My First Marathon: A Real Look at a Real (Rough) First!

Coach Casey · March 16, 2020

Reflection is important. A coach I used to work under always said that you should never think about “what went wrong,” but “think about what you can do differently next time.” You can’t improve without effort to look back at what you’ve already done. So, in an effort to follow that advice, let us look back at my very first competitive marathon race and see if we, together, can identify some things I can do better next time…

The History

First a little background. While I ran cross country in college it really was in an effort to be in shape for the track & field season. In the Spring I was capped at a race distance between 1500 and 3000 meters, by no means a LONG distance. Upon graduating and getting into road races and racing teams, the race distances slowly ticked up. Through 5k’s and 10k’s, I eventually landed at the doorstep of half marathons.

While living in Chicago and training with a competitive team (shout out to DW Running!) I found myself prepping for an inevitable crack at a marathon. I chose my race, gave myself plenty of training time (7 months) and got down to business. It was all planned out. My coach was great. My teammates were awesome. I had a strong racing and training background. I had immense race course knowledge and clearly defined and communicated goals. What could possibly go wrong?

The Plan…The Confidence

It turns out that in running, as in life, things don’t always break your way. Despite all the training and preparation my race did not go as planned. It’s always the little things that end up being your downfall in a long, competitive race like the marathon. For me it was a complete lack of hydration practice. Not the process of being able to stay hydrated while running, but the literal motion consuming liquid while running. Having rarely raced longer than 10k I almost never take advantage of water/aid stations in races. Even in half marathon races I knew I could finish without necessarily needing a cup of water or electrolyte-rich liquid. The marathon is a different beast entirely!

The game plan was simple enough and extremely well organized. I was racing back in my hometown of Burlington, VT on streets and paths myself and my family knew like the back of our hands. With my parents and sister there for support we mapped out (literally) a series of ideal spots for them each to be stationed with small mixes of water and Nuun tablets in 8oz, disposable bottles. I figured I could slug the screw-cap bottles without missing a stride. I was wrong. 

The Fall

I rolled through the half way point, hitting my paces, coming to 13.1 just a tad faster than planned and feeling completely in control. However, any marathon veteran could have told you that my last 5 miles of hydration attempts were going to come back to bite me. Up to that point, at race pace, without squirt bottles, the liquid at each of these perfectly mapped “hydration stations” ended up on my singlet more than in my mouth. Not wanting to sacrifice pace and position I, mile after mile, managed to drink maybe 2oz of liquid per bottle and spill the remaining 6 ounces onto my shorts. Not great…

On a humid Memorial Day weekend, my dehydration built and built and officially came home to roost around mile 16. Just in time for me to finish a 600 meter uphill climb. Could anything have saved me at that point? Probably not, I was too far gone. I was a zombie using a walker. I was Frankenstein’s monster blindfolded, in the dark, wearing weighted shoes. It was a picture of exhaustion, pain, confusion, and lumbering foolishness. 

Now, there were points of relief to be sure. I felt like I got my rhythm back around mile 18, but by mile 19 it was gone. Mile 21 brought some sense of relief as my calf cramps subsided briefly. However, as I turned into the final 5k they came back with a vengeance, screaming “You can run, but you can’t hide!”

The Redemption

Sir Roger Bannister once famously said, “The human spirit is indomitable. No one can ever say you must not run faster than this or jump higher than that. There will never be a time when the human spirit will not be able to better existing records.” In a true test of that theory of human indomitability, I entered the final 3 miles of my first marathon race in a truly treacherous state. Then, as I ran/walked/crawled along the shores of Lake Champlain, a marker of the final race miles, the words of Bannister finally hit home.

Whether it was a deeply engrained need to compete, or the knowledge that water was just a few miles ahead waiting for me, I managed a “ninth wind” (my second wind had come about 10 miles back). With a little, and I MEAN a little, pep in my step I weaved, and swayed through the final stretch of the race and crossed the finish line! Sweet relief! Shortly after collapsing in a heap with a bagel in one hand and and my crumpled bib in another, I exclaimed, to no-one in particular, “I am never F*&$@#! doing that again!” 

The Reflection

Anyone who has run that first marathon knows, no matter what the result, completing it and knowing that you purposefully pushed your body to those limits is a level of intrinsic elation that is hard to find elsewhere. Suffice to say my feelings reflected in the exclamation/expletive upon crossing the finish line didn’t last long. Before too long I had an itch to take another crack at the white whale of road racing. 

In looking back to that very first marathon race there are many things that I can do differently next time. I learned more about my body. About its needs over 26.2 miles and about how to match them. I learned about hydration and best practices. I learned that you’ve got to test EVERYTHING out in training before trying to execute in a race. This applies no matter how small or easy to manage you think it might be.

The most important thing I learned though, is that when challenged you can choose to embrace the potential for more positives and success ahead. It’s always out there, the potential to come out stronger and better than before. The potential to find positives in even the most atrocious, dehydration-cramp induced negatives. The potential to learn from an experience and do things differently the next time on your quest for success.

“The obsession with running is really an obsession with the potential for more and more life.” – George Sheehan

Getting ready for your first marathon? Don’t just take lessons from my experience, train properly with live, personalized run/workout coaching from professional coaches! Join Charge today and get started!

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