Plenty of books and websites offer marathon training advice. How do I run a sub-4 hour marathon? How do I properly fuel for a marathon? What’s the best marathon pacing strategy?
I read a lot of that advice. I tried to follow it. I’ve finished four marathons and plan to sign up soon for a fifth. I’ve benefited from many of those running tips, and disregarded others that didn’t help me.
So what advice can I, a mid-pack runner, share?
I want to share the lessons I learned nearly failing at a marathon. Read on and I’ll tell you what you can do to avoid coming as close to a DNF as possible without dropping out. You’ll want to read this because finishing a marathon in four hours is hard, but finishing one in nearly seven hours means true suffering.
Learn from my mistakes.
Road marathons and trail marathons are different. Really.
I’ve run two trail marathons and both had wicked hills. I suspect many of them do. The first trail marathon I ran left me beaten and bruised. The North Country Trail Run trivialized me. It took everything I had–and half a tube of Biofreeze–to not give up.I have mostly flat roads to train on. I sneaked in a hill here and there, but my training for this race included nothing like the gains or loses of hundreds of feet in a half mile that I encountered–repeatedly–in this race. The elevation profile for this race looks like the EKG of a patient in severe distress.
Flat trail marathons may exist. I haven’t seen them. “Respect the hills,” trail marathon veterans will tell you. Listen. Dial back your pace to a gentle plod. Then slow down some more.
I’ve seen runners who kill hills and then look eagerly for their next victim. I don’t have that kind of blood thirst for hills and I doubt you do, either. That’s OK.
Know your race. If you enter a flat race, train for a flat race. If you enter a hilly one, make hill training a key part of your regimen. This truism applies to road marathons, too, but doubly so for the off-road ones.
Your support team is there to support you. Use them.
I still don’t know why I didn’t reach out for a lifeline. I had my iPhone in my running belt. The antenna might not have picked up a signal except on the top of one of the *many* hills, but I bet I had coverage somewhere in that remote, northern Michigan wilderness.
After about mile 16, my legs felt like tree stumps. I climbed one hill and waiting for me at the top were the worst cramps I ever had. Both calves seized up at once and down I went. I waved off runners asking, “Are you OK?,” and gazed in a daze at the sky between the trees.
By mile 20, my legs transformed from wood to cinder blocks. Somewhere between miles 20 and 21 I stopped and couldn’t quite move again. It hurt to sit. It ached to stand. I opted to sit. A kind volunteer poured fresh, cold water over my head and shoulders, washing off the crust of salt and sweat.
I don’t know if pride or shame kept me from calling my wife. But I didn’t, and I regret it. Just hearing a friendly voice, her’s or my daughter’s or both, could have probably gotten me going again.
Pro tip: If an hour and a half has passed since the time your loved ones expected you at the finish line, it’s best to call. Aid station staff usually have phones, so no excuses. Your family and friends kindly came out to support you. Give them the courtesy of not worrying if you died in the woods.
“Would you like some Biofreeze?” asked one of the volunteers. If I had any enthusiasm left, that angel of a volunteer got the last of it. I slathered it on my entire legs and stumbled into the last few miles on a cloud of mentholated numbness.
It’s OK to listen to the voices inside screaming ‘Give up!’
Lots of people will tell you to never give up. They’re wrong. Marathons require tactics, like hill training for a hilly race or knowing when to tap out and ask volunteers to cart you to the medical tent.
Most people never attempt a marathon, so leave the shame for the couch potatoes. Attempting one and failing gives a runner a chance to run–and finish–the next one.
Finishing what you started is a natural instinct. I get it. But I should have ignored my instincts on this one. North Country has a two-lap 50-miler, and ultra runners lapped me long before I finished. How embarrassing is that? I tore myself up, had to recover in the medical tent, lost a few toenails and couldn’t walk straight for days.
But I finished.
And you can, too. But you’ll finish better–and likely faster–than I did if you train properly, have and accept the support of your family and friends, and know when to listen to your instincts.