Photo by Clay Shaw.
RUN717 Athlete Story: Jay McMillan
For life-long runner Jay McMillan, the answer is “for as long as it takes.” And in his case, it was three years. Jay ran his first marathon at age 41. Since then, he’s shaved 37 minutes off of his marathon personal best, currently a 2:57. He’s out to prove to people that anything is possible.
“A lot of people think they have limits because of their age,” Jay said. “I want to show people that you can get faster as you age. I’m 49 and running better than when I was in high school.”
A Return to Running, and the Marathon
Though Jay ran in High School, he didn’t run again as an adult until a former cross country teammate challenged him to a half marathon in 2012. Jay described the experience as “miserable for both of us.” Yet, at breakfast after the race, the duo agreed to run a marathon the next year–the 2013 Harrisburg Marathon.
During their training for Harrisburg, the duo didn’t have a formal plan. Instead, they logged miles and weekly long runs and made it to race day, expecting to finish within their Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3 hours and 15 minutes. After one mile with the pace group, the two took off and ran their own pace until mile 16 or 17. Then, the wheels came off. Jay walked much of the last 10 miles.
After some time and a little friendly heckling via Facebook from several former High School cross country teammates, Jay decided to give the marathon another go. In 2017, Jay ran the Rehobeth Beach Seashore Marathon in 3:15. A time good enough to qualify him for the 2018 Boston Marathon. He could now check that goal off of his list. But, immediately, another loftier goal took its place. Sub-3 hours. This time, he recruited some help.
Working Towards His Marathon Goal
Jay became a RUN717 athlete shortly after his run at Boston 2018. Which is to say, around the time he began eyeing a sub-3 hour marathon attempt.
“The first thing Brenda did when she coached me, she told me I had to slow down,” Jay said. “She even gave me an ultimatum if I didn’t slow down. At first, I was frustrated. But after a couple of weeks, I felt better.”
Over the next two years, Jay attempted a sub-3 hour finish at three marathons, missing the mark at each one. “Every time I would try for a sub-3, I would feel confident, over-run the first half, and blow up,” Jay recalled. “Marathoning is a once-and-done risk–I don’t get a chance for a do-over for another 6 or 12 months. Each time I failed, I felt like crap for weeks. The marathon was a mental struggle.”
After a third attempted sub-3 at the 2021 Boston Marathon–held in September instead of its usual timing in April–Jay was crushed. The Boston Marathon course had vexed him for several years, and the warm day did him in again. He crossed the finish line in just over 3 hours, good enough to re-qualify for Boston in 2022, but not fast enough for his personal marathon goal.
Fully prepared to sulk off his failed attempt, he ignored a message from a running friend inviting him to join his group of Philadelphia Marathon-bound runners and try again. After a conversation with Coach Brenda and a few good runs, Jay changed his mind two weeks later. Five weeks after running Boston Marathon, he would toe the line in Philadelphia. Jay agreed to join his friends at 3-hour-pace until mile 20. He would decide then if he would drop out or finish the race.
A Surprise Marathon Attempt in Philadelphia
From the first mile, Philly felt different for Jay. “The pressure to qualify for Boston was off. I was running just to see what he could do,” he explained.
Jay had a pace list on his wrist, giving him mile splits specifically to finishing the Philadelphia Marathon in 3-hours. The group agreed to follow it until mile 20, after which everyone was on their own. Unfortunately, that plan disintegrated in the first mile. As their watched clicked through the miles, the trio–running ahead of their intended goa–tried to slow back to their calculated pace. But their paces kept steady as the trio of friends laughed together and enjoyed themselves.
When the group hit mile 20–the agreed-upon “every man for himself” point, Jay’s two friends took off to finish their own races. Now running alone, Jay’s mind began to get the better of him. He didn’t think he could keep his pace through to the finish. He does the math in his head–he needs a 7:10 average mile pace to stay under 3 hours. His watch clicks to the next mile–6:43. Beep, another mile–6:28. Every final mile was sub 6:50 pace, on track for a 3-hour marathon.
One mile from the finish, Jay suffered an asthma attack. Gasping for breath, Jay saw his wife and daughter in the crowd, both cheering for him and running with him from the sidewalk. Jay motioned to his face, trying to explain his discomfort. Finally, coach Brenda’s voice cut through the noise of the spectators; “lift your head,” she shouted. He listened, and moments later, Jay crossed the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon at 2 hours 57 minutes and 43 seconds.
Lessons Learned In Training for A Marathon
“I tend to run better when I’m helping someone else,” said Jay. “That’s why Philly helped me; I was there to help these other two guys with their race.” Jay enjoys joining someone’s workout–someone who is just a little bit faster than he is–to help them pace and push himself in the process.” Learning this about Jay, Brenda helped him modify his training schedule to fit in the runs he did during someone else’s workout.
Similarly, Jay credits finding other people to run with as essential for his marathon training. “If you can find someone, or a few people, willing to spend two to three hours with you while you’re running, it makes it a lot easier,” Jay explains. “My friend Tami doesn’t run, but she would show up on her bike and ride alongside me for 3 hours. It helps keep my mind occupied and forget about the negative voices in my head.”
Jay also learned two other simple rules to improving endurance and staving off injury: strength training and slowing down. “Those two things were the hardest for me to accept, but they’ve helped me the most,” admits Jay. “For three years, I’ve been getting faster. My 5k time now very close to what it was in high school.”
If you have a marathon goal you want to achieve, RUN717 Coaching can help. Our customized training plans and athlete-centered coaching will help you train smart and run fast. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help you achieve your marathon goal.