Late last year, I was meandering around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, absorbing my new neighbourhood. As on most beautiful weekends, a street was closed and festivities were afoot. Gravitating towards the action, I was pleased to witness elated racers conquering the New York City Marathon.
I had to smile and cheer at every runner trickling in. The finishing times were likely quite bad by the time I started watching, but these heroes had nonetheless managed to slay Goliath.
And I thought to myself, “that must feel amazing.”
Back then, while I enjoyed walking around New York (perhaps the most walkable city on Earth), I was far from athletic: the only footwear I owned were dress shoes and loafers. Before committing myself, I wanted to learn what it takes to run a marathon.
Marathon knowledge is easiest to find in books, coaches, prevous marathon finishers, and the Internet. Naturally, I relied upon the cheapest and most accessible of those options.
Learning a new topic takes time: I find the brain can only learn so much about a topic without active participation. The only facts I completely absorbed were:
- I would need to train for six months;
- I would often be seriously tempted to give up; and
- Yes, I was able to do it.
I suppose that was all I needed to know: I bought a pair of shoes and started running.
Beginning Training; First Lessons
Enthusiasm is an athlete's greatest blessing and most dangerous curse. On my first day, as I did not know how far I was able to run, I decided to run until I dropped. Jogging very slowly, I ran around Central Park and then home: six and a half miles without pause.
Ah, how naïvely proud I was: I had just run a quarter of a marathon (26.2 miles, or 42km) on my first day of training, and I felt great! I triumphantly lopped the first two weeks off the training schedule I had found on the Internet, which had suggested I start with a paltry four miles until week three.
Not even one month into my training, I felt like my kneecaps would pop off each time I stood up, and I was unable to descend staircases without using handrails. I was forced to rest one entire week and I only ran twice on another week; and even after all that rest, I ran slowly and carefully, stoically enduring intense pain. While I could hit the six-mile mark, the achievement was not worth the pain.
I learned that the shoes I had bought (from a mainstream athletics store) were not right for me. I bought a new pair of shoes from a specialty store and my “runner's knee” gradually faded. I was struck by a mild bout of “shin splints” as I broke in my new shoes, but that pain only cost me three days' worth of training.
While my enthusiasm kept my goal in sight, it had cost me. Because I tried to bypass the first two weeks of easy but valuable training, I had to endure severe pain and sacrifice even more training time than I had skipped.
Marathon training consists of several “short runs” and one “long run” per week. At the time, I figured the reasons were psychological; now I realize they are part of a cycle of building and rebuilding one's system.
My short runs started at three or four miles of length and ended at six or seven. I started with three short runs per week; I ended with four. Each short run keeps the body in tune, reminding it to convert food to energy and to transport oxygen to the muscles as quickly as necessary. Short runs sessions are also an opportunity to practice speedwork (through short or long sprints), oxygen absorption capacity (by fast, distance running), and cross-training (usually biking or swimming), all of which stress the body in new and important ways; alas, through inconvenience and ignorance I missed most of my opportunities to practice these alternate activities as I focused strictly on ordinary running.
My long runs started at six miles and ended at just under twenty-one. These runs are crucial in increasing endurance: a very different aspect of training and one which is of vital importance during a marathon. Long runs stress bones and joints, with the aim of strengthening them; but most importantly, long runs teach the body and mind to work together. There are limits to both: the body can become injured, dehydrated, or completely devoid of easily-accessible energy (glycogen): all potential marathon emergencies. Meanwhile, focus is needed simply to keep going: a lapse in concentration could slow me down significantly or prevent me from watching the road, risking injury.
Long runs deplete the body's stored, easily-accessible energy (the glycogen in the muscles and liver): aside from the rest needed to repair the inevitable, minor muscle and bone damage caused by constant pounding of pavement, it can take days simply to regain the stores of energy expended during a long run. I spaced my two longest runs (both over twenty miles) only five days apart, instead of the standard six; after the second, I was so exhausted I feared I might collapse in Central Park before I could stagger home.
Training is a matter of cycles: tricky short runs interspersed with easy runs, long runs padded by short runs, intense weeks punctuated with restful weeks. Cycles test, heal, and focus the system, all while making each round of training a fresh experiment. The body becomes a machine, learning how to satisfy the mind's demands; the mind, on the other hand, learns how to challenge and care for the body..
This part of my marathon experience was fascinating and rewarding for me, and aside from my lack of speedwork and cross-training I feel I generally did a great job. Had I trained another two weeks, I could have learned which pace I should target during the marathon and how best to overcome my body's natural aversion to digesting while eating; instead, I decided to stay on schedule and learn the hard way.
Bones and joints suffer a constant beating; muscles develop micro-tears; energy stores are constantly depleted and replenished: training takes its toll, and none of these effects are helpful come marathon day. Luckily, the body retains most of the benefits of training for a month without exercise; so the two or three weeks before a marathon are best spent recuperating rather than intensifying training. At my peak, I was running 45 miles per week; yet in the final three weeks of training (with two abbreviated long runs), I probably only ran a total of 65 miles.
Because my runs were shorter, I started running mornings instead of evenings. This helped set my internal alarm clock for 5:00am, the time I would need to wake in Ottawa for the 7:00am starting horn. Of course, a healthy lifestyle is indispensible as the body is healing: my bedtime became 9:00pm, I cowered from friends' coughs and sniffles, I gave up all unhealthy foods, coffee, and alcohol, and I set my social life on pause. My abbreviated training and increased health left me ceaselessly energetic, such that my only desire was to run; but I followed the tapering discipline perfectly, with no regrets.
My training was a mixture between following experts' advice (with discernable benefit) and throwing it aside (to my detriment); marathon day itself, replete with energy and excitement, was no different. Though a thousand factors could finish me before I finished the race, I knew when I awoke from my (predictably) restless sleep at 5:00am that I was completely ready.
At the starting line, my fellow racers fell into two categories: past marathoners and new recruits. Experienced marathoners had one and only one piece of advice: all I should really concentrate on is finishing.
Both literally and figuratively, I was filled with more energy at the start of the race than I have ever felt before. Since I had never decided upon a pace and I knew most people run their marathons faster than training runs, I figured I would be relaxed and patient and see where that would take me.
I was relaxed, cheerful, and excited; I found myself effortlessly plodding along at a pace which would end the marathon in 3:45: faster than I had anticipated, but as I had never calculated my appropriate pace I figured I might be okay.
A general weakness I discovered during training was my difficulty with keeping down foods and fluids ingested while running. (Most people, even endurance athletes, have this exact problem.) During a marathon, water is absolutely necessary to avoid dehydration, and food or energy drinks are necessary to defer physical exhaustion: while training is indeed transformative, some bodily limits cannot be erased, and marathons surpass those limits. Something went wrong before the halfway point: due to my breakfast, the excessive heat and sunlight, the crowds and onlookers, my faster-than-usual pace, powdered Gatorade, or maybe just the excitement, I stopped at the side of the road and vomited.
One does not train for six months, feel fantastic, and then give up two hours later. I immediately forsook Gatorade in favour of water and the energy gels I had thoughtfully stuck in my pocket. I gradually waved goodbye to my 3:45 pipe dream, but overall I was doing surprisingly well.
Near the halfway mark one of my starting companions—another marathon virgin—ran up to me. I told my story and he told his: he was happily following a 3:50 pace. We ran together for a bit, but I knew I had started the race too fast and my only recourse was to let him forge ahead of me and, in the course of several minutes, disappear up ahead.
Resolve had replaced excitement, and the crowds of runners and onlookers had thinned to small groups and lone runners such as myself. The sun was high and ruthless, and the road, though mercifully flat and picturesque aside the Rideau Canal, was unnervingly unending. I happily heard whoops at the finish line across the canal as the winners accomplished their goals around 2:15; and I eventually fell into the deliberate, monotonous mindset I had gained during training: the frame of mind, I learned, I should have been holding all along.
I met another of my starting line companion, a veritable marathon expert who had run the Boston marathon two months earlier. (Merely qualifying for the Boston marathon is a stupendous achievement; running two marathons within two months of each other, by all accounts, borders on insane.) Her happy advice was to “just finish.” She reminded me that finishing was, after all, the only goal I had set for myself; and thus I learned from her that the first marathon is nothing more than another learning experience. I performed an in-flight inspection of my physiology and found I was in fantastic shape, with no sore muscles, joints, or bones; though my energy was draining, there was nothing to stop me from eventually reaching the finish line. My companion and I drifted apart; and I turned my mind to sticking one foot in front of another.
I had reached the three-quarters mark in under three hours, but I knew a four-hour finish was unattainable. During a marathon, most of an athlete's energy comes from the glycogen stored in the muscles and liver; around this point in the race, the body has consumed its maximum glycogen capacity. By eating energy gels and drinking energy drinks along the way, some of this energy should be replaced; in my case, depressingly, several hundred calories were lying in a pool of vomit ten miles away. I was now extremely careful about eating and drinking, so there was no way for me to ingest significant amounts of energy. My body's only option was to start burning fat: a much slower process, and one which cannot sustain a running pace. I had hit “the wall.”
I had hit the wall during my final long runs, and I knew what to expect. I simply had to slow my pace: as my last droplets of glycogen disappeared, I slowed by 30%, stopping to walk two or three times per mile. This section of the course was rather uninteresting, so I whiled the time away by trying to calculate and recalculate my expected final pace. My brain was playing tricks on me, but three times I calculated I could hit 4:15 and only once did I calculate 4:30, so I figured I had a shot at 4:15. (An exhausted runner's mind is rather comical.)
My pace was slow and steady: I suppose I had “beaten” the wall, in that I had adjusted to my body's limitations and had mentally and physically reduced the damage to my final time. Though all my training math had been in miles, I was extremely happy that the race was demarcated in kilometres: each marker was a source of motivation, and the smaller distances helped me keep a more accurate pace.
In Ottawa, I learned, the half-marathon starts two hours later than the marathon, and both groups of runners run the same final stretch to the finish line. We few, proud marathoners found our paths were criss-crossed with those of countless cheerful, 2:15 half-marathoners. I was bitter about weaving through crowds to get water at refueling stations and having to check my blind spots before taking walking breaks; but I was also happy to have so many people running alongside me.
About a mile from the end, the 4:15 “pace bunny” (well-marked volunteer running at a set pace) passed me: the final stretch of my mind game had begun. I ran up to him and made sure he noticed me and thereby motivated me; and even though my pace had been slower, I put mind above matter and pushed my limit. Finally, there were signposts at every hundred metres and the road dipped into a sea of ecstatic spectators, clappers, thunder sticks, whistles, smiles, and cheers: energy entered from all sides as I passed the pace bunny, my family, my friends, and, finally, with my arms and smile aimed heavenwards, the glorious finish line.
I had finished in 4:14.
My first thought was, “this feels amazing.”
And my second thought was, “I bet a second marathon feels amazing, too.”