completed the distance in just under four hours. A calendar year later, after dedicating himself to marathon training, he ran a 3:01, knocking 55-minutes off his previous best. Thus, he says, it depends on Rossi's previous commitment to marathon training, as well as his genetic predisposition to respond to intense training. "Some people just respond more than others to intense training," says Goldthorp. "I never promise someone specific performance gains, but you have to put in the work to find out."
Smith says whether or not a person can dramatically improve their marathon performance in middle-age depends on their, "real age versus their training age." Basically, if someone is 45 years old, but has been running competitively for 30 years, they're not going to improve much. However, someone like Rossi, who's only been racing the last couple years, stands a good chance of experiencing big performance gains if he commits to professional tutelage.
Thus, with the $100,000 challenge in mind, Goldthorp and Smith offered the following training advice for anyone aiming to dramatically improve their marathon performance in one year.
Assess Your Sorry Self
An initial assessment of current fitness, mobility, and diet is crucial to determining a plan forward, says Goldthorp. Most likely, you run less than you should. Your physical mobility and flexibility sucks. And you're too fat. To achieve a major gain like a 30-plus-minute improvement in your marathon time, Smith says, "whatever you're currently doing, you'll need to increase by ten fold."
"I hesitate to set out specific mileage totals, but you'd want to increase aerobic time gradually, by no more than 20-percent each month," says Goldthorp, eventually building toward 12 to 15 hours a week of combined aerobic time, including cross-training and circuit training.
It's All About That Base
The first six to eight months of training will primarily focus on developing what Goldthorp calls the three bases of peak marathon fitness: aerobic capacity, strength, and mobility. The bigger and stronger your base, the higher your eventual performance.
Goldthorp says, for someone like Rossi, mileage would systematically increase to the maximum amount Rossi could physically and mentally handle. Swimming, cycling, and (if money is not a problem) a $35,000 AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill will increase the time you can spend at your aerobic heart rate zone.
Both Goldthorp and Smith agree strength training, such as deadlifts and squats, is crucial to creating a more forceful stride and durable body. Goldthorp says, for someone fully committed to running their best marathon, he'd recommend strength training as often as three days a week.
Goldthorp prescribes mobility exercises before and after runs to help make his clients more efficient runners and decrease the risk of injury. He relies on a method called Original Strength, which uses child-like movements like crawling to retrain your stiff and desk-bound body. "No one is winning $100,000 if they're injured," says Goldthorp. "You'll spend a lot of time on the floor, crawling and rolling around like a kid."
Speed, Speed, and More Speed Work
"Speed work is the number one thing most older runners neglect," says Smith. This is especially true of people who are relatively new to marathon running. They focus on the challenge of running the entire distance faster, instead of getting faster at shorter distances before focusing on the marathon. Smith says he'd give a middle-aged runner like Rossi a steady diet of speed work, including hill repeats (with a strong focus on form) and fartleks (30-second speed bursts throughout a run). "At that age, you need plenty of recovery time, too," Smith warns. Every hard workout should be followed by two or three easier days of running or cross training.
Be Borderline Unhealthy Skinny
The hard truth of peak marathon performance is that every excess pound slows you down. Goldthorp says the generally accepted formula states that with each pound of lost body weight (even muscle), you can gain two seconds per mile. Thus, losing 20 pounds, could put Rossi significantly closer to running that 3:11:45 marathon time. "A Body Mass Index of 18.5 is considered unhealthy, and a cause for concern," says Goldthorp. "But to run your absolute best marathon, you'd want to be somewhere around 19." Goldthorp advises anyone pursuing weight loss in search of peak athletic performance to hire an experienced sports nutritionist.
Get Race Ready
In the final weeks before the goal event, Smith says, "You're not going to get better, but you can still mess things up." Focusing on diet and sleep are crucial leading up to the race, as well as paying attention to little details, like routinely washing your hands to avoid getting sick.
In the final six weeks or so leading up to the big day, Goldthorp says weekly mileage would gradually dip to 50-percent of its peak total, but intensity and a focus on goal marathon pacing would stay in the program. "It's not 'tapering,'" says Goldthorp. "You're getting race ready."
As for the actual run, Smith says a client like Rossi would have practiced running negative splits, and breaking long runs up into manageable chunks, two key ways to avoid a late-race meltdown. "At this point, you've done the work, and you know how fast you can run," says Smith. "You should arrive at the start line with a lot confidence."
As for specific advice for the Viral Marathon Dad to run the race of his life within the next 12 months? Goldthorp and Smith agree: Hire a good coach.