A First Marathon Story


The marathon run has enjoyed a considerable surge in popularity over the last few decades. Every year there are more organized marathons and every one sees a large number of participants trying it for the first (and often last) time. I find it ironic that this has occurred while on average we are becoming a bunch of couch potatoes.

So you think you'd like to run a full marathon? Think it will give you bragging rights to your friends that you are able to finish (still standing) after completing this ridiculously long distance? Perhaps, but it is more likely that it will reaffirm their suspicions of your mental instability. You're going to run? Isn't that what other sports do for punishment? Do you think running a marathon would be a personal triumph, proof that you can set an almost unfathomable goal and ability to work very hard to make it a reality, even though it will surely be an ordeal by the time you finish? The answer, of course, is YES! You are mentally unstable, a menace to yourself and everyone around you!

But here is the whole point. When you're actually running in the organized marathon, even though there may be thousands there, it is an extremely personal endeavor. You are not racing anyone. It is a battle between yourself and this idiotic notion that formed months ago when you thought this would be a good idea. For many first marathoners, it their Mt. Everest.

Not too long ago (well after my marathon) I found a little book at a Barnes & Noble that I picked up for just $5 entitled "563 Stupid Things People Do To Mess Up Their Lives" by Dr. Larry. There it is on page 4 in the chapter Stupid Achievements, the 14th entry of the book: Run a marathon. Dr. Larry simply writes, "A classic case of doing something just to prove to yourself and others that you can do it regardless of how stupid it is. Choosing to undergo pain for 26.2 miles should be considered grounds for undergoing a CAT scan." Is Dr. Larry onto something here? Or is his advice not even worth the less than 1 cent I paid for it? (500 cents divided by 563 stupid things.) I think that calculation alone should give you a good insight. My story is admittedly long, but then again, so is a marathon! In gleaming as many first marathon stories as I could off the web, I found most were simply too short to give anyone an idea of what the experience was really like. Some were no more than a paragraph which is not adequate space to describe a 100 meter dash! So if you're looking for a concise account, you've come to the wrong place. (You can find some first marathon stories here...)

How Long Is a Marathon?

The reality of 26 miles, 385 yards is hard to fathom. If you don't think it's a long distance, just try driving it, finding the straightest road you can find. (A route with a lot of turns tends to break up the distance making it seem shorter.) At 30MPH, it will take 52 minutes! A typical racing stride is approximately 44 inches. That means an incredible 38,000 strides to cover that distance. The Marathon Run was created for the first Olympic Games in 1896 in Greece to commemorate a legendary run by the messenger Philippides, who as the tale goes ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory. When he got there, as the legend goes, he was only able to say, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and promptly died. [Dramatic pause...] So here you are attempting this same distance, armed with absolutely no message, less an important one! But, hey, this is the 21st century, if we had that kind of news, Philippides might have thought it better to simply use a cell phone.

If you're looking to talk yourself out of a marathon, find the straightest road you can find that goes 26 miles and simply drive it. Another suggestion: If you can get yourself to a high enough point where you can actually spot an object 26 miles away, now tell yourself you're going to run to that point.

When we ask how long is a marathon, we're really asking how much time. Sure the best of the best can finish in less than 2:10 which is a long enough time by itself, but a typical first marathoner will not reach the half way point in that time. It is not at all unusual that a first timer will need 5+ hours. So you have to ask yourself, can you imagine exercising continuously for that long? When you're standing at the starting area of a marathon in a sea of runners, possibly thousands, this group did not just decide yesterday they were going to try this run. They didn't decide last week, and almost none them decided just last month. For the most part they decided months ago because a marathon requires significant preparation.

What I Knew About Training

I always knew the physical conditioning was straightforward but daunting. This preparation involved "road work," endless miles of running over many many months. Over time you build up your stamina resulting in greater distance and faster pace. Various guides I read just before my first marathon indicated you should build up to at least 40 miles a week, this peak occurring three weeks before the event, being careful not to over train. But there is also mental conditioning which is not so straightforward though it's related to your physical training. There's no way around it, your body is not going to like running this distance, or more accurately, running this length of time. You must get your body to become accustomed to being pushed to it's limits and even beyond. This is where the mental preparation really plays into the equation.

If you're looking to properly train yourself for a first marathon, check out the myriad of training guides (you can find these on the web) that will state how much mileage you need to put in order to complete it.

To complete a marathon you must mentally get through a large barrier. Your body will want to shutdown when it's drained of it's glycogen, the fuel your body feeds on during the run. In running this will manifest in a numbness in the legs. A person with any common sense stops at this point, but it rarely stops a marathon runner.  If you're mentally determined (a marathon prerequisite) and continue long enough through this barrier, your body will unleash a more powerful deterrent: pain. It is one thing for your legs to numb and not want to move; it's quite another when every step hurts. I've read that a marathon is about the triumph of desire over reason.

If you're looking to talk yourself out of a marathon, check out the myriad of training guides (you can find these some of these on the web) that will state you have to put in 400 or more miles over several months, running 5 days a week.

A Not-So-Unique Story

In many ways my story is unique, but I've discovered (and surprised) that my marathon experience was very much like others. As I begin the tail of my marathon, let me assure you that I'm not really a runner. I have, however, from time to time got on a running kick for a week or two or three, but that's about it. I did a little better when I was in college, but I never got close to a running addiction, that desire some develop where they just have to run. My problem is and always has been that I find it boring. After about 20 minutes I've generally had it, being pretty exhausted by that time. The reason: I'm running too fast to help overcome the boredom. But still I'd always been intrigued by the idea of completing the marathon distance, mostly because the endeavor seemed so improbable and possibly impossible. At my best, however, when I was in college and less than half my current age, I completed two 15 mile runs, and a 13 mile run. After all of them I was so exhausted it was inconceivable that I could run at least 10 additional miles. This is why I've known for years what the barriers were to completing a marathon.

After college I moved to Phoenix and soon found two mountain trails: Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak. Both of these routes ascend 1200-1250 feet on about 1.25 mile trail (so a 2.5 mile round trip). I loved these trails: still do. Hiking them I experienced almost no boring moments. I could be totally exhausted and still want to continue on. And here in Phoenix that can be especially challenging if the weather is above 100 degrees. Exercising in 100+ weather is simply hard to describe - and, yes, it's dangerous . Many years later I started doing "laps" on these trails: going up and down several times successively. It would take approximately 40 minutes for this round trip so the decision to go up again after you were at the bottom was significant. After I had built myself up to 4 times (which therefore took about 2:45), I felt I was ready to do the Grand Canyon in only 3-4 hours: about 4800 feet of descent/ascent and a 13.5 mile round trip.

Doing the Grand Canyon from the rim to river and back in one day is highly discouraged by the park service because it is dangerous and many have suffered illness and even death in the attempt. The difficulty is often compared to a marathon. But unlike a marathon, there is absolutely no support. No cheering volunteers handing out cups of water and Gatorade every other mile, no chance of just quitting if you become totally exhausted, and no immediate medical attention. Consequently I never undertook it lightly. I would always train for several months and in any given workout I'd regularly push myself to my limit and even beyond.

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