My First Marathon: The Training

When I commit to something, I like to research the heck out of it. I read a ton of first marathon race reports, and here’s a trend I noticed: most of the ones that went poorly started with something like, “I didn’t really follow a specific training plan…”

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My Plan

There are a ton of marathon training plans out there, and frankly, trying to learn about them was really overwhelming. I decided to keep it simple by using a free PDF I found called “Your First Marathon” by Runner’s World. Here’s why I chose it:

  • It was free.
  • It was straightforward. I am not a serious runner and I don’t totally understand how to apply things like tempo runs or running a training run at marathon pace or Fartleks or strides or all of those things. (Although, over time, I did learn what some of these terms mean, and I even incorporated a few in my training.)
  • It had three 20 mile (about 32.5 km) runs. Many first time marathon training plans have only one 20 miler, but I knew that running that distance three times would give me extra confidence.
  • It had me running 5 days a week, which seemed like just the right amount for me.

The Plan, Detailed

A typical week for me looked like this:

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday to Thursday: Mid-week medium run.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Long run.
  • Sunday: Mellow recovery run.

I didn’t run on my rest days, but I did try to hit the gym. I found that after my long runs, my core and ribs would ache (I think partly because my hydration vest is front heavy, with two flasks on my chest), so I tried to do 45 minute workouts focusing on my core, chest, back, and/or shoulders. Sometimes, I just did yoga at home or did a nice long stretch session. Sometimes, I didn’t do anything at all because I was trying to catch up on work.

My mid-week runs varied from week to week. Distances would range from about 5 k to 15 k per run. I tried to make these runs count by a) running as fast as I could, b) running at a negative split (i.e., running the second half faster than the first half), c) focusing on my form, and d) mixing all of the above. Sometimes, it would be super hot or super rainy, and I’d just run to get it done with, without doing anything fancy.

The long runs were actually my favourite. My shortest long run was 16 km, and my longest was 32.5 km. It was challenging, but kind of fun, to come up with routes to cover the required distance (I used onthegomap.com), and I often incorporated the Spit (an out-and-back that adds 8.5 km or so to a run) or I’d run way up Paradise Valley Road, which is flat, serene, and doesn’t see much traffic early on Saturday mornings.

Recovery runs were all about covering the required distance (usually 5 km to 8 km), no matter how slow, and shaking out my tired legs.

Committing

Having a training plan in place is one thing; following through with it is a whole other beast.

I had read that training was the hard part – the marathon itself was a celebration of having completed the training. This was something I reminded myself of many times.

Here’s how I committed:

  • I wrote down my distances on a calendar and on my weekly to-do list. Crossing them off was very satisfying.
  • I got my runs over with very early. Most mornings, I was up at 5 or 6 (depending on the distance and the time of year – as it got darker in the mornings, my runs definitely started later).

Really, I didn’t have any tricks that made it easy. Some days, I looked forward to running (usually when I was well rested and when it was nice out). Other days, it was absolutely miserable. I ran my fair share of runs in torrential downpour, and it wasn’t pretty. But I just kept reminding myself that the training was the hard part, and if I didn’t train, I wouldn’t be able to finish the marathon in one piece.

Tracking Progress

My ultimate goal was to stay healthy, do my best, and finish the marathon distance. I wasn’t too concerned with times and I had read that with your first marathon, it’s just a matter of getting through the runs, even if you’re crawling at the end.

Still, I found it helpful to track my progress and keep notes so that I could remember what worked well and what didn’t. I used the Runkeeper app, which I found to be more or less accurate. It did the trick for me, anyway.

I also kept an Excel spreadsheet where I wrote very detailed notes, like a running diary of sorts.

Discovering Pacing

Early on, I ran my long runs by feel. I tried to maintain a consistent effort and didn’t focus too much on specific times or paces. As my training continued on, I learned more about pacing and changed my focus to trying to keep a consistent pace, rather than a consistent effort.

Here’s a look at the splits from my first 32.5 km run on September 3:

6:47 – 6:55 – 6:43 – 7:03 – 7:40 – 6:55 – 6:40 – 7:28 – 6:41 – 7:24 – 6:56 – 7:35 – 7:09 – 7:12 – 7:06 – 7:03 – 6:57 – 7:01 – 6:52 – 7:51 – 6:55 – 6:43 – 8:05 – 7:39 – 6:58 – 6:57 – 8:32 – 6:49 – 6:46 – 6:40 – 7:21 – 7:39 – 8:14

All in all, not terrible, considering I wasn’t paying too much attention to what I was doing. I wasn’t sprinting like crazy at the start, but I was definitely faster at first and slowed down over time.

Here are my splits from my last 32.5 km run on October 15:

6:51 – 6:34 – 7:08 – 7:18 – 6:53 – 6:56 – 6:54 – 6:31 – 6:57 – 6:47 – 6:43 – 7:05 – 6:57 – 6:49 – 6:41 – 7:10 – 6:48 – 6:31 – 6:49 – 7:14 – 7:09 – 7:19 – 6:48 – 6:53 – 6:46 – 6:57 – 7:11 – 6:51 – 7:00 – 6:54 – 6:44 – 6:49 – 6:56

On this run, I was trying to achieve an even 6:55 pace. It took me a few kilometres to figure out how that should feel, but once I hit my stride, I did a pretty good job at maintaining it. I fluctuated a little throughout, but my last few kilometres weren’t much slower than my first few. I ended up running this one about 10 minutes faster than the first one (of course, I also had an extra month and a half of training under my belt by this point).

In a later blog post, I’ll talk about how pacing did (or rather, didn’t) play a role in the race itself.

Setbacks

I’m lucky that I didn’t have too many major setbacks, but there were a few minor ones that kept me humble.

  • My first 29 km run was bad. It was really hot, really sunny, and really windy down by the water. I felt horrible and had to walk the last few kilometres home. Luckily, that was my only really bad run – I just reminded myself that one run doesn’t make or break your training.
  • I was nervous about missing a week and a half of running around the West Coast Trail trip, and to make matters worse, I got food poisoning the day we got back, so I wasn’t feeling great. I didn’t push it – I ran slow and easy and focused on getting lots of rest. I felt “caught up” in about two runs.
  • About two thirds of the way through my training, I was experiencing seriously tight calves. Running was bearable, but not very comfortable. This leads us to our next section.

Stretching

I found it easy to take the time to stretch after a long, hot run in the summer months. I’d head out to our balcony for a nice 15 minute stretch, and it felt great to cool down. But as the weather turned, my stretching sessions got shorter (and were sometimes skipped entirely). When you’re soaking wet and chilled to the bone, all you want to do is jump right into the shower.

It’s no coincidence that the calf tightening started happened as the stretching sessions went extinct. I went for a deep tissue massage to get me back on track, and my massage therapist taught me some awesome shin and calf stretches. I obediently went back to my long post-run stretches and didn’t have any other issues after that.

What I Would Do Differently

In short, I wouldn’t change much about how I trained. If I had the opportunity to join a training group, that probably would have helped make some of the runs feel easier, and I probably would have benefited from some coaching – but I couldn’t find anything like this in Squamish, so I went at it solo.

Going forward, I will probably take the time to learn more about speed work and to strengthen more strategically – I think these things would help me run faster.

Right now, I’m mostly glad I don’t have to think about training for a little while. I’m very, very excited to immerse myself in yoga (as soon as I can walk normally again, that is).

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4 thoughts on “My First Marathon: The Training

  1. If you’re not that serious about running and you keep a spreadsheet, what do serious runners do? Don’t answer that, i might have nightmares.

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  2. Pingback: The Boundary Bay Marathon Race Recap | Out of Bounds Squamish

    • When will you be in Squamish! I am a somewhat slow runner but I’d be happy to show you around. If you’re game to run trails, Capra (a local running store) hosts free run groups on Wednesday evenings (6:15 PM) and Saturday mornings (8AM). Saturdays are a little longer. For roads, it’s actually somewhat tough to find long, interesting routes in Squamish. An out-and-back along Paradise Valley Road is good for getting the KMs in and it’s quite pretty, though a little boring. Otherwise, check out “Spit Rd” – out and back, it adds 8k to your run, and it takes you through a beautiful estuary and out to a beautiful viewpoint.

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