I started writing this post last December and then never finished it. As I’m winding down my second marathon training cycle (the NJ Marathon is in less than two weeks!) I decided to revisit it with some fresh perspective.
I wrote a full recap about the TCS NYC Marathon I ran last November. This post will be less of a recap and more of a look back at what I got right and wrong – both in the weeks and hours before the race, as well as during. I no longer feel any regret about the race but, as always, I want to learn from my experiences so I can get better instead of worse, which I think is always the idea?
First of all, for a debut marathon I think I did fine. I’m a non-professional runner in my 40s who runs for fun. I do not get paid for running. I am not an Olympian. I ran a strong race, negative split on a course not exactly known for negative splitting, saved my fastest six miles for last, never hit the “wall,” never cramped or bonked, never stopped to walk, and didn’t throw up or have a heart attack. I finished in 4:00:07, in the top 16% of women, meaning I ran faster than 84% of them.
Looking back, I firmly believe that I was capable of better. But all things considered, I did fine. And I learned a few things.
WHAT I GOT RIGHT
A Solid Base: When I signed up to run NYC – which was about 9 months before the race – I already had years of running behind me. I had spent the last 2-3 years building it up even more, going from running 3 to 4 to 5 days a week and slowly doing longer and longer runs (I think when I signed up the longest I’d run was 14 miles). I had also run several races – a bunch of 5Ks, two 10Ks, a 15K, and a half marathon. So I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. You can start from scratch. But it’s easier if you don’t.
Training Plan: I followed NYRR’s Virtual Training Program, a customizable plan based on my experience and ability. During this 16-week plan, I ran 5-6 days a week, anywhere from 30-55 miles a week. I followed the plan as best I could, only deviating from it when I was sick or too sore. I used their “moderate” plan, which is between the beginner and advanced levels. Following a training plan for your first marathon is smart and I’d recommend it.
Nutrition: Before I started training, I had spent over a year straight counting calories every day. This worked for me and is the only way I have ever successfully lost weight. But I’d already lost the weight I’d wanted and decided I didn’t want to be restricting calories while training – something I’ve read over and over is not a wise combination. So I stopped counting. But I still ate well. A ton of vegetables for both lunch and dinner, more fruit than is probably recommended (mostly apples and bananas), correct servings of protein and carbs. I tried to limit sweets to weekends or just long runs days. No alcohol (but that’s just because I don’t care about alcohol). I didn’t always get it perfect and I definitely ate too much peanut butter, but for the most part I think I ate pretty well during training.
Trial & Error: This can really be a sub-category under anything I’ve already mentioned, but I think I did a good job testing things before race day – everything from what to wear; what kind of shoes I liked; what to eat and drink before, during, and after my runs; what kind of running belt worked best, how to wear my hair, etc.
Throughout training, I experimented with different things to eat on my longer runs and finally settled on alternating Gu energy gels and half a fig bar every 4 miles. This stuff is different for everyone so it’s important to use the training period to find out what works for you. I think I did a relatively good job with this.
WHAT I GOT WRONG
All that said, there are a few things I could have done better.
Not Enough Lower Body Workouts: Now that I’ve started a new training cycle and have been doing more squats & deadlifts (and just more lower body workouts in general), I think I could have used a bit more strength training on the ol’ legs while training for NYC. For a long time I only did one lower body workout a week and about six weeks ago, upped it to two. I feel stronger now.
No “Hard Days Hard, Easy Days Easy” Mentality
While training for NYC, I had too many hard days – easy runs I ran too fast, or following a shorter, easy run with lower body strength training. I don’t think I was fully aware of the idea of “hard days hard, easy days easy” and I believe this caused some of the calf soreness that seemed to plague me throughout the training cycle. I have since embraced this mentality and have had almost no physical issues during this current round of training.
Ate Too Much Day Before Race
This was a dumb thing to do and I should have known better. The evening before the race, I attended a free catered dinner courtesy of my charity Fred’s Team. It was a beautiful offering of various types of pasta, chicken, bread, vegetables, and of course cookies, brownies, and blondies. I have a really hard time passing up free food – it’s definitely a weird mental issue I’ve been aware of for years and I’m trying to get better about it. It’s not like I GORGED myself, but I definitely did not need to eat four cookies… or was it four cookies and a blondie and some extra pasta and too much bread? Probably the latter.
Full disclosure, since you’ve read this far: I think eating this much (especially the bread products) caused me to not poop early the next morning, which was the morning of the race. I should have pooped before I left home and I didn’t – not until I stopped in a porta potty at mile 14 which slowed me way down.
It’s not like this destroyed my race, but it definitely affected me negatively and threw my body off more than necessary. And it was something that was totally under my control.
In the future, I am going to eat lightly the day before my race, preferably while in cookie-free locations.
Lack of Confidence
Looking back months later, I can say that this was absolutely the biggest issue I had in the race. More than the cookies and the hard days hard and the not pooping. Lack of confidence. Not believing in myself. Questioning my ability.
I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt here: it’s difficult to have full confidence in a race distance you have never raced. Literally, I did not know what running for 26.2 miles would feel like. So yes, there was a lack of confidence in that I was not 100% sure what I was physically getting myself into. I had an idea, but I wouldn’t know what it felt like until I had done it.
- I hadn’t fully trusted my virtual training program, which told me that my marathon pace should be somewhere between 8:40 and 8:50 a mile. Going into the race, I decided that this was too fast, I wouldn’t be able to handle it, and I settled on attempting to maintain a 9:00 for the entire race. In hindsight, I should have trusted the algorithm over my own insecurities.
- I got too scared of hitting this dreaded “wall” that everyone talks about. The NYRR coaches warned runners over and over to take it easy for the first 16 miles. Don’t go out too fast. Hold back, hold back, hold back. Let loose once you’re over the Queensboro but not before. For the first 16 miles, I let this fear drive me. I did hold back – too much. And the “wall” that I was sure was coming? It never came.
- I especially held back in miles 8 through 15. During this time, I was running very close to easy pace. I had sort of given up on running any sort of time. I still felt like I needed to “save” my energy for later. I could have pushed it harder during this part of the race. I could have seen what I was made of instead of letting fear take over.
- Even the porta potty stop was a result of lacking confidence. I didn’t even really have to go. I just thought I should as a precaution. I should have stayed more focused on the present instead of worrying about later.
- I beat myself up for two days following the race. I was kind of upset, as much as I didn’t fully admit it to people. I had really wanted to break 4 hours and I missed it by 8 dumb seconds. Luckily, two days after the race, I suddenly saw the whole thing as silly. Nobody cared what my finish time was. Also, wanting to break 4 and finishing in 4:00:07 was positively comical. It was a sitcom-worthy joke. It was fine. I’d be fine. And I knew I’d run another marathon again.
As much as it might seem like I’m dwelling on the negative, at this point I truly feel good about my first marathon. It was an amazing experience. What a joy that race was! The entire day was incredible. The crowds were mind-blowingly supportive. The weather was perfect. I challenged myself to accomplish a cool thing and I finished strong. I now know I am capable of so much more than I ever thought I was. And I am more excited than ever to run my second marathon on April 28th.
Also, I can’t regret too much about the day when I got to encounter my amazing family on the course!
I am very lucky.