1. We should respect the potential commitment and consequences of any activity we undertake.
2. When we do so, we often find that our limits are much further away than we would have believed.
3. To illustrate this, I interviewed my friend Will about his experiences in running his first marathon. Under 3:20!
Estimated Reading Time: 7-14 minutes
At first glance, this is a silly question, right? Or, maybe you think it’s another one of my patented clickbait titles, and I’m going to surprise you by saying that more people die from running marathons, or that injury rates are greater for everyone’s favorite 26.2 mile pastime than they are for running with the bulls.
Well, here’s the truth. I don’t know. I didn’t look it up because it’s not actually important for what we’re going to cover today.
One topic we are going to talk about is expectations. In doing online coaching for a program geared towards helping fix pain in the feet, ankles, and lower legs, I’ve come across a number of people who seem surprised that running has caused them pain. There have been multiple individuals who have entered the coaching group with foot pain, competed in races up to a half marathon in length before their pain had gone away, and then asked how soon they can expect to feel better because their pain became worse after the run.
It shouldn’t be a surprise when certain activities have negative consequences
By way of comparison, I’d like to give a little background on the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. A few years ago, I thought that I wanted to participate in this event for my 30th birthday, but it never came to fruition. Now I’m older (and wiser?) and don’t have the desire to do this anymore, but it’s still worth noting what I’d have been up against.
Six bulls are released into the street, just over one kilometer away from a stadium where the event ends. Anywhere from six to nine additional cows and steers are also involved, to help motivate any reluctant bulls. The herd covers the distance in slightly longer than two minutes, which is a nearly 4-minute mile pace. In between are 1,500 to 3,000 people, some of whom try to stay as far away from the bulls as possible, some of whom try to prove their boldness by running “on the horns.”
The point is, would anyone in their right mind be surprised that they got injured from participating in this event? I didn’t think so.
Is running long races any different?
Well, I believe we should hold a similar view about running a marathon. Fifty million people in the United States run regularly, and roughly 1.1 million attempt the 26.2 mile gauntlet each year.
Further, a very large number of them get hurt in the process. This study says that between 19-79% of runners experience a running-related injury each year. Let’s leave aside the ridiculous range of that data set for a moment, because even the low end is shockingly high.
I realize I risk offending some people here, but most of us have no business attempting something as taxing as a marathon or even a half marathon, unless we are willing to accept the risk of injury. We also need to respect the level of commitment, training, and sacrifice needed to prepare our bodies to reduce the risk as much as possible.
To help us all understand more about everything it takes to run one’s first marathon, I interviewed my friend Will, who recently did just that. For the rest of this piece, I’m going to share some of his insights and experiences, everything from the preparation to the race itself to the aftermath. We’ll cover the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual facets of the endeavor as well.
Running Your First Marathon
I plan to dive deeper into this question in a post scheduled for a few weeks from now, but for now, remember this. When setting any goal, it’s important to ask yourself why it’s important to you.
For Will, running a marathon was a personal “bucket list” item and an opportunity to physically push himself to his limits. He told me that he hadn’t really had an opportunity to do this since his college soccer career ended nearly a decade ago, and doing so was something he missed.
With that in mind, we need to make an important distinction between physically covering 26.2 miles on foot and running an entire marathon.
Will described the difference as follows, “You’re training to withstand grueling pain, and that’s a totally different concept than, ‘I want to keep an okay pace while I take in the sights, take a picture, or have a few sips of beer.’”
We both wanted to make it completely clear that if it’s the latter that describes someone’s goal, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Neither is inherently better than the other. Running the entire time simply requires a different level of commitment and sacrifice. So keep that in mind throughout our discussion. We’re referring to running the whole race without stopping, not simply completing 26.2 miles on foot.
It’s also important to note that Will finished the marathon in 3 hours and 16 minutes, a time which puts him firmly in the top 10% of runners in the US, closer to the top 5%. Not bad for a first attempt! It also illustrates that he was starting with a higher level of cardiovascular fitness than the vast majority of people, and yet he still described it as easily the most challenging thing he’d ever done.
Expect some physical pain
Will told me that it took him nearly three weeks to feel fully recovered post-race. He had intense levels of soreness in his quads and glutes, extremely stiff hips and lower back, as well as pain and suspected tendinitis in his feet. None of this was a surprise. The marathon is incredibly physically grueling, and the body is going to pay a price.
This price was incurred despite a four month training program that, in Will’s words, “governed everything” from his travel to his social life, nutritional choices, and participation in other hobbies. He gave up playing soccer for the final six weeks of the training program despite that being his biggest passion for most of his life, and attended a good friend’s bachelor party but didn’t drink any alcohol.
He also had to dramatically scale back on his typical workout routine, which meant accepting muscle loss and becoming weaker.
He told me that it took a few weeks to adjust to the new routine and respect the level of commitment involved, with the wakeup call coming when he “bonked” on a 14-mile run. This was due to him not eating enough that day and neglecting to bring any water. For those unfamiliar, bonking can also be called “hitting the wall,” and it refers to a point when your body either runs out of glycogen or reaches a point of dehydration where there is legitimately no way you can maintain your pace. No amount of willpower will keep you going. Your body is simply spent. Obviously, this is highly undesirable in any race, but for it to occur before what would be the halfway point showed, starkly, that he needed to change the way he prepared.
Luckily, this phenomenon occurring so early in training showed Will the importance of engaging with the “science of a thousand details.” No longer would it be permissible to do things like skip foam rolling after a day’s training session or forget to bring nutrition gels on a run. Everything mattered. In our interview, he told me a great line that had been shared with him. “It’s a 20-mile warmup followed by a 6-mile race.” This is because it’s the final six miles where all your training and preparation will truly come into play. For Will, the experience of “bonking” during training prepared him mentally for the absolute grind that would be the final portion of the marathon.
How ‘bout that mental side?
One of the concepts I mention frequently is the idea that we are not our thoughts. Basically, thoughts uncontrollably arise based on infinite combinations of stimuli and experience, and we have the power to choose whether or not to believe them, engage with them, and act upon them.
The final part of Will’s race provided an incredible example of this in action. For roughly the last four miles, he said he felt like he was “fighting for his life with every step.” He had pushed himself far beyond the point at which he’d normally stop, to the degree that he started worrying whether he was putting himself in actual danger of lasting physical damage or a heart attack.
Now, here is where things can get a bit tricky. The mind is going to respond to unfamiliar and challenging situations by telling us that there’s no way we can handle what’s happening. Sometimes, it may be worth believing these thoughts. However, Will described a somewhat peculiar-sounding scenario that occurred during this portion of the race that I’m quite sure many of us can relate to.
He said that the voice in his head saying, “You have to keep going,” sounded more “like him.” The thoughts telling him to stop were “Will from three months ago.” Now, I don’t have any concrete rules of thumb regarding how to differentiate other than to suggest that when it’s something important to you, you’ll know which voice to heed. In Will’s case, the drive to continue was stronger.
One of the things Will told me was that he wasn’t prepared for how emotional the experience would be. He said that upon rounding the last turn, the finish line looked like the Gates of Heaven. Hearing his loved ones tell him how proud they were made him realize how proud he was of himself, and how grateful he was that it was over. After the reality of the race’s completion had hit him, he broke down crying. The emotional release was incredibly powerful after all he’d put himself through.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the most common question he encountered afterwards was some variation of, “So, would you do another one?” It wouldn’t be a Never Past Your Prime blog post without me remarking on a detrimental aspect of modern society, so I’ll simply point out that we have a hard time letting anyone enjoy their accomplishments. We’re obsessed with more, more, more, and getting on to pursuing the next feat.
Luckily, Will didn’t fall into this trap. He told me that he can say with complete confidence he gave 100%, so he doesn’t feel the need to run another one, at least from the standpoint of attempting a PR. He may or may not decide to do so. And that’s freedom, right?
One of the other topics I was most eager to ask Will about was the concept of the “post-race blues.” He indicated that he did indeed feel a sense of purposelessness which peaked during the second week after the race. Because the training program had dictated everything in his life, not having a major goal to work towards made him feel a bit lost and adrift. He felt like he was starting from scratch and changing everything, which was daunting and demotivating.
He got around this by resuming playing soccer and his gym workouts, as well as making sure running was part of his regular routine. But mostly, time is the factor that will help us overcome feelings like this. Time and realizing that even when something as all-consuming as a goal like this has been reached, we’ll still be ourselves, and we’ll still be okay without it.
Some of the biggest lessons Will took away from this experience are ones I want to share with you here.
First, we have accepting the incremental nature of progress. He initially was frustrated by feeling like he wasn’t shaving time off his training runs quickly enough. He had expectations of a more rapid progression, and this continued to bother him until he came to terms with the amount of patience needed to reduce a PR by even 10 seconds.
The second lesson goes hand in hand with the first, and comes in the form of this gem of a quote common within running circles:
“The first mile is a liar.”
In the context of a race, how you perform at the beginning is a remarkably poor indicator of how the entire run will go. To clarify, a great first mile doesn’t rule out a poor overall performance, and importantly, the reverse is also true. This could be true in just about any area of life. As long as we respect the commitment of whatever it is we decide to undergo, avoid believing the thoughts that tell us, “You can’t,” and decide to find out what we’re really made of, we’re likely to be surprised by where our limits actually lie.
The final lesson is to respect the consequences of anything we undergo, while simultaneously bringing our expectations in line with the level of commitment and effort we’re willing to offer. Will accepted the risk of injury and post-race physical pain, sacrificed participation in a number of activities he enjoys, and let his training schedule dictate months of his life. Despite all of that, he considers running the marathon arguably the hardest thing he’s ever done. Plus, he had to genuinely suffer a great deal in order to be successful. Was it worth it? Absolutely. That type of commitment often is. And when that’s our approach, we can feel good about our decision to attempt almost anything. Maybe even running with the bulls.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Can you think of a time when you didn’t respect the commitment and sacrifice involved in something you attempted? Can you think of a time when you did? What did both instances teach you about yourself? Reply to this email and let me know!