I recently ran my first marathon – and I write ‘first’ because it certainly won’t be my last! As marathoners have a stereo-typed habit of going on a bit (and I’m aware that I have bored others when talking about my training), I’ve decided I’m going to say this only once, unless people specifically ask.
This post is in two halves. The first is about the marathon experience itself, while the second is life lessons from marathoning.
1. You meet all sorts of inspiring people. And I don’t mean rhinos, superwoman or scoobydoo – I mean the everyday runners. Like the ones (like myself) just wanting to do a marathon, or the one doing his twelfth, but the first since being given the all-clear by his cardiologist. It’s worth involving yourself in conversations to see where it takes you! Best quip: pointing at the elites on their return leg, someone said “that’ll be us someday!” to which one wag replied “no way. I like my booze too much.”
2. No matter how much prep you do, it can go awry easily. I had a 3 page document detailing carb-loading, mantras, expected challenges, nutrition plan, packing list for the night before, even transport to/from start and finish. On the day, my transport to the start changed last minute because my train was cancelled. My nutrition plan went out the window because my gels and water were sloshing around in a way that didn’t happen in training. The challenges were not all what I expected. I expected this, to some extent, as a season marathoner had told me “I’m sorry to say but there’s no real preparation for running a marathon, other than running a marathon.” Next time will be easier. har-har.
3. Running 8 miles with cramp in both calves is the hardest thing I’ve done physically. It seems they were asking why the flip I was doing this.
4. Three strategies for combating cramp.
i – run/walk scientifically. One man was doing a ratio of 100/50 steps; another was doing it by time.
ii – run/walk non-scientifically. My strategy as it made me feel that it kept the walking to a minimum. I reckon I walked only about a mile and a half (5.7% of the whole thing).
iii – try and stretch it off by the side. When I finally tried this strategy (mile 23.8), I lifted my right leg up to the curb, at which point the cramp in my right calf froze it in place while my left knee buckled – and I couldn’t move. I hoped that a marshal would come to my aid, but feared that if they did it might be my race over!
5. Sports massage afterwards, thanks to SAMH! Nearly as painful as the run but SO WORTH IT!
6. There’s a reason blokes cover their nipples with plasters, not compede.
7. A there and back route is a little frustrating. But it did mean being able to watch the elites, if briefly. And even they appreciated the cheers from us slow-coaches, as evidenced by their smiles!
8. However. By the same token seeing and in one case hearing the pain of nearly elites when they had 6 miles to go was vastly discouraging.
9. “Training is harder than race day.” NOPE. Mental challenges include: keeping it slow, keeping it smooth, keeping relaxed, keeping on going when you realise, at mile 18, that your cramp is going nowhere. Physical challenges include: not being able to drive down with your feet because you can’t actually lift your legs, holding your torso upright so you can breathe right toward the end; breathing properly while being oppressed by the heat. The unknown unknowns were terrifying. I had no idea what was going to happen after 3 hours. Would my head go swimmy? Would my ankles and knees just give up? None of that happened, but I didn’t expect cramp, and that cramp to occasionally turn into twitching, some of it quite terrifying as I thought it was going to make me collapse!
10. “Training is harder than race day.” YUP. If you train by yourself and rely on some very useful subscriptions, there’s a lot of work and planning you need to do (you can get some logistics managed for you by a personal coach). And the logistical challenges of fitting the runs in was nightmarish. One of the most important questions on our household Sunday night calender session was “what runs does Ewan need to do, and when?” Also, if you run solo, you don’t have…
11. Other people! Race day crowds are ace! Dancing, singing, high fives, sprinklers and water guns, African dance tropes, jazz quartets, signs – “blisters are temporary, pride is forever”; “toenails are so last year” and my new mantra “if Trump can run, so can you!”
12. Tight shorts. No chaffing. Not a bit.
13. The pride of running a marathon. Yes, I ran a marathon, but it’s sort of marred by that darned 5.7%. That said, I am experiencing the ‘wow’ factor from others who are simply amazed. but I know I could do better! Even at mile 24 I was not thinking “never again” but “when?”
13.1. PR’ing on your half marathon time = great. But not advisable during your marathon when you have to run that distance all over again…
Life lessons from the marathon.
14. Go slow. No, slower. It might hurt, but keep it slow. I did go slow during the first half (honestly!) but I should have gone so much slower! We rush so much in our daily lives, we are scarcely aware of what we are doing. Going slow in the first half, I realise now, meant forcing myself with every ounce of strength I had, to go even slower! Next time I will do this. It will will hurt in the short-term, but overall I will enjoy the journey to the finish better. So often we are thinking of getting to the destination, but not really thinking about the individual moments.
15. Mental strength isn’t everything. There’s a lot of stuff on the web about how much a marathon run is mental. Yes, if I were mentally stronger I may have nailed my pacing in the first half and ran through the cramp and the crippling heat and come up with a better time. But you know what? It doesn’t matter – I still got to the finish line! Sometimes we place too much pressure on ourselves to be mentally well all the time, when that just doesn’t happen.
16. Therefore, sometimes you just have to keep moving. There wasn’t much point in dwelling on my cramp, which was with me for the last 8 miles. After two miles of trying to figure out how to shake it loose, I realised the better question was “how am I going to run despite it?” The answer: just keep moving. This is true about depression, too, or any low mood.
17. You can deal with the unexpected. I wish I knew how I made it through the heat between miles 20 and 26.2, other than adapting my pace, and accepting that sometimes walking was what was needed. I expected it to be hot, just – not that hot.
18. Cheering strangers on is an incredible thing to do. There is nothing quite like a fellow marathoner encouraging you on; you know that you are both going through similar pains. How true is that of the rest of us, during our normal day-to-day life?
19. You have more supporters than you think you do. I was really amazed at how much people donated to SAMH. I was delighted with the ‘good luck’ card and bottles of lucozade my immediate colleagues got me before the race! And the amount of likes on my finishing Facebook post… Don’t forget how much people do actually care, even if you don’t feel like they do!
20. If you don’t try, you won’t know. We think we know when really, we don’t. I am susceptible to this. I predict the future, how people will react. Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether I could make the start, let alone the finish; I got to the sign up page at least four times before finally biting the bullet. But I finally did so after I texted my wife saying “at the sign up page again. Can I do this?” and she replied “you’ll make it happen.”
21. Success is made in small steps. It is important to not dwell on the really long term. None of us can see the future. When I started couch to 5K I thought “I’m not going to make it to the end of this run.” When training for the marathon I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. There were encouragements – when I hit 15 miles, when I hit 20 miles (10 one day, 10 the next) at estimated marathon pace, but overall… no. Looking back at my race day splits, I shaved 44 seconds of my half marathon time. GREAT (if I was stopping there!)
I am more active that I was five years ago – in life in general. This could be because running has increased dopamine levels, but I really think it’s just because my mind is more active because I’m running more; I’m thinking more. But it’s been a long road. Some of my goals when I was low included “make the bed” and “do the dishes”. Now, I have aspirations greater than that. Cutting my marathon time down, perhaps? running an event in another country? Maybe. How about doing another half marathon first, eh? I have non-running goals, too!
22. When it gets tough, just do it anyway. Yes, sheer grit did make a difference in the latter parts of the race, and in training: “well, I know I need to…”
22. But be prepared to change your plan. Training taught me how to be adaptable to my body. Oh great, groin injury – time to do light jogging, not that stair session. Oh brilliant, a very necessary trip to minor injuries – will I recover in time?
23. Having an achievement, no matter how small, can change your outlook for the day.
I definitely won’t forget sitting on the stairs doing my laces up at 7am on a Saturday (having waved my wife off to work) and having a massive ‘bleurgh’ moment. It took me a while, but somehow I got myself out the door, a straight trajectory from where I was sitting.Yes, it took about 20 minutes to stand up and walk two metres to the front door. Whether I nailed the workout is immaterial. The fact that I got out there was accomplishment enough, and that served as encouragement to me for all I had to do that day.
24. Run your own race. Out of 6568 runners I came (drumroll not necessary) 6208. Which makes me think of sports days where I would invariably come in last, or second last, to my embarrassment (every time). But now, I really couldn’t care less. We compare ourselves to others too much. Some healthy comparisons are fine; we can and should be inspired by others better than ourselves, and we can be motivated to improve. But at the end of the day, would I have felt any better if I had snuck in below the 6200 mark?
25. Don’t do it alone. I signed up to some really useful blogs and sites. This was incredibly helpful, but I now realise that if I had got a personal trainer, either in person or on-line, and a personal training plan, I could have done so much better. So much like in real life.
26. Climb your mountain, whatever your mountain is. This point comes from Dick Beardsley. OK, I’ll never be as fast as him. But his recounting of his 1982 Boston Marathon on a Runner’s Connect interview got me through a whole lot more than just the training and race day.
26.2. Take a moment to consider where you are. You might just enjoy it. I enjoyed the vast majority of the marathon, a far cry from the vehement hatred I had of school cross country.