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What I Learned From My First Marathon

I just completed my first marathon, and I have so many thoughts!

I ran the MDI Marathon on Mount Desert Island, Maine (known for Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor). The reason for my running was two-fold: running a marathon has always been a goal of mine, but more so I was running in honor of my aunt and uncle who each passed away in January, raising money and awareness in their memory for the Bar Harbor Food Pantry.

I knew this marathon would be challenging. There are way more hills on the island than you can even find in Ohio! I would be running past certain memorable landmarks that would bring up all the complicated feels you have when someone you love passes away. And mostly, I can be an emotional wreck when it comes to the sentimental, so having almost all my family there supporting me I knew would make me weepy.

The ways in which it was most challenging was unexpected. I hadn’t trained on sloped roads, which caused my IT band to seize up, pulling on my knee sideways and making every step feel like my knee was going to blow out. Blisters I’d never had during training all of a sudden appeared. I had the energy and will to run, but my knee had other plans. Dealing with that frustration as emotions were already high… was a lot.

But as with all experiences, it can never truly be bad if you learned something from it. The

whole process of the marathon training was completely new to me. I’ve never been one to stick to a training schedule, or to run this far before!

If you’re toying with the idea of running your first marathon, here are some of the key things I learned from training and finally running the big 26.2!

Find a training schedule and stick to it

I am the first to admit when I don’t know about something, and I knew absolutely *nothing* about marathon training. But I knew I needed to train and I knew I had a book about running marathons.

Years ago I had bought my husband a book called The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer by David A. Whitsett & Forrest Allen Dolgener. It has a lot of good basic info that was a great starting off point.

The trick I used was to actually put my runs into my daily schedule. This allowed me to see at a glance what I was running that week, and how to schedule my days around the runs. It gets to the point at the end of training that you’ll be running for hours. Depending on the time of day, what you have scheduled, the weather, etc., you’ll have to plan around them.

The one massive challenge I had during training was that every weekend for the 2 months leading up to the marathon, I had big events. Weddings, a bachelorette party, a clambake (that was actually the best event to have after 18 miles, I’m still so shocked by how much I ate). I needed to plan my long runs, recovery, then time to get ready around them. Knowing months ahead of time, or at the very least days, how I needed to arrange my day was incredibly helpful and is what helped me adhere to the training schedule as a whole.

Pace doesn’t matter

I'm a competitive person, and played in competitive sports in high school, so pace was always highly emphasized. The first hot day this summer when I ran a 13:00+ mile, I felt so discouraged. But here’s the thing…

Your pace doesn’t matter if your only goal is to finish.

If you’ve run a marathon before and you’re trying to reach a specific time, then sure, your pace might matter and there are drills that will improve your time. But if this is your first marathon experience, there are so many other challenges you’ll need to face, I recommend losing expectations and simply focus on running.

Pace changes depending on whether you’re going uphill, downhill, what the humidity, temperature, or weather is, how much you've slept and what you've eaten. I found the challenge of sticking with my training schedule and running even when I didn’t want to was enough without creating some arbitrary, unnecessary goal for myself.

As soon as I let go of the expectation of time, I started enjoying my runs a lot more, and was able to push myself in a more sustainable way.

Injuries happen, take time to actively heal

I hadn’t had shin splints since high school. I remember they eventually always went away, and they were more annoying than anything. This time around, they were a BEAST.

I’ve never had such a persistent and unyielding pain. I ended up finding ways to manage and prevent it (most effectively, getting new shoes), but it did teach me an important lesson. No matter how much you train “right”, there will be injuries. If you want to stick with your training schedule, that means you need to actively heal.

Actively healing means making the time to do your stretches, cross-conditioning, utilizing healthcare professionals (sports doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc.), icing, getting enough rest, and modifying movement (eg. maybe you walk one day instead of run).

It’s better to skip training days when feeling injured than try to make them up again

I could’ve added this to the previous point, but it was one of the most important things I

learned in my training that mentally felt absolutely wrong.

During training, it seemed like every other week I was missing a run due to my shin issues. I felt so much guilt about not running, and anxiety about what this would mean in the long run.

As it turned out, not trying to make up for the runs I missed meant my body had adequate time to heal. For myself, the persistent issue had to do with my flat feet, and it took time to find the method to prevent the constant injury caused by my gait. I was able to sort out what my body needed by really taking care of it.

If you are constantly skipping your long runs, then yes, that will be problematic. But if you miss any of your runs sporadically, more than likely you’ll be just fine. Don’t stress, trust that as long as you’re putting most of the miles in, it’s ok to skip a few!

Listen to your body

Some days, it was more than just lack of motivation that was keeping me from running.

Some days, I was just too tired. I found that when I didn’t properly sleep, or fuel, my likelihood of injuring myself skyrocketed. Sometimes I’d wake up to my muscles not feeling quite right, and I already felt like there was a strain.

Listen to your body, learn where your “edge” is. Your edge is that space of not too little, not too much, where you can push yourself but not injure yourself. This is literally a marathon and not a sprint! You can save the real push for race day, but honor where you are in your training today so that you don’t have a long lasting injury.

It’s a fine line that is hard to define, and no one but you can tell you what yours is.

Discipline is everything- run even when you don’t want to

There are a lot of days that I absolutely did not want to run. Dragging my feet, avoiding it

Rubi loved to help motivate me... in her own way.

until I could no longer. The thing about doing that, especially in the summertime, is I would often run at the hottest point in the day which made the experience even more miserable, and I’d cluster my short runs during the week altogether which aggravated my ankle issues.

More often than not, when you don’t have the motivation at all, the thought of running is much worse than the actual act of it.

Run anyways. Find the tricks you need to get yourself out there- get a reward system going, find an “accountabili-buddy”, whatever you need, just do it. You’ll be grateful, if not directly after then definitely on race day!

Walk as much as you need

I used to hate walking. I’d find it embarrassing if cars were driving by, self-conscious of how I looked just walking?? Super insane actually saying it out loud, but I know I’m not the only person who gets a bit of a stronger stride as soon as someone drives by.

I had to stop competing for stranger’s approval, and start competing with myself. And if I’m competing with myself, then I get to choose the parameters of which to judge my runs.

The best, not very good, but still best way I can explain it is this:

Let’s say you’re at a restaurant. You’re enjoying your meal with friends, chatting, catching up. You’re mostly finished with your meal but you get caught up in a story. The server comes by and asks if you’re finished, but you say “oh no I’m still eating”...

Even if you stop to rest, you’re still eating.

Even if you start walking to catch your breath, you are still out running.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to run the entire time. The only time I ever do one thing for 2+ hours is if I’m sitting watching tv, and even then I’ll get up from time to time. You’re allowed to rest as you need.

Plan your routes

Find areas where you enjoy running, places that have varying difficulty (steep hills, long hills, different terrain, etc). And, unfortunately, be conscious of the safety of where you’re running. Read on for more safety tips.

Planning your routes is important to not only switch up your training, but also to make them interesting and challenging, helping to prevent burnout.

Plan your long runs around bathrooms and water

You never know when you gotta go, so better to run around areas where you know you’ll have some access to facilities. I had one experience during training where my stomach did not agree with running early in the morning and I’ll just say thank god Nick was able to come pick me up!

Every run since then I’ve made sure there are some places along the way in case I need to make a pitstop.

Water, too. On longer runs, I wear a hydration belt but water is HEAVY. I’d much rather run with what I need, and refill along the way. Again, Nick was a massive supporter and for my long runs, he would meet me in different areas with my preferred electrolyte water. If you don’t have a Nick, don't worry! Find a loop by your house, stash an extra water bottle in the bushes, stop at a cafe along the way. There are plenty of ways to make it work!

Find something to listen to that will pump you up, and something that will distract

The two primary things I listened to while running was either a playlist of songs that had the same bpm as my cadence, or a podcast I could zone out to.

To find what bpm you like running to, find a song that you like running to the beat to, then google what the song’s bpm is. I use spotify, so for me I searched spotify for a 170bpm playlist and got a few good options. I liked and downloaded the playlist, so it was always available, regardless of service.

Same with the podcast. There’s a few I rotate between, each of them interesting so that I’m mentally engaged while listening. With music, I always end up running to the beat. If it’s varying, then my cadence and breathing go all over the place. With podcasts I find I can zone out from the physical act of running.

Finding something that will engage your brain is a great distraction from the suck that can be running.

Shoes are incredibly important

When I started training, I bought a new pair of shoes to train in. On paper they were perfect- zero drop shoe, little to no cushion, wide toe box, and a brand I’d heard a lot of positive reviews about.

After about 2 months of consistent shin splints, I finally purchased a new pair of shoes and all of a sudden all my issues disappeared.

What shoe you run in is a very individual experience. There are so many different components that go into which shoe works best for you, that it will require some trial and error.

To minimize the amount of error, I recommend finding a running store near you that has the tech to scan your feet. Around the Cleveland area we have Fleet Feet. It’s pricey but the customer service is second to none!

Another pro move that was told to me is to get another pair of shoes and break them in before race day. Your shoes have a shelf life, and should be replaced every 300-500 miles. To put it into perspective, my training schedule had me running a total of 418.2 miles (including the marathon).

If you’re not sure if you should replace them, look at the bottom and inside the shoe. If there’s any wear and tear, chances are you need to update them.

Compression socks may be for you

If you’re struggling with ankle/shin/feet issues, you may want to try running in compression socks. They add a little extra stability while still allowing mobility of the ankle, and the compression helps with your blood flow, preventing your ankles and feet from getting super swollen.

Compression socks were a game changer for me. Anytime I tried running long runs without, I would end up re-injuring myself. A huge part of my issue is my gait which takes time to correct. Compression socks were a temporary solution so that I could continue training.

Try wearing them during running, or directly after to assist in recovery. If you wear them during, wait to cool down before taking them off.

How you fuel becomes just as important as running

As I said before, the days where I didn’t fuel correctly ended up directly correlating with days I got injured. My RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) was dramatically higher the days I didn’t get enough to eat before.

Not only my meal before I ran, but how soon and what I ate after my runs dictated the amount of energy or brain fog I would have the rest of the day. I think this is the part of getting older that is significantly different, or maybe I have more self awareness than I did as a high schooler, but it became a paramount part of training.

My focus became:

What are easy, nutrient dense meals and snacks?

What is my fuel during my run?

If you're a fan of Costco, I recommend Aussie Bites (or you can buy on amazon!).

They are my easy, go-to breakfast before running, or snack for after.

I also became a fan of making protein shakes with Orgain Organic Protein Powder.

Rice and beans are a great complete protein that are easy to make big batches of for the week.

During my long runs, I started eating Clif Bloks. The estimate given on the package is to eat one block every 10 minutes, which for me was about 1 after every mile. It felt like a little reward! I got a big box of the Mountain Berry, but if you are a high salt sweater and know you need a little extra sodium, try out the Salted Watermelon.

Thinking your body will burn more fat if you don’t eat before exercising, or that your body will burn fat if you don’t eat during your run is a common misconception. How your body burns fat and calories is worth a blog post of its own, but studies have shown you will end up burning less calories, and exercise will feel a lot harder if you don’t properly fuel before, during and after. Your body needs to be adequately fueled during exercise to maintain muscle repair and energy stores.

I’m not a huge fan of Gatorade or Powerade, especially since I was already taking in calories in Clif Blok form. My electrolyte of choice is Nuun. I prefer it because of its' lack of sweetness. Depending on what you want out of an electrolyte, they have a few different options along with flavors, eg. with caffeine, a “sport” version, and more.

If you want to learn more about sports related nutrition, read Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance by Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM & Andrea Chernus,

MS, RD, CDE. I found it incredibly helpful, easy to understand, and it included different meal examples of what nutrient dense meals should look like for the training you’re doing.

Find your supporters, lean on them as you need

My main supporter was my husband, and to him I am forever grateful! He showed up in a big way to help me train, but he wasn’t the only person!

My neighbor is a boisterous, insanely positive force, and I could always count on her to be my biggest hype woman after every run! Her energy was contagious. She hangs out on her front porch a lot, and when I got home every run she’d say “how far today?!” When I would tell her, she would SCREAM and cheer. Knowing I’d be coming home to that helped me finish strong every run.

Another friend and neighbor couple both ran with me on some of my training runs, or gave much needed support and advice as I came across challenges. J was the first person to confidently tell me I could accomplish this goal, and helped me believe in myself. W was my running buddy when I desperately needed it, and chatting along the way was the best, most fun distraction, especially those first hard runs!

My book club girls were my go to bitching buddies on the long runs when I was bored, and countless other friends were there for me and supported me in other ways.

The truth is, this process would have been SO much harder without my support group. Find the people who feel just as proud and excited about your accomplishments as you are. Training and running will become such a focal point in your life, surround yourself with the people in your life that will celebrate and commiserate about the challenge with you!

At a certain point, your long runs will become your new PR’s

This was the most fun part that made the long runs really cool. The runs where I was running past 13 miles… then 16… 18… 20 miles!!? No better feeling than reaching a new mile and realizing, NEW PERSONAL RECORD! I got a lot of joy out of that.

Form is important, practice drills and cross train

You think that running is running is running… or at least I did. But just with any other sport, there are bad habits you can get into, and ways that you can refine your form. I followed accounts on instagram such as @_charihawkins and @thebarefootsprinter to learn how to run more efficiently and how to strengthen in running-specific ways.

Also be sure you are cross training. I ended up doing a lot more yoga than anything just because I teach for a living, but weight lifting has been shown to be extremely beneficial for runners!

Warm up and cool down!!!

Take care of your body! You are putting it through the gauntlet, treat it as such. Warm up your muscles properly before running. Get your heart rate up and blood flowing.

Cooling down is when I like to stretch. Foam rolling became my best friend, I particularly like this one. I became a huge fan of foot wakers.

They are designed to be "Used for people with fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, sore feet, reflexology, bunions and hammertoes".

It became a night and day difference when I did or did not cool down properly. I would especially feel when I didn’t cool down properly in the mornings, my legs were locked straight, ankles stiff, feet sore.

Stretching and foam rolling prevented me from feeling like I was The Tin Man.

Stay safe

While training, it became national news when a young mom, Eliza Fletcher, was killed while out on an early morning run. I’m not going to go into detail about my opinions of how absolutely tragic this is, but I will say how my safety on my runs was already something I was thinking about, and hearing about Eliza made me make some changes.

First off, I use the running app Strava to track my runs. Strava has a great feature in which you can send a tracking beacon to a friend, in my case Nick, for them to keep an eye on.

I recently purchased bone conducting headphones. The science behind these is pretty cool! Instead of making sound waves through air, these headphones make sound waves via vibration. The vibration is then transmitted through the jawbone, which relays directly to the inner ear where we process sound. The benefit of this is there is nothing obstructing your ears, allowing you to still hear what’s going on in your environment.

Being able to hear what’s going on around me, and someone keeping an eye on me, making sure I’m still en route is all good, but it doesn’t really help if by chance someone does attack me.

For peace of mind, I purchased a knife, pepper spray and alarm. Most commonly, I run during the day on busy roads, but for those few early morning runs, having at least 1 thing to keep on me just in case is cautious, prudent, and hopefully unnecessary.

The number of cat calls, people slowing down, and cars going by multiple times (I don’t know if they were following or just driving around the neighborhood),

was often enough that my safety was constantly on my mind when running. My mindset is it’s better to have something and not need it, than need it and not have it.

Train like everyday is race day

The worst thing I’ve heard from different friends who have run marathons before are the stories in which they tried something new on race day. DON’T DO IT!

From what clothes you wear, to what you eat, to your warm up, train as though your run is THE run. The more similar your training runs are to the marathon, the more you subconsciously can relax. When the marathon comes around, and you have your routine set, the more you can feel confident in knowing it’s just like any other run.

Chafing happens- make vaseline your friend

Especially in the summertime, when the salt from your sweat cakes on your skin, any rubbing will grind that salt right into you. I’ll be honest, the chafing was not always in places I expected!

I stuck to clothes that helped prevent any rub- biker shorts prevented any thigh rub issues, t-shirts instead of tanks, and I made sure my hydration belt was snug, and wasn’t bouncing around.

If you’re concerned about vaseline on your clothes, think of it this way: you’re already destroying your clothes with sweat, what’s a little vaseline, too?

Trust the process

Whenever I had doubts or lack of motivation, I reminded myself to trust the process. Trusting means throwing yourself into your training schedule. Not questioning the distances, or how often it says to run. Knowing that you’ll never actually reach 26.2 during training, but trusting that if you can run 18, or 20, your body will take you the rest of the way come marathon day.

What I probably struggled with the most was tapering. It felt wrong to only run a few miles each week after running huge distances! But, it i s necessary to allow your body to build up fuel in your muscles. I understand why you need to, but the day before the race I felt like I hadn’t run at all in weeks. How the hell am I supposed to run over 20 miles when in the past week I’d only run 6, and even that was split between 2 days!

Aside from my knee issues, I was amazed by how good I felt. Usually I would stop every few miles, especially after a tough hill or while I was drinking water/eating a Clif Blok. Come race day, I didn’t stop until after mile 12, and even then it was only because of my knee.

Trust the process, trust that your body and your mind will see you through.

Things won’t go as planned on race day

Never did I have any blisters- which is rare- until marathon day (I think this was also a side effect of the slope of the road). As I mentioned before, my knee locked up in a way I had never experienced during training. Things just didn’t go the way I thought they would.

And that’s kind of the point.

You are pushing your body to an extreme, and as much as you can prepare, something will always surprise you. Sometimes those surprises are good! But don’t get discouraged if there’s an unexpected challenge that’s thrown your way. The point of the marathon became for me to see what not only my body, but my mind could do.

The whole process of this has taught me so much about myself.

When I began running, a part of me was upset that I wasn’t losing weight in the way I had in the past when running regularly. But as soon as I started accomplishing my long runs, my mindset shifted.

Soon, my thoughts became:

Who the hell cares if I still have fat around my waist, I ran 16 miles today!

It’s freaking hot out, I’m wearing a sports bra because that’s how I can stay cool. No one is going to stop me and complain, and if they did? That's not a reflection of me.

I may not have the body society says is perfect, but this body ran 72 miles in 2 weeks. And that is freakin extraordinary!

Although it didn’t go as I’d hoped, I was able to prove to myself just how strong I am mentally to persevere, how disciplined I am to set out on a goal and accomplish it over the course of 10 months. I learned about how I can grieve loss in a healthy way. How I push through and honor pain. My body positivity has improved greatly, and I've learned how to be excited about hard challenges.

Most of all, I’m excited for the next marathon!

Have any questions about starting running, or beginning training for your first long distance run? Comment below, or send me a message!

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