My first marathon experience

A story of data, discovery, progress and fear.

“So you signed up for your first marathon? Is it boring?”

I had a recurring question about entertainment throughout my journey on a regular basis. How could I run such long distances and not find it boring? To me training wasn’t boring. After reflecting on the question I determined that the aspects that made training interesting were data, discovery, progress and fear.

One of the many sights of Ottawa I snapped on my phone while running one of my favourite paths.

In early January 2019, I got myself into the idea of doing something that scares me. Some inspirational Facebook post or TED talk probably got to me. I always wanted to do a marathon, but never had gotten to it. Having participated in long-distance running since the age of thirteen, races weren’t new to me. I easily had over 10 races under my belt (10Ks and half-marathons) and also trialed a few months of track-and-field in high-school and university.

It took me until February to commit to running twice the distance I’d ever completed before.

Once the credit card was entered and I submitted the purchase for the Ottawa Marathon, I’m pretty certain I yelled a sentence that intertwined “What have I done?!”, “@%$#^!” and “I can always get a refund right?”. I clicked the refund policy.

Five years ago, I had done a unimpressive amount of training for my half-marathon. This manifested both in stagnant results and a painfully long recovery process. If I was to complete a marathon I would have to get serious about training. I hadn’t trained since.

Starting to train while snow is still melting.

Now I live in Canada. Most of my winter cardio consists of running for the bus, occasional snowboarding, and playing indoor-soccer once a week. I am not equipped for running in wintertime. I have a nightmare of landing flat-footed on a hidden patch of ice. I decided to wait until the snow melted off the side-walks before training. This would be ample time to do a bunch of anxiety-inducing research while sporadically staring down that refund button. The marathon was in May. The internet research results came in with the inevitable realization that a typical marathon training plan requires at least 16 weeks. I had about 9.5 left. Oops…time to compress!

My first run was a 10K in March. No problem.

My second run was a 25K in March, three days later. Problem. After what was a miserable snow/hail windy wet mix of garbage weather, I had completed a personal record (PR) in distance. My time included walking and was just shy of an additional hour over my 21K record… for 4 extra kilometers. Although I was happy for running such a far distance, I was horrified to think that I needed to complete almost twice that stretch.

Data 📈

Pacing, maps and no ads.

Doing research, there was a lot of mention of pacing. I’ve always been a barebones runner content without music or technology.

I thought I’d give a try at this whole harnessing technology thing. I was using Endomondo for the first 10 runs and then swapped to Strava. The data was delightfully insightful! The pacing brought structure and helped with energy management. I started to be diligent on pacing and discovered the beauty of running with music. The more I ran, the more data I was accumulating for benchmarking. I compared my performance on my regular route segments. I was able to test and calculate the pace I needed to hit the marathon time I was hoping for.

(I chose to stick with Strava because it’s a smooth application, has social features and it doesn’t feel like they are trying to sell me something every time I use it.)

Discovery and progress

“Ooo a new muscle!”

The positives of when you realize you are getting stronger by shredding muscle fibers in your body on a regular basis.

Spending 💵

After spending a lot of time looking at shoes online, I finally went in to a shop to grab some gear. After testing a few pairs with strides outdoors, I ended up settling with the ones that felt right. I also bought a hydration vest… mainly because running with a water bottle or belt for a silly amount of  hours sounds awful. Plus, I’ve always been a backpack kind of guy. I snagged some gels to keep from crashing.

Never Skip Leg Day, digital illustration
Posted byu/bionictoast

In hindsight, I should have gone to a few more shops to try out a greater selection of shoes. The pair I purchased were good all-arounders, but I’m wondering if there would of been a better one out there for my running style. (Since completing my training and marathon, I now have a better idea of what kind of shoes would suit my needs.) My running pace and tolerance for punishing my legs for a 10K vs long-runs vs race day were wildly different. Your perfect race day shoes (aggressive with less padding/elevation) and might be different than your perfect casual-run shoes (padded and softer on the ankle and knees). You might not buy the perfect shoes, but that’s part of learning what works for you.

I found shorts with kangaroo storage for your phone. Amazing! No need to have my phone dangle/slip off my arm. I use my old phone strictly for running because it’s smaller and it fits perfectly in the kangaroo pouch. Doubles of clothing that you like does make sense if you are running often.

Get ready to do a lot of laundry and for a higher electricity bill. Running multiple times a week means laundry becomes part of the discipline. On the plus side, sports gear dries really fast and is ready the next morning!

Nutrition can add up pretty quickly. On top of sports nutrition during training I craved a lot of healthier food such as fruits, veggies and nuts. The grocery bills were slightly higher, but I felt much better. Energy ahoy!

More physical activity means your body’s shape gets affected. My newfound super-sized pogo legs (I’m not even kidding) meant that I had a more difficult time fitting in certain garments. 

Take away: Get ready to spend some money. Previous clothes might fit funny or not at all.

Candy while running 🍬

As a teen, I discovered that just because there’s free food at race events doesn’t mean you should necessarily eat it. I had eaten many timbits (doughnut bites) before the race. In hindsight it was probably totally meant for recovery. Lesson painfully learned.

Seattle Mariners Cotton Candy Girl GIF by MLB – Find & Share on GIPHY

Because where else would you find monstrous home runs, mascots racing and just some old-fashioned bloopers in one place?

Managing sugar spikes mean staying on pace.

This time I followed a proper marathon nutrition plan and started experimenting with gels before the race. The concept of eating while running was very bizarre at first… until I began to starve when breaching the 20K mark. I discovered that this particular hunger and metabolism required consistency. Since gels weren’t enough, I ended up buying chewy gummies. How can running be boring if you are actually eating candy “for performance”!? I understand that it could be perceived as a low-value proposition: getting a piece of sugar for every 45 min of running. It may not make you want to run more, but it sure does add flavour! It makes your training look badass to amateurs. Veterans might eyeroll or know you are on a long run.

I personally preferred the GU gels and chews over the Clif gels. The gels were less starchy and easier to consume on the run. Opening a Clif gel felt like I was opening a sachet of glue and it consistently made a mess in my hands. Running with sticky hands: not fun. 

Take away: If you are looking forward to consuming a certain type of nutrition, then it’s the right fit. It means that you are getting the energy/drive to continue, and that it’s not having negative effects on your performance or motivation.


Extra quirks for extended reading!

Just open the accordions

Techniques and measurements 🌡️

The great outdoor 🌼

Oddities 👾

Discipline

The discipline that I developed over running has bled through other aspects of my life. Diligence, repetition and incremental gains are now easier to incorporate in life.

Takeaway: Everyone starts somewhere. Regardless if they are training for a marathon or for their first 1K, everyone can give their best to reach their goals. I’ve seen parents jogging with their strollers, newbies starting to run, amputee running on artificial limbs, elderly with half-strides, and speedsters blazing past me at incredible speeds. Everyone is pushing their own limits upwards. When you see someone running, don’t assume how far they’ve run.

Fear

Stress

Motivation by fear works. Not having “enough time’ to train was definitely a stressor, and I tried to harness that positively. Nonetheless, as race-day approached, there was ample of “What if’s” anxiety. 

  • What if I don’t finish?
  • What if I don’t fuel properly?
  • What if my split time doesn’t work out?
  • What if I get injured before or during the race?
  • What if I roll my ankle on the sidewalk?
  • What if I hit the wall?

Wonder wall

In early May I finally hit 30K. A new personal record! Once again, I am very happy that I could run all that distance only using my legs. I also hit the wall hard (bonked). Towards the end, I could run for 30 seconds, and then would have to walk immediately. Unable to move further I was defeated. I took the runner’s bus-ride-of-shame to get home. Wearing short-shorts and sitting down in the bus, I had to put my hydration vest on my knees to keep things decent. I kept wondering for the rest of the month if this was going to reoccur. What about race day?! How can I get past it? Cue research.

I spoke to my hardcore uncle about it. He asked me if I had pain in the knees or ankles after the 30K. Nope? He found that odd.

If you can do 30, you can do 42. It’s only 12 more really. It’s that easy!

His advice was to run 3 x 30K the weekends before the race. The secret was that the last part was all in my head.

I did not have near enough base-fitness to pull that off. It was getting way too close to race day for those distances according to my compressed plan. Noted.

Injuries

I play soccer. I sprint fast. I consequently get hit a lot more than the average player. This coupled with a compressed training calendar made me very wary of injuries. I did get injured a few times during training because of soccer and this pushed back a lot of runs. Closer to race day, I had to hold back at soccer intensity. I stopped soccer entirely a few weeks before the gunshot. With the training intensity, I also started to feel some constant strain in my thighs which left me taking a few breaks as I was probably flirting close to injury. Easy runs started to make a bit more sense.

Race day

Race day is a constant target on your calendar during training. You have a mental-countdown with how many days are left before the marathon.

My setup was ready before going to bed.

My warm up is the race

Practicing some photo poses while the elites warm up under the bridge with impressive strides.

If you’ve ever run a 10K or less, you probably have faced the throng of people cutting in and out to get to the water stations. I’ve almost run into a few people who decide to do a sudden full-stop because they don’t know the fold-a-cup trick, and received a fair share of cups in blindly thrown at me. I opted to wear my hydration vest with enough water for the first half and enough fuel for the entire event. Who cares what other people think, I’ll bite the bullet for the water weight. I knew exactly how much water I needed to avoid the early stations ordeals thanks to data.

I didn’t sleep much the night before the race. I was oddly ok with this. I knew that I just needed to stay in bed and that my body would be ready. A start-time of 7 a.m. meant a wake-up time of 5 a.m. to eat a good breakfast. Brutal for a night-owl.

I took my regular training breakfast, plenty of coffee and a pre-race snack. I showed up half-an-hour before the race only to remember that my warm up was actually… the first 5K during the race. I chatted with my family instead. I’d never ran 42.2 before, might as well save that energy. Meanwhile, you could see the elite runners warming up at twice my race pace. So fast! I had runner’s envy.

As I fixed my laces. I went to the portable toilet many times. I didn’t want to stop during the race unless it was absolutely necessary. It seemed like a lot of time running without going to the bathroom.

I made my way to join my time corral. I decided to go with the 4:20 group behind the race pace volunteer bunny. It seemed right according to my pace calculation and faster than my initial guess when I signed up online. We were getting close to the start. I didn’t feel squished. I had plenty of space to do final stretches. It hit me that the number of runners for a marathon is way smaller than a half-marathon (60% for this race to be exact). It then became clear that runners would become sparse very quickly. Less dodging, less wind drifting. Less to distract me.

Following my starting race pace bunny.

First half

When the race started I activated Strava and my race-day super-long curated Spotify playlist. Off I went! This was what I had trained for in blood, sweat and tears… from sweat in my eyes.

My feet were immediately uncomfortable. #%^#! I waited 5km to adjust them. This was repeated for the next 20K. It was incredibly frustrating to get passed by someone, pass them, only to have them pass you again while you adjust your laces. Other than this inconvenience, it was incredible as usual to have so many people cheering you on. 

My family were like photo high-five ninjas. They certainly covered a lot of distance. Some dropped me at the start, others were along the way. Some followed my progress online. The ones in Ottawa then trekked to other cheering stations. It seemed like they were there the entire time I was running and it felt encouraging.

Some running clubs were running as groups with matching shirts. A badass lady in a wheelchair had the same pace as mine. The sponges and mist stations felt amazing; a luxury you don’t have while training. With all this energy and novelty, I had to calm myself to avoid running too fast. Everyone was happy and cheery until we hit 21K.

Second half

I listened-in to my pace and time announcements every 500m from my app. When I got to the half of the race I heard that I had been running for 2 hours. I started worrying about going too fast. The dreaded 30K was coming soon and I never breached that distance. Everyone became quiet. Too quiet. My soccer instincts were telling me to yell at people to keep communicating. Most likely to motivate myself more than anyone.

Welp, there were less of us that’s for sure. I had my pick for water cups at the stations. No one was blocking my path anymore. I could focus on me and the road. I continued to focus on form, breathing and not overthinking. The hills felt good. The weather was good. I was having my fill of race candy nutrition. It felt good and blissful.

That dreaded 30K came around the corner and I was hanging on. I made it! I was raising my arms and wiggle-dance-running a bit. Everything past this point was pure personal record/personal best. Gravy. I just needed to cross that finish line. 

At 35K, my knees started hurting pretty bad. Poor things never ran so much before. Aha! This is what my uncle was talking about. I wasn’t cramping, it was just the legs not being accustomed to the distances. The repeated impact of the same motion. The cheering was still encouraging but I was slowing down. At 37K, I had to walk. I couldn’t do it. I walked. I hated the walking, I couldn’t even walk fast. My body was tired. My legs were saying no more. My shoes weren’t even bothering me in comparison to the whole body wanting to take a rest. Even walking was tiring.

Suddenly the 4-hour bunny zoomed past me with a tiny pack of runners. I deliberated for a bit. Should I let this time bunny volunteer get away? Do I really need this rest? My initial goal was 4:20 anyways. That’s when I remembered that 42 is just 12 more than 30. My body doesn’t know any better. I don’t feel dizzy, nauseated or light-headed. Just exhausted. Game on.

The chase

Smiling or cringing?

I chased that rabbit down and held pace. My body was saying to stop. All I did was follow that bunny one leg at a time. It was encouraging to see that everyone around me, apart the rabbit, was looking as rough as I did. We had all done the same distance. Then suddenly, the half-marathon runners merged with us for the last 4K. More people, more energy, more to weave through. The cheering became louder and continuous. Smiling spectators encouraging wincing participants.

Ferocious freezie

It turns out that the bunny was short and nimble. His capacity was well beyond our wishful finish-time. He was able to zoom through with ease while I had to run around clusters of tired runners. I was craving sugar. Anything would do. Serendipitously some spectators were offering freezies. I went to grab one. I dropped it. I was operating well beyond my known capacities, I needed that fuel. I deserved a freezie. Went back for it. They weren’t expecting me to. I thanked the guy for the life-saving freezie and chased back to my bunny. 

It wasn’t my imagination and my software confirmed it. The bunny picked up the pace to 5:09 min/km at 40K. The fastest I had done so far was 5:24 downhill… Our bunny was bonkers. Our bunny was playing a fast last 5K. Maybe he had briefed his previous members at the beginning of his pacing strategy? Maybe it’s typical for races? Maybe he had slowed down hoping his group would have recovered for the last stretch? It was only him and two of us now.

The last mile

As I reached 40K, everything was numb and in motion. I felt like I was pushing down the pedal while the no fuel indicator light was tired of burning so brightly. Who knows when my legs will stop?

I’ve always had the habit of emptying the tank for the last km, so I did. I pushed with my glutes. Thanks to my other sports, explosive sprints come naturally. The longer strides allowed lesser used muscles to activate. It quite effective and scary at the same time. You are hoping your legs are strong enough not to topple over. Give it all. Zoom past everyone. Good bye bunny! I was getting my last mile baby! 

It’s at exactly 42K that I was rudely reminded that a marathon is technically 42.2K. Oooof! That final-final stretch was 200m further than I had anticipated when starting my sprint. Time to overcompensate with arm swings! The big red numbers on the ending strip were like a beacon, officially and robotically doing their additions of time units. I saw 3:59 and knew my window was closing fast.

I finished with a time of 3:59:59. Exactly hitting my stretch-goal for the race of 4h. A perfect split time! I was ecstatic. All these weeks of training and research had paid off. My race went relatively smoothly. I promptly sat down. Received a celebratory phone call from more family. I then wobbled on to get my complimentary victory snacks. I took one of everything. I was then able to celebrate with my family over dim sum wearing my compression socks and sipping on tea. 

Barely made it faster than my second-last mile.

Post race

The recovery process went well. Apart the obvious soreness, I wanted to run! I was part of a new club of long-distance runners. I held back for 6 days before doing some soccer and a 5K. Everything went well. 4 days later I did 28K. I realized my knees hadn’t recovered entirely for the long runs. My pace was great! It’s at that moment that I realized that this hobby, maybe even a lifestyle, could be something I could easily continue.

I’m now at a slippery slope where rationalizing that a 50K is only 8 more than a marathon. It’s personally within the realm of feasibility. The 42 threshold has been passed. I also know that if I wanted to improve my time dramatically, I would have to run more often. 80K weekly to be exact. I’m not ready to commit to that extent just yet.

Sharing my experience

I remember my runs for the training. The one with hail, the ones when there was mist from snow melting in the hills with songbirds, the heavy downpours that lasted only moments, the scorching heat, running without crossing a single soul. Was it worth it? Yes.

While I was searching for information getting ready for the race, I stumbled upon a lot of stories of people on their first marathon. It helped me prepare. It set my expectations for and during the race. It humanized the experience. That it wasn’t easy. That it was a challenge for everyone, regardless if you finish or not. The race day performance is only the culmination of all those lunch-hours of effort. A race day is not an ideal scenario, it’s an experience. Weather and things can, and do happen. 

Recommended read for first-timers: Marathon Day.

I felt like I should give back. I wrote this story hoping to inspire someone else to confirm that training for a marathon, even in a compressed schedule, can be a rewarding experience. I included what I discovered along the way because to me it was more than just a finish time. I learned. Ultimately, the journey of pushing my limits was the main prize. Finishing and personal records are bonus.

A few months later

Since the marathon, I’ve continued to gather data. I completed my fastest 10K of the year, did my first trail run, survived a run after consuming a whole pizza with soda, did a 26K during a heat warning, ran another 42.2K for giggles, and finally signed up for a 25K night-time trail run.

I’ll keep running and experimenting while deliberating on the next fear-inducing adventure.

P.S. Thank you to David and Arianne for helping me put order to this work.

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