On setting ridiculously ambitious goals, and then destroying them.

Let me start by saying I’m not a runner. Never really enjoyed it, never was particularly good at it. But I am someone who’s focused on continuous improvement. So I’m going to lay out how I went from non-runner to completing a marathon in about 6 months.

Last year when I ran the Spartan Sprint, I felt okay with my performance in the obstacles but knew I needed to raise my game when it came to the running. As a bit of a casual data nerd, I knew that having a routine that could be measured and provide structure would work best for me. So come late-March of this year, I was starting to cast about for a training regime that would improve my 5k+ time for my race in June. My thinking was if I could work up to about 10k in endurance and get my intensity/speed up for 5-7k anaerobic runs, I’d be in good shape.

It was about this time I came across a copy of The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. It laid out a pretty solid plan to get people to cross the finish line. Written by academics in a pretty layperson style, the program seemed very achievable with no extraordinary measures. I like plans like this, straightforward with a high-rate of success, as long as you execute. I figured I’d just modify the plan, cutting 4 months to train for 42.2k on the road to 5-7k off-road, with obstacles. Essentially doing the first 4 weeks of training over 8 weeks, including the tapering for race day.

But then I thought, you know, why not just train for and run a marathon?

Doing a quick Google, there were two prominent marathons in Toronto, one in May and another in October. Clearly, I wasn’t going to train for and run a marathon in a month (because that’s ridiculous) but October very nicely lined up 16 weeks after my other race (and seemed, on the face of it, slightly less ridiculous).

The training program is focused very much on someone completing a marathon, not necessarily achieving their best result. And this makes sense for non-runners. Why spend four months training to hit some goal and then miss it by a couple minutes and feel like a failure? Going from non-runner to marathon finisher should be all win.

The basic level of athleticism required at the start of the program is the ability to jog continuously for 30min, regardless of speed/distance. My first run of the year (in January) was 3k in 15:30 and before starting my Spartan running training I was doing 5-7k runs in about the 23-37 minute range. Prior to April, I don’t think I actually ran continuously for 30min in the past few years before running Spartan training but the extra two months of training meant I had a pretty good foundation to build on. (My longest Spartan training run was 13k in 1:11:56.)

The authors mention they only had 1 person ever not complete a marathon, and that was a result of the individual not properly hydrating during the race. So it was always pretty clear that I would indeed finish, if I could get through the training. That actually became more challenging then I expected. Between the gym and 4 runs, I was putting in about 12-15 hours a week training. Finding that much time in my schedule is hard. Additionally, as training started ramping up in September, it became harder to move days around, since it threw off my entire week. So I had to say no to more and more things and eventually pay more attention to diet/sleep the night before — though that was generally only before the long run of the week.

My partner had noted this as being the biggest challenge before I started training, and while I knew I was in for a big commitment, I don’t think I realized quite how big. I also think she didn’t quite realize how much success I was having. One day in August, she asked me if it didn’t make sense to train instead for a half-marathon and I casually remarked that I’d already run one each of the previous couple weeks (for my long training run) and she was shocked. Though I did earn a cookie after my next run! I gotta say, having someone so supportive (and understanding) with all the time and effort I was putting in made things a lot easier.

I ended up with perhaps my worst training injury (a twisted knee) during the tapering period, which resulted in very limited mileage the final couple weeks before the race. The first time I ran my knee screamed at me for the first 500m of an 8k run and it took about 2-3k to really feel okay. And it stiffened up like nobody’s business that night. The second 8k I tried to do only really hurt for the first 150m, so better but still did not feel good the next day. Although the training regime really emphasized not to think about time, my data had suggested I was looking at about a 4:15:00 finish time with a realistic stretch goal of just breaking four hours. With the knee injury, I really just focused on wanting to finish the race and being okay if I needed to walk or rest.

When out on the course, it was fine while running but when I slowed/stopped to eat (read: choke down some energy gels), it was agony for the first 30m or so until I got back up to pace. But I just kept to my race and made sure not to push myself too hard. When I hit the 33k mark, I knew that I was going to finish. The longest training run I did was 30k (twice) and the book repeatedly said, if you can run 30k, you can do 42.2. The foundation was there and unless my knee completely seized (and I only had one last gel left), I could definitely cross. And my pace –surprisingly — was pretty much where I was expecting it to be, pre-injury.

As the final kilometres started ticking down, I realized my sustained pace was actually much faster than I had expected — there had been no drop off. The tapering and extra time off had done their work and my legs were feeling (relatively) strong and, because of my well-planned frequent eating, I wasn’t hitting ‘the wall’. Although I’d only used it a few times during the race, I started mentally chanting my running mantra.

This was one of the many mental exercises Whitsett, Dolgener, and Kole recommended in their book and I did use somewhat regularly in my long training runs. They gave some suggestions and I took some pieces from the examples, while also making it distinctly mine.

I am a marathoner. My legs are strong and my stride is smooth. I love to run long distances and I always feel great at the end. I run four days a week and never miss a run. My form is fluid and I am awesome. I am a marathoner.

The final couple of kilometres really pushed my body to its endurance. By the time I got to the 40k marker, my knee was starting to throb a bit but I could push through. As I hit 41k, I increased my pace and at about 41.9k I started to sprint. Or, rather sprint as much I could, after running for almost 4 hours straight. And with that last bit of effort, I was able to cross the finish line in 3:43:48!

Crossing the finish line!

Crossing the finish line!

So I pretty much shattered my goal. It’s not Boston qualifying time (which is 3:15:00 for my category) but was remarkably fast for someone who had never done a road race longer than a 5k Terry Fox-type run. And that in itself tends to shock people. Most people work up to half-marathons before attempting the full distance, if ever. I just jumped right to the end goal. For those folks, apparently 4 hours is a common time to shoot for, so coming in well under was a nice feather. I finished 984th out of 3599 finishers (3655 starters), which was in the top 27%. I was also in the top 34% for men and top 39% for my age category, beating the average and median for all categories.

STWM 2103 Results

2013 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon Results

As I noted at the outset of this post, I’ve never considered myself a runner. And throughout my training, I always assumed this would be my first and only marathon. I simply wanted to prove to myself that I could achieve it. But all those kilometres and my strong finishing time makes me wonder. If this was what I could do training just to finish, what could I accomplish if I set out to run my strongest marathon race?

I probably won’t look to do a full marathon next year, it’s just too much of a training commitment. Although I’m exploring running the Spartan Beast (20k+) in 2014, in addition to the Spartan Sprint as part of a team. And I’d be up for doing a half-marathon at next year’s TWM. But the year after that? Maybe a destination race one day? Who knows…

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