Lessons the Marathon Teaches You

I nervously paced near the starting line prior to my first crack at the marathon. It was a distance that had been rattling around in my head for more than ten years. A coach had once told me he thought I’d be great at 26.2 and the idea had taken hold.

I cranked up Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” on my headphones one last time. The tune seemed appropriate for the occasion. “Kashmir” sounds like an epic, incredible journey. I was about to embark on one of my own.

I had visions of not just covering 26.2, but qualifying for Boston. I wasn’t just going to cover it, I was going to conquer it. I was ready to slay this beast that had been on my radar for a decade plus.

Several hours after the gun fired, I ran across the finish line. Actually, that’s not an accurate statement. I hobbled, limped, and grimaced my across the finish line. Not only had I not conquered the marathon, I’d barely survived.

There were a number of wonderful (and painful) lessons I took from my first time going toe to toe with 26.2. Whether you’re staring down your first or fiftieth marathon, some of my learnings should resonate. Hopefully, they enable you to avoid the train wreck I experienced.

Respect the distance

I’d run as much as 18-20 miles in high school. It hadn’t been fun. I was wrecked afterwards. But, I pulled it off.

So, when I embarked on my first marathon training cycle, I wasn’t terribly intimidated by the distance. Surely, I could manage to stay on my feet and keep moving a few more miles. It wouldn’t be a problem.

My training cycle included one or two runs of 18-20 miles. I never ventured beyond this distance. What lay beyond 18-20 miles was the great unknown. I ventured blindly (and overconfidently) into the great unknown.

Right about mile 18, the wheels started to come off. My legs began to cramp. For the first time in my running career, I was reduced to walking.

Running headlong into the wall was a painful, but powerful experience. As I winced and walked my way through the last miles of the marathon, I realized the folly of my ways. I hadn’t respected the distance.

No matter where you’re coming from, the shape you’re in, or the level of training you’ve done, the marathon can crush you. Very few actually run 26.2 during the course of their training, so you can’t assume those last few miles will be a cakewalk. Respect the distance.

Start slow

Not only did I not respect the distance the first time I tackled 26.2, I went into my first marathon with lofty expectations. I’d qualify for Boston. Maybe I could even break three hours.

To be clear, I’d never done ANY running during the course of my training at Boston qualifying pace (or faster). Yet, somehow I was going to magically do so on race day? My ideas were the laughable pipe dream of a complete rookie.

I bolted from the starting line and cranked through more than ten miles at near Boston qualifying pace. It only took a few more miles before I realized I’d gone out way too fast. I was barely through 13.1 and I could feel the fatigue start to pile up.

The breakneck pace I’d been trying to manage quickly fell apart. My pace slowed. Then, it slowed some more. Eventually, walking was the best I could manage.

As I ate a massive piece of humble pie in the latter stages of the race, I learned my second lesson. Going out too fast is the kiss of death with the marathon. When I toed the line for my next 26.2, I vowed to go out at a reasonable pace and one that aligned with my training.

Since this experience, I’ve always started my marathons a bit slower than what I’ve actually had in mind. I’ve never experienced a physical collapse like what I experienced for my first marathon. Start slow. You won’t regret it.

Fuel and hydrate properly

I never really thought about fueling and hydration prior to my marathon. Why would I? I’d survived 18-20 miles in high school with nothing more than water.

My disastrous collapse in the last eight miles of my first marathon might have happened no matter what. I hadn’t respected the distance. I’d gone out too fast. I deserved to get my ass handed to me.

In addition to not respecting the distance and going out way too fast, I’d made another big mistake. I’d also paid too little attention to nutrition and hydration. As I stumbled through the last eight or so miles of my first marathon, I tried to play catch up. I grabbed orange slices, Gatorade, and anything else I could get my hands on.

But, it was too little, too late. The damage had already been done. None of the fluids or snacks offered on the course could bring me back from the dead.

I had a lot of time to think during those painful(ly slow) last few miles. I had plenty of time to think about how to rectify things if I decided to saddle up again. If I was going to have a positive experience with the marathon, I’d have to do more than respect the distance and start slower.

I’d make sure my nutrition and hydration was dialed in. I’d knock back fluids every 15-20 minutes. I’d ingest an energy gel or something similar every 45-60 minutes.

I had no way of knowing if this approach would actually help my cause. But, it was abundantly clear my strategy the first time around was a loser. Fueling and hydrating properly could only help.

You are tougher than you know

Those final few steps towards the finish line were bittersweet. I’d finally done it. I’d ‘run’ a marathon.

I’d struggled. I’d endured fatigue and pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Just about everything had gone wrong. But, I’d still found a way to get it done.

As I hobbled across the finish line, I realized I was made of tougher stuff. I’d lick my wounds. I’d learn from the pain and suffering.

I’d live to run another day. The next time I elected to run the marathon, I’d respect the distance. I’d go out slower. I’d have a sound strategy for nutrition and hydration.

If nothing else, the second time around would be better if only because I’d experienced 26.2 miles before. I would be tougher the second time around. The marathon taught me I was tougher than I realized.

They were lessons well-learned — for my second marathon (after about six months of tough training), I managed to take nearly 30 minutes off my time, qualify for Boston, and nearly break three hours.

Want to hear more from Marathon Matt? Find out more about his coaching and running experience at www.marathonmatt.com!

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