It happened around 15 miles in.
Up to that point, I was exactly where I wanted to be in my first marathon. I felt good, I had enough fuel and water, and the weather was tough (hot and humid — in other words, it was Austin, Texas) but manageable. I was on pace to cross the finish line in 3:35, with negative splits (slower for the first 13.1 miles; give it everything you’ve got for the final 13.1 miles) working in my favor. But then I felt something peculiar in my right foot. I had been dealing with metatarsal issues before the race, but this was different. This was worse.
And it kept getting worse with every passing mile, then half-mile, then kilometer, then step. By the time I got to mile 21, where a friend was waiting to help run me in, my foot was swollen; the burning sensation didn’t help, either. I didn’t give up and eventually crossed the finish line (4:14), but I didn’t feel like I’d just run a marathon. That’s because I hadn’t. I’d walked/run it.
For the next week, I was in a funk. I couldn’t exercise yet, which, when you’re used to the endorphin rush of an early-morning sprint, is a hard thing to adjust to; I was in physical pain from my foot; and I felt like a fake every time someone congratulated me on the race. But I hadn’t soured on running. If anything, I was more resolved than ever to not let that first stupid marathon define me. There’s a saying a running coach once told me: “No one ever does two marathons. You’re either done after one, or hooked for life.”
I was hooked.
Three months later, I ran my second marathon (and first where I was actually able to run the whole time) in 3:34. Is that the best time? Of course not. Was I capable of better, especially on a more forgiving (i.e. fewer rolling hills) course? Probably. But at this point, I didn’t care. I needed a confidence boost, and the second marathon provided one. My result time was where I wanted it to be because a) my injury had fully healed, and b) I learned a lot about running a marathon from the first one, even if I… well, you know the deal.
If you’ve done any research about running a marathon, you know the bullet points: don’t start off too fast, consistently drink water and something with electrolytes, take a Gu every five miles, cross train, don’t wear any item of clothing for the first time on race day, etc. But here are five less practical but still helpful tips I wish someone had told me before my first marathon.
1. You’re gonna feel things you didn’t expect to feel
You’re about to run 26.2 miles. It’s going to be hard. And painful. And boring. And you’re probably going to ask “Why the heck am I doing this to myself?” at least a few times (you’re not going to use the word “heck,” either). But I knew all that coming into the race. What I didn’t expect was to feel so vulnerable. To update an age-old philosophical question: if someone runs a marathon and they don’t tell literally everyone they know about it, usually through social media, does it still count? People LOVE talking about marathons, because, well, they’re really hard! But the downside of that is telling your family and friends to track you, either in person or through an app, and they watch you fail in real-time. I wasn’t just disappointed by my first marathon; I was embarrassed. Of course, no one but you gives a sh*t about how quickly you finished, only that you did, but that’s enough. You train every day for months and eat all the right foods, only to mentally and physically fall apart? Heck.
(Again, you’re not actually saying “heck.”)
That’s the problem. Here’s the solution: channel that vulnerability into something positive. Every time I thought about slowing down or even quitting during the second marathon, I thought of how ashamed I felt telling my running pals about my sorry time after the first marathon. Sometimes the best motivation is the thing that makes you feel the worst.
And with that corny adage in mind…
2. Find a mantra
It sounds silly, but it works! Your mantra doesn’t have to be one of those blurry photos of Minions posing with sunsets your aunt is always sharing on Facebook — it should be something that’s important to you. It can be the answer to “why you run?” or a photo of your daughter or a simple quote.
For instance, whenever I’m struggling with running, or even with life, I think of the season two finale of BoJack Horseman. BoJack is struggling to climb a hill (“I hate this, running is terrible”), and when he finally reaches the top, he collapses. Just then, a baboon crouches over him and says, “It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you got to do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” I have that quote — the “every day it gets a little easier” part — written on a rubber wristband that I never take off. It helped me during the marathon, and it’s a constant reminder that although things might be terrible now, “it does get easier.” Seek out your baboon.
3. Let’s talk about poop, baby
Let’s say you plan to run your marathon in an impressively quick three hours. That’s still as long as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (and if you want to finish in four hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King… the extended edition). And in those three-plus hours, you’re drinking water, eating energy gels, and your body is going up and down, up and down, up and down with every step. No lie: there’s a good chance nature is going to call.
It’s easy enough when you only have to pee (there’s no shame in just, well, peeing; no one will be able to tell the difference between sweat and urine, anyway), but what happens when it’s Poop Town, population: you? There are three ways to handle this dilemma: 1) hope that tight-knot feeling in your stomach goes away, as it did for me, 2) stop and quickly use one of the portable toilets along the route, or 3) pull a Louis C.K. Pray for option #1, settle for option #2, burn every existing photo of you from the race for #3. It’s unpleasant to think about, and disgusting when you see another runner’s brown-stained shorts, but the poop problem is something to keep in mind.
4. Run a race for fun
Marathons aren’t fun. I mean, they are in the days beforehand, and you feel great afterwards (assuming everything goes well), but they’re also stressful. It might be the only thing you think about for an entire month. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. So, two months or so before your marathon, run a race. It doesn’t have to be a half-marathon (it probably shouldn’t be, and it definitely shouldn’t be anything above that), but sign up for a 5K or 10K — you’re likely supposed to run that much that day, anyway. A race that short doesn’t take much preparation, the crowds are usually lively, and it’s a nice reminder that running should be fun. Crossing the finish line after 6.2 miles feels great. Now how amazing how it’ll feel after 26.2 miles.
They’re also an effective confidence booster.
About a month and a half before I ran my second marathon, I signed up for a Ragnar Relay. The idea is that you and up to 11 other team members cover 200 miles without stopping. It’s more enjoyable than it sounds. I ran about 18 miles total over three legs, including one six-mile jaunt at 3:30 a.m. along a Texas highway; the rest of the time, I was being schlepped around in our decorated van and hanging out. Talking with the other runners on my team, most of whom I had never met before (hello, NYC Soles), made me forget about my still-ailing foot. And when it was my turn, I went out and… ran. That was the lift I needed to prove to myself that I could still do this competitively.
5. Find the right closing song
Not everyone listens to music during a marathon. These people are crazy. Or confident. Or egotistical. Or all three. I hate being alone with my thoughts for a minute, let alone three-plus hours. You can try to talk to the other runners around you, but some people don’t want to chit-chat, and others physically can’t. Meanwhile, I’m 53% certain I started running so I had an excuse to listen to My Chemical Romance outside. Not that I needed one.
But even though you don’t HAVE to listen to music the whole race, you should at least put something on for the final (and brutal) six miles. That’s when you’ll need a shot of Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé or Metallica the most. And make sure you have something extra special saved for the final 0.2. Find a triumphant song, your very own personal “Gonna Fly Now.” There’s no feeling like running down the shoot while you’re (in my case) blasting “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson. You’re dedicated, you took the time.
Now enjoy the fact that you just FINISHED A MARATHON.