Running a marathon: What are you thinking?

Mar 10, 2021

As a person who runs marathons, one question I get asked the most is "what are you thinking?" In other words, what in the h-e-double hockey sticks is a 6-foot-5, 240+ pound and some change (depending on the season) thinks he is doing running 26.2 miles? Or, what do I think about as I jog 26.2 miles? It is a good question and one I am more than happy to answer. I, of course, do not have all the answers, and the opinions and advice are strictly my own. I will break down "what am I thinking" in several parts.

Signing up: The first thing I tell people who are pondering the idea of running a marathon is to sign up for one. Not only sign up, but sign up for one where you have to travel to it. Also, lock down a motel room. Marathons are expensive (between $100 to $150) and commitment is key. You will notice that registration for marathons is cheaper early. The sooner you sign up the least expensive it will be. It is a commitment though and once you are registered, you are locked in.

Training: To me, this is the hardest part of committing to a marathon, but it is also the most vital. Training is where you learn how your body will react. This doesn't mean just going out and running, this means how your body will respond to certain foods, weather conditions and recovery. This is where you learn your pace and how often you should fuel. I like marathons in the spring because I prefer training in the cold of winter as oppose to the heat of summer. Summer training, you have to be up early to avoid heat. I give myself 26 weeks to train for a marathon. If the marathon is in late April, early May, I'll start training the week after Thanksgiving. The training is a modified version of the popular Hal Higdon's plan. I run three times a week and make sure I have at least a full day to recover between runs. The week starts for me on Saturday for a long run at my marathon pace. Tuesdays I run at what I call 10K pace and Thursdays I run at 5K pace. Each week, I will increase the mileage 1 to 2 miles until I peak at 24 miles on my Saturday run, 8 miles on my Tuesday run and 6 miles on my Thursday run. Last year, I incorporated biking and brisk walking on days I was not running. I also lifted weights for strength training. Your body will tell you exactly how it feels each day. Some days, you will feel fantastic and some days, you will feel terrible. The intense training does take a toll on your body. Diet and recovery are very important because if you try and run when your body is not fully recovered, you will get hurt, I learned that the hard way. Stick to a strategic game plan too. Do not veer. If you feel fantastic on a Tuesday run and decide to add some miles, you will pay for it. Write down your training in a journal. Describe how you feel, what you ate, your pace so you can see your improvement.  

Saturday runs: My week starts on Saturday with what I call "marathon pace." In my case, "marathon pace" is between 12:00 to 13:00 splits. I know I can maintain about a 12:30 pace for 26 miles. I might push the pace a bit, but not too much otherwise I will fade very quickly and the goal is to get in the miles, not PR. In previous years, I started at 6 miles in week 1 and finished with 23-24 miles in week 23. Weeks 24 & 25 are for tapering. Saturday runs are vital and help me assess how often I should fuel (every hour) drink water (every two miles) and determine my endurance. I tell folks it's all about the pace. It truly is all about the pace with long runs. Saturday runs require a lot of discipline, believe it or not. It's not just the "ok, I am tackling 18 miles today" it's telling yourself to back down at mile 8 when you know you have 10 more miles to tackle.

Tuesday runs: The second run of the week is what I call "medium runs." I'll start at four miles in week 1 and end at eight in week 23. Generally, I can run these at 10K pace (10:00-10:30 splits). I will attack some hills on these runs. I'll also push the pace. At my absolute peak, I can run a 10K in 55 minutes, so I might go into the 9:00s on some splits. Tuesday runs are a chance to blow out the lungs and push the quads. In the past, these were my favorite runs of the week. 

Thursday runs: The final run of the week is also the fastest. I don't care about tempo here, I just run. Generally, I'll run a 5K pace (8:00-9:00) but if I can go faster, I will. The training starts at three miles and concludes with six. These are tough because of the tempo and because I am sore from a full week. Mentally though, the Thursday runs are a break.

The Unpredictability of Running: All my life, I have been an athlete. I played baseball, football, and basketball. I played football in college. You can train and hone your skills to be a pretty good athlete in those sports. Running is a whole different story. I tell people, running will humble you pretty quickly because you cannot plan or plot for everything. For example, you might eat a bad burrito the night before a run and spend your miles fighting the urge to poop your pants. You might step wrong and twist a knee/ankle/hip. The weather could be windy/rainy/jump 20 degrees in 30 minutes. You might come out too fast and fade at mile 17 of a marathon. Heck, I had a lady who was walking and not paying attention step in front of me, and in my effort to avoid her, I tweaked my Achilles. This was at Mile 6 of the Eugene Marathon. Don't even get me started on the walk-pacers, as I like to call them. You know, the folks who run past you, and start walking thus screwing up your pace? Those folks are like the turtles in Super Mario Bros. They will mess you up. I have entered races feeling great and ran terrible. I have entered races feeling not great and ran PRs. While training does help you understand how your body will hold up in unpredictable conditions, more times than not, folks are disappointed. Last year, I trained for 20 weeks for a marathon that was supposed to happen in May only to learn it was postponed. I was as ready for that marathon as any I have run. The organizers moved it to October. So I hit the reset button on the training and BANG, I injured myself. Why? Because my body was conditioned a certain way and I did the cardinal sin, I altered the training. I also lost my lust for running, so when the organizers canceled the 2020 marathon, I was actually relieved. Because of two hernias, I stopped running in October. It's March and I have slowly started running again. Right now, I actually am starting to like it again even though I am huffing and puffing like a madman as I complete 1.5 miles. I am still signed up for the Avenue of Giants Marathon but will run it in 2022. I need to fall in love with running again. That is the goal for 2021.

Three weeks before the marathon: Tapering is my favorite thing to do while training. Instead of running 20 miles, I'll run 12 and it will feel amazing. So three weeks before, I'll adjust my training and the recovery will allow my body to be in top form by the time I enter the corral of a marathon. Think about that for a second. Running 12 miles is a breeze. That's not only your mental mindset after weeks of training but also your physical one. It's an incredible feeling to just run and run relaxed. 

One week before the marathon: This is where the nerves start kicking in. Of course, if you are trained up, you know you will be fine, but excitement is still seeping in. This is the week I visualize how I will run the course. If there is a hill on mile 8, I know my strategy. I'll stretch really well and work on breathing.   

Friday/Saturday before the Marathon: Depending on the distance Friday is a travel day. If the event is more than two hours, I'll give myself an extra day of travel, check into a hotel, and get myself settled. Saturdays I'll head to the expo to get my stuff, walk around and check out booths, buy an extra pair of socks, and generally soak in the atmosphere. That night, I do what I normally do on the night before my long run. I'll eat the same food (chicken salad) drink lots of water and rest. I try and get in bed before 9:30. Once my head hits the pillow, I try not to think about what will happen the next day. 

Sunday morning: I am up at 5 a.m. and immediately down some caffeine along with supplements. I need to poop and get it out so it doesn't strike me in the middle of the run. I'll eat a light breakfast (can of salmon and almonds) before stretching for 20-30 minutes. I'll poop one more time (yes, I know) before taking a shower and getting dressed. A warm shower is the best to get your body prepared. Once I am dressed, I am out and heading for the bus.

The start: I like to get to the starting line around 6:15. This way, I have plenty of time before the 7:00 gun goes off. Each run, I have been in the last Corral, which means my group won't take off until about 7:20. I will walk around, soak in the environment, eat a last-minute snack before standing in line to pee one last time. Lines to outhouses at runs are epically long but surprisingly, they move fast. By 6:55, I am in the Corral. I am focused. As music blasts and runners pace nervously, I think about those first few miles just as the cannon booms and runners begin moving forward.

Miles 1-6: The first two miles of any marathon are the most chaotic. You spend a lot of time and energy dodging and weaving runners. The first mile, I just try and move with the mass and slip through any creases that I can. People have headphones and are so focused, they don't pay any attention to those around them, which can create havoc. You also have group runners who spread out forcing others to whip around them. If anyone can remember the first two miles of a marathon, good for them. I could not tell you because my aim was to avoid the crush of people. By Mile 3, you finally get into a clearing and you can run at your pace. I obsessively glance at my watch and make sure the pace is on track. Then I will start to soak in the surroundings. Usually, by Mile 6, I will take the first of my Gu shots. 

Miles 6-12: I call these miles the most important of the marathon because this is where you really need to focus on your pace. Your body and your competitive spirit will tell you to go faster, as runners of all shapes and sizes and ages thump past you. Ignore it and them.

Miles 13-18: After Mile 12, you will lose all the half marathoners and you'll find yourself alone with no one in sight ahead or behind you. Now I can relax and just run. I make sure that my pace is good (12:00-12:30) and if I feel at all ragged, I will dump some almonds in my mouth. I take another Gu shot at Mile 13. It's here though you will have folks who run/walk. Every marathon, there is a group of two to five people who literally have an alarm and they run for a half-mile and then walk a half-mile. They will pass me, I'll pass them, they will pass me and we'll play this game for several miles. They are courteous and I generally just remain focused on my own run. 

Miles 19-22: Ok, now I am taking water every mile and Gu shots every 30 minutes. Some races have you run past the finish line at Mile 19, which is rotten. I am starting to feel it in my calves, even though I have sleeves on both. My pace (12:20) is still good but because I am tired after running for more than 4 hours, my breathing is more ragged. Those runner/walkers are way ahead of me now, but I can still hear their silly alarm go off and all of them shout in unison "go!" Maybe there is something to their strategy? People are lining the streets now and shouting my name. "You got this, Steve!" or my personal favorite "You are so close, Steve! Keep pushing!" Close? I am at Mile 19, seven miles, and change is not close. Close is less than half a mile. I see a row of runners ahead of me start walking. One guy bends over and struggles to catch his breath. All of this is weighing on my mental fatigue. I keep driving forward. One foot in front of the other.

Miles 23-25: It's now 11 a.m. and the sun is baking me. I believe the temperature jumped 30 degrees in the last hour. I am passing folks steadily while also being passed. Those that pass me offer me a breathless "keep going, looking good" as they shuffle by. I am passing more walkers at this point and the water supply that I carry around my waist is empty. I have one Gu pack left, which I will take at Mile 25 for the final push. My legs are jello. I have stopped sweating hours ago. A slight breeze gives me some relief, but I... I stop running and begin walking. Dammit. I look at my watch. Mile 23.50 and I am at 4:46. I ran more than 23 miles. I just need to collect myself as I put my hands on my hips and try a brisk walk. A guy catches up to me and we walk side by side. "Brutal," he says to me. Ok, this fella is disrupting my mojo, or what little mojo I have. "You got this," I say to him as I stride off into a slow jog. I look at my watch 23.60. I'll run to 24 and then start walking again. My pace is near 14:00 at this point. My strategy is blown up. The objective now is to finish. My calves are cramping and I can't really feel my feet. The sun continues to bake me, though I find some reprieve in shady spots. My watch lets me know I made it to 24 miles. I slow down into a steady walk again. My head is ringing. I put my hands on my head and take deep breaths as I walk. I'll take off again at 24.50. Just as I think that I look at my watch 24.48. Crap. Off I go into a slow shuffle, but now, I can hear the finish line.

Miles 25-26: The last mile of the marathon is where you want to look like a champion. Why? Because cameras will be popping and crowds will be gathering. Any relatives that came to support you will be on the sidelines. That is why I walked miles 23-24.50, so I can come in like a hero and not some walking toad. Once I see 25.50, adrenaline kicks in. All of the sudden, I get a second wind. I am less than a mile away. I round a corner, then another, as more people gather and cheer. This is what I trained so hard for, this moment. I cannot wait to cross the finish line. I see runners who finished walk past me urging me that the finish line "is right there!" I don't want to see the medals dangling around their necks because I want to be surprised. My watch tells me I am at 26 miles as I turn yet another corner. I can hear the roaring masses of people and music thumping.

26.forever: Hell yes! I go down an embankment, up a slight hill turn two more corners, up another incline, and... what the hell is going on? My watch says 26.42!! "Almost there!" a volunteer screams. "where the hell is the finish line??" "Up there! You are looking great!" I turn one last corner and... there it is. The finishing chute. I see a clock ticking away... 5:29... I won't PR today, but I will finish. With one last burst, I sprint into the chute, raise a fist, and cross. Someone throws a medal over my head and I walk through rows of people who continue to hand me things. A bag, water, food, chocolate milk... as I make my way into the post area, I feel both relieved and exhausted. Lactic acid is building up and I am walking like a frog. Someone takes a picture of me and I soak in the atmosphere one last time. It won't hit me for a while that I just finished a marathon. 

Post-race: Finishing a marathon is a badge of honor and one I am extremely proud of. Why? Because it is a commitment. Any able body person can do it, there is no doubt about that, but 90% of the folks walking around don't want to do it. This is why I get asked, "what are you thinking?" Followed by "your knees/hips/ankles will be shot by the time you are in your 70s", which is a silly comment. I started running when I was 40. Why? Well, because it is a scary thing to walk into a doctor's office and hear you have high blood pressure and you are overweight. When the doctor said I needed more cardio exercise, I took up running. And I hated it. I hated it with a passion because it's hard and it hurt. But here is the thing, most people don't know how to run properly. I certainly didn't. The idea is not to go out and run as fast and as hard as you can. The idea is to relax into a steady pace. To breathe and move. People will ask me how fast I can run. What are my splits? It's similar to people in the gym asking how much you bench so they can see if they measure up. Unless someone is a professional runner or an avid runner, anyone who says they run sub 8:00 is lying. Most of us mortals who run steadily are between 8:50-11:00. Hell, if I can maintain a 9:00 for more than three miles, that is great. So, what am I thinking? I think it's pretty awesome and I am very proud of finishing a marathon, as should anyone who finishes one. I brag about my three marathons, put them on my resume, and proudly display my medals in my bedroom. I never run marathons for anyone but myself and it's pretty cool to say out loud, I ran a marathon. That is what I am thinking.  


Most Recent Posts

My Obituary

When I was a budding journalist in college, one of my first…

Mail Tribune

My hometown newspaper recently shuttered. My thoughts.


A new year often means new changes, for better or worse!

The Tragic Story of Max Newsom

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsing on the field made me…

The Incredible Tale of Claude Hines

When Claude Hines quielty enrolled at what is now Southern Oregon…