About four weeks ago I ran my very first marathon. It was a great experience but what struck me is that the day itself is not really the hardest part of the entire preparation. As they say, the hardest part ins’t getting over the finish line but rather getting to the start. I can only confirm this.
It was around Christmas ‘10 that I thought what my goals were for the coming year. I had run the Berlin and Potsdam half marathon in 2010 and figured I could push myself harder this year. I didn’t fancy the Berlin Marathon as it is in August, which would mean training all summer when I could be lying in the sun doing nothing. Besides, I dislike the heat and much prefer colder days for running. So I signed up for the Prague Marathon in early May 2011. I knew that I wasn’t remotely in marathon shape but signing up early forced me to be serious about it all. I can only recommend this tactic.
I had been using an app on my phone called Runkeeper which GPS tracks you as you run and gives you instant feedback about distance run and average speed. They had a feature called training sessions gives you a fairly detailed plan about what distances and intensity you should be running. I signed up for the one aiming for a marathon in 4h30. The plan had a gradual increase in distance but was nevertheless pretty intense: 16 weeks training with four training sessions a week. This sounds like a big burden but I must say as the training progressed and my alcohol consumption, smoking and going out decreased I noticed not only increased fitness but my mood changed substantially, too. I become happy as I had never been in my live. It was hard to not constantly talk about how good I was feeling at the moment and how happy the training made me.
I had one annoying injury from one of the long runs on Sunday where I my left thigh started to ache for the rest of the week and would only heal by the following Sunday. I even had to pause the training for one week and that made me feel quite anxious about my progress. In the end the worry turned out to be baseless - every training has its setbacks and I haven’t talked to anyone who said that there wasn’t ever a problem during their preparation.
The peak of the training was two weeks before the actual event where I ran 28km. This doesn’t seem like a lot if your’re planning to run 42km but I had been doing 12km the day before and the stated strategy of the training plan was to “spread the load” over multiple days in order minimise the risk of injury. After this weekend the training decreased sharply and I only did about 10km max and finishing off with a gentle 15 minute stroll the day before the marathon.
The day itself
To say it upfront: the marathon was great and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I had been running the training runs at a speed of 5:15 to 5:30 mins/km. At the marathon I reduced the time per kilometre to 6 minutes because I had no idea how my body would react to distances greater than 30 km and therefore I decided to take it easy.
I had slept poorly the night before and was nervous at the starting line but finally around about 9 o’clock the crowd went on their way. I decided not to use Runkeeper during the run because I knew that the GPS connection would drain the batteries and listening to music was more important to me anyway. This was a great decision. During the first 10km I managed to stick to my planned time almost to the second. At 10km I still felt great and fresh and at 11 I briefly saw my parents, who had come to Prague, and stopped for a quick photo.
From 10 to 20km it was still plain sailing and at the half-marathon mark I was ahead of schedule by about 1:30min. From 20 to 30km I was expecting some tiredness but I was surprised how well I was still feeling at 30km. I had been taking an energy gel every 5km (starting at 15km) and even my energy balance ,which I was very worried about before the race ,was okay: I wasn’t feeling the depleted or hungry and with a good mood I entered the last stage of the race.
The last 7km
At 32km I was ahead of schedule by about 3:30 mins. But by about 33km I started to feel some discomfort in my legs and thighs. Nothing major at that point but simply the stress of the race taking its toll. This kinda got worse by the time I reached 35km and from then on it could no longer ignore the pain. It hurt!
Well, you can imagine what happened now. I switched into survival mode an put all my will power into not stopping. I saw lots of people taking a short break at the side stretching their muscles but knew from experience that this would be a bad idea. Starting again after those breaks is very hard if not to say impossible. So I struggled on.
At kilometer 37 a lot of people were walking but I still hadn’t stopped my running (save for the drinking stops) but there was a small elevation, almost nothing, which I just couldn’t run up anymore so I walked it up. This really bruised my ego and made me loose some time but at that point I just didn’t care anymore. The same thing happened at kilometre 39 but in total I only lost about 3 minutes during the two short walking periods.
And then the final kilometre came. This was a great time as I was so relieved to have made it there. The spectators cheered and all the runners where scraping together the last bit of energy that was still in them. I crossed the finish line at 4 hours 13 minutes 55 seconds. That was 2 minutes slower than I had planned the day before but of course much better than the 4:30h that the training plan had aimed for.
Looking back at the entire time I must say that the following things made my marathon as success.
- Using an Android app that tracked my progress was a huge motivation boost. I really like Runkeeper but there are plenty about.
- Practicing using the energy gels during the long training runs before the race. My biggest worry was that I would run out of energy and feel depleted. This is often called The Wall.
- The weather: it was 17 degree on the day and there was always a slight breeze coming from the water
If you have an ambitious personality and like to push yourself, I can only recommend that you run the marathon yourself. You’ll be proud forever and you will notice an unprecedented increase in your happiness and well being.