Everything I Wish I Knew Before my First Marathon

Photo credit @brasstacksphotography

Clicking submit on registration for a marathon may be one of the most exciting, motivating, but also terrifying moments that I can recall. Depending on when you sign up, that adrenaline rush may have fully dissipated (or you may have completely forgotten altogether) once your training schedule is set to begin. No matter if it’s your first or fifth, I don’t think the training ever gets easier but I have learned so much along the way with each training cycle. This may sound incredibly dramatic, but life as you know it will completely change. It depends on the training plan you choose or the plan your coach chooses, if you do decide to work with a coach (I highly recommend it 🙂 ), but most likely every day of training is planned out for you. The days of pressing the snooze button one too many times, or opting for an evening spent with Netflix instead of going out for a run are done. Even when you aren’t running, the training nags you with soreness, the occasional unexpected aches and pains, and even anxiousness or nerves for an upcoming workout. Your friends want you to join them for a night out? Sorry, you’ve got a 15 mile training run early in the morning so you’ll have to head home. You’re going away on vacation? Looks like you’re stuck getting up before the sun and using the ill-ventilated hotel gym to get your miles in for the day. Why? Because you want to show up to the starting line feeling fully prepared for the daunting 26.2 miles ahead of you. 

Sound like fun? No! This sounds terrible! Or maybe you’re intrigued…Nonetheless, I’d like to share some of what I have learned over the years since my first marathon in the spring of 2013. 

My first marathon was the Vermont City Marathon. I still remember the snow flurries the day before the race and it rained most of the race!

When I think back to my first half marathon it’s hard to believe how far I have come since then. I had been running on and off since my high school days of cross country. During college and post college, I would do the occasional 5k or 10k here and there but certainly was not on a regimented training plan. I let running fit into my life where it could. One day I google searched “beginner half marathon training plan”. I printed it out. And we were off. It was tough, but I stuck to it and  was ecstatic when I completed my first half marathon in the fall of 2012. Somehow I caught the marathon bug and started prepping for a spring 2013 marathon. I had a plan printed out that I was following, and I made sure to stick to it. But somehow I couldn’t quite figure out how to put myself and my marathon training first. I wanted to live a “normal” life with all planned social activities without letting marathon training “get in the way”. But let’s be real here –marathon training will get in the way. It’s a major time commitment and it requires a certain level of self-focus that, quite honestly, can be a bit uncomfortable at times. I sometimes find myself being a classic “people pleaser” –putting everyone else’s wants/needs above my own. That works to both my advantage and disadvantage. I think the hardest part initially was to come right out and say, “Sorry, I can’t. I have to train for my marathon”.

When you are embarking on a marathon training journey, you need to understand that people around you are going to react in different ways. You will have some people in your life that totally get it and are 100 percent supportive. There will be some that don’t quite “get it”, but they wholeheartedly support you anyways. Then there will be some who fully support you as a person, but can’t quite seem to get on board with the idea that your life is now being taken over by this one race, one day, for 26.2 miles. And finally, and unfortunately, there may be some who don’t get it and don’t care to support it. But the only person you can control is you. Remember that. It’s okay to be, dare I say, selfish? That word made me so uncomfortable when someone shared that with me in the past regarding marathon training. We’re taught that you should never be selfish. Don’t be self-centered. But in this case, it’s okay to focus on you! But there are ways to focus on you and still enjoying life with friends and family. This brings me to my first lesson…

Plan Ahead. When you get started on your marathon journey, you will have your training plan from day 1 and you can take time before the start of each week to plan for the week ahead of you. Do you have an early morning meeting on Tuesday? A friend’s birthday dinner on Thursday night. You have a few options. You can totally abandon the workout for the day, or you can plan to run in the evening on Tuesday and in the morning on Thursday. If you take a little extra time to plan out your week, you won’t be blind sided by workouts on your plan. Personally, I found it to be easiest when I woke up early to get the workout out of the way in the morning. At first, I would try running after work, but it seemed like I became more prone to other commitments getting in the way at the end of the day. Depending on the time of the year and the time you are running, make sure you have all of the gear you need which may include a headlamp and additional reflective gear if part or all of your workout will be in the dark.

Marathon training takes a long time and can be anywhere from 14 to 30 weeks to get you race ready. Inevitably, there could be some time during training spent traveling for work or for leisure. Before your trip, do some planning. Does the hotel have a gym? If not, do you belong to a gym with a location nearby or are there gyms with day passes available? Okay, okay, I know the treadmill or more often referrerd to as the “dreadmill” isn’t the most exciting way to get those miles in, but I do find that it’s a safe option when you don’t know the area or when you just don’t feel like going through the hassle of planning out a running route. (Note: If you are looking for a quick guide to treadmill pacing, check out https://www.hillrunner.com/calculators/treadmill-pace-conversions/). Rather run outside? You can also use popular running apps like MapMyRun to find local running routes. You can do a quick search for running stores nearby that may have a local running club that does meetups that you could jump into for a quick workout.

Pre-race meal from my first marathon. One of the perks of marathon training…all the carbs! 🙂

Even if you plan perfectly, there may also be times when you will miss a workout…that’s okay. More importantly, don’t overdo it. Avoid two rigorous back-to-back workouts in a row. It’s okay to shift workout days, but you need to give your body time to recover. Don’t beat yourself up if that means that you miss a workout here and there, just don’t make a frequent habit of it. Apps like TrainingPeaks make your life easier with the ability to have a training plan (and a coach if you’d like) and you can track and drag and drop workouts based on your schedule. I didn’t take advantage of this app for my first marathon, but I wish I would have. Having everything from my training plan accessible from my phone and online has been so helpful. There are many other training plan apps out there as well that allow you to plan ahead so that you can feel in control even when you have a very busy schedule, which I am sure you do!

Before we dive into this any further…why are you running this marathon? This brings me to my next piece of advice…

Find you why. For me the concept of winning a marathon is absolutely mind blowing, but for the elite athletes, that may be what’s driving them…to win! But even if that’s their goal, perhaps it’s much deeper than that. Everyone has their why. For most of us mere running mortals, our goal will never be to win a marathon or to place. Most likely our goal is to finish, and that is an incredible feat. As Dick Beardsley once put it, “when you cross the finish line, no matter how slow or fast, it will change your life forever”. 

I found that it was so important for myself to figure out my why as I embarked on my marathon journey. Even after my first, I find that my why is slightly different every time. Like any challenge in life, and any goal worth pursuing, it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be days when you feel good and you feel proud, and the thought of running excites you. However, there are also going to be days when the thought of lacing up your sneakers for a workout sounds awful. There are going to be days when you are excited to get out there and pound the pavement but the workout goes terribly and you start to doubt yourself. There may also be days when you feel like giving up on yourself. First of all, don’t give up. The fact that you had the courage and bravery to start means you have the ability to push through the mental battle. But remember, that’s when you need to focus on your why. Now, I’m not going to dive deep into my why as I’ve covered that throughout my marathon blog posts, but I do want to say that your why is going to be 100% personal and unique to you. As you continue on your marathon journey, odds are there will be an abundance of self-talk to motivate yourself. How the heck else are you gonna get out of bed before the sun is up to get in your oats, peanut butter, toast, bananas, and coffee before a training run? There will be a lot of “you got this” and “c’mon, just one more mile”. As you reach distances, that you never could have imagined, there will be a lot of “wow! Did I really just run that?” “Go me!” Unfortunately, the negative self talk may creep in from time to time as well. Which brings me to my next piece of advice…

Be kind (to yourself). You are pushing your body to the extreme throughout this marathon training journey and you need to care for and love yourself at every step of the way. Marathon training is hard enough, and you need to be your own #1 fan. It will make things so much easier. Ok, sure, we’ve heard it all before. You need to love yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic. I knew this going into it, but I didn’t fully put it into practice my first go around and even in training cycles after that. I, indeed, have been my own worst critic. I am someone who likes structure and “checking things off the list” and that’s sometimes how I would view my training plan. Yes, you should take it one day at a time, but when you have an off day and the workout does not go as planned, you do not get free rein to beat yourself up about it!!! 5 miles Monday at a tempo pace may feel way easier than 3 conversational paced miles on a Wednesday, and you may have no idea why. Don’t fret. Don’t panic. Running is hard and that’s going to happen. You may feel pain in your knee that causes you to cut a 13 mile long run short. It’s okay! 

Give yourself pep talks when needed. Put it this way. Think about if your best friend was running a marathon. What would happen if they called you up in tears and told you they were a failure because they couldn’t finish the 6 miles on their schedule for that day? Would you tell them that they failed? Would you make it your goal to make them feel bad about themselves? OF COURSE NOT!

My race shirt and bib from my first marathon. I still have them today along with my first marathon medal of course!

But seriously think about it. What would you say? Okay, now jot down a list of all of those kind, reassuring and motivating things you would say to them. I mean physically stop reading, go grab a sheet of paper or open up the notes app on your phone and list out what you would say. Post it on your wall, put in in your gym bag, place it in your nightstand drawer, attach it to your fridge with a magnet or save it as a file on your phone. You will be happy that you did. If at any point during your training you feel the negative self talk seeping in, look at that list.

Look. You can say all of these incredibly kind things to your best friend. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to say all of those things to yourself. You are worth it. 

I struggle so hard with this. I am not saying it as someone who has all the answers, but I do wish someone would have reminded me of this when I started my marathon training journey. So make sure to always be kind to yourself along the way. 

Okay so at this point you may be thinking, I need to be planned out, with a clear purpose and why, and remind myself to keep my head on straight and say kind things to myself daily. This sounds like an emotional roller coaster! It may seem that way at times, and also a good point to take a pause and share another tip that I have learned along the way…

Be Kind (to others). Throughout this process, you are going to experience many highs and many lows. Take a moment to think about all of the people that are nearest and dearest to you and, while they may not be running the 26.2 miles, they are in for quite a journey as well. Whether it’s your significant other or your best friend, things are going to be changing and they don’t have much say in the matter. They have grown accustomed to having you in their life, but it’s now going to be a slightly different version of you. First off, your schedule is going to be taken over by training runs, and this may mean missing out on some fun activities you used to enjoy together and having more flexibility in your schedule. For me, the long run was the biggest challenge. As previously mentioned, I used to try and go about my day to day as normal even if that meant a late night out with friends the night before a long run. Over time, I’ve learned that I need to prioritize training and stay home and go to bed early before those strenuous workouts so I can wake up at 5am or 6am the next day. But my advice here would be to be flexible when you can, and always acknowledge and appreciate those closest to you. They are making sacrifices by needing to be flexible to accommodate your schedule and supporting you when you are feeling stressed and sometimes not the most pleasant person to be around. I know when I am tired, sore, and stressed about the training and upcoming race, I am certainly not the most fun to be around during that time. So remember to be kind. Remember to be grateful for the support from others. It is going to make your marathon training experience that much more enjoyable.

So here we are. You’ve aqcuired your training plan and you’re ready to plan ahead for each week. You have your “why” and are dialed in for the strenuous weeks of training ahead. Make sure to continue to remember to be kind to yourself. As the weeks get tough and you are needing to prioritize training, make sure to be kind to others as well. 

Now it’s time to focus on your goal. But first and foremost, take care of yourself. For your first marathon, I would highly recommend to not set a time goal. You are about to accomplish something that only 0.5 percent of the world’s population has done! You are going to finish a marathon! It’s important to keep that goal top of mind and put self-care as your top priority. Follow your training plan, but make sure to be smart and seek help as needed. The last thing you want to do is run yourself into the ground and risk injury all because you see a workout listed on your training plan. I purposely put this last as this is certainly something that I struggle with myself.

I love structure and I like having a regimen to follow. This is good. What can be dangerous is being so rigid that you force yourself into workouts and paces when your body is telling you to pull back. Now, a large majority of training is going to be fighting that voice in your head telling you to stop and stow down, but that isn’t what I am talking about here. If you are noticing pains that worsen as you run or anything out of the ordinary, take rest as needed. Don’t do a tough speed workout followed by a long run to make up for missing it earlier in the week. Listen to your body. Unfortunately, there may be a point during your training where you get sick. Take time off. Pushing it too hard for a few days while you’re sick instead of resting is not going to strongly increase your ability, but not taking time off when you should will certainly have negative effects. Be sure to take care of yourself and consult with a doctor as needed. Oh, and avoid googling things. I have suffered from running injuries and going down the black hole of googling symptoms will never get you anywhere. Hopefully you do not become injured or sick during training, but it’s important to keep in mind all that is involved in personal care. Stretch and foam roll regularly. Eat healthy and make sure you are getting enough food to fuel your body. Prioritize getting enough sleep every night. Make sure to properly warm-up and cool-down before workouts. Enjoy and trust the process! Remember…

For anyone who comes across and reads this blog post, I am so incredibly excited for you. Over the years, I have grown such a passion for marathons and still to this day think back to that moment completing that first marathon and the tears filled my eyes as I crossed that finish line. Your life will forever be changed as you prove to yourself that you accomplished something you may have never thought possible. While that first moment will always be a special memory for me, I will say that each and every marathon is incredibly special and I learn something new about myself through each training cycle. Best of luck to you on your journey. 

If you want to see more of my day to day training, be sure to follow me on instagram @runfreeordienh. If you are looking for a virtual running coach, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at runfreeordienh@gmail.com.

 

On May 16th, 2013, I completed the Vermont City Marathon as my first marathon. It is a moment I will always cherish and inspired me to continue to train for future marathons.

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