10 Things That Happen During Marathon Training

Well, I'm at the very end of my first ever marathon training cycle.  I'm feeling a perfect mixture of excitement and anxiety about race day.  These past months have been a fascinating journey, and now that I'm parked on the couch following this morning's 20-miler, I thought I'd type out some of my thoughts on the process.   I put in some photos from group runs, because...you know...

1.  You will learn fascinating new information about your body.

My right big toe is slightly longer than my left big toe.  In ordinary life, I don't notice the problem at all.  During marathon training, it has caused everything from a bruised toenail to joint inflammation that keeps me up at night.  My right hip is much tighter than my left.  I tense up my left shoulder when I am stressed.  I can't eat peanuts before a long run.

I would not have learned any of this stuff had I not undertaken marathon training.  It makes me wonder...what else do I not know about my body?  I'm 35, so there shouldn't be any surprises left, right?  Right??!

Midwinter running crew.

Beating the pavement on a Sunday morning.
 2.  You will learn fascinating new ways to distract yourself.

Any way you slice it, you will end up doing training runs that are 3+ hours in duration.  That is a loooooong time to be out running. 

I listen to a few songs on the iPod.  I chat with my running buddies (when I have the energy).  I watch the scenery or notice the weather.  I count the miles remaining, and convert them to kilometers.  I count my steps.

One of my favorite tricks is giving myself little cues to improve my technique or focus.  "Relax and do the work" is a calming favorite.  "Stand up," "engage your core," and "enjoy the ride" are all great cues for fighting fatigue.  "Pull your elbows back" is a great way for me to work on my own particular problems with running form.

If I'm having a particularly tough time, I'll use "psychological distancing" to talk myself through it.  It sounds weird and hokey, but it really works!

Up before the sun.

3.  You will become a master of pacing.

After the hours and hours of running required for marathon training, you get a really excellent feel for how your body is working.  For me, that means I can judge the pace I am running based solely on things like my breathing, my cadence, the way my arms are moving, etc.  This has been a huge help on longer training runs, and it's something I never anticipated.  It has been a huge relief to break some of the GPS addiction. 

With a pace group at the Vulcan 10k.

4.  You will eat more than you ever thought yourself capable of eating.

One look at my grocery bill confirms this.  And I always thought, "people who use running to justify overeating are just misguided...it can't REALLY burn that much energy!"  Well, as it turns out, a run that burns 1,500+ calories actually causes real hunger.  And it doesn't go away.  

I've learned to offset some of this by eating a good meal of complex carbohydrates about 24 hours before a long run.  My favorites are homemade pizza or steel cut oatmeal with a banana.  I also make sure to fuel during a run that lasts more than an hour.  Through trial and error, I've discovered that candy corn pumpkins (!) are the easiest thing for me to eat while running.  They has a nice, neutral flavor, and the texture makes it easy to either chew or melt in my mouth.  I've also had good luck with eating right after a run, even if it isn't "meal time" yet.

"Breakfast" before a long run.
Yep, food. 

5.  You will fantasize about exercises that aren't running.

Oh, how fondly I recall the days when I could spend my precious free time relaxing at a yoga studio, biking, or lifting weights.  Now, if I have an hour of time available, I use it for running.  I can't waste time on more leisurely activities.  Anything weight bearing carries a risk of injury or overtraining.

A "day off" still involves a short gym workout.

I compare it to the late stages of pregnancy, when you think, "man, once I have this baby, and am going to wear SO MANY FITTED WAISTS!"  Right now, all I can think about is how nice it will be to use a few days a week to lift heavy or swim or do ANYTHING besides run for three hours straight.  You know, the little things.

When things started to get serious.

6.  You will have very good runs, and very bad runs, and you will learn to live with this.

There will be days when you fly through your run, surprise yourself with record splits, and barely break a sweat.  There will also be days where you feel like your feet are in cement blocks.  With either type, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "welp, this is how every run is going to be from now on."  And then you end up either overconfident or totally discouraged.  The truth is, there are good days and bad days.  Heck, there are good miles and bad miles. 

Downtown for a course preview.
7.  You will reach a point where a ten-mile run is just a quick, pleasant diversion.

The first time I managed an 8-mile run (my longest thus far), I felt so amazed and accomplished.  These days, I catch myself saying things like, "I won't be gone long...only 13 miles on the schedule."  Yeah.  Perspective.

This map of a 12-mile run fills me with nostalgia.

8.  You will have running-related dreams.

This one caught me off guard.  Since the beginning of this training cycle, I have dreamed about the following:

- being forced to run in a gorilla suit,
- finding pizza at a water stop on my long run,
- waking up late for my long run, and having to do it by myself (horrors), and
- getting lost on a run in an unfamiliar area (a real possibility).

I've also dreamed about running to the point that I wake myself up thrashing around in the bed. 

Pacers with a 15-mile crew.
9.  You will talk about running until your family wants to strangle you.

The truth is, sometimes the most interesting part of my day is my run.  Work is a grind, family stuff is routine, and dinner isn't memorable.  But!  While I was out running, I may have seen a parade, cops, a wreck, a weird dog, a cute house for sale, a homeless man pooping, or a rainbow!

There will come a point where virtually any question you are asked can be answered with information about running.  You should probably avoid doing this past a certain point.  When your mother or your priest or your neighbor asks, "how are you doing?" you should probably avoid mentioning weekly mileage or your left shin.  

Another Saturday morning, 6 am.

10.  You will become abnormally focused on pooping.

...even moreso than during a pregnancy.  You're welcome.