Marathon Running 101

What goes through the mind of a person who runs a marathon, let alone why does a person want to run a marathon? The answer to the first part of that question is complex, but in simple terms - a lot goes through their mind! The second part of the question is easier to answer - athletes have goals and for the elite few that is a gold medal at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games or World Champs. Those not considered as elite - the rest of us - we have goals that we want to achieve during our “sporting” life be it professional, amateur or recreational. For most who take up running the penultimate goal is to run the marathon, the Mount Everest of running!

The marathon has taken on a resurgence over the 30+ years I have been running. This has come about for a number of reasons - the Olympics, Commonwealth games and the ever popular marathon runs like New York, Boston (the worlds oldest marathon), and London. People are running them as part of a holiday package - that’s how I got to run New York. The resurgence has seen an increase in all ages taking on the challenge of the marathon and the organisers of the marathons have embraced this resurgence and incorporated walkers.

So the question still begs - why the marathon? My belief is that it is because of a number of reasons and not necessarily one simple reason. People are becoming more active again and creating “bucket lists” (another big thing having a resurgence), they are looking for a challenge that will test them or being challenged by a friend, they’re addicted to long distance running, or they enjoy travelling and running so they combine the two ( I did), or they are just plain curious about the marathon and want to find out what all the fuss is about.

Regardless of the reason why, the non-runner will still shake their head, ask why again and tell you that you are mad/crazy/insane. They might be right about the mad/crazy/insane, because at a certain point in the marathon I have found myself questioning my actions!!

Like most things in life, you can’t just wake up one day and go run a marathon - although that is how I ran my first marathon! My only saving grace was that I was already running and had two half marathons under my belt. Unless you are entering as a walker, to run a marathon you need to learn how to run. My analogy is before you can run you need to learn how to walk and before you walk you need to learn how to crawl - baby steps.

Marathon running 101 (MR101) is just that - baby steps and learning how to run and putting miles (km’s) into your “running bank.”The other big thing about MR101 is that you will hit barriers and hurdles along the way - niggles/injuries/sickness. So learning to listen to your body is another important aspect of MR101 and probably the hardest thing to do for some - especially those who become or are addicted to running (the “I must run at all costs” attitude/mentality). This is the most important part of marathon running that many ignore - listen to your body, it’s extremely smart and will give you warning signals that something isn’t right and if you don’t do something soon your body will act to prevent you from running any further - that can be severe cramping or if you haven’t refuelled it could be more serious or even fatal. So practice listening to your body during your long training runs - and your short ones.

MR101 is not a sprint, so take your time with your runs and also how you increase your mileage each week. Don’t do 2 long runs each week - this will lead to injury/fatigue/breaking down. The end result being that you may not get to the start line or if you do you probably won’t make the finish line!

 There are only 4 more key points to MR101, and these are:

  1. Don’t go out fast and hard at the start - the marathon kicks in around the 20 mile mark (32km).
  2. Set a realistic time for finishing the marathon otherwise you will place pressure on yourself to run harder/faster than you can over the marathon distance.
  3. Learn to run with even effort rather than setting a pace as any hills will mean your heart rate will go up as you try to maintain your pace uphill and this will lead to oxygen debt and eventual early fatigue in your leg muscles. 
  4. Always have a plan B for your marathon in case things go “astray.”

The above 4 points are usually what undoes most runners be it a marathon, half marathon, 10 miler or 10km. 

One final MR101 point I’ll leave with you. If you get into trouble during the marathon and you are listening to your body and you have acted quickly - i.e. stopped running, don’t come to a standstill sit down or stretch your legs unless you have reached a point of collapsing. If you feel cramping or tightness coming on slow down and drop into a fast walk. If you feel the need to stretch do so very lightly, otherwise keep moving. I hit trouble not long after 10km in my last marathon - an off-road in the wilderness marathon! I slowed my pace and kept listening to my body and just before cramp hit I would drop into a power walk. I eventually had to power walk for 8km and that played with my mind!

To keep myself focused I just concentrated on walking as fast as possible, maintaining fuel to my body and getting to the finish by walking all the way if I had to. I eventually was able to run again be it a shuffle/stagger/hobble, but my senses were heightened to what my body was saying and I was reacting quickly so that I could survive to the end. It took all my energy, my “running bank miles” and MR101 knowledge to get me to the finish and finally getting that great feeling of satisfaction/accomplishment that I completed the distance and it didn’t beat me.

So what goes through the mind of a marathon runner - a lot of “stuff!” Pain, doubt, confidence, pain, thirst, hunger, winning lotto, pain, the cold beer at the finish, questioning will I finish and pain. It’s a real mix of feelings and emotions that you will need to control and it is different for each and every one of us. Good luck with your next marathon even though you said to yourself, family and friends - never again. There’s always one more!!

Martin McKone