My First Marathon: What I Learned
I recently completed my first Marathon this past weekend. This being a sizeable accomplishment for me, I wanted to share how I prepared, my thoughts on the experience and what I would do differently next time.
You’ll find that intentional living is sprinkled all throughout my marathon experience. Whether it be the lack thereof that lead to a few missteps or the embodiment that facilitated the accomplishment, intentional living surely impacted the overall results.
Preparation begins internally, and I had a lot of mental baggage surrounding the idea of long-distance running.
After being hospitalized my senior year XC season, I had developed trepidations about my abilities as a runner. I felt capped, limited by what by the results my body had given me. At the time I swore that distance running would never be my forte.
So, the first step was to regain confidence as a runner.
I chose to run the Charlottesville Marathon in Charlottesville, Virginia on April 6th at the beginning of the year, so that gave me about 4 months to train. I chose this race because it best fit the time I had in mind for sufficient training.
My informal training began in the years prior. I ran just a little every day to cultivate a running habit, but I still only extended distance haphazardly. For about 2 years I ran 1 mile every day. I only recently ramped up the mileage this year using the following training schedule.
I was to average about 25 miles per and gradually increase to over 30 until the final 2 weeks.
The weekly training schedule was as followed:
Monday: Consisted of interval-based training modules on the hill or track focused on speed.
Tuesday: Maintenance run. A day focused on recovery while taking into considering the mileage count for the week.
Wednesday: Tempo run at slightly faster than race pace (race pace being 8:25 min/mile).
Thursday: Cross Training or rest based on the mileage count for the week and my given psychological fitness. Cross training was comprised of insanity workout videos, swimming, and general cross-fit aerobic activities.
Friday: Maintenance run. To prepare for the up and coming long distance run and make up the difference between my mileage quota and actual miles ran.
Saturday: The Long run. Mostly run on a local trail that spans approximately 11 miles in length. The longer runs increased in length as training developed, moving from 9 to over 18 miles at close to race pace.
As mentioned before, I had a consistent running history so it wasn’t unorthodox to run such a schedule. In fact, this schedule meant I would actually be running less frequently—but more rigorously of course.
My training plan was foolproof, and as long as I kept to it I should theoretically be more than prepared for my race. But things do not always go according to plans, so I hit some roadblocks during my training I had overlooked:
With the snow cover blocking most of the comfortable outside routes, my training schedule became patchy. I switched gears and began to focus on longer runs that emulated my race pace. Since I could not get out on the trail as often, these runs were settled in between larger rest periods—probably larger than necessary.
Since we opted to take the commute the same day, we left at 2:30 AM to make the 5:45 AM check-in time.
Having arrived and checked in, I found a bathroom and did a light warm-up jog and stretch before the race.
With a goal of under 4 hours in mind, I opted to position myself near the 3:45 pace group. It was a pace that I knew would be a reasonable pace push for the rigor of the course, but well worth it after the first 13.1 miles.
Around mile two I found a lovely running partner who accompanied me for the next 17 or so miles at an 8:25-35 mile pace.
But complications arose.
Around the 18th mile marker, I had mistakenly followed a group of runner who all were running off the course guidelines. We had blindly followed one another thinking the one in front of us knew the direction we all ought to be going. Luckily the leader of the pack was a native to the city and had a GPS tracker watch, so he was able to not only put us back on the course but ensure that we all had run the appropriate mileage to still be on track to finish our marathon on pace thanks again mystery runner!
Around mile 23 things got hard.
My body had enough. My right quad grew tight, and I could no longer tolerate the pain so I opted to pause and stretch at the next hydration station.
Though soon enough the 3:45 pacer was passing me. So I stubbornly cut my stretch short to keep with the pacer. Picking up my pace dramatically, I immediately tighten up and another stop as I watched the pacer leave my sight.
At this point with the end of the race in sight, I changed up my breathing pattern and gave everything I had left to the end of the race finishing at 3:50:30.
I had succeeded in hitting in my goal time of under 4 hours.
What I did well
Running with a pace group
Choosing to run with a pace group created a sense of comfort and accountability. Which I found indispensably valuable during my race. Seeing others running my pace allowed me to focus more on how my body was feeling, and less on how far I have left or how fast I was going. In my experience, a comfortable pace for the first half of the race ought to be one that you can have a conversation with those around you.
Long runs during training
While much of my training fluxed as the winter season created obstacles for proper running conditions, I never failed to incorporate the long run into the week. I believe that being diligent about running longer miles greatly influenced my confidence and endurance. For example, after running my first 18 miles I had a better idea experientially what longer distance felt like. This made it possible to strategize the mental aspect of the race. If I know what my body feels like when patience runs thins, I can create mental heuristics, or mantras to help mitigate the adverse effects of the bodily exhaustion.
Not using any headphones
With the race weaving in and out of city districts and suburbia, this race required that runners not use headphone to hear traffic officials. While I had some reservations about this initially, it was a blessing in disguise.
I consistently framed running without podcasts as a waste of my time. If I was investing time into exercise it seemed only natural that I could boost the benefits obtained if I also listened to something motivational or educational. But I was hiding my introspective experience from myself to potentially drudge through increased mileage.
So instead I reframed distance running without headphones as I opportunity to refocus myself. If I somehow lacked the desire or attention to run longer distances without additional stimulation, then I was cultivating the wrong type of awareness through my intentions.
Not only this change how I approached longer runs, but it also forced me to focus more on my body during my runs.
What I would change for next time
Training for this particular race
Ultramarathon athlete Zach Bitter introduced me to the idea of context-specific training. If I was running a race in the forest, it would not make sense to only do track workouts. Considering this is was not a good idea to schedule all of my longest runs on a low variation elevation trail when my race was a quite diverse set of elevations throughout a cityscape. Thinking modularly, working my leg muscles did not mean make them suited for all terrains the leg muscles may endure. I worked my trail distance muscles, and not my pavement hills muscles.
Ultimately I did run the wrong way I one point. I am my not faulting anyone but myself for this mistake. My real fault in attention was not going the wrong way, it was giving my attention to the wrong things AFTER I made the mistake.
Here’s why: I distinctly remember how I felt when I was running towards the unknown; I felt like a loser. And it was this mental battle I created within myself that I contribute to the difficulties I experienced in the latter half of my race. I had used so much energy to motivate myself to keep going even if I was not going to finish my first marathon that when the situation resolved itself I had lost the confidence that I had in the first half of the race that was self-perpetuating my pace.
Stop if you need it
I ran myself into a Charlie horse and I trepidatiously hydrated all because of my desire to literally RUN a marathon. I pridefully defended myself the use of bathrooms and stretching breaks because of the ideas I had about what my marathon experience was supposed to be—I was supposed to run straight through. So instead I lost mental energy and time by having to fight the bathroom urges and hobble my running speed as I shook off the tightness in my legs.
Mentally this race proved to be a worthy opponent that highlighted phenomenologically how important ‘keeping my cool’ is to the quality of performance. Using fear, my implicit psychology guarded myself against permitting my body to reach states that could actualize the mentality that is required to run beyond my perceived capabilities.
I have overcome this, and the marathon externally exemplifies the internal work I have done to get this far in my running career. I hope to keep growing as a runner, it is my reminder that the world may overtime developmentally build up mental barriers from my experience that in turn feedback into my mindset. But the huge difference now is that I can in-turn take responsibility for the mind with which I create my world.
The overall sentiment of the race was that it was a fairly challenging course. I look forward to my next opportunity to run a marathon as I am sure this was the hilliest 26.2 miles of my life.