Embracing the taper, Sarah Pagano is ready for her marathon debut in Chicago at age 30

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2021 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(06-Oct) — For two months this summer Sarah Pagano has been grinding out the miles in the thin air and abundant sunshine of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., preparing for her marathon debut at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday.  Pagano, who turned 30 in July, did consistent 110-mile weeks during the six-week core of her training.  She soaked up the miles –and the calories– as her body adapted to the highest workload of her career since turning pro out of Syracuse University in 2014.

“I was always hungry,” Pagano told Race Results Weekly with a laugh in a telephone interview yesterday.  “So I was definitely eating a lot.  Usually, I would have one snack in the afternoon, then I was like, I’m going to have multiple snacks.  Altitude always makes me a little bit more hungry, anyway.”

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But last Saturday, Pagano returned to her San Diego home where she regularly trains with the Golden Coast Track Club under coach Terrence Mahon.  The sea-level air, rich with oxygen, combined with lower mileage and less intense workouts gave the adidas-sponsored athlete a jolt of strength and a feeling of well-being.  While some athletes find the final training taper maddening –feeling energetic and strong for weeks yet not able to race yet– Pagano is savoring it.

“Everyone talks about going crazy and stuff,” Pagano said.  “Honestly, I’ve been enjoying the less mileage.  I kind of had a feeling I wouldn’t mind the taper.  It’s been kind of nice.  I definitely have a lot more energy, and it’s kind of cool to see how, you know, everybody talks about it, then to feel it for yourself.  It’s kind of cool.”

Before beginning her taper, Pagano went to the Philadelphia Distance Run on September 19 to run a controlled half-marathon on tired legs.  Coming right off of a high-mileage week, she ran a little faster than her goal marathon pace, finishing fifth in 1:12:35. It was challenging for her to push aside her competitive instincts, hold a steady tempo, and not race all-out.

“I did that as a controlled effort, but faster than my goal marathon pace,” Pagano explained.  “It was a little bit weird for me to let the pack of top ladies go just knowing that that was my plan, just to get in a hard effort around 5:30-ish pace, which I did.  In the moment, in the first mile, I was like, oh jeez.  It was hard for me.  It was good practice to kind of like click off an even pace, just do my thing.”

Pagano, who has a half-marathon best of 1:09:41, had considered moving up to the marathon in 2020, but the pandemic made planning for a race impossible.  Besides, she was still trying to get the most out of herself on the track and had already qualified for the USA Olympic Team Trials in the 10,000m.  In earlier years she had enjoyed success on the oval, finishing fifth at the USATF Championships at 10,000m in 2018 and sixth in 2019.  She has a personal best of 31:51.66 set in May, 2019.

But as the pandemic wore on, the track became less fun, and she began to feel the pull of the roads.

“Track hasn’t been going great for me the last couple of years,” she admitted.  “It hasn’t been going great, but I just think I’ve been gravitating more to the longer stuff.  I did a half earlier this year (last January in Las Vegas where she set her personal best) that I really enjoyed training for.  Just getting to run on the roads again I think was really fun for me, and that excited me more than anything.  So the marathon, I’m ready for it.  Let’s just say that.”

In preparing for last summer’s Trials, Pagano ran two middling 5000m races in May (15:40.83 and 15:33.48), but the Trials in June went poorly.  On a freakishly hot morning in Eugene, she finished an unthinkable 33rd in 33:39.98.  She is still not sure what happened.

“I don’t know,” she said after a long exhale.  “Truthfully, things weren’t clicking for me in races on the track for a while.  It wasn’t like I had these great performances, then that one was out of the blue.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.  I wish I knew… I don’t know.  I was obviously fitter than that.  I would say that about most of my track races this year.  There was a lot of disappointment.”

Pagano and Mahon chose Chicago because they wanted a flat course for her first marathon that would allow her to run at a steady tempo and likely work with a group of similar athletes.  She wants to focus more on competing against the distance and less on the women around her.  Sunday’s race will allow her to learn what the distance feels like at about a 5:35 per mile pace.

“I think for my first one we wanted something that was more flat and just something that I could train for the 26.2 for the first time without a lot of other factors in there,” she said.  “I wanted to do one in The States, so Chicago made sense to me.  It was kind of what my gut was telling me, so I went with that.”

Although Pagano is running Chicago, she’ll also be at the Boston Marathon the following day.  Her fiancé, Reid Buchanan, will be running his second marathon after his 2:11:38 debut at The Marathon Project in Arizona last December.  While the couple didn’t train together for this weekend’s races, going through marathon training at the same time added a new experience to their relationship.

“I’ll be flying straight from Chicago to go watch him,” Pagano said. “We’re excited.  It was fun to have like –obviously we’re not training together– but, like, doing a build-up together.  It was fun just in general.”

The couple plan to get married in November, 2022.

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