How not to train for your first marathon

Amy Coet

26 May 2015

I am surrounded by people who are suffering. Red faces pouring sweat, twisted in grimaces of pain. Slumped shoulders, eyes on the ground, legs shuffling slowly. The Melbourne sun is beating down on our agony, bouncing off the fluorescent clothing and cruelly shining on the sign which states that there is only 10km to go. Only 10km. Relief beckons on the horizon in the form of an aid station with the tantalising promise of water and an excuse to stop running for a sweet 30 seconds whilst downing a cup of delicious liquid.

2014 Melbourne Marathon Festival
2014 Melbourne Marathon Festival

Except there are no cups.  There are NO CUPS. 

It’s at this point that I start questioning my sanity. Sure, I made a drunken bet with a friend over some cocktails one night. But when the hangover cleared, any sane person would have pleaded amnesia or forfeited, rather than start googling marathon training plans. As it turns out, although my sanity is questionable, I’m in good company. Once solely the realm of elite athletes, marathon running has become more and more popular with your everyday Joe and Joanne. The worldwide growth in popularity of Marathons over the last 5 years sits at 13.25%. More than 500 marathons are held across the world each year. That’s a lot of crazy people.

This surge in participation is not because of an up swell of professional runners, competing for glory, titles and prizes. The average marathon finishing time around the world is 4 hours and 20 minutes. That’s more than twice as slow as the world record which currently sits at 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds. Take a look around your local park or running track and you’ll see the people who make up the bulk of marathon participants. Weekend runners who fit their training in around jobs, kids and the daily grind. People, who want to keep fit, take on a challenge or perhaps lost a drunken bet with a friend.

A 2 hour, or even 4 hour finish time was the farthest thing from my mind as I was standing at the start line in the chilly early morning fog, nervously wondering if I could fit in one last bathroom break. As I battled the pre-race nerves, my only goal was to finish.  All I wanted was to get to the end of the track before 6 hour time cap and avoid the indignity of being asked to leave the course.

As I had discovered in my training runs, the first few kilometres were hard. My legs and lungs took a while to catch on to the fact that despite their complaints, I wasn’t going to stop. Once my body caught up with my brains intentions things started going smoothly. I sailed through the next 15kms and at the half way mark was already practising the nonchalant way I would reply “Oh, about 4 hours” to the inevitable question “What was your time?”

I had no idea what was coming.

With 10km to go my legs were sending very strange signals to my brain and the finish line seemed even further away than it had at the half way point. My mind, stomach and taste buds rebelled at the idea of downing another gluggy, sweet energy gel and all I could think about was water. Given the inexplicable lack of cups, my choices were down to bucket or hose. Plunging my face into that bucket of murky liquid already frequented by hundreds of previous runners was absolutely one of the lowest points of the Marathon. One that I had to repeat every 2.5 kilometres at every aid station for the rest of the race. As I stumbled off, one older runner, clearly experienced in the pitfalls of poorly organised marathons pulled out a stack of paper cups from his backpack and handed them out to pitifully grateful runners surrounding him like a benevolent cup god.

For a first time marathoner like myself, lack of experience is one of the biggest challenges.

Experience is what helps you get through when you inevitably hit the infamous “wall” and can’t imagine running another 10 steps, let alone another 10 kilometres. Experience tells you that you can never have too many bathroom breaks before the start gun and that the queues at the first portaloo will put a 10 minute dent in your finish time. Experience tells that you should BYO cups.

In place of experience, a solid training base should see you through. There are a proliferation of articles, websites and communities online offering training advice for the first time marathoner. It’s easy to get lost in an endless rabbit warren of comparisons of technique but one thing that all training plans recommend is a solid running base and a gradual build-up of distance. Unfortunately for me the drunken bet had taken place with a mere 12 weeks until the Melbourne Marathon. 12 weeks from D Day the farthest I had ever run 10km – over a year ago. Luckily, a friend who has more than a few Marathons, Ironmans and Olympic Triathlons under his belt put together an expedited training plan for me and I was off.

On race day the longest run I had completed in my training plan was 32km – but my trainer assured me that the excitement of the day would see me through the last 10km. As I passed the 33km marker the vibe of the crowd was certainly inspiring. It seemed that the whole of Melbourne had turned out to line the course and cheer us on. It also helped that every time I considered walking “just for a few hundred meters” one of my support crew would magically appear on the sideline to cheer me on.

With 5km to go people were dropping and the sight of downed runners being attended by paramedics became distressingly commonplace. I spent a good 3km busily plotting how to fake heat stroke before realising that I only had 2km to go and that since I was not going to put myself through this kind of torture ever again in my life, if I wanted that medal I better keep going.

Approaching the finish line was one of the most emotional moments of my life.

Still standing!

The cheers and smiles from the sideline were deafening, and my palms were stinging from high fiving the race officials. I ran over the line just as the clock flashed 4 hours 57 minutes and promptly collapsed in a puddle of joyful, exhausted, delirious tears. Unfortunately the finish line of a marathon is not the best place to have a moment of reflection. Rather than be stampeded by the finishers behind me (thankfully there were some!) I dragged myself to the finishers table to claim my medal and didn’t take it off for the next week.

The week after the race, when I could walk normally again and wasn’t contemplating staying in a hotel just to avoid walking the two flights of stairs to my apartment the insanity kicked in again. I found myself Googling the next marathon event and wondering just how well I could do with a proper amount of training.  Maybe next time I can get a wee bit closer to that 4 hour mark? I’ll let you know.


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