Running my first marathon

First Marathon

It was 6:00 am on a cold Sunday morning in early October – I was up from bed and very excited. It was time to do it – time to run this thing. Somewhere between New Years’s resolutions and reading the history of Ancient Greece in my spare time – you know, what we all do on a casual Tuesday evening – I thought it would be cool to cross one more thing off the bucket list and finally experience what it is to be a marathoner. To bring the legend to life – sort of – in which the Greek messenger ran from the city of Marathon to Athens to announce that Persians have been defeated in the battle.

I didn’t have a message to bring. Nor would it be wise to run 42.195 kilometers just to deliver any message, as the start and end of the Munich Marathon – the one that I ran – are only 200 meters apart.

Instead, I wanted the experience, I wanted to know what does it feel like to run 3+ hours non-stop, what does the body tell you after 2 hours, what does the mind tell you, how high is your pain threshold, can you resist the temptation to stop, will you be able to walk afterwards.

Above all, there is a saying

The best thing you can do for your body is to prepare for a marathon. The worst thing – to actually run it

The first half of that saying always intrigued me (and I didn’t give too much thought to the second half). So I was very excited to apply and test all the knowledge I had about how the body functions, how best to train, how to eat and, of course, learn more during the process.

I’ve been preparing for this day for quite a while already and I have also documented/summarized my journey and some theory on this blog as well (read about it here).

My first marathon – race day

So back to that cold Sunday morning. I remember not being able to figure out what to wear until the last minute. From one point it was quite cold in the morning and the overall forecast was just several degrees above freezing for the day. On the other hand, I would be running all the time and you’re not cold when you run. Tough choices.

In the end, after applying all my knowledge of physics, temperature and aerodynamics I ended up dressing perfectly for the occasion – not hot, not cold, not too much not too less. That, however, came at the price of looking like a scuba diver – I was only missing an oxygen tank behind my back. Eins, zwei, Fashion Polizei.

The scuba diver. "Only" 10K to go
The scuba diver. “Only” 10K to go

As this was my first marathon, I couldn’t predict how my body would respond to such torture and, therefore, couldn’t figure out which pace should I run in. I ended up deciding to run by feel – around 10-15 beats lower than my threshold heart rate just to be on the safe side – that should have given me enough reserves for the second half. The idea was good, the execution was poor.

From the start I felt my legs are light and that I weight at least 5 kilos less (thanks tapering for that). I got too excited and the first part felt quick an easy, just like a training run. It all started going downhill shortly after the half point – the part when I started feeling I’m getting low on fuel.

My first marathon – the race

5 km – life is great, I feel like a butterfly

10 km – the speed seems right, people around me are nice, the weather is nice – all is right in the world. Heart rate is a bit higher than I expected, but I can’t drop it just yet, I’ve already made friends with that old guy in orange shirt

14 km – brunch time, food station. Picked up a gel, took me a whole kilometer to swallow it fully. I guess some is still stuck in the teeth. Dropped the pace a bit just to keep myself in the zone

17 km – oops, seems like a long hill ahead. Old guy in orange shirt went ahead. Oh well, I guess it’s age before beauty this time

18 km – shit, still climbing

21 km – half-marathon, 1:32 going strong. Still half to go – no problemo, bring it on

24 km – ok, what’s happened in the last 3km? I was descending, that should be easy. Legs seem to start getting stiff, I should drop the pace a bit

26km – I’ll drop it just a tiny bit more, that will not hurt anyone. Still optimistic

28 km – food station, time for proper lunch. I managed to pick 2 gels instead of one. Great success.

29 km – both gels out, no improvement. I start to remember how I used to think “what is this wall everybody keep talking about? After 32km it’s just another 10 and you’re there”. So young and so naive…

32 km – by this time I understood that it’s gonna be a real battle to the finish. Not against competitors, but against the violent brotherhood of pain and fatigue. I was loosing speed. Big time. My pace already dropped from 4:20 to 4:50 and the outlook was not in my favor.

33 km – hey, there’s my family – keep cool, show no sign of fatigue 🙂

37 km – last 5 kilometers left. By this time my legs started to hurt. I mean, they were stiff before, they were tired, yes, but they didn’t hurt. Now with every step, the side of my leg (IT band) was in serious pain and I thought about the next 25 minutes I’ll spend in such worsening condition. I remembered thinking before “hey, 5K is nothing, I can run that in any condition”. The universe was probably like “mmmm, let’s see what kind of condition I can simulate for you”.

40 km – pain is somewhere there, but I don’t really feel it that much. My legs are like two Belgian waffles. Mmmm, waffles… I mean, I don’t feel my knees bending, I just feel the impact on the road and the pain. At this time it seems appropriate to bring up one thing I saw at around 10K that kept me going – there was a lady holding a poster that said “First 20K you run with your legs, next 20K you run with your mind, last 2.195K you run with your heart“. I revisited that idea throughout the race, but at 40 km I really felt it inside me and the whole point of it became so clear to me. My legs hurt, my mind was playing tricks on me all along and only the heart said “come on, do it”.

Stadium.

Final lap.

Finish – 3:19.

Just to give you a small feel of how it was – here’s a short video made by my wife. That final lap at the end of the video – at the moment it felt as if I was walking. I couldn’t feel anything there.

Post-run thoughts

So how it actually went – I started rather fast and made a mistake already there. It felt good and easy at first, yes, but in such long races you need to hold yourself for at least a 1/3 of the race. Meaning, that you run first 1/3 of the race at conversational pace and then start picking up the pace gradually and accelerate in the last 5K (10K if you’re a stronger runner).

So my mistake was that I got too excited and did not expect what kind of impact it will have. I haven’t raced such long distances previously and neglected to stick to the conservative approach. At around 14 km it became harder to keep the pace, but I still carried on for a while. The hill at 17 km made me drop the pace, but once we were at the top I picked it up again. At half marathon mark I was feeling a bit stiff, but my time was still pretty good and I was still excited. Yet, I didn’t anticipate what would come next.

From 22 km there was a long descent – around 1.5 km – and at the end of it a couple of small hills. At that point I started to realize that my legs are starting to get heavy. My pace started dropping to 4:35 and even slower. Fatigue began to accumulate quickly and started to hit at around 30 km. At that moment I was counting kilometers between drinking stations and drinking 2 glasses of water/iso drink at each of those.

Last 10K I spent in a totally different state of mind. It was really about winning over your pain and weaknesses – everything in your body basically says you should stop and rest. But I did make a promise to myself that under no circumstances will it come down to walking breaks or stopping. I will run the distance at any cost and will resist anything that would keep me from it. Go hard or go home.

I knew it’s gonna be hard physically and mentally and that’s what I signed up for. I did it and am super proud of that. In the end, as with anything in life, it’s all about how badly you want it.

Below is my Garmin data for the marathon. The distance is slightly off, as around 10K were through a park with lots of trees. Can’t blame Garmin for that.

If you’re interested in cadence/HR/speed data, let me know, I’ll share it with you as well

My Garmin data
My Garmin data

My training program – results

I did not follow a specific program which there are hundreds of out there. I drafted my own program and stick to it throughout the cycle. I did not change the program much as I went, as it turned out to be working very well. I saw constant improvements in the average speed at the constant effort (heart rate) and that was enough to tell me that it’s good.

I started with a lot of base training at first (spring time) – lots of easy running, focused on improving technique, economy and general endurance.

Throughout summer I started gradually adding some speed and hill workouts to build some leg strength and improve the overall “cruising” speed. Sometimes I was more focused on good speed workouts than on weekly mileage (something I shouldn’t have done), but the change was not that big.

And that was it – I started with around 3 runs per week, in the end it was around 5 runs per week. During the whole process the main workout for me was the long run – I started with around 10K when it was cold in the winter and had a couple of 30-32km runs a month before the marathon to prepare for the distance.

One thing I may have neglected in my training program was the strength training. Some coaches advise not to combine strength training with preparation for the marathon, but the truth is that strength training will help to maintain strength in your legs that is very important for economy (like hill or interval workouts you do), as well as core strength is critical for good form and preventing injuries.

The biggest learning I’ve taken from this experience is, of course, nutrition. What foods are good for you and what are not. When to consume what, how to combine foods (there’s a whole science on food combining to maximize the digestion, btw), how to ensure you have something in your tank before the workout, etc. etc. I will start sharing these bit by bit on this blog (it will take me some time to put my thoughts online, just like with this post).

I didn’t do bad with my time, yet I felt that it was far from optimal (especially with losing speed in the last 1/3 of the run). I should have started in a much more conservative zone and run first half at around 4:40, pace (the one which turned out to be average) and start picking up from there. It would save me a lot of effort that I lost in the beginning of the run and which ultimately dragged me down at the end. It’s like with the car – if you’re going fast on a low gear the fuel is used fast, but when slightly slower, it’s more economic.

I didn’t have an exact time goal (just a vague “best case scenario goal”). I didn’t want to be tied down to the number, but rather enjoy the journey. I promised myself I will not walk, despite how badly I would want to. At every aid station my inner voice said “come on, just walk 100m, that’s not going to do any harm”, but once you start walking it’s so much harder and more painful to start running again.

I remember thinking right after the race – no more marathons, that was a good experience, but enough is enough. To be honest, now that the time passed and I’ve analyzed it – I want more. I want to do it again, but better. There’s so much to be improved to be done and I’m interested to see how that will turn out.

So now I’m preparing for the next marathon. I took a little bit more time off than I expected, so I’m still in the base training mode with lots of easy running. I’m excited about the journey ahead, though.

Lessons learned

Just a couple of thoughts I left for myself to keep in mind when preparing for the next big thing:

  • The more easy kilometers you will run, the better your endurance and form will be
  • Include maximum strength training in the base training period (2x/week) and include one session per week throughout the rest of the program to maintain that strength and work on core strength
  • Make sure you have enough time for lots of stretching and/or yoga throughout the week. Those muscles will get tired
  • Pacing is critical, first 1/3 should be run at conversational pace and then pick up
  • Nutrition is key – consume enough protein to help rebuild muscles and enough carbs and good fat to keep you going. If you want to run first thing in the morning – stick to 1-2 zones only, no hard effort, as your tank is empty
  • On the race day take a jumper you don’t need to keep you warm before the start. You can throw it out 1-2 kilometers into the race when you get warmer

That is it. That was my journey and some thoughts I have after doing it. Share it with others if you feel they need some advice/motivation on their journeys and also leave your comments below if you had a similar experience.

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