How did I feel running my first marathon and what did I learn from it

First Marathon

It was 6:00am on a cold Sunday morning in early October. I was up from bed and very excited about running my first marathon.

Legend has it that a Greek messenger ran from the city of Marathon to Athens to announce Persians’ defeat. I remember reading the history of Ancient Greece and thinking how cool it would be to run a marathon distance.

I was very determined to bring that legend to life someday.

But I didn’t have any message to bring.

Instead, I wanted the thrill of running my first marathon. I was curious to know how does it feel to run for 3+ hours straight. Or what is my pain threshold and if I can resist the temptation to stop or walk.

There is also a saying that I always wanted to test.

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

I was curious about the first part and not really thinking about that last bit.

I’ve used all experience and knowledge I had about how the body functions to draft a training program for myself. I shared it on this blog as I trained. The effect it had on me was enormous. It didn’t just structure what I already knew, but as I analyzed my progress I learned even more from the journey.

My first marathon – race day

Back to that cold Sunday morning. I couldn’t figure out what to wear until the last minute. It was my first marathon and I wan’t sure how my body will hold for 3+ hours.

It was cold in the morning and the forecast was just several degrees above freezing for the day. On the other hand, I would be running and shouldn’t freeze while running.

Tough choices.

In the end, I applied all my knowledge of physics, temperature and aerodynamics. I ended up dressing 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. An hour into the race I regretted putting on so many black clothes.

I couldn’t predict how my body would respond and wasn’t sure how to pace myself until the last minute. I planned to run by feel – around 10-15 beats lower my threshold heart rate to be on the safe side. It should’ve given me enough reserves for the second half.

The idea was good – execution was poor.

From the start I felt quick and lighter than ever (thank you taper). The first part felt quick an easy, just like a training run. It all started going downhill shortly after the half point. I really felt running low on fuel.

This post is more of a dramatic account of my first marathon. I wrote a race report with more practical information about the Munich Marathon.

My first marathon – dramatic race visualization

5 km – Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Bring it on!

10 km – speed seems right, people around me are nice, the weather is nice – all is right in the world. Heart rate is a bit high, but I can’t drop it just yet, I’ve 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. Dropped the pace a bit just to stay on the safe side

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

18 km – shit, still climbing

21 km – half-marathon, 1:32 going strong. Half to go – no problemo

24 km – ok, what 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, lunch time. Picked up 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 don’t feel my knees actually bend, I just feel the impact on the road and the pain. I saw this poster around 10K that kept me going throughout the race. It said

First 20K you run with your legs, next 20K you run with your mind, last 2.195K you run with your heart.

At 40 km I really felt enlightened 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

It was my first marathon and I didn’t expect what kind of impact the distance will have on me.

I got too excited and started rather fast.

It felt easy at first, but I should’ve kept the conversational pace until at least the halfway point. I would then have the power to pick up the last 10K.

Instead, I ran at a pace I expected myself to sustain throughout the marathon. At 14K it got harder, but I carried on. The hill at 17K made me slow down a bit and at half point I was feeling stiff.

I didn’t have experience of racing 2+ hours, so didn’t know that good at halfway doesn’t mean anything.

At 22K there was a long descent and some hills. At that point I realize my legs are getting heavy. Pace started dropping to 4:35 and slower. I began to feel fatigue and at around 30 km it started to become bad. I was counting kilometers between drinking stations and having 2 glasses of water/iso drink at each one.

Last 10K was about winning over the pain. Everything in my body said I should stop and rest.

But I did make a promise that under no circumstances will it come down to walking or stopping. I knew first marathon will be hard physically and mentally and that’s what I signed up for. I did it and am super proud of that.

My Garmin data
First marathon data from my Garmin

My first marathon result

3:10 isn’t bad, but I felt it was far from optimal. My second half split was 17 (!!) minutes slower – talk about bad pacing.

I should have started more conservatively and keep 4:30 for the first 1:30 hours and pick up from there. It would save me a lot of effort I really needed at the end. And my time would definitely be better.

It’s like with a car – going slower is more economic.

I didn’t have an exact time goal, though I tried to pace myself thinking what speed I can technically sustain. That was a mistake and led to a real mental struggle at the end.

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” and it was really hard to resist it.

The problem is that 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 better. There’s so much to be improved and I’m interested to see how that turns out.

I’m preparing for my next race now. I took some time off and am in the base training period with lots of easy running.

My marathon training program

As said, I drafted the program for my first marathon myself. It didn’t change much as I went and worked pretty well. I saw gradual increase in the average speed at the constant effort and that was enough to hint me it was working.

I started with a lot of base training in spring. Lots of easy running focused on improving technique, economy and general endurance.

Throughout summer I started gradually adding speed workouts to build leg strength and improve the “cruising” speed. Sometimes I was more focused on good speed workouts than on weekly totals, but it didn’t have a big impact, I think.

And that was it – I started with around 3 runs/week and built up to 5 runs/week in the end. 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 advise against it, but I think strength conditioning helps to maintain leg power till the end. I did include more core strength training to preventing injuries after falling of a skateboard and hitting my hip.

The biggest learning I’ve taken from this experience is, of course, nutrition. In particular, how to fuel for extensive training, combine foods for better digestion and sleep, etc. etc.

Lessons learned from my first marathon

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

  • Nutrition is king. Consume enough protein to help rebuild muscles and enough carbs and good fat to keep the body going
  • The best way to include a lot of running in an already busy schedule is to do it early in the morning
  • If you want to run first thing in the morning – stick to 1-2 zones only. Avoid hard effort, because the tank is empty
  • More easy kilometers strengthen legs and improve running form
  • Strength training throughout the program improves endurance and should be included at least 1x/week
  • Include at least a day of cross-training into your program to help to overcome running fatigue
  • Warm ups before the workout or a race improve performance and prevent injuries
  • Avoid overdoing it in peaking period and don’t only sit on a couch or run easy during taper weeks
  • Pacing is critical, run first half at conversational pace and adjust after that
  • On the race day take a jumper you don’t need to keep you warm before the start and throw away just before the start

That is it.

That was my journey and some thoughts I have after running my first marathon. 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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