How Not To Train For A Marathon

As the Chicago marathon approaches, I’ve been reminiscing about my first marathon. Oh what a wonderfully painless experience that was in which I barely broke a sweat and totally didn’t lose any toenails. I did not once doubt my ability or begin to panic half a mile into the race. And what a glorious finish it was: I leapt across the finish line like the delicate ballerina that I am, and cried tears of joy as I recounted my mind-numbingly quick finish time. Oh wait. That wasn’t me. This is what actually happened:

Within the first five minutes of the race, I was drenched in rain from an unrelenting storm that barely gave in the entire four and a half hours it took me to complete the race. At that point, I was running at the glacial pace of a 10:41 minute mile, which is essentially shuffle across the finish line. To give you context, some of the fastest marathon runners averaged less than a five minute mile. By the time I dragged myself across the finish line, it felt like my knees had been lit on fire and when I took off my shoes, I had only eight and a half toenails remaining. In other words, the marathon was no simple feat. Nor was it a pretty one.

My poor performance was entirely my own doing. I totally underestimated the amount and quality of preparation needed to successfully run a marathon. So other than several injuries that I continue to nurse today, I walked away with one thing: expert advice on how not to train for a marathon. By yours truly.

1. Don’t suddenly decide to sign up at 1 a.m. because your friend asks you to

I think everyone is guilty of bending the rules after a certain point at night. It’s 1 a.m. and calories don’t count and everything is infinitely funnier. I also felt this way, when I suddenly decided I was invincible and completely capable of running 26 miles, even though I wasn’t running more than three on a good day. The best decisions are made after 1 a.m., right?

Wrong. You will regret your decision the second you wake up. And you will hate your friend for asking you to do it with her.

Logistically, you also need the time to prepare, both physically and mentally. Physically, the average person with little running experience needs roughly 10–12 months to prepare. Mentally, you need time to wrap your mind around this fun little thing called “The Wall.” It is exactly what it sounds like. At some point during the race, you will run into a mental wall that makes you believe (and rightfully so) that there is nothing left in your body (because there isn’t) to keep you going forward (because you can’t).

2. Don’t be a fatty

Without a doubt, one of the most effective ways to train, other than running, is through diet. Experienced runners typically lose about eight pounds before the race to reduce the amount of stress on their knees and significantly shorten their overall time. Additionally, removing sugar and alcohol from your diet helps build muscle and prevents injury.

But, the problem is I am a sugar addict. So when I weighed the options of whether I wanted to give up sugar for a few months or suffer for four straight hours as my body felt as if it was collapsing beneath me, the choice was obvious. Sugar forever.

3. Don’t google “how to train for a marathon” the night before the marathon

Training for a race is like studying for a test. You’ll do well on your test if you take your time to study for the material versus cramming the night before. The same could be said for training for a marathon: you’ll perform your best if you give yourself ample time to steadily increase your endurance and understanding of what you have gotten yourself into.

While some magically get away with cramming for an exam and acing it, DO NOT BE FOOLED. This is not the case with marathon training.

Regardless, cram away I did. I was scrolling through running guides like a high school student frantically skimming SparkNotes an hour before their english exam (also guilty of this). You’ll eventually go down this giant wormhole of terrifying questions that other underprepared runners frantically asked the night before their marathon. Before you know it, you’ll come across headlines like “I Pooped Myself While Running the Marathon” and “Why Do Runners die during the marathon.” At this point it’s 3 a.m. and your race is in four hours. It’s too late, my friend.

4. Don’t trust your bowel movements

Lots of crazy things happen to your body during long runs. You panic, you experience runner’s high, you lose a lot of fluid, you feel weird pains, you get emotional. Some runners have sharper hearing by the end, while others report losing a few centimeters in height. For me, all the crazy things were happening in my intestinal region. You’re spending a sustained amount of time and an incredible amount of energy running, during which your intestines are being jostled around against their will. Which means your bowels might be confused and excited. Which means you’ll be getting cozy in the port-a-potty.

The race doesn’t end when you cross the finish line. It does when you find a toilet.

5. What you absolutely should do: Treat yo self

The only thing I did correctly was my post-race recovery diet. After expending so much energy, marathon runners can burn as much as twice their caloric intake. Many running guides suggest that after completing a marathon, spend the rest of the day replenishing those calories and sugar by eating carbs. This was one thing I could absolutely do. Within ten minutes of finishing the race, I had my finisher medal in one hand and two donuts in the other. I couldn’t feel my butt, but I felt like a queen.

While I don’t suggest my methods of preparation, I do encourage others to train for a race. Because while there were a few moments of absolute panic and my toes protested every step I took, I learned an important lesson: do things that scare you and relish in the moment that you do it for the first time. Conquering a fear or challenge is a permanent truth to yourself that you are always capable of more than you think.