Lessons from a first time marathoner
The Washington DC Rock and Roll marathon was my first marathon, and hopefully not my last. I ended up finishing in a hair under 4 hours. Here are some of my thoughts on my physically taxing and emotional journey that I hope will appeal to those who are interested in picking up running or those who have run in the past, but are thinking about taking the plunge and signing up for a big race.
The hardest part of marathon training is signing up, once I took the plunge, the rest became easy (relatively), because I couldn't just back out, right? No, obviously not. Also, I signed up with a friend, which was perfect, because if you can share the misery, why not? Better yet, if you are a compulsively competitive person like myself, the run becomes more than just a competition with oneself.
Doing a spring marathon while living in the North East is a bad idea. Why? Because this means that the bulk of my training needed to happen in the dead of winter. This means that I literally ran all of my long runs in straight up blizzards. Had I thought this through ahead of time, I would have elected for an autumn race rather than a spring race.
I learned about the importance of myofacial release (foam rolling) and now I swear by it for injury prevention. I use the trigger point foam roller, but you can use any kind. Think of foam rolling as a way to massage your muscles and stretch your connective tissues by rolling around on a cylindrical object. It works as an exaggerated combination of stretching and massage at the same time and will make you more flexible, recover quicker, and faster on your runs.
Adequate nutrition is essential. After long runs, I sat down and stuffed my face with 3000 calories in a single sitting and still managed to lose weight as i continued to train. Don’t fall into the trap of not fueling your body enough to compensate for all of the training. Also, don’t forgot the pre-race nutrition - there’s a lot written about the ideal way to do this, but the important thing is to make sure you stockpile enough nutrients for your body to use during the race.
I trained using the following formula: 1 tempo run, 1 sprints workout, and 1 long run, each week. The way that I calculated the distance of the long runs was by taking the total marathon (26.2 miles) and subtracting three miles to get 23 miles - this was my longest run 2 weeks before race day, and each week was two miles less, all the way down to about 8 miles. Tempo runs and sprints workouts are defined by the level of exertion that they require, and thus the distance covered. The tempo run is a fast run done at ~80% of max heart rate and would vary between 4 and 8 miles. Sprints workouts are exactly as they sound, painful and at 100% effort, but usually 200-800 meter splits with rest in between.
The weather makes an incredible difference. On race day, it was 40 F and raining, not hot enough that the rain was refreshing, and also not cold enough that it was snowing, so overall I found the weather to be pretty miserable. This goes back to choosing the season of the race carefully.
On race day, I went out strong following the 3:45 pace group for more than half of it, and then I slowed down as I started to get tired and as I hit hills, which leads me to my next point. The learning point here is to have a pacesetter and try to stick with it, it will help keep you motivated and will help you from burning out too early or leaving too much in the tank at the end.
Most of my training was on mild hills, but around mile 22, I hit a huge incline on race day, which more than being physically difficult, was demoralizing. I knew that this would make or break me, whether I would keep running (read trotting) or if I would start walking. I kept running because I was convinced that my friend would make a come back and beat me. It’s always good to have a healthy amount of fear of losing at all times. Alternatively, it is a good idea to vary your training and incorporate hill work because you never know what hill you will encounter, and when.
The feeling that I got when I hit the finish line of accomplishing something that I set out to do was amazing and something that by itself made it worth it. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Most likely. Hopefully, for my next race, I would have incorporated my list of “lessons from a first time marathoner”. Good luck! May your runs be long and your times be short!