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Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done = Training for My First Marathon. What I Learned.

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In case it’s not been underscored enough here, on this blog, or elsewhere in the running community, training for a marathon — particularly your first — is not easy. It’s actually been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

You’d think that statement might be reserved for race day itself, but early on in training, I realized race day would be a relative piece of cake — barring unlikely and unforeseen conditions — compared to the hours logged on the trail, the early alarms, the constant hunger, the feeling of always wanting a little bit more sleep, and most importantly, the mental aspect of it all.

Here are just a few of the things I learned in the 18 weeks of training.

Sleep

I’ve always been a big sleeper. I feel best when I get 9 hours of sleep. Marathon training cut into that at times, and at other times amplified it — a lot. I found there were more times I was in bed around 9 or 9:30, sometimes even in the 8 o’clock hour. And originally, I felt a relative rest day on Monday — with only yoga and maybe a bike ride on the plan instead of my normal short run — would feel like too little given I am off that day. Instead, as my mileage increased, I found I needed to sleep in the day after the long runs. After the 18 and 20 mile long runs, even with a nap the afternoon after completing them, I logged 12.5 hours sleep the night after. And, I needed every minute of it.

Food

I definitely felt the increased hunger everyone warned about early on. I was running 30 mile weeks regularly when I’d been more used to 20 mile weeks. At first, I tried to keep calories in check, thinking I could lose a few pounds during training. My friend Natalie made me see the light — that might not be the best idea.

I decided to stop trying to eat less than my body needed and try to remain relatively in line with what MyFitnessPal told me I needed on any given day, without stressing too much. I also ate more bagels that I have in a long time. I needed something solid after logging 6-8 miles before 8 a.m. As time went on, the hunger subsided. I no longer was constantly starving by 3 p.m. or by 10 a.m. if I hadn’t eaten that bagel. Sure, it’d still be more hungry than pre-marathon training at times, but nothing significant.

Weight

With the thinking about my food changing, my thinking about weight also needed to change. I realized that gaining a few pounds, so long as it wasn’t to a point it made my runs slower or made me feel sluggish, was not the end of the world. For the first time in a few years, I stopped weighing myself regularly. I am pretty sure I went at least four weeks or more at one point without stepping on the scale. Before this, I’d been weighing myself basically every day — sometimes multiple times a day. The only time I’d skip was if I forgot.

Marathon training also made me rethink what I consider my ideal weight. At one point a couple years ago, that ideal was 125. I realized I was exercising a lot more and upped that to 128-130 to 1) consider added muscle and 2) have a range instead of a single number. Still, I struggled — I always seemed to hover around 135.

Now, I realized maybe my body was telling me something all along that 135 is the weight that works well for me.

Wait until you’re really ready

I originally penciled in running my first marathon in the spring of 2015, which would have been one year after I finished my first half marathon. I look back now and wonder what I was thinking. I got injured, and that changed the sketch I’d made in my head for that spring, but even without that, I know now that I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t respect the distance and hadn’t even run 3 half marathons when I thought about doubling the distance. That injury sucked, but it also changed my plans, for the better.

Summer is hot, but you acclimate (to a degree)

I cursed myself early on in marathon training when I fully realized how many of the super long runs would need to be completed in the worst heat and humidity that D.C.’s summers offer. With half marathon training, I only needed to do 10 miles max for a long run, and even then not every where. Now, 12 miles was my dropback mileage and I needed to run 14, 16, 18 and 20-milers on the higher weeks. That meant more 5 a.m. (and sometimes 4:45 a.m.) wake-up calls than I’d care to recount. But I got it done. By early July I’d mostly acclimated to the worst the heat could offer, and it made my runs significantly less difficult, even though I would trade them in a heartbeat for the cooler temperatures of fall or spring. Still, there’s something awesome about getting to the end of summer and thinking 75-80 degree weather without a ton of humidity is great for a long run.

Running with buddies is a must

During my week 3 freakout, the universe sent me a sign. At the tail end of a simply horrible 13-mile run, I ran into two other women at a water fountain. We chatted a little, and I asked which way they were headed down the trail. Same way I was. I asked if I could run with them. Sure, they said. What pace are you doing, I asked, praying it was something doable. Well, we do a 4:1. Huh?

Turns out the 4:1 is a run/walk method of running 4 minutes and walking 1 minute. I still wanted to blurt out but what pace is the run part, but kept my mouth shut and kept up with them. I really struggled on that run, and we were heading back slightly uphill and with the sun totally in our face. It was definitely a bit faster that I was capable of on that particular run, but I kept up. At a stoplight where we needed to head separate ways, we exchanged numbers.

The next week I met up with one of the two women — the other wasn’t available — and that’s when everything started to go right. Running with friends is a huge boost. I’d always known that and loved running with other people, but if I needed to log 10-12 miles solo, I was OK with that too. I spent the rest of marathon training running with one of both of the two women I’d met that day.

Pushing my limits

More than anything, I learned I am capable of far more than I thought. One week, I needed to move my long run to Saturday instead of Sunday, and I realized I could log 50 miles for the entire week — a new record. I pushed through, and it felt great accomplishing that goal. I also felt a surge of energy and exhilaration at the end of my 20-mile long run, when I’d instead expected to super eager for the end of it.

Knowing when not to overdo it

Let me be clear. I missed a lot of runs during training. Or at least it felt like a lot to me. I didn’t miss any of the key long runs, but I skipped some of the shorter runs when I got sick, felt run down and needed to sleep in, or just felt too sore to complete the run on the schedule for that day. Instead of trying to make it up later, I let it be. It was hard, but it helped me get to the start line.

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