Lessons learned while prepping for my first marathon
Last week I run my first marathon ever. I thought it would be tough, but reality beat my expectations, and though I managed to finish close to the time I had set forth to achieve, there were moments during the race that really tested my enthusiasm, showing me once again how important it is to prepare both physically and mentally for any race.
In what follows, I’ll be sharing a bit of my journey of preparation for the race, as well as how it really felt to run long-distance as a newbie. My intention is not to say that everyone can run a sub-3 within 6 months of training; in fact, the opposite is more likely. But surely enough, with the right mindset and team, everyone can achieve way more than they!
Going the distance
After I ended my professional sprinter career, I was sick of running. I think that, in two years, I didn’t run more than 100k total. This, for someone who is still active, can amount to a week’s worth of running! Instead, I spent most of my physical activity time on the road bike, setting a few endurance challenges for myself here and there not to completely lose physical shape.
This was the reason, for example, I cycled the 270km separating my hometown Rosenheim, in the South of Bavaria, from Bolzano, in the North of Italy, in August 2016, putting an end to my Pro-sports career. Later that year, I also biked from Paris to Barcelona with two of my buddies –a trip we completed in 8 days. And I added a 400 km one-day trip from Berlin to Leipzig and back in the summer of 2017.
It was in the winter of 2017, however, that I started running again, even if this was mostly with personal training clients. I wasn’t running fast, but at least I was doing some cardio once more, coupled with rigorous Yoga practice. It was in March of 2018, however, that things took a turn, as I signed some of my colleagues and myself up for a 10k race in Berlin –Berlin’s Airport Night-run.
Managing to do an ok job on the day of the race within 4 weeks of preparation, I squeezed a 00:37:23. The atmosphere was awesome, and seeing my colleagues as pumped up as me somehow sparked the drive again, which explains how, barely two weeks after the race, I had already set my mind on running a marathon.
Choosing a greater challenge
The Berlin Marathon, however, was already booked out; and so, I thought there would be no chance for me to take part in it. It was then that I found HelpAge, a charity partner of the Berlin Marathon offering tickets for those managing to raise a certain amount of funds to help grandmas in Africa. I thought, why not? Provided I managed to raise enough funds for something actually good, I would get a spot in the marathon. So, a few emails and phone calls later, my online donation box was set up and all that was left to do was train! By the way, the donation box is still open in case any of you feels inspired to help.
Despite my degree from the German Sports University in Cologne and my 12 years as a professional sprinter, marathon preparation proved to be anything but a walk in the park. This meant that, in order to do a proper job, I had to undertake serious research and talk to experienced marathon runners to come up with a plan to get me where I wanted to be within 6 months.
And yet, I knew as well that having a good plan wasn’t everything; because, though my training plan was actually pretty amazing, my calves went on strike and quit on me after a few months of preparation had gone by. Indeed, as a way to prepare for the marathon, I had decided to sign up for the Hamburg Half-marathon, and thus have a chance to test things with something more doable first.
But the progressive increase of weekly kilometers brought unforeseen stress to my right, and later my left, calf. I guess that running 50+ kilometers a week was just too much for my running style, characterized by a 400m sprint forefoot technique. This meant, first of all, that I had to resort to swimming and biking in the weeks after the injury to be able to continue training and minimize the impact that not being able to run would have on my overall performance. But also that, if I wanted to be able to increase kilometers in the weeks ahead, so as to actually finish the marathon, my running style had to change.
In retrospect, I guess my injury could have been prevented had I only been a bit more careful. Increasing the volume of kilometers week after week while expecting things to go smoothly is, perhaps, somewhat naive! But this goes hand in hand with training. You cannot always anticipate breaking points or spend your days preparing for the worst. Taking risks is part of the overall process, which makes race preparation also more unforeseeable and fun! So injuries and problems are only stupid if they happen time and again. Race preparation is essentially a process of getting to know your body, how you tick, and how to overcome and correct any existing excess.
Bad things always come together...
But as the saying goes, bad things always come in twos (or was it threes?); and so, barely a couple weeks after my calves had decided to go back to full-time work once more, I had a bike accident with a delivery guy who was doing his round with his head on the clouds… I was actually on my way to the Yoga studio, though the accident prevented me from even making it there. And as the delivery guy set himself carelessly on top of my bike without realizing I was even there, my tires lost traction over the wet pavement, and I was swirled over the floor, finishing legs first under a nearby parked car. It was nasty.
Most of the impact found its way onto my right hip. Upon standing, I could barely walk, a situation that did not much improve during the days following the accident. So for more than two weeks, running was off the table; so much so that, the notion of running the Hamburg Half-marathon had to be given up.
Still, resting and physiotherapy did their part and, once back to training, the months of July and August went by really well. I was lagging behind in my initial plan, of course, but my athletic career had already taught me that a plan is a rough guideline in need of constant adaptation. So I kept going, training 6 days a week.
My weeks included a bit of everything: intervals, tempo runs, long runs, two easy relaxed runs, and one regenerative 1h session on the bike. Everything adding up to a total of ~90km/week in July and ~105km/week in August. Furthermore, I did most of my sessions on an empty stomach; the intention was to experiment a bit with intermittent fasting and train my fat-metabolism. So, not only did this save me time in the morning, but it was also truly effective.
Still, keeping up this standard of training was anything but easy. On top of a 20 hour part-time job, I was also teaching 6 yoga classes, some personal training sessions, training, and spending a great part of my days on public transport from one part of Berlin to another.... Many days I squeezed practice at 6.30 or 7am, to then head to the office to work for 8 hours, commute to a different part of the city to teach yoga a bit later, and make it home at about 9.30pm. I was really exhausted. But overall, I knew it was only for a bit longer and that with every week gone, I had one less week to worry about.
Eventually, the results made it all worth it; and though it was tough, I really felt fulfilled, especially towards the end. With every week gone, I could see the improvements. Every week a little bit faster, a little bit more limber and light. And so, though I had initially considered it great to go for sub-3, I adjusted my goal further to try to achieve a 2:45:00 time.
In the beginning, I kept it a secret, maintaining ‘sub-3’ as the official time; but as the weeks went by, I realized that 2:45:00 could really be doable if everything went well on the day of the race. The only threats I had to bear in mind were 1) in-race nutrition and my digestion, and 2) my calves.
Social engagements on the two days prior to the marathon made it a bit hard for me to get into competition mode; at least not as I was used to during my 400m running years. And much like in the good old days, the night before the marathon I had serious problems to fall asleep and rest. I knew I was perfectly prepared, but somehow I still felt as if I had screwed up everything during the last few days; that everything was bound up to go wrong in the end.
Once the gun went off, however, everything fell right into place. Still, beginning in Block C, I had to work my way up. My legs felt light and young, so I made it a thing to keep watching my watch, to make sure I wouldn't overpace because of an excess in enthusiasm!
Once the first kilometer was down, I saw that I was running a bit faster than planned, but told myself this was ok, since I needed to leave behind the mass of runners I was in. Then kilometers 2, 3, and 4 went down as well, and I realized that the GPS and the actual kilometer marks along the course where slightly out of tune. My GPS was tracking more distance, so I was honestly afraid that the pace my watch was displaying might actually be too slow.
This is why, perhaps a bit too spontaneously, I decided to try to run a 3’45’’ pace instead of the 3’55’’ pace I had set for myself before the race. Needless to say, I had to pay for this decision in pain from kilometer 24 onwards, once I reached a level of fatigue I had anticipated only after km 36...
With regards to in-race nutrition, I had opted for taking two gels pre-mixed with a bit of water, so that I wouldn’t have to push them down with a seperate sip. This was so because, during the months leading up to the race, I had noticed I had the tendency to slow down considerably whenever I needed to drink. So, I took the first of the gels after 11 kilometers, and the second one at kilometer 32.
At the half marathon mark, Alba handed me a bottle with a 500ml carbohydrate drink. This was the only food and water I took in, except for the two failed attempts at drinking from one of the plastic cups placed here and there at different points of the race. The first one shot straight down my throat, like a stone, and the second one splashed all over my face.
So, around kilometer 24, everything started to turn unpleasant. This is when I really realized that I had simply gone out too fast. Call it a beginners’ mistake, I suppose –the type of mistake everyone had warned me of. But there I was, and the only way out was forward.
I held on to my 2:45:00 goal, though I had to invest a lot more effort into maintaining the pace after this. And with every kilometer my heart rate increased. Even otherwise normal ‘mind tricks’ such as trying to convince myself of doing 4 times 10k, instead of 42, didn’t work now. Everyway I looked at it, there was another 18 gruesome kilometers to get over with after kilometer 24.
And so, the rest of the race until kilometer 35 was a tug of war between my mind and my body. My pace went down considerably, and my feet and calves were literally screaming in pain. More and more of the people I passed had to stop and walk, stretch their legs, or just throw up. And ironically, people I had passed at kilometer 20 were now passing me by! The race was nothing short of a medieval battleground!
But when I crossed the finish line, everything went away. Still, once I stopped running, the mental relief granted by the awareness of having finished was quickly replaced by a nice backline cramp all the way up from my heels to the top of my back! What a race!
So, mission accomplished or…?
Because of the lack of synchronicity between my watch and that of the race, by the time I stopped, it was impossible for me to know whether I had actually made my time or not. According to the watch on the finish line, I reached the finish with a 2:47:15, but I didn’t know what the actual netto time would be. As it turned out, I made a 2:46:13.
Now, a week after the race –a week where I have done no running whatsoever– I can say that the time accomplished was close enough to make me proud of the achievement, but also, to make going out there once again to finish it off ‘within time’ a real actual possibility!
Regardless, the part that I have enjoyed the most has been the process leading up to the actual race. Having spectators, music, other runners, and supportive ones out there on the day of the race was certainly awesome, but it was really all the time spent planning, reading, researching, training, and suffering through the woods as I practiced that made it really worth it and incredibly fun. Even when I sometimes hated it all as well!
Ahead of me now some time for relaxation, restorative yoga, and a bit of space to think of potential challenges ahead. I would be lying if I said that I’m not already thinking about running elsewhere next year; but I’m still indecisive as to what it will actually be. Perhaps another marathon? Or a (Ultra-)Trail? Or why not going back to a 70.3 Triathlon? I do still have unfinished business there... Only time will tell. But, whatever I end up doing in the end, one thing is sure: next time I run, I will stick to my pacing strategy 100%!