So I did it. I ran a marathon.
Early last year I made one of my many returns to casual jogging as an alternative to my usual workouts. I needed a change, I needed a reason to get out of the house (Covid times!) and I needed something to help me clear my head a bit. Running was good.
I'd never run longer than 8km, and even that distance I'd only done once. I never felt like longer distances were achievable to me, and that elusive 10k kept moving from one New Year’s resolutions list to another.
Then it kind of just happened that I decided to run longer. Okay, I admit I was somewhat inspired by an anime about runners I was watching at that time. One day I went out for a run and I knew I was going to hit 10k. Suddenly it felt possible. A couple of loops around the park and I did it. It felt amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling. It had taken me so long to achieve that!
The only reason I was finally able to reach that goal was the change in my mindset. Until then I never thought I could do it. I never took it seriously and I never set out to make it possible. This is lesson one from my marathon journey. It’s all about the mindset, the plan, and the perseverance. If you actually wholeheartedly believe and commit to something, you can achieve anything.
As I got more into running, I became restless. I wanted a challenge. A goal to motivate me. Something that will prove I can do anything I put my mind to. Something like a marathon.
I signed up for one in October, which gave me about 6 months to prepare and I soon started reading all those clever-sounding articles such as "10 marathon tips for beginners" and "absolute essentials every runner needs". To be honest, I felt lost. They were talking about things I had never heard of and it all felt so unnecessary. What I always liked about running was that I could just put on my shoes and go. No gyms, no fancy equipment, no constraints, just running. Simple as that. Suddenly I had to think about the gear, nutrition, gadgets, strategy…. and those gels. I became annoyed and eventually decided to stick with my gut and do what I felt was best for me at the time, just keep it simple, keep running.
Looking back, it was a really good idea. There’s no point reading all about hydration strategy when you’re only doing short easy runs and don’t even need to drink water. It's good to learn as we go. As I started covering longer distances, I realised those gels are truly essential. As my legs became sorer, I learned all about the benefits of foam rollers and stretching. As I started feeling more fatigued, I looked at my nutrition and diet. It all came with time and eventually I knew everything I needed.
It’s a really important lesson to me, as I tend to over-analyse and over-prepare for pretty much everything in my life. I know it keeps me from actually starting many projects because I never feel ready for them. With running however I kept it simple for the sake of enjoying the process which allowed me to absorb everything I needed without feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes the best plan is to just take those first few steps and figure it out as you go.
Preparing for your first marathon when you’ve never run long distances is a long process. You need to build up your fitness gradually to avoid overtraining and injuries. It being such a long time, it’s very easy to lose motivation or for life to get in the way. Both of those things happened. At some point, I was fed up with running and everything else. I kept thinking that something I started doing for pleasure and to clear my mind was now turning into a dreaded obligation. After a while of struggling with motivation, I decided to simply quit. It wasn't worth losing my sleep over it. I came back to doing shorter distances or simply just whatever I felt like doing on a given day. No pressure, no expectations, just the joy of running. Having rediscovered that, I decided to return to marathon training, although after having slightly readjusted the plan to be more lenient in terms of the types of runs I would do. I guess sometimes it’s better to keep it simple and go slowly than not to go at all.
About 2 months before the race I caught a cold. I thought I would get over it quickly, but it turned into a nasty chest infection which put me in bed for over 2 weeks. Even after recovering, my body was extremely weak after the illness and antibiotics treatment. When I felt strong enough I went out and attempted to run 3k. It was so tough I panicked because there was no way I could get back to where I was in my plan and get through it in time. Adding to my despair was the fact that I was supposed to run my first race in about a week. I had signed up for it thinking it would be a good introduction to running events and a ‘recovery’ run in between longer sessions. It was 10k and now I wasn’t even sure if I could finish it at all. Despite my doubts, I decided to take part even if I had to walk it. I didn’t want to give up completely. In the end, even though I did walk quite a lot of it, I managed to run my fastest 10k ever. I was thrilled and this small success was exactly what I needed to tackle my marathon quest once again.
Normally weeks before a long-distance race, runners cut down on mileage to give their legs a rest and avoid any last-minute injuries. It’s called tapering and my original plan assumed I would do 2-3 weeks of it. The problem was that I had a month to go and I was nowhere near the mileage I had assumed to reach before cutting down. I decided to turn the plan on its head and make this last month all about the marathon. I thought my body could probably handle a few weeks of really hard work and skip tapering as it only just had a long break from running. I found some crazy tips and articles about training for your first marathon in just a month and took everything I deemed valuable from them. With a new plan, I went all in.
It was so tough, I couldn’t even do the mileage described in this plan. My legs were tired just after the first week and there was no way I could keep going without worsening my performance significantly. I needed to take out some miles from the mid-week runs, and get more rest. I carried on however and was doing those crazy 30km+ runs for the first time in my life, just two weeks ahead of the race. I took supplements, cut down on junk food, and even signed up for my first leg massages just to make sure I was in the best possible shape given all the soreness and aches I was experiencing.
Then came the race day. We started on a chilly morning after an hour of standing in rain and I felt really cold and stiff. Still, that was fine, as you don’t want to start too fast. I took it very easy and soon I felt strong enough to speed up. I managed to catch up with and overtake two pacers. Feeling ambitious, I thought I could probably surpass another one by the end of the race. I carried on putting in a steady effort carried by the initial thrill of excitement I got from the cheering crowds.
Around halfway through I hit a mental wall. Something in my mind just switched and all I was thinking was "I don’t want to be running anymore". How do you get out of this when you’re in the middle of nowhere with sore legs, a tired body, and over 20km to go? It was extremely draining, not just physically but also emotionally. All the people I had passed earlier were catching up to me and leaving me in the dust. Even when you know it’s only a race against yourself, seeing all the people moving past can be depressing. The growing pain in my legs wasn’t helping. Then there was a long stretch of the road with a U-turn at the end. That meant you were running past all the runners who were actually a few kilometers ahead of you. I saw them all and felt hopeless. How much longer?
At some point, I managed to drag myself out of that dark pit of misery with some music. Mentally I was back in the game, but my body wasn’t feeling so great. Around the 35km mark, I realised I’d somehow lost my last energy gel and had to make do without it. With about 5km to go, I had no more power to run, but walking was even more painful so I kept switching between the two just wishing for it to be over. Sometime later the pacer I ran past near the beginning caught up with me and I made it my goal to stick with him until the end. I steadied my pace and focused on the road. I felt sick and could feel my eyes rolling back from exhaustion. He saw the state I was in and made sure I wouldn’t try to rush it. Take it slow and steady, he said. Small steps. Just small steps up the hill and we’re done. Honestly, it’s the best advice for anything you’re trying to do in your life. Don’t rush to burn out, but take it slow and steady instead. You will make it eventually.
The moment I stepped over the finish line I burst into tears. I did it. I finished a marathon despite all the obstacles, the illness, and the crazy last month of training. The race itself was a whirl of emotions. I laughed and I cried, I felt sick and I felt pain, I felt lonely and I felt supported. All in all, I felt really bloody accomplished and I can’t wait to do it again.