This year’s Towpath Marathon was my tenth such race. Each has a different theme, as every season and event is unique. The marathon is not a complex event, yet it takes years to master, if anyone can ever really claim to have done so. There is so much that can go wrong (or right) in your training, last minute preparations, and the event itself. And when something pushes your physical and mental limits like the marathon does, the lessons can be rich. So here are the ten biggest lessons I’ve learned through the years – hopefully they will provide you a bit of a shortcut.
#1 – Chicago 2001 – 3:33:56
There’s no shame in walking, but it’s not much fun. The goal for many runners is to just finish the marathon, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, thousands of runners have found satisfaction using approaches such as the Galloway walk/run method. But when your appetite turns towards time goals and you start thinking about setting new bests, a second goal quickly emerges – running the whole event.
This first marathon involved a lot of walking, which was not something I expected, and it was something I didn’t necessarily want to repeat. Walking just makes everything seem longer – great if you want to soak in the experience, but nerve-wracking when you care about the clock. This provided plenty of motivation to up the training for the next assault on 26.2.
#2 – Cincinnati Flying Pig 2002 – 3:23:12
Experience matters. No matter how much you read, think, run, or talk to others, it’s impossible to understand how the last six miles of a marathon will feel until you experience it. And once you do so (assuming you finish), it becomes far less intimidating. You will survive, but if you’re not smart about your early pace, it will not be fun.
Part of the stress and mental fatigue from any new challenge comes from uncertainty. The more you can do to reduce that uncertainty, the more fun you will have, and the more successful you will be. This marathon stands out among my early races as the one in which I had the most fun – because I knew what to expect.
#3 – Chicago 2002 – 3:09:08
You always have something left. This was my first attempt at a Boston qualifying (BQ) time. After a too-fast start (more on that later) resulting in a first half of ~1:31:30, the pace began to fade slowly, mile-by-mile. Finally, under McCormick Place, I had to step off to the side to stretch my cramping hamstrings. At this moment, the 3:10 pace group (my BQ time) passed. Having worked so hard in training and the race to be in a position to qualify, I somehow found the strength to get back on the road and fall right in behind them, and coated in 1:51 ahead of the limit (note – I wasn’t aware of the 59-second grace period at that time – which may hold another lesson on goal-setting).
You always have more to give if you want something bad enough – if you want to finish the story. And there comes a point where you have to let go of whatever inhibitions you have left, trusting that the pain of missing your goal will hurt more than the temporary screaming from your muscles. After all, it may be your brain that causes you to pull back before your muscles actually need to.
#4 – Chicago 2003 – 3:25:08
Marathon training has to be a priority, and sometimes it can’t be. What a naive idiot. I somehow thought that having our first child, after a difficult labor and C-section for my wife, didn’t need to change anything about marathon training. I had registered for Boston 2003, made hotel arrangements, the works. But after being gone one too many times in the early morning hours when our sleep-challenged son needed attention (and my sleep-challenged wife’s temper rightly began to run short), it became clear that training can’t, and shouldn’t, always be the priority it needs to be to deliver a successful marathon.
We (or mostly, I) adjusted by summer, of course, and I discovered the training and bonding benefits of the jogging stroller, but making sure I am aware of the commitment I’m making, and have the support of my family, is now the first step in undertaking any new marathon goal. That fall’s Chicago marathon went fine – but was more memorable for learning about balance in life than about any running-specific lesson. And it pointed out that balance doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your goals, if you are open, honest, and creative.
#5 – Boston 2004 – 3:56:08
No goal, no plan, no preparation = no results. Boston is the ultimate aspiration of many recreational runners. And I doubt I’m alone in having treated getting to Boston as the goal, without putting enough thought into actually running a good Boston. I don’t remember the specifics of my training, other than it was imprecise – my foot-pod’s battery had died, and I was too lazy to get a replacement, so interval and tempo distances and pace were pretty approximate.
And I studied very little about the course in Boston, or the logistics, so set no strategy. And it was therefore impossible to intelligently adjust the strategy when start-time temperatures passed 80⁰ on the way to 85⁰. So I ran as if the downhills would never end, and experienced my most miserable last 19 miles (that’s right, 19 miles!) ever. Even for a B race (which this really wasn’t), you need a goal and a strategy, with appropriate contingencies, to enjoy any modicum of success (or to just plain enjoy anything).
#6 – Chicago 2004 – 3:38:26
Banking time = banking trouble. OK, this isn’t the first time I learned this lesson. And it really wasn’t the last. And while I don’t even have a record of the splits from this race, it has always stood out as the one where I most bought into the belief that you can bank time early in the marathon (run ahead of goal pace) and hold on to meet your goal by the end. It is oh-so-tempting as marathon pace feels so easy – until it isn’t. It just never works, unless you set too easy of a goal. And this experience was enough to make me walk away for a few years. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d ever go back (and I still have no more desire to run Chicago).
#7 – Cleveland 2010 – 3:08:48
To get better, sometimes you need to walk away. When you start seeking improvements in your marathon performance, the temptation is to race every season, to continue peaking and recovering. But like any goal in life, sometimes you have to let it go for a while – to rejuvenate, to build patience, to rebuild the hunger, and maybe to get a little wiser by observing. In fact, my journey back to marathons after nearly five years away didn’t begin with the marathon in mind. It started with the joy of running, of being fit and healthy, with no goals other than to see where the mind and body led me.
The running foundation you build early (early being a relative term) stays with you, as does the experience of training and racing. When it’s only your appetite or available time that starts to lack, it’s often best not to keep fighting it. The marathon takes energy and persistence. You can fake talent and confidence for a while, but you can’t fake passion.
#8 – Akron 2010 – 3:03:26
It is possible to be too familiar. Akron means hills. So this season was all about hitting the hills – lots of repeats, lots of long runs, even recovery runs on hilly routes. It even included a good scouting run of the back half of the course. But it is difficult, almost impossible, to mimic the feeling of 15 miles of marathon fatigue. Successfully tackling such training as hill repeats can lead you to take performance for granted in the race, and that can come back to bite you. Respect the distance. This race was by no means a disaster, but it could have been better.
#9 – Towpath 2011 – 2:55:41
A lot can happen in the last six miles of the marathon. It’s often said that a marathon starts at mile 20. While this generally means that your personal journey gets more difficult there, it also means that the race dynamics can change drastically. This is when running your race, staying relaxed and confident, managing your pace and effort appropriately, and not reacting to other runners, can pay off. Far more runners fade than strengthen in the last six miles, so if you are in a position to let the field come back to you, you can find motivation and energy in the momentum of passing others. Make sure you are in a position where things are happening for you, not to you. Let others make the mistakes. It is a rare but satisfied runner who flies by the field in the closing miles of the marathon. Be rare.
#10 – Towpath 2012 – 2:52:18
You can only control your own preparations and execution. Eventually, if you see some success in the marathon, you start to hunger for age-group (or more) awards, at least at smaller races. The competition adds a new dynamic to your running, providing motivation and, if you aren’t careful, stress. You can get yourself into a position to do your best on race day. And you can maintain the discipline to run a smart race. But you can’t control who will show up any given Sunday. Your race contingencies need to allow for a range of possibilities, ranging from no competition to no hope, lest you face a big mental challenge when things don’t play out how you imagined.
The marathon offers an infinite variety of experiences and outcomes, and I have little doubt that the next ten marathons will teach new lessons (as well as re-teaching things I should already know). What have you learned in your marathon experiences to date that can help others come up their own learning curves?