Start to Finish Lessons from My First Marathon
Odds are you’ve heard the marathon origin story in one form or another. According to legend, an Athenian messenger traveled the modern-day marathon distance of 26.2 miles to announce victory over the invading Persian army before dying on the spot. The first historical account, written by Herodotus, tells a slightly different story. Here, Pheidippedes, a trained runner, is dispatched to Sparta for help — managing both to cover 150 miles in two days and get in a brief (arguably hallucinatory) conversation with the Greek god Pan. Now, I elected for the legend-length version, but hey! There’s always next time! After 150 miles, I’d probably have some sort of religious experience myself.
I’m really proud to have put a checkmark on this chapter. But I was most surprised by how much running a marathon carried over into other parts of my life. I didn’t simply learn how to run long distances. Of course, that followed, but three other takeaways were more important.
The power of why
If you have a goal that requires work over more than one day, link it to a bigger purpose. I can’t stress this enough, training for a marathon requires A TON of time. In fact, it basically took over all of my free time. Key to being successful is understanding why you want to do this. If you can’t connect to some sort of internal driver, there’s no way you’re going to wake up at 5:30 am on a Saturday for a 16-mile training run in the pouring rain. Not just one sacrificial weekend. Every. Weekend.
Now, I’ve always had some talent for endurance running. Originally, I was deluded: thinking as long as I followed through with the training I would be among the fastest. But the idea of competing with the best was quickly shattered. There are plenty of men and women averaging sub-5:30 average mile times. For 26 miles! Amateur runners! Craziness…
Fortunately, being an early finisher wasn’t my main driver (which is hard to admit, coming from a recovering perfectionist). For my part, it was as anticlimactic as waking up one day feeling stuck. I felt stagnant in my career and lost in my personal life; I needed something, anything, to shake myself out of this. So, I ran. And I ran to test my mental limits as much, if not more, than my physical limits.
Consistency is compounding
There’s this Oscar Wilde quote “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” I added to my journal as a teenager. And while this gem still makes me chuckle, in this case it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Life expands when you are work-oriented, and not results-driven. Running a marathon practically embodies the maxim “it’s about the journey and not the destination.” What’s more, research shows that simply talking about a goal you want to achieve creates a premature feeling of fulfillment and pride. If you want to get something done, do the work and keep it to yourself — at least in the beginning.
Training time can stretch as far out as six months. It comes down to how much you are already running, together with your overall physical fitness. I met many people over the course of training who came at it from wildly different starting points. In fact, the two-time winner of the San Francisco marathon confessed his original motivation was simply to lose weight!
Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of what you want to achieve. If you have a goal, break it down into manageable chunks and do those small pieces every day. I didn’t fully appreciate this until the training runs started creeping up into double-digit distances.
Instead of saying ‘I’m going to go out and run 18 miles,’ I told myself ‘I’m running three sets of six.’ Giving myself permission to rest, slow down, and take pride in completing each set gave me a feeling of mastery, making the next time far less intimidating.
It will change your relationship with yourself
Unless you are a professional runner, (or one of those insanely fast amateurs) a marathon is really not a race. It’s more like a ‘last-man standing’ against yourself. I discovered the biggest barrier was the mental atrophy. It will be torture if you can’t stand being alone with yourself. Long-distance runners ultimately need to like the sound of their own thoughts.
At first, the idea of leaving for a run without my headphones sounded terrifying. What was my mind going to do?! It would probably implode from directionless sputtering. Like a brain without sensory input, I’d probably start hallucinating if I didn’t first collapse from boredom. But forcing your mind to be present while pushing your body to its physical limits is one of the most empowering experiences.
For most of the race, I felt solid. But something happened on mile 23. Out of nowhere, every part of my body started to scream: an ache that simultaneously felt dull and sharp. My body was ready for the race to be over, tired of holding itself in the same position. But in that moment, I didn’t feel angry or frustrated. I felt kindness for myself and the body that had carried me so far, bum ankle and all. This was the first time that when I physically faltered, my mind was encouraging and supportive.
The first thing I did when I crossed the finish line was collapse on the grass and tell myself “I’m never doing THAT again!” But, when it’s over, you may find, like me, that your conception of the race does a 180. Somehow, the pain faded and all that’s left over now is an adrenaline-filled, magically rose-tinted memory of extreme pride (and also the wild bear, eagle, and moose I saw during the race).
It doesn’t have to be a marathon, but the process of breaking yourself down to build yourself back up is worth more than anything. It’s also kind of addicting, which begs the question: what’s next?!