What It Is Like To Run a Marathon

On Saturday I finished my first marathon in an arduous 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 40 seconds. Now that it’s over, and my hips are beginning to recover, I have a few thoughts on the ordeal – my preparation, the race, looking ahead, and explaining what it is like to run a marathon.

I decided to try my hand at the 26.2-mile race at the start of the year, the original plan being to run the Gate City Marathon in Nashua, New Hampshire with a friend on May 19th. In short, my friend didn’t want to pay (or train) and my family wanted to be at the finish line when I finished.

Back at the drawing board, I decided to run the New River Marathon in Fleetwood, North Carolina. The course was mostly running on backcountry roads with a few dirt and gravel sections, following the river from which the race gets it name. Over the course of the marathon we climbed about 1,500 feet (according to my watch), most of it on hills during miles 7, 12, 15, and 26. Beyond these, the course was for the most part flat. Being in Western North Carolina, we were running at about 3,000 ft elevation, higher than I was used to.

I came up with my own training regime, starting in January. I was running six or seven days a week, focusing on one weekly long run I would increase hopefully into the 20ths, and steadily increasing my weekly mileage hopefully towards sixty. This didn’t end up happening. My weekly mileage never passed 48, and I had trouble getting the distance on the long runs up into the mid to high teens. I only broke 15 miles three times and didn’t get close to 20, capping out at 17.5. However, each the long runs I actually did finish felt really good, and I hoped the combination of an easy week before the race, the right nutrition, and that extra race day push would give me the edge I needed.

The goal was 3:03, which is a nice seven minutes a mile. If things went really well, I would push 3 hours flat, and I had a cushion to run 3:05, which is my qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. All of my training runs had been a few seconds faster a mile, so I, in my ignorance, thought that was attainable.

We got a hotel in Boone the night before, and on Saturday I got up around 5:40. I slept really well the night before, which actually surprised me a little. I ate a peanut butter bagel, made sure I used the bathroom, and my father and I headed to the course. The race began at 7:30, and it was about 60 degrees and raining. It rained the whole race, reached its peak around mile 16. Marathon are hard, but marathons in the rain, when the dirt trail in mile 25 is only mud, well that’s no fun at all.

The play-by-play of the marathon goes as follows:
Mile 1 – Got off at a brisk 6:35 first mile. The first mile was mostly downhill, and with the excitement of the race, I got a little ahead of myself.
Miles 2-6 – We began our first trip around the river. This was all flat on mostly open roads, and I was in sixth, holding about 200 yards behind the next runner, keeping my pace between 6:50 and 6:55 a mile.
Mile 7 – This was our first hill, about a 200-foot climb as we left the road for a gravel path through the woods. This mile was slower, around 7:15. As we began down the other side of the hill, I spotted the two men ahead of me make a right turn and start up another hill, and I followed. About 200 yards later, we realized we weren’t supposed to go this way and had to double back, about a minute and a half wasted.
Miles 8-11 – Back on a road and on flat ground once again, I sped up, trying to make up for lost time. Mile 8 was 6:40, my second fastest split, and at this point I was in fifth, the same runner as earlier once again about 200 yards ahead of me. After 11, I’m at 1:16:25, about 35 seconds above pace.
Mile 12 – So begins the second hill, a stepper one-hundred-foot climb. This was the first time (other than the wrong turn), where I stopped to walk. It would not be the last.
Miles 13-14 – Coming down the hill I just ran up, I got back up to speed, and mile 13 was 6:51, the last mile I ran that was under 7 minutes. After 13, I’m at 1:30:54, just a hair below pace, and I’m still trailing that one guy.
Mile 15 – This was the big hill, a 250-foot climb as mile 15 turns into 16, and this was when the race began to go south. I broke against the hill, walked up a good part of it, and my mile fifteen split was 8:44, a full minute slower than anything I had run yet.
Mile 16-17 – Coming down the back side of the hill, I got going again. The downhill was actually longer than the uphill, a full mile downhill, and mile 17 was 7:13, not quite back to pace but closer. It was now raining harder than ever, and at this point my headphones cut out from the rain. I would be running the last 9 miles in silence.
Miles 18-20 – Back on the flats as we run around the river in reverse, at this point I’m just grinding. This is now the longest run of my life. Someone behind me had caught up, and we ran together for a while, these three miles taking us a little under 24 minutes.
Miles 21-24 – I am still running on the flat road around the river, but at this point I am truly exhausted. My friend had passed me, and I couldn’t keep up with the next person either. Each of these miles takes me between 9:30-10:30, walking as much as I was running. The fact I had never ran further than 18 miles was really coming back to bite me.
Miles 25 – More of the same, but by now we had left the road for a narrow dirt trail, which was, after hours of rain, all mud.
Miles 26 – Almost there, just the last hill, a 200-foot climb that would bring you in sight of the finish. I was walking my way up it, the only method that would get me up was the fabled Anson O’Young limp wrists jog. Once over the hill, I tried to run my way in, but both my calves and basically my entire right leg were tighter than I had literally ever felt before. To say I had never been in this much pain was not an understatement. But coming down the final straightway, I locked my neck, got my arms pumping and my legs moving one last time, and you bet I was sprinting through that finish line.

Running a marathon was the hardest physical trial I had ever done, and it’s not even close. There are times I cut a run short and think “I probably could’ve gone further.” Times where my will just isn’t in it. This wasn’t one of those times. I went out to test my limits and boy did I find them. Just look at these splits:

First 14 miles – 1:37:58, about seven minutes a mile
Miles 15-20 – 47:50, just under eight minutes a mile
Miles 21-Finish – 63:52, just over ten minutes fifteen seconds a mile

Obviously, I didn’t hit my goal. But now understanding the challenge and how woefully unprepared I was for it; I am pleased with the race. And I’ll be back to try again, maybe in a few years, but this will not be the only marathon I ever run.

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