Ever since finishing the Chicago Marathon earlier this week (seems like forever ago already!), I’ve been wanting to write a post that compares and contrasts my two marathon experiences. I learned SO MUCH from these two races, and while running two marathons does not make me an expert (like, at all), I feel like I should share what worked and what didn’t so that other people can learn from my mistakes. So here are my notes:
1. Commit and Run Enough. I don’t think I had fully committed emotionally to the idea of training for a marathon when I was “training” for Providence, because I didn’t make enough time in my busy schedule to run enough miles each week. I still hold the belief that there is no need to run more than five days a week, but I also hold the belief that running four days per week is the absolute minimum when training for a marathon. I only ran three days per week in the months leading up to Providence, and although I always did the long run, my overall weekly volume wasn’t high enough to build general resilience; for example, running two or three runs too fast landed me with my IT band injury, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I had been stronger.
For Chicago, I amped up my training by running five days a week and averaging around 45 miles per week; some weeks, Lina and I ran as many as 60 miles. I recognize that 45-60 miles per week isn’t a lot to seasoned marathoners, but in a first or second (or third or fourth) attempt, it still is. It feels like you’re running all the time. But then this goes back to that notion of commitment, and the fact that training for a marathon is a HUGE undertaking when you’re first starting out. If you don’t feel like running has kind of taken over your life, you probably aren’t training enough. At least that was the case for me.
2. Separate Fast and Slow Runs. I made this mistake during BOTH training cycles: running too fast too often. Ugh. This is such a frustrating thing to write about because both times, I got to a point in training where running 6-10 mile runs at near-8-minute pace felt doable, and the excitement of this made me lose my mind and want to run all my runs at such a pace. During the Providence training, my mind forced my body to do more than I knew it could handle; during the Chicago training, however, my body was on board. I remember distinctly doing a very fast 6 mile run in September during which I barely even looked at my Garmin; I ran by feel and I was feeling fast.
The problem with that run was that it was followed by a 10 mile run at 8:35 pace, a second 20 mile run, an 8 mile run at 8:08 pace, a 6 mile run at 8:28 pace, and a track workout, in which I ran a sub-6 minute mile. I remember the 8 mile run feeling like a happy accident, just like the fast 6 miler was. The timed mile was not an accident at all, but since it was so short, I figured running it wouldn’t make a difference. But alas, it was the very next week that I started to have heavy, tight legs, a racing heartbeat, and poor sleep – all indicators of overtraining.
I scoured the internet for information on overtraining and basically it happens not merely from running too fast (obviously, if your body can do it, your body can do it!), but from running fast and not giving yourself proper rest before the next hard effort. (It’s not the ‘too fast’ part that’s a problem, it’s the ‘too often’ part.) Which brings me to my original advice, which is separate fast and slow runs. Just because you can run every run a great pace, doesn’t mean you should.
Actually, you shouldn’t.
Unless you’re an elite runner, most running experts recommend doing only two or three hard efforts each week, one of which is a long run. Another way to interpret this is that all but two or three runs each week should feel downright easy, which is not the same as doable.
3. Eat a lot during the taper. I found it difficult to eat a lot during the taper before Providence for a couple of reasons. First, I had stopped running as much, so my appetite naturally waned. Second, I was studying for finals and spending most of my hours on the couch with my nose in a book, so my sedentary-ness also caused me to feel less hungry than normal. I always eat when I’m hungry and try to never eat when I’m not, so I ended up only eating the amount required to feed a health-conscious couch potato.
Had I not been preparing to run a marathon, this would have been ideal. Unfortunately for me, I was, in fact, about to run 26.2 miles and dug myself into a caloric hole from which I couldn’t emerge. I hadn’t stored up enough glycogen in my muscles to successfully cover the distance. To be fair, the marathon distance is special because even if you do train and eat properly, muscle glycogen is still often an issue. But it’s because of this that you have to do everything in your power to tip the scales in your favor.
Before Chicago, I made a conscious effort to eat more than I wanted to. This isn’t to say that I ate until I was sickly full, but rather I ate every two or three hours and every time was more meal-like than snack-like. I usually eat this frequently, so basically I just ate slightly more at each feeding interval. I also followed the advice of numerous online sources that suggested consuming a higher-than-normal percentage of carbohydrates in the whole week before the race, rather than just in one large meal the night before.
4. Fuel and hydrate often during the race. This bit of advice appropriately follows the previous one because the general theme is the same: consume more than you think you should, but do so in frequent, small amounts. In both Chicago and Providence, getting water or gatorade at (almost) every opportunity prevented me from ever feeling dehydrated. I made the mistake in Providence of only ever getting water, despite knowing that I lose a lot of salt when I sweat. After I started walking at Providence, it wasn’t until I finished an entire mini bottle of gatorade (given to me by a nurse at an aid station) that was I able to resume running…sort of.
I also hadn’t perfected the timing of my Gu’s before Providence. In the long runs before Chicago, I determined that taking a Gu every five miles worked well for me, and during the race I followed this outline even when I wasn’t “in the mood” to take a Gu. If I do the math, I consumed at most 600 calories during the race, which includes four Gu’s and a handful of cups of Gatorade. My Garmin told me I burned nearly 2800 calories, which means I was still in the hole by nearly a day’s worth of calories. I eat a few hundred calories every few hours when I’m just sitting at a desk, so it only makes sense to do the same when I’m running for four hours.
I have to say, again, that the last 6.2 miles of the Chicago marathon were beyond hard. Just because I didn’t repeat past mistakes didn’t mean I was able to breeze through the race. In fact, there is a lot to be desired from my performance if you consider how much I slowed down during the second half. But the entire experience was so much better the second time around, and I attribute this to my learning a few of those hard lessons. If I ever do another marathon, I want to remember these things because a marathon should be hard because it’s a marathon, not because I made stupid training errors!