How I didn't run a marathon

mariacha's picture
] Me at mile 5. Still smiling.

By the time I finally reached the end of the marathon, the finisher's shute had become a wasteland. Instead of the frenetic jostling I was used to at the end of a race... the almost maddening flow of people down the tables of oranges and chocolate milk... emptiness greeted me. A volunteer handed me a finisher's medal and a wilted rose.

This is what it's like to take six hours to finish a marathon.

Six. That's an important number. Six months of giving up Friday nights so I could more thoroughly give up Saturday mornings. Heat, cold, rain... I ran it at 4:30am. And I did it diligently for six months.

Four-thirty is an important number too. That's the pace group I ran with during our group runs. It was, to be fair, one of the slowest pace groups. I would often be the only one out to run the last few miles in the heat, so I was used to being the last person back to the start point, getting back after all the goodies had been packed away. I guess it's what I should have expected.

Do you get the sense that I'm disappointed? Well, of course. In fact, I was sobbing by the time I found Taylor in the family area, a slow, uncontrollable staccato exhalation that I had been fighting back for hours. I couldn't keep it in anymore, after all the time smiling miserably at the shouts of a "good job" I knew I wasn't doing. It was mentally and emotionally grating, and I was raw.

So what went wrong? How did I fail so miserably on something I was so sure I was prepared for? I've made a list below, mostly for myself, on just how I messed up, and what I can do next time.

Because I set out to run an marathon. And I don't feel like I've done that yet.

I wasn't prepared physically

-I caught a cold: The last week before the marathon I started a new job. This was a foolhearty plan which backfired immediately when I got up Monday morning and realized I had a cold. So I now was sick and staring down the barrel of a week when I couldn't possibly take time off for the cold. So I suffered through it -- coming home and going immediately to bed for the first three days. A week is not enough time to go from sick to marathon. I can tell that because I am now, a week and a half later, still feeling the effects of all the extra crud.

I can only guess that that caused me to have trouble getting enough air into my lungs. I didn't feel out of breath, exactly, just drained. And breathing was... weird. By the end of the the race my shoulders ached from it. I couldn't raise my arms over my head. Every jounce and jostle hurt.

-I couldn't speed up: The training group I've been running with encouraged us to slow way down, so I've been doing my training runs at about 12 minute miles. They promised left and right that when the race happened, we'd be able to run faster than we were used to. And I did. For the first 9 miles. Then I slowed down, almost to training pace. And then I realized that I couldn't figure out a way to run, even at my very slowest, that didn't hurt. My legs were burning and my feet ached. And I had 16 miles left. I should have hit the wall 10 miles later than I did. I just keep thinking: the training runs were too easy.

-I couldn't eat or drink: I'd done training runs with the same food and water. I knew what worked and what didn't. But something about the marathon day made even the stuff I was supposed to be able to handle turn to bile in my stomach. As it got hotter, it turned into an inner struggle: Take a drink and walk while fighting off nausea or continue to be thirsty. It's a no-brainer, really. It's quite easy for runners to die from dehydration. I took the drink and walked. But I struggle a lot with food and running. My stomach is exceedingly delicate, and it is the first thing to go when I get overworked. Before I even think of running another long race, I have to figure out what to do about that.

I wasn't prepared mentally

-I was being passed: Just when I hit my wall and started to slow down -- when I was mentally at my lowest -- that was when I began being passed consistently. It makes perfect sense. I was running with people who were going to maintain their starting speed for another two hours, of course they would be passing me. But that effect of being passed has much more of an impact on me than I ever remember. I need to find a way to make being passed feel right, or at least ok, before I run again.

-There were so many miles: Seems obvious, right? Duh, dummy, you're running 26.2 miles. So yes, you have to run 10 miles before the race really even starts. But this is something no one ever told me, and why would they? Who thinks of a marathon like that? The answer, of course, is that I do, but only when I hit mile 10 in the middle of the marathon. I'm convinced that each runner faces their own set of mental booby traps on a marathon, and this was my own personal one.

-I realized I could quit: This was ultimately what did me in. When that 10 miles mark hit and I had my mental lapse, the first thing waiting to comfort me was the sneaky little thought that had been hiding in my head all the time: "You don't have to do this. You can walk away right now." When that voice asked, "Why are you running this marathon, anyway? Who cares?" I honestly had no answer.

So why didn't I quit? The answer is a remarkably simple one: it would have been inconvenient to quit where I wanted to. My body and brain decided I was done right at the beginning of a large, generally inaccessible loop that takes you for the last 15 miles. Once I was on that loop, I had to finish. It took me almost 4 hours. And my emotions raged from hopeful to disappointed to furious the whole time. That was much more exhausting than what was going on in my body.

My strategy

So now I know what's waiting for me, I have a short mental list of things I have to master before I begin even training for another marathon.

  1. Figure out food. Ask for help if I have to, but I can't do this kind of endurance running without knowing what I can eat on the course.
  2. Run when it's not fun. I really feel like part of the problem with marathon training was that I was used to having a leisurely and friendly run with my group. When I got out there and had no one to talk to, I found myself with nothing but the voice of doubt for company.
  3. Face my demons. The desire to quit isn't going away until I prepare to face it. You can't beat a bully without standing up to it, and that's just what I need to do. So I'm going to spend a while calling my doubts out -- running harder than is comfortable, racing to the bottom. I'm crossing the river Styx to find my own personal devil. Because I have an appointment to kick its teeth in.

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