Short answer: put one feet in front of the other. Repeat until done.
Long answer: bear with me for 15 minutes (more or less, depending on your reading speed) and read the story of my first marathon ever.
How It All Started
In 2011 I decided to ditch all my near year resolutions and start a new approach. I called it “taming monkeys” . In short, instead of having year long goals and striving for them, I decided to have only 12 “monkeys” that should be tamed, one monkey per month. A “monkey” was a underdeveloped part of myself, or some promise I made in the past and never lived up to it. At the end of the month, I didn’t have any reward whatsoever, if the monkey was tamed. I just did for the sake of it. Like a game.
One of these “monkeys” was running. For years now, I wanted to incorporate running into my life, but, for one reason or another, I just couldn’t’. So, without any pressure, without any reward (or punishment, for what matters) I started to run.
I still remember my first runs. I started in a park, with the wrong shoes, the wrong approach, the wrong breathing technique. I couldn’t run for more than 300 meters, because my head was going to explode. Or so I felt. I was choking, sweating like a pig, my eyes got blurry almost instantly, I could barely inspire. After 300 meters I had to stop and walk for a while. When I was able to do 3 of these sessions in a row: 300 meters run, 100 meters walk, and reached my first kilometer, I was at the half of the month. And I was really, really happy.
Then I started to slowly increase the running sessions and shorten the walking sessions. With just 2-3 days before the end of the month I did 1 kilometer running. It was an exhilarating moment. It really was. Alas, because I started with the wrong shoes, I also injured my ankle and had to stop. But, somehow, the spark was there. I decided to move to the next monkey, and consider the “running monkey” tamed.
To make a long story short, I stopped running for 3 weeks and waited for my ankle to heal. At this moment, the fall as near, and, as a consequence of other facts of life, I decided to move out. I was still living in a suburb outside Bucharest, a remote and isolated place. For another month, busy as I was with the move, I didn’t run at all.
After I moved from my old house and settled down to my new apartment, I started to explore around, and see where I could find suitable places for running. Luckily, the National Arena (the biggest stadium in Bucharest) was just 5 minutes away, and it had a very nice running track.
I started to run in circles, focusing on not getting injured (the running track was softer than the asphalt, and I also shopped for some decent running shoes). At some point, I realized I was running 3-4 kilometers without stopping. But the winter was already there.
During the winter, I walked. A lot. Basically, I got rid of my car and pretty much every place I had to go, I was walking to it. Even if it took me one hour, I was planning ahead, and just walked. Soon I was averaging 7 kilometers of waking each and every day.
Then the spring came and I discovered some parks near by. I started to run there and, around May this year, I realized I can do 5 km, three times a week.
And that’s when I started to think about a marathon.
I kinda played with the idea for a while. I knew there will be a marathon in the fall, in October, and I wanted to run there. But I was still unsure about what exactly this was all about. Couldn’t imagine what 42 km of running may look like. So, I started to ask around and do some research on the internet. Meanwhile, I signed up for the race. Just to be sure. And to make myself accountable.
I soon found out that I had to increase the distance gradually and do at least one run over 20 kilometers within weeks before the marathon, and that a 30+ km would be even better.
During July I barely ran at all, because of the heat. Same thing about August, but it kinda picked up around the end, with two or three sporadic runs in the park. So, since the marathon was scheduled for October 7th, the only available spot for my long run was September. I did a 10 km run in the first part of September. Then I planned to do a 20 km run in the second part.
But, somewhere between these runs I signed up for an official triathlon competition, for the relay race. I was planning to do the running. In hindsight, this proved to be one of the best decision I ever took. I wrote a lot about this first official competition, so if you’re curious, you just go ahead and read the original article.
Suffice to say that I made a few friends and that I was exposed to a wealth of advice and new information, from people who actually ran a marathon (or where much closer than me to running one). Pretty much every one of them told me that I need to do a 20 km run before, otherwise my chances to finish the marathon were pretty poor. Some of them already had their 32km runs and they were still apprehensive about finishing the marathon.
With all that pressure, and barely recovering from the triathlon competition, one week before the marathon, I started my 20km run. Alas, something went wrong. I just couldn’t do more than 15 km. I simply couldn’t. After I got home, surprisingly tired and weakened, I started to do even more research. It proved out that I was eating completely wrong.
For months I was following Tim Ferris’ slow carb diet. It’s a very good diet if you’re mostly sedentary, but, if you’re doing a lot of effort, it’s not. You need real carbs, not just “slow carbs”. So, I was having one week until the marathon, when I decided to completely change my diet and go over the pizzas and pastas like a true Sicilian.
For a week, I ate almost entirely carbs. And, within 4-5 days, I started to feel a little better.
Apart from this dieting problem, there was another challenge slowly building ahead: a lot of people now knew about my marathon. I don’t know how, but I managed to tell to almost all my friends, acquaintances, business partners and you name it, that I’m going to do a marathon. First, it started as an accountability thing. Then, it became really pressuring.
Especially when I was talking to other runners, when I was telling them that my longest run was 15km, they were looking at me almost like I was insane. Some of them were telling me, politely: “well, in that case, it’s gonna be much harder”, other were simply smiling and I could see on their face they didn’t believe I was able to do it.
The day before the marathon I was so stressed out that all I wanted was to just deal with this marathon thing one way or another. I wanted to teleport myself the day after, somehow. I did a final shopping session (turned out the weather was announced to be pretty hot, so I took a headband and a knee support).
And then, it started.
My First Marathon Story
The day of the marathon I woke up at 7 AM and cooked some pasta for breakfast. Did my little bag, with the running teeshirt and some snacks, put on the running pants and shoes, put on the official teeshirt of the competition and left the house. I took a tram which was stopping near the location. The marathon was going all over Bucharest and some of the main arteries were closed. I walked 10 minutes until the start. I spotted a few acquaintances, said hello to a few friends.
I changed teeshirts and left my bag at the cloakroom. I was all of a sudden so light. Didn’t carry any water with me, or any other luggage, just an energizing gel envelope in the back pocket of my pants. Never tried one before, but I took one with me just in case. A few warm up moves and then I headed for the start.
I knew I will have to start very slow, because the temptation to keep up with the rest of the platoon was very big. So, I started really, really slow. One of my friends told me that this is one of the biggest mistakes at a marathon: you start faster, just to follow the more experienced runners, then, around kilometer 5, you choke. It’s much better to start slower, watch the guys passing you by and wait to pass them by around kilometer 30, when they’ll run out of fuel.
The marathon had two big laps, of 21 km each. I knew the roads, I knew the refreshment points and all I had to do was to run. I barely felt the first 10 kilometers. I was relaxed and listening to my body. I was very curious to understand if that carb thing had any influence at all. And it proved it had a big influence. I simply wasn’t tired at all, although I reached 15 km, my longest run ever.
During the first lap I tried to remember a few key signs, like a certain crossroad, or building, or even the signs telling the exact kilometers I was reaching. I decided I would have to come back for those signs in the second lap. I was saying something like: “Ok, that’s the National Arena (we had to circle around the National Arena), I will wait to see it the second time, during the second lap”. And so on for every major objective on the road.
The first lap was also the lap for the half-marathon, so it got relatively busy. Some of the runners were trying to make conversation, but I didn’t follow through. I’m usually a very polite person, but this time it simply didn’t looked like the right place for a casual conversation.
I ran at the same pace for the first lap. It was only when I got to the start again (that’s where the first lap was ending, obviously) that I realized I already did a half-marathon. And, to some extent, that was the moment when I realized I’m going to finish that race.
The second lap was very different. A lot less people were running now (the half-marathon was over). The streets were practically deserts, no noise whatsoever, just some people running through a silent city. I don’t know if it was because the excitement or not, but every sound was louder. I could her a guy 10 meters in front of me breathing. I could hear conversations from 100 meters behind me.
Then, something happened. I was planning to use the gel at kilometer 26. It usually kicks in in about 20-30 minutes, so I was waiting for an extra energy starting with kilometer 30. But, the moment I reached out for the gel envelope, I stopped. At that moment, I thought I hit the “wall” (the moment when your glycogen related calories in your muscles are completely depleted). But, looking back at it, I realized it was just a mental trap. Since I was thinking: “I need some energizing gel (or I planned to use some energizing gel, whatever) so I don’t have any resources left whatsoever”, my brain followed through and sent the stopping messages.
That combination between my intention to replenish my energy and the brain signals to stop – precisely because of that – made the next 5 kilometers horrendous. I think this was by far the most difficult part of the race. I was struggling to run, but then something commended me to just walk.
At some point, I made peace with the fact that I will walk and I changed strategy. I decided to walk and run alternatively, for 150-200 meters. And it worked. Soon, I was on a reasonably pace again. I felt my feet muscles very tensioned and, every time I was close to cramps, I stopped.
From kilometer 30 onwards, things went smooth until the end. Meanwhile it got really hot so I was pouring water on my head (to keep my headband, and, subsequently, my head, cool) almost every kilometer, and dreaming about some air conditioning. I started to feel my ankles getting painful and my breathe became a lot less effective. But, somehow, I stopped caring about all of this. All I wanted to do was to finish. I was hunting the objectives I picked during the first lap, and, every time I was recognizing some of them (look, this building, or this crossroad, or the sign saying 33 km) I was happy. And I got happier and happier until, at some point, I saw a sign with “40 km”.
And during those 30 to 40 kilometers I remembered what my friend told me about starting slow but keeping the pace. I think I passed by at least 30 people starting with km 30. It was incredible to see how I can pass them by running, while they could barely walk. Some of them were cheering me, some of them were just too tired to do anything more.
The 41st km I walked and the last one I ran. I finished my first marathon running.
5 Things I Learned From Running My First Marathon
I finished with no major injury (apart for some minor bleeding from one of my nipples, but I was so focused that I didn’t even realized that until I changed teeshirts). After I crossed the finish line and got my finisher medal, a friend came to congratulate me. She was on the half-marathon race and she knew I was going for the marathon for the first time. She was very supportive and looked really happy about me.
And that was the moment when I realized I just finished a marathon. But, somehow, it didn’t feel different at all. I just ran 42 kilometers, that’s it. From now on it won’t be something extraordinary. It’s just something I did.
As time went by, hour by hour, my body started to feel the effects of the running: I was kinda weak (so I hurried up to the first pizza restaurant and ate a huge one, along with a cold, unfiltered beer), my muscles were hurting, ankles were hurting and my face was hot (I was having a little bit of an insolation). But, as time went by, little by little, I also started to understand what I just did. Apart from being an incredible life experience, it also left me with a few lessons.
1. Ask For Advice. It Can Save Your Life
I was lucky enough to meet a lot of people who were more experienced than I was. Each advice I got from them was priceless. In hindsight, I realize that if I didn’t listen to them, I probably didn’t finish my marathon. Even more, chances to get injured were significantly higher.
2. If You Can Think About It, You Can Do It
Nobody believed that I could finish this (with the specific training – or the lack of it, to be more precise – that I had). But I did. Not in a “I’m gonna show you how flamboyant I am” way, but rather in a “I’m gonna do my best, and every time I do my best, something good will happen to me, no matter the immediate outcome” way.
3. Keep Calm And Carry On
Don’t look at others, don’t try to tune yourself in their tune. The start of the marathon – and the subsequent passing by between 30 and 40 km – proved to me again that you should just keep calm, do your own thing and don’t let yourself distracted by other people. Some of them are better than you, but most of them are just sowing off.
4. When In Doubt, Adjust
Between kilometer 25 and 30 I had to take a very important decision: it was either abandon, because I couldn’t run anymore, or a mix of running and walking. I picked the second option, and I finished my marathon. It’s more important to adjust to your surroundings and contexts, and just finish what you have to finish, rather than to try to prove yourself better than your are.
5. Keep Being Curious
Some people asked me why I signed up for the marathon, with as little training as I had. The answer is: curiosity. I didn’t know anything about “how to run a marathon”. And I was very, very curious. Now I know. But, just because I already know “ho to run a marathon”, it doesn’t mean I’ll stop being curious.
As a matter of fact, my next big curiosity is: “how to win a marathon”.