Marathon Challenge: Lessons Learned

Four Weeks.

Four Races. 

128.6 miles.

It wasn’t impossible. And when you consider the oustanding feats of runners such as Michael Wardian, Chuck “MarathonJunkie” Engle, Larry Macon, or the thousands of 50-StatersMarathon Maniacs, and Streak Runners, my personal Marathon Challenge doesn’t even register on the radar screen of impressive. It’s just some silly little mini-adventure I put together because I love to run long, hate stressing about PR’s, and want to take advantage of my good health to experience as much as I can. I learned a lot along the way – much of it the hard way. 

Know your strengths, weaknesses, and do what you love.  A very smart person once told me that each person has his or her own unique “orthopedic threshold.” For me, fast running and speedwork are a recipe for disaster. I pull muscles, I stress out, I get upset, and I just don’t do well when I’m trying to run really hard over a short distance. I was more scared of doing Wednesday-afternoon speed sessions than I was of running four marathons in four weeks. I look forward to the long slow distance runs at whatever pace I want. They feel indulgent. I rarely get injured no matter how many miles I cover, and I always feel better after I’m done than I did before the run. The point is, my Marathon Challenge felt doable. There was no dread about it. If there had been I wouldn’t have made it. My body didn’t fall apart. My spirit wasn’t broken at any point along the way. Lots of people called me crazy, but who cares. I wasn’t hurting anyone, and there are way worse ways I could think of to spend one’s free time.

You’re never too experienced to make a rookie mistake. Before I took the Marathon Challenge, I had 11 years and 24 marathons and ultras under my belt. During the Challenge, I went out too fast in a race, tried new foods on race day, spent too long on my feet on the day before the race, overdressed for races, and over carb-loaded on the day before the race. And those are just the rookie mistakes that I remember making. I’m not sure how much practice I will need to get it completely right, but I suspect that I will never be flawless. I’ll always find something new and stupid to do.

Take recovery as seriously as you take your training. Within minutes of finishing each race, I pulled on compression socks, ate some recovery food and drink with a healthy mix of protein and carbs, did the post-race recovery squat, and walked around. As much as I wanted to melt into the couch cushions, the movement made me feel better. I also indulged in at least 8 hours of sleep each night between the races. Luckily I was so exhausted by the night before each of the races that I wasn’t too jittery to sleep as I usually am.

Let the body be the boss. Before the races started, I had asked 6 different experts how to train between the races. I received 6 radically-different pieces of advice. I ultimately let my level of hurt help me make game-day decisions on how much to run, and whether to run at all. I felt so differently after each race, so my training changed pretty drastically too.  

  • Week One: After my first marathon in New York City on Nov.1, where I finished in 3:24, 16 minutes slower than my PR, I didn’t feel sore at all afterwards. I cross-trained the next day, did a 6-mile tempo run, rested, and ran easy before my next race, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, on Nov. 7. 
  • Week Two: I finished Indianapolis Marathon in 3:11 after going out way too fast, and paid for it later. For a full 4 days afterwards, my core was super sore. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I rested and ran easy until the Richmond Marathon on Nov. 14.
  • Week Three: About a mile into the Richmond Marathon, I started to feel the pain of Piriformis Syndrome on my left side, the first red flag that perhaps I was running too much too hard. It haunted me all the way through the race, but hasn’t emerged since. At Richmond, I ran 3:15, 4 minutes slower than the week before, and 7 minutes slower than my PR. After Richmond the only pain I had resulted from the face-plant I took on my 2-mile “recovery run” the day after the race. I skinned my palms and hips, and bruised my still-sore core. Because of this, I didn’t run at all in the week between Richmond and the JFK 50-miler, Nov. 21.
  • Week Four: I’d never shown up to any starting line with so much time since my last run as I did at JFK. As it happened, overdosing on rest was just the right move. Since I spent the first 16 miles of JFK walking and hiking slowly, I was sufficiently warmed up by the time the terrain was flat enough to start racing in earnest. After the race I spent 5 hours in the car driving home – not exactly the post-marathon recovery routine RW advises – and I paid for it later.

It’s taken a full four days to shake off that “first marathon” level of soreness. It hurt to move and it hurt not to move. Stairs were impossible. Everything chafed. I was bloody and bruised. I have been trying to use the stationary bike and attempted some yoga. But mostly I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping and complaining. There’s only one thing I can’t complain about: a race this weekend.

It takes a village. I have to thank my adorable husband, two girls, co-workers and boss, who endured months where I was absent for long stretches of time, or worse, present and cranky, picky, and all-around high maintenance. I also have to thank thousands of people who I never met, who sent encouraging words of support, congratulations, and reassurance when I needed it most. Usually, when I’m training for marathons I do my own thing and meet up with friends and running clubs whenever it’s convenient. But with the Marathon Challenge, I had hundreds of people out there 24-hours-a-day no matter how crazy my schedule got, to commiserate with and cheer on and be inspired by. Without them, there’s no way that I would have ended up at any of the starting lines as happy and excited as I did. I felt like we were in one giant race that started in waves, starting October 3, with the first marathons of the season, in St. George, Utah, and the Twin Cities, and continuing on, through marathons in Chicago, New York, Richmond, and Philly. I hadn’t thought much about online social media before the Marathon Challenge, but I am a convert. Thank you to all of my new friends and support crew out there. I couldn’t do it without you!

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