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I have always joked, from the time I was a teenager, that I “didn’t run unless I was being chased”.
I disliked the feeling of my feet pounding the pavement, and I hated getting sweaty and gasping for breath.
I also always had this idea that athletics wasn’t something I was naturally good at, so although I’d visit the gym from time-to-time in an attempt to stay in shape, it was usually with a little underlying sense of shame.
Since around age 20, I’ve also kept a physical bucket list. I write down anything that fills me with envy or wonder when I hear someone else talk about it. There are lots of things that people would expect I’d have on there—lots of travel destinations and new skills to learn.
One of the very first things I added, though, was unexpected. I wanted to run a marathon. I’m not sure why I ever wrote that down. Remember, I hate to run. Sure, I knew there would definitely be bragging rights involved, and maybe I could even get one of those sanctimonious 26.2 stickers for the car.
Mostly though, I think it had something to do with the fact that I felt it was an impossible goal for me, and I sensed that if I could actually achieve it, I would remind myself that there were lots of impossible things I could do.
Well, I did complete a marathon. At age 40. With two kids under age 4 in the house. After finishing cancer treatment the year before. And I’m here to tell you about how I did it, and to assure you that you can follow the same steps to do it yourself, regardless of your current fitness level.
How to run a marathon with no prior running experience in six simple (but not easy) steps:
1. Make a firm commitment.
When I decided the time had come to cross off this bucket list item, I signed up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Washington DC, and I plunked down $100 to do so. I then had a firm date to work toward and a financial investment to make the pain of quitting a little greater. What will you do to change someday into a specific date?
2. Make yourself accountable.
I told all of my family, all of my Facebook friends, all of my neighbors, the other moms at the preschool drop off—basically everyone I knew—that I was in marathon training. This gave me social accountability and would have made quitting super embarrassing. I had people asking me constantly about how my run went that morning or how many miles I’d logged that week. Once you’ve made your firm commitment, be sure to tell the world.
3. Get the information you need.
It’s no secret that I’m an information junkie, but I had A LOT to learn (well, everything, really) about running. I didn’t know that I needed to buy shoes that were a little larger than my normal size until I visited the local running store for a fitting. I didn’t know running on the asphalt on the street was better for my body than running on the hard concrete of the sidewalk. I didn’t know about protein powders, energy gels, foam rollers, or Body Glide.
Most importantly, I had no idea how to train for such a massive physical goal. I found a great training program designed for people just like me: The Non-Runners’ Marathon Trainer by David A. Whitsett, Forrest Allen Dolgener, and Tanjala Mabon Cole. Its premise is that marathon running is as much a mental game as a physical one, and it provides exercises to train runners in both aspects. I really cannot recommend this book enough. It made the impossible seem totally doable.As my runs got longer, I also enjoyed utilizing Jeff Galloway’s The Run-Walk Method, which reassured me that I was still a marathoner even if I didn’t run every single mile. Be prepared to learn what you don’t know, by joining a training group, employing a coach, or finding resources online and in print.
4. Be prepared to put in a ton of time.
Even my non-runners’ marathon plan required me to run 36 miles per week during the peak weeks of my training. My pace ranged anywhere from 9:45/mile for a short run to 13:25 (!) minutes/mile that one time I ‘ran’ 10 miles with an epic hangover. You can see how the hours added up quickly. Make time in your schedule to train safely for this massive goal.
5. Enlist some support.
Running for all those hours every week with preschoolers in the house meant that I needed lots of childcare help. As a member of a gym with a childcare center, I took advantage of the fact that they would watch my kids for 2 hours per day and got in lots of treadmill miles. When I wanted to run outside, my husband, my neighbors, and visiting friends and family cared for the kids.But the support I got didn’t just take the form of childcare. I got care packages from friends and family members containing everything from Biofreeze to gourmet pasta and sauce. Friends and family members listened non-stop to tales of all of my aches and pains.On the day of the marathon, I had a big group of supporters standing out in the cold with “Team Orsino” shirts and an even bigger group of supporters sending love and energy from afar. It was awesome. Make sure to engage the help you need to accomplish this task.
6. Accept your beginner status.
A lot of my life has been spent trying to be “the best” at things. I knew I was not going to be the top of any category with this marathon, and it was a great mental exercise in working within my abilities without comparing them to anyone else. If your intention is just to complete a marathon—not to nab an impressive pace or finishing time—that is a goal you can absolutely attain.
In the end, my marathon wasn’t exactly pretty. The weather was cold that day! The high temperature during the race was 37, with 20 mph winds. We’d had a relatively mild winter, so I ran in some of the coldest weather I’d experienced.
I felt great for about the first half, though. I loved listening to the bands along the course. I loved the camaraderie among the runners. I was amazed by how many people came out in the cold and stood along the race course to support the runners. I was moved when I ran up the famously gnarly ‘Blue Mile’ hill at mile 5, where sandwich boards by the side of the road featured photographs of soldiers who had died serving our country. I ran up and gave my husband a kiss when I spotted him around mile 12.
The second half was tough, though. The course went by the Anacostia River—out and back. The wind was blowing like crazy across the river. My feet were numb. There was no one cheering anymore. There was another giant hill at mile 23, and no inspirational soldiers this time.
I kept plodding. I made it to the water station at mile 24 and checked the index card in my pocket on which I’d written out all the water stops for the course. I’d made it to the last one.
My biggest worry during training had been that my pace would be too slow and I’d be pulled from the course by the “Sag Wagon” so that the DC streets could be re-opened. I’d reached the last cut-off location, though. There was no way I’d get pulled from the course now.
My head was swimming. I felt queasy. I knew I couldn’t quit having run only 24 miles of a marathon. I was afraid I was going to pass out, though, and not finish. So I started walking.
Friends following my progress at home told me they worried when my pace suddenly dropped off. I couldn’t move quickly anymore, but I could keep putting one foot in front of the other.
In the end, the marathon took me 5 hours and 42 minutes. It wasn’t anywhere close to an impressive time for anyone who actually runs, but I had completed what I previously believed to be impossible. I had around 15 people waiting for me at the finish line, who had all braved the freezing wind to cheer for me at the end. I threw up in the car on the way home, but even that couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The whole experience was a great reminder that I can do anything (and so can you!)
I still hate running, by the way. I’ve run less than 10 miles in the two years since the race, but I will forever be a marathoner.
So there you have it. A simple (but not easy) path to follow to run your first (and possibly only) marathon.