On my way to work last Friday morning I realized with alarm that I had not yet started to feel the usual excitement about running a marathon. At previous times I had experienced the intimidating pre-race anxiety already a week before the event and at that moment I was only 48 hours away from the kick-off in Amsterdam. Strange as it may seem, I felt relieved when the panic finally hit me at lunch time on the same day.
After all, running my 3rd marathon had become kind of important to me and when going through the inevitable agony that accompanies those 42 195 meters of pavement, then you actually need the mixture of fear, confusion and self-doubt as well as all the opposite to get you through it. I had prepared for this day for a while, having run for more than a thousand kilometers and a hundred hours over the course of 6 months. This was more than I had ever invested into this endeavour before.
I had witnessed the beginning and end of every season. The first patches of grass with tiny flowers emerging from the snow, the wonder of the blossoming forest in the spring and the sweet temptation of wild strawberries in the summer, the gush of wind by the seaside and the sound of dry leaves under my feet in the autumn sun. I had struggled with the heat and the cold. I had suffered a number of showers. I had seen more rainbows than ever before. And all of it for this purpose.
As every other runner, I was facing a fight against myself, wanting to prove myself that I can reach my goal. First marathon was about finding out if I can do it, afterwards it was about if I can do it better. In the middle of my second marathon things rapidly went wrong for me and I finished with a worse result than the first time, despite having actually trained harder for the second time. Only later did I understand that I was running with a wrong mindset and for all the wrong reasons.
Sometimes it is necessary to fail before you can succeed. This time I managed to improve my previous record with 29 minutes, finishing with the net time of 3:43:09, which was actually 2 minutes better than the maximum that I had hoped for. The most important victory over myself was not the time, however. It was rather the fact that for the first time I ran with a good feeling, minimum pain and sufficient energy level until the end. For the first time I didn’t collapse after the finish line but walked out of the Olympic stadium with a smile on my face.
I have come to think that running a marathon is a lot about finding the best strategy for yourself. There are some universal truths about what you should and shouldn’t do when preparing for the event and going through with it, which you can easily find with the gracious help of some googling. But there are also suggestions based on personal experience, which can prove to be helpful. With this marathon I decided to do a number of things differently and whether it may or may not work for anybody else, I guess it worked for me. Here are 15 ways how I ran a marathon differently this time.
1. Have less to carry
Before I took up running again I went to India and lost a few kilos. It was certainly not my goal since I felt pretty fit before but I discovered that it instantly became more comfortable to run and that it was much better for my knees. Even though I wouldn’t advise the same kind of extreme measures to anybody else, weight loss in general can make it easier to run.
2. Develop eating habits that work for you
On that same trip I also discovered that I don’t need to eat meat anymore. Since I always allow myself to eat a lot after a run and have never managed to deny myself anything sweet and full of carbs no matter what the hour is, I found it much easier to stay on the same weight level during the period of hard training when eating more vegetables and seafood along with all the desserts.
3. “Want to” instead of “have to”
To develop the right way of thinking over what I was doing, I mostly went running 4 times a week but I never forced myself. I tried to keep to the number of times and set myself weekly goals of kilometers but I chose to go on the days when I felt like I wanted to run, not on the days I had to. I never “punished” myself with a run. In my mind I said “I want to” instead of “I have to”.
4. Run longer distances
Another thing that I did differently was that I ran longer distances than before. Previously I ran about 7-8 km per time and one longer distance per week. Now the average run became about 10 km and the longer run about 12-15 km. Before the marathon I ran 20 or more kilometers on 7 occasions, one of which was 30 km. Long distances became less of a big deal like this.
5. Change running routes
I varied my running places. I ran more up- and downhill to train my pulse rate. I ran on the streets with less traffic, rather than driving somewhere outside the city centre. It took me less time to train even though I ran longer distances. I also found it more motivating to go running when I didn’t have to drive anywhere, let alone sit in a traffic jam.
6. Track your runs
I used Endomondo to track my runs. Never before has it been so easy to trace my general improvement in running. The most helpful thing about using one of those sports trackers is that they tell you constantly how much you have run and what is your average speed. I found it especially helpful at competitions. I used my watch only to check my pulse rate.
7. Vary the ways you run
Unlike previous times, I did more interval runs this time, varying the intensity of running from low to medium or high. Mostly it was for example 3 km with 140 pulse rate, 3 km with 150, 3 km with 160 and 3 km with 140 again. Again the Endomondo Pro app that enables you to create your own interval training proved especially helpful.
8. Find whatever motivates you to go for a run
I started to listen to podcasts in addition to music when training. It became more interesting to go running because I was looking forward to the next podcast. Music helped me more at the times when I needed to run really fast. After another long day at work, for example. For the marathon I made a special list with the most energetic music I could get hold of. I can only listen to it when I run.
9. Have your own goal, don’t follow others
I thought through why I train and what is my aim. The right kind of mindset is more crucial than to run mindlessly as fast as possible. It takes practice to choose the right strategy and pace for yourself and stick to it, instead of following others. That is why I went to a number of competitions to find out what suits me better and to prepare myself for “doing my own thing” at the final event.
10. Learn to know your limits
I realized that my true limits came out at competitions not when training. But of course without training I wouldn’t get to see the limits. That is why I chose to prepare for the marathon for a longer time – 6 months instead of the usual 3-4 months. I guess if I could stick to running without the breaks I keep making after the marathons, I could achieve even more.
11. Load as much energy as you can
One of the reasons why I burnt out on my second marathon in Tallinn, was that I had no energy left after the 34th km. This time I took my pre-marathon carb loading quite seriously. For the whole week before the event I ate chocolate and cakes along with pasta or rice almost every day. I drank a lot of liquid to keep myself hydrated. I only denied myself alcohol on the 3 days before the event.
12. Accept all the help you can get
The one thing about this whole undertaking is that you really need all the help you can get. I realized this before the marathon when I asked my former trainer to give me some advice on running as well as at the event itself where I had the best partner in the world who took my warm clothes before the race, handed me an energy drink on the 30th km and cheered me on at other times. It made all the difference because I already knew when I would need it the most and the result may not have been as it was without this help.
13. Appreciate the onlookers
Actually, all the people standing in this brutal cold and windy weather deserve some gratitude from the runners. It was great to finish in Amsterdam because after 38th km there were people standing and cheering you on at both sides of the track. I had not experienced it even in Copenhagen, at my first marathon. I wish that some day it will happen in Tallinn as well that the general public gets a bit more involved. After all, thousands of runners passing by is not a sight one can witness every day.
14. Run as fast as you think you can
You can really run as fast as you think you can. What a cliché but how true. If you think you can run a marathon with 3:30, you can. You just have to train a little harder. I didn’t want to focus too much on wanting to run less than 4 hours, however, because I was afraid to be disappointed in the end as I was after my second marathon. And I didn’t want to feel disappointed because this was not the reason why I decided to run a marathon in the first place, this was just a numeric goal. The journey is the reward as they say and it goes for running a marathon as well.
15. Have a new goal on the horizon
I have a strange relationship to running. I take it up, immerse myself into it and work for it to achieve the goal I set for myself. After the moment of truth that the marathon brings I let go and take a break. Well, sometimes quite a long break. By now I’ve discovered that I actually really like running and I don’t want to take a break anymore. That is why I have already chosen a new marathon for next year. You need a new goal on the horizon.
The only tangible thing that I remember myself thinking about when I was running these 42.195 km a week ago, was that if a marathon would be compared to climbing a mountain, then from my own experience I can say that 21st km is like reaching the base camp, 33rd km is like getting to the high camp and 39th km is like the last 100 meters of technical climbing parting you from the top.
When climbing a mountain you have to think about coming back down and when running a marathon you have to live with your aching legs for the next few days. The feeling of complacency and triumph is similar though.