I Ran A Marathon. This Is What I Learnt.
Two days ago I ran my first marathon. I’m writing this with my feet up, a bit of soreness in my knees and well aware of how much I don’t know. But, if you’re thinking of taking on the challenge of your first 10km, half or full marathon, here is a little bit of what I’ve learned in the process over the last few months.
Acknowledge the journey that got you to this point
It’s unlikely, actually impossible, that a marathon is just something you pick up and do. For me, the decision to start running was an attempt to add some discipline and routine into my life. I’ve been moving back and forward between Italy and Australia a bit over the past few years, and each time there are adjustments and changes to make. I figured if there was something that could tide me over, something constant, it would make the integration back into life on whichever continent a little smoother. And there were no excuses – all I needed was a pair of trainers. I also felt, after making a transition from a city-based corporate life to freelancing and teaching yoga, that I needed a serious, scary challenge to get me fired up. Whatever your reason, recognise it.
For me, the decision to start running was an attempt to add some discipline and routine into my life.
Decide on a race and a training plan
There is a plethora of information online about how to train for every distance and in every timeframe. I had a reasonable baseline of fitness, even though I hadn’t run for about six months before I really kicked off my training. I hit Google, typed in ‘marathon training 12-week plan’ and read all the various advice, before writing out a plan that included a variety of running, strength training, stretching and resting for every single day until the marathon. At that stage, it seemed like a pipe dream: I hadn’t registered, and as I wrote down distances like 20km or 25km as part of the plan I almost laughed at myself. But I knew it was critical to have a plan in place or I’d never get there.
The training takes a really, really long time and you need to take care of yourself
It may seem obvious, but training, and resting, chews up a lot of time. Even if you regularly hit the gym or group fitness classes, you will notice the difference, especially as you start to clock up big distances. You will be focusing on rest and nutrition as well as the training itself, which takes hours each week. The first time I ran 32km, I got home, showered, ate, laid down for half an hour and iced my knees and voila! The day was nearly over. Add to this the fact you need to really focus on getting good sleep and may be drinking less, and you might find your social life takes a hit too. With a background in yoga and pilates (I teach both), I was able to easily incorporate recovery after my runs and on my non-running days of the week, but if you don’t feel confident doing it yourself, sign up for a solid stretch, yoga or pilates class or make an appointment with a physio to get some advice.
You don’t necessarily need new gear and you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars
You will need to fork out a little big of money: for your registration and travel and accommodation if the race isn’t in your home city. In Italy, there is also a compulsory medical certificate and membership of an athletics group or the national federation to consider. But don’t think you need to get super technical with all your gear. I didn’t buy special socks. I teach barre too, so I trained and ran the marathon in my good old non-slip socks. I didn’t use gels or fancy sports drinks: instead I carried lollies in a small plastic bag inside my sports bra, and drank water wherever I could find public fountains during my training. A peanut butter sandwich (or in my case, a panino and handful of nuts) is as good, if not better, than expensive proteins and nutrition bars. If you want to measure your runs so you can work out your speed over time, hit up geodistance.com. Don’t get carried away with the hype. A good sports bra and shoes are the two essentials. The rest you can work out as you go.
But you probably do need new shoes
Spend time working out what the best shoe for you will be. It’s going to be a personal preference, and dependent on the marathon you choose to do. Pre-marathon training, I had been running in trail shoes, and even though they’re a little bit heavier than regular running shoes, I knew they suited my feet and that they had good padding where my foot strikes the ground (where I have some arthritis). I suspected that even over long distances, they wouldn’t give me blisters. I’d also read complaints from runners getting sore from the cobblestoned streets of Rome, so figured the extra support would be worth dragging a slightly heavier shoe around 42km. It worked well. Read about your race, work out what the surface is like, do some research, and head to a good sports shop where they can assess your walk (whether you pronate or supinate) and try a few pairs until you find the right fit. It’s always a good idea to have a spare pair too (even if they are exactly the same) to swap in and out during training and in case one falls apart or your shoelace breaks or some other catastrophe strikes on race day.
You can’t fake your way through any part of it
Part of what I have come to love about running is that it requires honestly. And to get rid of your ego. You have to start where you are. One foot in front of the other. And just. Keep. Going. I’m good at sprinting and rushing through stuff. You can’t do that with a marathon. For me it was an excellent lesson in planning, patience, persistence, and ultimately, achieving something I once viewed as scary, impossible, and ‘definitely not for me’. It made me slow down, be realistic about training, rest and recovery, and ultimately mindful and proud of my sustained progress.
For me it was an excellent lesson in planning, patience, persistence, and ultimately, achieving something I once viewed as scary, impossible, and ‘definitely not for me’.
You might find yourself doing some weird stuff and getting a little superstitious or obsessive
Three weeks out from the marathon, I wrote a list of everything I would need to pack. That included safety pins, bandaids and tape in case I got blisters, the exact same brand of lollies that I’d been using for any of my runs longer than 18km, the same leggings, hat…you get the drift. Rain was forecast, so I made every possible contingency, packing waterproof covers and a jumper I could throw away once I was warm, a few kilometres in. But I really took it to the next level when I insisted on buying the same bread from the bakery next door that I’d been having for breakfast before my training sessions at home, as well as the same jam, to take to Rome with me. Part of it is psychological, for sure: a sense of comfort in creating habits and routine, but part of it is common sense too. You don’t want to change your diet on the day of the race, or wear a new pair of socks, or really do anything different from what you’ve been doing in your training.
Run your own race and enjoy it!
Ok, it’s super cheesy, but it strikes me as a lesson for life as well as running. Just after arriving in Rome I went to pick up my race pack. I was suddenly surrounded by groups of mostly men and some women, in matching tracksuits, with the names of their running clubs, or personalised t-shirts with lists of all the races they’d done, or, the clincher – calf tattoos of the marathons they’d ticked off – and they all seemed like they knew each other. I had to take a deep breath and decide not to be intimidated. I was there to finish my first marathon, at my own pace. There would be thousands of people finishing in front of me, and probably a few thousand behind me too. It was time to trust all the hours of training I had put in and just do my thing. We set out in the rain, but after an hour the sun came out. I was able to maintain a consistent pace over the four-and-a-bit hours and I even found myself getting emotional and shedding a few tears I passed Piazza Navona, San Pietro and Piazza di Spagna – at which point an old man yelled ‘It’s ok, you’re nearly done!’ at me from the sidelines.
You might get addicted
Crossing the finish line alongside thousands of others – even if it’s not at the Colosseum – is an incredible experience. I had always put marathons in that mental basket of ‘things I could never do’ so when I set out to train it was scary, because it was a goal I had no idea whether I could reach or not. It was maybe the first time I’d taken on a challenge that required that level both of dedication and risk. But that’s what’s made it sweeter in the end. And this morning despite the sore knees I did have a quick look at the race calendar for the months ahead, so it may not be my last.
Have you ever run a marathon or similar? Have you got any tips to add? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.