I ran my first marathon last Friday. Yay!
Luckily, I didn’t follow in the footsteps of the first guy to try it, a Greek soldier named Pheidippes whom, word has it, died shortly after crossing the finish line. But still, running 26.2 miles took a little effort. Starting at mile 24, it felt like dying would have been a softer option.
And I can’t tell you that I’ve checked it off my bucket list. Until a few months ago, it wasn’t even on my bucket list. It was more of an hors bucket list thing, a goal so unattainable that the Earth-Prime version of me was destined never to do it, like staying at a hotel on the moon, winning an Oscar, or gently breaking up with Margo Robbie via Facebook Messenger.
(While I never dated Margo Robbie, L, I did once go on a date with former eighties child star
Meredith Salenger. The meal was excruciatingly awkward, entirely due to my obsession with her as a teenager. She went on to marry funnyman Patton Oswalt. This was for the best.)
I digress. I ran a marathon. It was super hard, but I did it. I’m nothing special. According to Running USA, over half a million people ran in American marathons in 2016. Despite my previous misgivings, it’s an entirely do-able thing. All you probably need is a decent pair of shoes, an assortment of lubricants (more on that later), a little time, a lot of patience, and a burning desire to see it through.
With this in mind, I think you can do it too. Here are five steps to make it happen.
Step One: Pick an event.
There are scores of marathons in the US every year. Pick one that moves you. Maybe it’s an iconic event like the New York City Marathon. Or maybe it’s a really fun one, like one of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series featuring live bands along the route.
Whichever you pick, give yourself several months lead time to train—long enough so that you have ample training time, but not so long that the race becomes abstract. A year should do it.
I chose the Long Beach Marathon. It’s a flat course, which seemed less intimidating. It’s close to home which eliminated a bunch of logistics. And the fact that it was held in October gave me something to work towards during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Unfortunately, the lockdown eventually also resulted in the cancellation of said marathon, but I couldn’t let that stop me. (See: Step Five.) I’d come too far, so I did the virtual version, which means I paid the race organizers $140 so that I could run solo from Redondo Beach to Torrance Beach to Marina del Rey and back. Considering I could have done the run for free, this may seem like a waste of money, but I got a Long Beach Marathon t-shirt and medal out of the deal—and who doesn’t love a $100 t-shirt?
My wife Marilyne, an eleven-marathon veteran—including the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon—tells me that running 26.2 miles alone is much tougher than racing with thousands of your best friends and periodically rocking out to bands on the side of the road playing “Eye of the Tiger” and other meat-punching anthems. Undaunted, I patched together an overly-long motivational classic rock playlist on Spotify to get me through.
Of course, running a virtual marathon opens up a huge can of logistical worms, most solved by asking/bribing a friend to stay close on the day, providing food, hydration, and support should something go wrong.
In my case, Marilyne rode the whole course on her beach cruiser, serving as a mobile aid station with fluids, gels, and inspiration. No bribe was required. (Hey, Meredith! Looks like I married up, too!) She also rode ahead and told people what I was doing so that, periodically, complete strangers would scream encouragement at me, which is just as awesome as any Survivor cover band.
Step Two: Have a training plan.
Start small. As I said in a previous post, my running career begin with a one-mile run. When that was easy, I did a two-mile run. And so on. Once a distance got easy, I’d just added a little more and stayed there until that got easy too.
If you want something a little more prescriptive (and fun), the company I work for, Beachbody, just launched a program called 30 Day Breakaway. It’s designed to make you 5k-ready in 30 days.
Once you have a 5k under your belt, there are a billion resources out there featuring marathon training plans. Just pick one and go for it. If you’re going for Olympic gold, you’ll want something fancy, but if you just want to finish at a decent time, all you need to do is progressively increase your training while allowing for recovery in between.
I’m not a trainer, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. However, I will say, when creating a plan, work backwards. Knowing that the Long Beach Marathon was the weekend of October 3-4, I planned to do a 22-mile session two weekends before that (with an easier 9-mile run in between as I tapered). I worked backwards from there.
Step Three: Forget about it.
You have a goal and a plan to achieve that goal. Now forget all of it. Put it out of your head. Like I said, a year ago, I couldn’t fathom the idea of trying a marathon. Frankly, I still couldn’t fathom it two weeks ago as I wrapped up that last 22-mile training run.
The trick is to apply some industrial grade compartmentalization. Pack thoughts of your goal away deep in your subconscious right next to the memory of the time in ninth grade that you walked around school all day with your dress tucked into your underpants or maybe that time you were writing on the blackboard in algebra class and got a boner—some recess of your mind that you don’t like to visit too often.
Just focus on whatever training you’re doing this week and next week. If you just ran 12 miles, then 14 miles won’t seem insurmountable, so focus on that. If you just ran 14, 16 won’t seem undoable, so that should take up your mind. Just as Dr. Leo M. Marvin teaches us, it’s all about “baby steps.”
Step Four: Eat and drink.
If you’re trying to lose weight, I’d probably put that goal on hold once you start running 13-plus mile days. Don’t pork out either, but eliminate any deficits from your diet while keeping things balanced and healthy. Not only is it important to have the fuel you need to train, but you also need the nutrients that will help you repair and recover.
We all know carbs are important for endurance training. Fuel, baby! So, at the very least, on the day before your marathon, make a point of really carbing-up. But other nutrients matter too. Make a point of keeping your protein up. I’d shoot for at least three 20-gram protein meals a day, more in the days after long runs. Running is tough not just on your muscles, but on your whole body. All that protein will provide amino acids your body can use for repair and recovery.
Similarly, eat plenty of fruits and veggies. Most parts of our bodies go through something called the “redox” cycle, where they’re perpetually broken down, or oxidized, by molecules called “free radicals,” then built up again. Exercise, especially running, is a stressor. While it’s good for you, it also promotes oxidation. Antioxidants fight against radicals, which is why they’re important in our diet. And one of the best sources of antioxidants is produce!
Towards the end of longer, harder runs, you might get the urge not to eat or drink. Learn to ignore this. It happens to most endurance athletes. What’s happening is that your sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system kicks in and suppresses non-mission-critical functions, including eating. For this same reason, you’ll probably stop having to pee.
Commit to a feeding schedule during longer runs—not to mention your race—and stick with it despite these urges.
Step Five: Prepare to be unprepared.
You’re boldly going where your body and mind have never gone before. If you understood that reference, it means you also know that, sooner or later, the Enterprise gets stuck tangling with the Klingons. And if it’s not the Klingons, it’s the Romulans, or Khan, or some mediocre villain destined never to make his or her way into another episode. It’s simply the nature of the multiverse.
My calf cramped, sweat blinded me, my nipples rubbed raw, I discovered bone spurs on the tops of my feet, I got toe blisters that looked like conjoined twins, my hip went out. Some of these challenges had easy fixes—a good running visor holds back hours of perspiration. Some of the challenges proved, well, challenging. My hip still isn’t perfect, despite a lot of rehab and far too many days off than I’d prefer.
Be ready for your share of complications. Remember, if it was easy, everyone would be running marathons; Netflix would be out of business and Americans would wear sweat pants for activities that actually involved sweat. So, try not to get too frustrated when your own personal Klingons rear their ridged heads. Just make like Kirk and set phasers to stun.
By the way, if you’re still focused on the raw nipple thing, this is where the lubricants come in. Body Glide makes an anti-chafing balm that you spread on your tender parts before running. It works great and, as a bonus, it completely embarrasses your teenage kids if applied in their presence. As for the scary toe blisters, I reduced them with liberal application of Lucas’ Papaw Ointment and Dr. Frederick’s Original Gel Toe Caps, which are basically toe condoms—also ideal for teenage embarrassment.
If you’re still on the fence, look at it this way. On the very short list of activities that involve lubricating your nipples and sliding on toe condoms, running a marathon is the one you’re most likely to accomplish without going to jail or ruining a potential political career, so you might as well do it.
Also, simply put, it’s an awesome thing to do.