As mid-January is now here, there are more than a few of you who are contemplating the spring marathon. Your training is ramping up. For many of you, this ain’t your first rodeo. But for others, this is going to be your first.
So this one’s for you. It’s a little like the 12 steps of grief. Of the 12 steps of recovery. A beginning, some pain, a light at the end of the tunnel and a (hopefully) joyful conclusion. I present to you the 12 Stages of the First-Time Marathon…
Stage 1: The signup. You’ve done all sorts of other races. The 5K. The 15K. The half marathon. A 25K. Doing the full marathon seems like the next logical step. So you do it. You’re filled with excitement, so much so that you make sure to let everyone know: “Hey y’all! I just signed up for the (name your event) Marathon! Yolo!” And so it begins.
Stage 2: Reality sets in. Like a good little runner, you get yourself a training schedule. Immediately your eyes gravitate toward the mileage on your long run days. The sked starts you out at 9 miles, and it only goes up from there. Within in a month, your long runs are approaching half marathon length, which is not far from your furthest distance. Yolo indeed, pal.
Stage 3: Dreading the weekends. First one month, then two. Past that, your weekly mileage totals are popping up into the 30s and beyond. And those long runs are now 15, 17, 18 miles. Then you do your first 20-miler. A distance PR, yay! Or so you tell your friends and social media pals. But the reality is you have discovered a whole new kind of hurt. And all those fun things that used to make up your weekends have taken a backseat to running, muscle/joint soreness and chafing. There is also the realization that your longest run is still well short of that magic 26.2. You ask yourself while the hell you’re doing this.
Stage 4: Feeling new strength. The pain, the time, the drudgery of training has begun to create new and much more pleasant things in your life. You’re faster. Leaner. Busting off 10 miles is no big deal. For fun, you start entering shorter races, and a slew of PRs follows. All those hill repeats, tempo runs, long runs and recovery runs – plus all the cross training – is paying off. In the back of your mind, you’re still wondering if 26.2 is possible. But for now, you’re enjoying the fruits of your very hard labor.
Stage 5: The taper. The three weeks after your longest long run, your mileage totals begin to drop off. Some people feel antsy, especially toward the end. Not for me. My body relished in the healing time, the shorter, faster runs, the easing of the schedule. Either way, it’s all in your head. Listen to the gurus who tell you to obey the taper. You’ll need your strength.
Stage 6: Race day. It all comes down to this. You laid out your race day gear the night before. Carbed up. Pinned your race bib to your clothes and placed your race chip on your shoe right before you went to bed. You don’t sleep much the night before, and you get up early. Eat. Get dressed. And then you head to the starting line. You make your way to your corral. Thousands of runners join you. Some look like studs while others look like they’re just shooting for a sub-6 hour finish. And there’s everyone in between. The atmosphere is electric. In my case, it was freezing cold, but it didn’t matter. I was psyched, bouncing around like a cage fighter getting ready to walk into the arena, with music blaring. Except in this case, it’s music pumped into your ears via headphones. In my case, the first song that popped up on my playlist was Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills.” How fitting.
Stage 7: The first 13 miles. It’s going great. You’re blasting the run. Especially those first few miles, man. You were practically flying, trying hard to hold back a little so you don’t blow yourself out. But the excitement of the event, the crowd, the other runners – it’s just too much. The race is, after all, your reward for months of training. At this point, you’re reveling in it.
Stage 8: The next 7 miles. Past mile 13, it hits you. To be more exact, it hits you as you watch the half-marathoners peel off to finish their race while you and a decidedly smaller group tarry on for the next 13. But the hubris of that first half is gone. Now the task at hand becomes real. Oh, and just when you’re half done, you see the cops on motorcycles clearing a path for the leaders. And then you see them, running so fast, so strong, and they’re almost done. You’re not. A few more miles, and those water stops can’t come soon enough. Now it’s getting hard.
Stage 9: Mile 20. Because of your newfound strength, because of taper magic, and because of the excitement of the race, you’ve been running faster than you’d normally run at this distance. But at Mile 20, it happens. You hit the infamous wall. You’re out of gas. Sore. Your joints ache. At this point, you are either physically hurting and mentally OK, or you’re physically hurting and mentally done. The former is better than the latter. With the former, finishing is a matter of time and will. Those last 6 miles might take forever, but they’ll get done because your mind is still strong. If you’re in the latter category, this is where it gets really hard. As in, going-beyond-yourself hard. I saw people quit. I saw people fall, get bloodied, then get back up and keep going. One dude blanked out, veered off course and ran right into a light pole. It’s at this point where everyone’s mantra is the same: Keep going. If they can’t, then they’re done, walking off the course in dejection, tearily calling someone on their cellphone for a solemn ride home.
Stage 10: The last mile. You’ve made it through the wall, doing so by either running a slow “zombie shuffle” pace, or maybe even walking a bit. Or a lot. But there it is, the mile marker that tells you there is just one mile left. If you’re lucky, it’s a flat or even downhill stretch. Crowds grow. You know you’ve got this. Your pace magically picks up. Even though that last mile might take a while, you know you’ve got this. It’s just a matter of time and forward motion.
Stage 11: The finish. By now, the crowds are there in earnest. You may even see friends and family, cheering from the other side of the fences. The finish line banner appears. Victory is at hand. You might walk, run, strut or crawl across that line (I did a touchdown dance). My memory of when I crossed is that I said, “Thank God that’s over.” Others were joyful. I saw one dude break down into tears. If you’re a first-timer, it’s an emotional experience, and everyone reacts differently. But there is one common thread: Pride. You’ll constantly mutter to yourself, “I can’t believe I just did that.” Celebratory high-fives, maybe a brew or two, and then the slow hobble back to the car, grinning contentedly.
Stage 12: The aftermath. What I felt once I stopped moving was that my hamstrings seemed on the verge of exploding. Walking was a real chore. A shower, some food, then a nap. Experienced marathoners will do a recovery run the next day, but chances are that won’t be you. You will be hurting. You may be injured. But in the midst of basking in the accomplishment, you’ll be asking yourself the inevitable question that was unthinkable during the height of your training. You’ll be asking, “So, when’s the next one?”