The Marathon Learning Curve

I ran my first marathon ever this past March. 

Finishing this marathon was arguably one of my greatest accomplishments; the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt crossing the finish line was enormous. Now, I look back at the months of training, which included hours of running and cross-training in tandem with braving icy and cold trails. Yes, I think of it as a rewarding time of self-growth and persistence; however, I also think of it as a learning experience.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Laico

Once I committed to this marathon, I had to start training almost immediately. I had run four half marathons before, so I wasn’t new to racing. However, running 26.2 miles is much different than running 13.1. Sure, you can train for half marathons, completing at least two or three longer runs (8–11 miles) before the race, but that’s all there is to it in my experience. Most reasonably fit people can do half marathons — it’s just resigning yourself to be in constant motion for two hours or so. The day of a half marathon, I wake up, eat a Clif bar, run the race, then eat a lot of food afterwards without thinking about it. A full marathon, on the other hand, is a completely different ball game.

I first downloaded a training program for runners like me: previous half marathoners attempting their first full marathon. The plan was pretty simple: a moderate run on Monday, cross-train Tuesday, longer run Wednesday, cross-train Thursday, short run Friday, longest run Saturday, rest on Sunday. It started off with the longest run of the week being a mere 5 miles, ending with it being 20 miles before tapering (drastically reducing mileage in the final three weeks prior to the race). You never actually run the full 26.2 miles before race day, as that would likely kill your body.

Initially, the training was straightforward, and I really loved getting into the rhythm and routine of it. However, once the longest run surpassed 13 miles, I realized I had to rethink things. I couldn’t just be heading out to run 16 miles during the week without being intentional about what I was eating before, during, and after the run. With a little research, I nailed down a regimen that worked for me: an electrolyte gel or block before the run, then another, plus half a granola bar every hour of running. Upon return, I would almost robotically start heating up water to make a big bowl of oatmeal, crack open a chocolate Muscle Milk, and pour myself a glass of Gatorade. I also invested in a lightweight running vest with a Camelbak so that I always had water with me. 

Even after I had nailed down my routine, I still had countless questions: What do I eat the week of the race? The day before? The morning of? Do I wear my vest? Do I wear specific types of clothes? Should I carry more food with me on course, or do I rely on what I’m provided along the way? I peppered my friend Kate with these questions, as she’s run four marathons and is currently training for an ultra marathon.

I read that I should eat a lot of nitrates, avoid greasy food, and drink a lot of water the week of the race. I did that to some effect, trying to eat leafy greens, beans, and beets whenever possible. I didn’t crush it — Kate was adamant that the carbo-loading should happen two days before the race, not one; and that the lunch the day before should be my last big meal; and that the last dinner should be light. My last day of eating before the race consisted of a giant French toast-egg-potato breakfast, plus half a custom cinnamon roll, a beer, then sweet potato fries and an Impossible burger. I clearly followed all the advice I was given.

I was definitely nervous before the race. I trained exactly as I should have, was overly cautious the month prior, and had eaten and slept to the best of my ability. I only feared that something would happen the day of — I’d wake up late, I’d get an unbearable leg cramp at Mile 17, or I’d feel so nauseous that I couldn’t continue. 

The day of the marathon, I woke up at 5:15 a.m. My dad got me to the start line by 6 a.m. I used the bathroom, ate an electrolyte gel, drank a 20 oz cherry Gatorade, and breathed until the gun went off at 7 a.m. I steadily made my way through downtown Los Angeles; the course was mostly downhill, and the uphills were totally manageable after training at altitude in Colorado. I think the toughest part was Mile 13 to 19, because I just had so many more miles to go. Once I hit Mile 20, I knew that even with a horrible leg cramp I could still finish the race within the time limit. At that point, my body was in quite a bit of pain, but the end was near.

As I ran down Ocean Avenue in the last half mile, the sun was hazy around the finish line, and I wondered if it really was the end or the 26-mile marker — meaning I’d still have .2 miles to go. When I finally verified it was the true end mark, I could only marginally speed up, and then it was over. I thought I’d be bawling, but honestly, my body was too spent for emotions. As I hobbled down the avenue, I was handed countless snacks and beverages that I could barely hold onto. When I finally made it out of the finish chute, I sat on a curb, surrounded by roughly 25,000 people, eating my Clif bar and drinking my chocolate milk in a stupor. It would take me a solid five days to walk properly again.

I learned a lot about training and my diet in the process. I learned a lot about myself — my ability to persevere with little-to-no help, running 18 miles on a given day alone, entirely self-motivated. I also learned that there is a marathon bug — there is likely another marathon in my future, but it must be under the right conditions. I didn’t take classes this semester, so I had plenty of time to train; that’s condition one. I’ll need to be inspired by a particular race and have a real desire to run it. And next time, I’d really like to run with someone; now that I know I have the ability to self-motivate, I don’t really feel the need to prove it again. We’ll see when those conditions align.   

Sarah Laico

Sarah Laico

Sarah is a junior from Warwick, New York. After being Head Writer of her high school paper, she has enjoyed continuing her passion for journalism working at the Catalyst. An outdoors enthusiast, Sarah loves to rockclimb, hike, ski, and trail run, and she also is a backpacking, rafting, and climbing leader for the Outdoor Education Center. When she is not editing for the Active Life section at the Catalyst or monitoring at CC's Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym, Sarah can be found playing drums and eating cereal.

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