26.2 Lessons Learned from Running 26.2 Miles

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Mile 6-ish of the 2016 Colfax Marathon, the single hardest race of my life (so far, at least).

I had been running consistently for about a year when I decided to tackle my first marathon. I trained for months in order to be ready to tow that starting line, and I thought I was ready for the experience. Yet I’ll never forget the emotions that overcame me in the final miles of that race. Nothing could have prepared me for the challenge that running 26.2 miles would be. I went through every emotion in the books- excitement, joy, fear, pain, and at the finish line – true gratitude and a high like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Every marathon I’ve finished since then has brought on similar emotions and I’ve found that with each race I’ve learned more and more about myself and the sport of running as a whole. Here are 26.2 lessons I’ve learned from the marathon!

1. Running marathons has taught me that I am capable of so much more than I ever before thought possible. I learned to believe in myself and my ability to do the things I set my mind to. I just have to keep showing up, putting in the work, and the results will follow.

2. It is impossible to predict how a marathon will shake out for me during the first miles. I just never know how my body will react after mile 20. However, there are some factors I can control that will help me to be successful. Getting good sleep the week of the marathon. Curbing my diet to easily digested foods that will help fuel my body. Making sure I’m hydrating properly. Not going out too fast in the early miles. The list goes on…

3. That being said, there are several areas in which I have a lot of opportunity for growth and improvement. For example, I have yet to negative split a marathon (run the second half faster than the first half). It’s a goal of mine, but I really struggle with holding back my pace in the early miles. It takes some real restraint not to “fly and die”, and I need to work on that.

4. There is really no such thing as a typical marathoner. I have seen runners of ALL types out on the course; different sizes, ages, backgrounds, experience levels, and race goals. I think this is one of the best things about the running community- it’s diversity. It means that the dream of completing a marathon can belong to pretty much anyone, regardless of how they look or what their background is. Any time someone tells me that they are “not built to run a marathon”, I try to tell them that there is no such thing as a marathon build, because so many people defy the common stereotypes of the sport and still manage to be quite successful at running. Sure, most elite marathoners tend to be of a smaller and leaner build, but that doesn’t mean that people with other body types can’t run. I’m not built like an elite either. But it hasn’t held me back.

5. Big city destination races are my favorite. I love the energy of the spectators cheering, their clever signs, the energy of the starting corrals filled with thousands of people from all over the world ready to take on the streets, and the thrill of hearing all those sneakers striking the pavement, echoing off of skyscrapers. It gives me goose bumps even as I type this. I also love the idea of turning vacations into “runcations”. You get a unique perspective running the streets of a city.

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Running through Times Square during the NYC Half Marathon in March, 2016. This was one of the coolest race experiences I’ve had! The sun shone through the buildings at the exact moment I was taking this picture!

6. However, I enjoy smaller local races as well. It’s really nice to sleep in your own bed the night before a marathon. And to go to brunch at your favorite restaurant afterward.

7. I cherish my race bibs more than my race medals. Race bibs are with us through the entire event- gatorade spillage and all. I keep every race bib. There is something really special about the tangible way it brings me back to memories of my race, even long after it finishes.

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My “race wall”. It’s grown a lot in the last two years!

 

8. Not every race will be a PR. In fact, most races won’t be. That’s ok. There are valuable lessons to be learned from perceived failures and setbacks, and they help us grow into better runners. It makes those PR’s all the more special when they do happen – those moments when all the hard work pays off, the stars align, and you have an incredible race.

9. I always experience some “dark miles” during a marathon, those moments where I think there is no way I will be able to finish, where I am so tired and in so much pain that I just want to quit. I think about how stupid it is to sign up for and pay to run a ridiculous number of miles, and what for? I’m not even that good at it. These thoughts usually sneak up around the 18 mile mark.

10. However, I’ve learned it is so important not to allow those dark thoughts to take root and sabotage my race. I try to counteract and replace these thoughts with positive ones. It helps me to have a mantra I can recite to myself when the going gets tough. During my last marathon, I repeated the phrase “Feel the fear, and do it anyway” over and over to myself, as the heat and humidity became more and more unbearable and I began to fear how the weather would affect my running. It really did distract me from my dark thoughts and fears and get me to the finish line.

11. Not everyone understands my interest obsession with running. In fact, most people don’t really care and don’t want to hear about it. This used to hurt my feelings, especially when I was really excited about a great race I had or a big goal I’d accomplished. But I try to remember I don’t run for those people, I run for myself.

12. Saturday long runs are my favorite kind of training run.

13. Naps after a Saturday long run are heavenly.

14. Waking up at 4:30 am for a run NEVER gets easier. But it helps build that mental endurance and discipline I’ll need on race day.

15. Training through less than ideal conditions- snow, wind, rain, heat, fatigue, or coming back from training setbacks – also makes us stronger and more resilient. I remember someone telling me that every time I complete a difficult run, a run that really forced me to push through, I make a deposit into my running bank. On race day, I get to go in and cash out that account. All those deposits made over time earned interest and will help me be successful.

16. Crossing the finish of my first marathon with one of my best friends (who was also running her marathon) was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I’ll never forget those moments of realizing we’d just accomplished something so huge, together.

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My friend Sam and I hugging it out at the finish of our first marathon!

17. The person who started the rumor that running is a “cheap sport” and “all you need are a pair of shoes” is such a liar. I think running is probably one of the most expensive sports. You have to replace your shoes every 300-500 miles, and when you’re marathon training, you’ll go through shoes at a rather nauseating pace. Then there’s the cost of quality gear. And race fees… those come with a hefty price tag. The average marathon race entry fee is over $100. Not to mention that if you have to travel for a race, there’s the cost of flights, hotels, etc. Certainly not cheap.

18. The people who show up to cheer you on at a race really do love you. There is no other explanation for why they would choose to stand around for hours watching people run by, just waiting for a momentary glimpse of you. This is especially true if they don’t happen to be runners themselves. This is definitely true of the people who make a point of showing up at multiple places on the course. They may not really understand what you’re doing, but they are supporting you nonetheless. And that’s so amazing.

19. Seeing the people you love out there cheering for you will lift your spirits and give you wings, even when you’re exhausted.

20. That post-race beer is the most refreshing thing you will ever taste. It is the nectar of the gods, and it will breathe a little life back into you. (Actually, there is some science to back that up, but I won’t get into that here. Perhaps for another day?) Or if you don’t drink beer, whatever that post-race treat you dream about for miles is, it will set that recovery phase in motion. Pretty much every runner I’ve ever talked to has a specific thing they crave right after a race. A Coke, potato chips, a burger, etc.

21. Being a runner means you own more running gear than other clothing. It means that you have entire drawers FULL of race shirts you probably never wear.

22. You learn that a healthy, nutrient-rich diet can make all the difference in your training, but that right after you finish a marathon, you can eat WHATEVER you want that day and it’s a free pass (see number 20). For me that usually means all of the carbs.

23. Coffee is my best friend. It is the only thing that will get me going on those early dark mornings, and on race day it actually helps to calm my jitters. I think it has something to do with ritual and it’s soothing effects.

24. I would love to run all the Marathon Majors in my lifetime (Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Berlin, and Toyko). I’ve already run Chicago and will run it again in 2017, but I still have the other five to cross off my list. It may take me many years to accomplish this goal, but I think it will be worth it!

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Enjoying the “Mile 27” after-party in Grant Park, following the finish of the Chicago Marathon on October 11, 2015.

25. I once completed a marathon after getting sick at mile 6 and struggling for the remaining 20 miles with serious GI issues. It was the single most difficult and painful few hours of my life. I still have no idea how I pushed myself through that. It was definitely one of my slowest races, but it is truly the one I’m most proud of. I managed to finish the damn thing, even though every part of me wanted to quit. There are some powerful metaphors for life there, I think.

26. Sticking it out through an entire 14-16 week marathon training plan is very hard to do. It gets old, it feels monotonous, and you are tired and hungry all the time. It’s ok to “be over it” near the end. That’s your body’s way of saying that you really worked it hard to prepare yourself. Also, don’t cheat the taper. Let the taper do what it needs to and don’t doubt yourself. You will not lose all your fitness in 2-3 weeks.

.2 Never take for granted your ability to run. There will come a day when you are longer able to do this, when your body will say it’s done. But that day hasn’t come yet, and I plan on running until my time runs out!

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