How (Not) to Run Your First Marathon

Rita Kozlov
7 min readOct 11, 2016

How It All Started

One bright San Francisco Saturday… Just kidding, we don’t have those. Let me start over.

One foggy San Francisco Saturday, I decided I would go on a “long run”. I didn’t have a particular distance in mind. I figured I would run to the end of Golden Gate park, and if I was feeling up to it, I would then run back. I downloaded the Strava app that I knew a few friends of mine used from their Facebook sharings.

“If an event is not documented on social media, did it even happen” -Jean Paul Sartre.

The run was going surprisingly easily, and I was listening to Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast (I have a strange affinity for all things Cosa Nostra). I made it home, and checked out my Strava app, and could not believe the results — I had run over 15 miles at an average 7:30 minutes / mile pace! Amazed by my hidden skill that I had just been made aware of, I completely neglected to for a second question the data. It was unbelievable (no, really, I shouldn’t have believed it). Social media reaction of praise kicked in, feeding my (already bloated) ego. I’d thought before about running a half marathon. However, I just seemingly had already done so by accident. Runners high still overshadowing my best judgement, I thought fuck it: I should run a full marathon!

Yup, I’m definitely this fast and endurant

I started researching marathons in the Bay Area, but none of them were working out training-timing wise. I wanted something far away enough that I would have time to train, but not so far that I would lose momentum and give up. I can’t remember how I stumbled across the Portland marathon, but it was perfect. I figured, I would make a fun weekend adventure of it, I had enough flyer miles to go for free AND, in a city known for it’s burgeoning food scene, having a card blanche to indulge was a win-win in my book.

Flight was purchased with miles. Registration was purchased with money.

The “Training Program”

Did I follow a training program? No. I‘m a genius and don’t need experienced people to tell me there’s a scientific way to do this. Just run a couple times a week on the days when I don’t have Crossfit, and go on the occasional long weekend run to build up endurance. Here, I wasn’t actually too far off, turns out, this ad-hoc plan I had come up with, is pretty much what most programs suggest.

The Things They Don’t Tell You (or Maybe They Do, and I Never Paid Attention)

At first, I had this grand idea where I was going to go on a long run once a week in the middle of the week. It was July when I started training, and the sun would rise around 5am, so it seemed not unfeasible to go out the door then, and run until 7am, which would still put me at work by 8. This experiment quickly came to a halt when I encountered a very sketchy situation running really early through an empty Golden Gate park. Oh, the joys of being female. I now run almost exclusively up and down the panhandle, which is not without it’s shady patches (especially now that it’s dark out until 7am). It is what it is. I had already signed up for a marathon, and running is a thing that you have to do regularly to run one (general wisdom suggests).

Lesson learned: don’t run in San Francisco when it’s too early. Or too late. Or through Golden Gate Park. Or anywhere. Ever.

I expected that if you run a long distance your legs will be sore. That is a very straight forward thought. Much to my surprise, with the exception of runs over 15 miles, your legs feel just fine. The thing I didn’t expect, that I’ve never heard anyone talk about is the chafing. When I got back from the aforementioned 15 mile epic run, the first thing I noticed was how much everything stung once I got in the shower. You don’t feel it during the run, but once the adrenaline wears off, you can feel every stitch on your sports bra, your underwear, your pants. Why does no one ever talk about this??

Lesson learned: things are going to hurt.

The other untold victim of running is your cellphone. I’ve lost not one, but now two (well, technically, a phone, and a phone screen to running). The first in an unfortunate sports bra drowning incident, in which I learned that as convenient as it may seem, it is not, in fact, nature’s phone holder. Yup, I killed a phone with my sweat. I purchased a new phone, and an arm running band (in case you’re wondering, I purchased the TuneBand, which is quite nice to run with, however, the people there are so grateful for your purchase that they will harass you with emails, asking to rate the product, for weeks to follow).

A few weeks later, when my cat also found a liking for this running band, and chewed through it, I was forced to run with my phone in hand. In attempt to save face (very literally), I used my phone to dodge a graceful face plant.

Lesson learned: protect your phone, and then yourself.

The Last Run Before the Race

Since that fateful, supposed 15 mile run, I have gone on quite a few runs. I’ve followed the same course many times, as well as many others. One thing is clear from all my recorded runs: that course is actually only 10 miles, and I run at an average pace of 9 min/ mile. Yup, that epic run that started this whole chase (pun intended) was complete nonsense. And what better proof of it too, than the fact that my last run, which when actually charted out was 20 miles, only showed up as 14 on Strava.

Give me a break, Strava. It did not take me 3 hours to run 14 miles. One doesn’t simply cut diagonally like that across the city.

The Show Must Go Wrong

(Credit where credit is due: the subtitle is a joke from 30 Rock). I flew into Portland Friday night after work. I checked into my really cute, hip little hostel. I don’t know why I still think like a child and ask for the topmost bunk when given the choice — it’s actually really uncomfortable to deal with all your things, let alone put on skinny jeans from a lofted bed / really skinny ladder. I got my race packet and bib first thing in the morning. I spent some time roaming around the town, stopping by cute places for a snack(s). As I was partaking in one of my favorite activities — pondering upon the pastry section of a coop grocery store, a startling realization struck me. One of those realizations that make you question how you’ve made it this far in life. I forgot my running shoes. Yup. I packed up to go to a city to go run a 26.2 mile race. I brought a phone arm band, and a few different shirts, and downloaded audiobooks, but running shoes — nah. The poor lady I was buying shoes from tried making me feel better, saying “this happens more than you’d think”. It’s ok. Really. I can accept most shitty self-inflicted things as long as they result in a good story. And while we’re at it, here’s a short story: according to the forecast, it was going to rain the whole time.

The Race, or the Four and a Half Most Miserable Hours of My Life, or It Doesn’t Get Better

The forecast wasn’t wrong (apparently this is the 3rd time in the 45 years of this marathon that it was rained — lucky me!). It was miserable. The whole thing. I don’t feel as strongly about it retrospectively, but my past self knew that I would feel this way, and made a point of reminding to my future self, over and over: “I know you’re going to look back, and think that wasn’t that bad. This is that bad, Rita!”. By the end of mile 1, I was soaking wet. Avoiding puddles was a joke of a game since water was sloshing all over my shoes. The upside is that I didn’t even have to bother make most of the water go in my mouth at the little water stations. Whatever water I spilled on myself was a drop in a bucket. By the end of the race, I was so wet that I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to check my bag on the plane because there were definitely more than 3 ounces of water absorbed in my clothes.

Every mile was really long. There wasn’t a time when I thought “Wow! How is it mile 18 already?”. For every single mile the thoughts were “How the fuck is it only mile X?!?!!”. Miles 8, 9, 13, 14, 17, 18, 22, 23 were all particularly long.

Anyway, I kept running. And then I was done. I got a medal, and a chocolate milk, and I stumbled back to my hotel. I’m still very proud of myself. Am I going to run another one of these? Sigh, probably.