Learning from my Marathon Mistakes

Just like babies must first crawl before they walk, fall many times before mastering the skill, and eventually take off running into toddlerhood, so it is with marathon running. I’m still a newbie to marathoning. Toronto will be #4 for me, so yes, I’m still new, but I have learned a thing or two. Maybe I could consider myself an adolescent marathon runner. I have learned something very important in all three of my previous races. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe my races as “mistakes”, I certainly made a few, and while some of them were dumb beginner’s mistakes, I was at least smart enough to learn from the experiences.

My first marathon was in 2013 in Hartford, CT. I had always wanted to run a marathon, but was secretly afraid of the distance. I wanted to run it before I was 30, because I figured after that I’d never do it. Then again, I always figured IF I even had kids, it would be after 30, and after the marathon. Instead, I ran the day after my 30th birthday and a year after my third child. I followed a beginners plan and struggled with pacing, with water intake, with fueling. Every long run left me exhausted and cramped. My hydration system jostled, hurt, and caused numbness in my lower back. Every brand of gel I tried caused GI issues. I always ran too fast. My longest long run was 18 miles. I was a little concerned that it wasn’t long enough, but I faithfully followed The Plan. I figured that because most of my training runs were at or near 8:00 miles I would have no problem pulling off a 3:30 marathon. I went into the race very cocky, very naïve.  I had given up on fueling and my hydration system. I was confident that I could pull it off on water stops and Gatorade alone. Of course, this didn’t work out so well. I went out too fast. I got hot, tired, crampy. I hit a wall at mile 18 and walked. I gave in & took a gel, which lead to intense GI issues. I deliriously stumbled through the finish line at 3 hours and 45 minutes. I was in pain for a week and didn’t get back to running for almost a month. It was disappointing to say the least. I ended up consumed by the “failure”. I had days where I was determined to try again, to do better, followed by weeks of never wanting to run another marathon again.

My second marathon came in Spring of 2016. While the 1st was a bucket list item, this one was simply to prove to myself that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t done yet. I ran Burlington, VT five months after having a fourth child (surrogacy) and dealing with eclampsia and a minor stroke.  I had spent too much time being bed-ridden and feeling sorry for myself when my friend egged me on to sign up for the race. I worked on finding a fueling system that wouldn’t destroy my gut (fruit snacks did the trick!), but I still thought I could go without hydration. It was cumbersome, it chaffed, and I figured all the aid stations would be enough. My training went well and again I went in very optimistic. I’d stay with a pace group. I’d eat my fruit snacks every 30 minutes. I’d grab water at every aid station. I’d do well…maybe even nab a BQ.  I wasn’t prepared for the heat. The RDs weren’t prepared for the heat and some of the aid stations were running out of water. I wasn’t prepared for the midrace panic attack either. Again, I went too fast and tanked.  The second half of the race was a mental feat to keep myself together, alternating walking and running, trying desperately not to cry or pass out, and to simply get through it. Severely dehydrated, starving, and slightly hypothermic, I fell through the finish line at four hours.  The four hour drive home was spent scheming my next marathon — my redemption.

The third race, revisiting Hartford in Fall 2016, was approached with much more humility. By now I had accepted that I would indeed need to hydrate. That I would need to fuel on the run. And that I would have to train long but slow.  I gave up on pace groups since I would be running in between. I was very much attached to my Garmin, though I did keep the 3:30 pace group in sight ahead of me. Beating 3:45 and running a smart, paced out race were my only goals.  There was no winging it this time. I had planned out everything; when I would take a sip, when I would take fuel, when I would speed up or slow down.  Mile 18 was again, a wall, but it didn’t stop me this time. I did slow down, and I did walk in a few parts due to a nagging hamstring, but I didn’t fall apart. I pressed on, allowing 20 second walk breaks when it got tough. But I got caught up in the second half of the race and forgot to take my electrolytes a few times. Then I skipped out on fuel. I got confused as to how much I’d had, how much was left. I began to feel insanely hungry and the sugar and water didn’t touch it. I made it through the finish line slightly crampy in 3 hours and 41 minutes.

So, now with two weeks until I run Toronto, I am approaching my fourth marathon with a few thousand training miles and 11 hours and 26 minutes worth of marathoning and perhaps just as many “mistakes” to carry me through.  I have learned that a long run needs to actually be long.  I know I hit my wall at 18, so I need to train well beyond it so that in the race, when I get there, I can hurdle past it and get through the last 8 or so miles. I have learned the importance of pacing and that running slow is good for you! Training runs too close to race pace won’t make you faster, they will just wear you down, wear you out, and deceive you for race day. Easy runs need to actually be easy.  The most important thing I believe I have learned from my past three marathons is that they are hard but I am harder.  A marathon takes a lot more grit than I had at first anticipated, but I was so happy to discover that I had it in me.  It’s strength of body and mind that completes a marathon, and it’s the ability to adapt and learn that carries you through your next one.

In my fairly new marathon career I’ve managed to learn a thing or two about the race, about myself, and about how to be a better runner. However, I’m very excited to see what I will learn in two weeks when I go after my fourth race. I know I still have a lot to learn and a lot more room for improvement.  I’m excited to see what I can pull off in Toronto– another 26.2 miles to learning something new and to being a better Mazy.

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