what I learned from training for (& running) a marathon

if you had told me a year ago that I’d run a marathon, I would’ve died laughing. I never believed I could run a marathon. honestly, I didn’t even think I could ever run a half marathon. but that’s where it all started…

the start: running a half

I’d always liked running, but only on occasion. I knew I was faster than most, and I was one of the few competitive swimmers that could run (and liked running). but even as a swimmer I was a sprinter, and so I never ran anything more than 2-3 miles in high school.

in college, I cross-trained by myself, but I never ran over 5 miles. I just can’t, I told myself.

fun fact: if you tell yourself you can’t do something, you never will be able to do it.

the first time I ran more than that was when TITLE Boxing Club (North Station) had a September challenge – we were told to choose a goal; if we reached it, then we would get a certain amount of points. I chose running a 10K, and so for the first time ever, I ran 6 miles. it took me almost an hour.

Ran a 10K this morning - thanks to everyone at @titleboston who helped me reach my #september30challenge goal!

A post shared by n a n c y c h e n (@nancylinchen) on

that, however, wasn’t the turning point. those 6 miles were rough. like, very rough. I was used to doing 2-3 mile interval sets on the treadmill or easy-ish 4 mile runs around the Esplanade.

the actual turning point was so random – one day, when I was doing my usual 4 mile run, I felt fantastic. like I was flying. and I was going faster than normal – averaging about 8 minutes per mile. I bet I could run a half marathon, I thought to myself. I’ve always wanted to.

the biggest thing that had stopped me before was that I had only ever run 6 miles, max. a half marathon was more than double that.

so I signed up for one, began training with intent, and trained up to 10 miles before life pulled me in a different direction – traveling to Southeast Asia during the time I was supposed to run.

undeterred, I signed up for the B.A.A Half in October, and began training again. my month in Asia took a toll; I never could complete my long runs as quickly as I did during that spring. I was averaging about 15 seconds slower than I did per mile; whereas I used to be at 8:22, I was now around 8:45.

the biggest things I learned from training for my half:

  1. the long runs don’t need to be (and aren’t supposed to be) fast.
  2. if you add one mile to your long run every week, it takes the mental stress off. just one more mile. before I knew it, I was running 10 miles again.
  3. in order to get better at running, you need to run more. this may seem obvious, but I was getting frustrated with myself because I was physically in great shape from boxing, strength training, and yoga, but I wasn’t running as quickly as I was before. the reason? because I wasn’t running as much as I used to.
  4. once you get past 8 miles, everything feels the same. 9? 10? 11? 12? 13? Irrelevant.

I ran the half in a much faster time than I expected – it was emotional for so, so many reasons.

after I finished, I told myself I never wanted to run a half again. but I went through a period of time in the weeks after where I felt lost without a plan, without something to train toward.

I found myself researching marathons.

obviously, 26.2 miles is very different from 13.1. but something in me asked myself – if I could run 13, couldn’t I run 26? don’t ask me about my logic. it doesn’t make any sense.

I think I also wanted to train towards something. I missed competing.

training for a full marathon

I began training far too early. like, before my friends who were training for Boston were. and I went through a period of time where I was so exhausted from life – from school, teaching boxing, taking boxing classes, doing yoga – that I didn’t have time to run.

somewhere in the midst of winter, I had lost my love of running. every long run felt like a chore; I wasn’t taking enough rest days to let my body recover and enable me to do those long runs.

the turning point this time was the hype from the Boston Marathon. my fellow Boston-fitness gal Sam (@wellbysamantha on Instagram) held a spin fundraiser, and she said:

your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will.

this wasn’t anything new, but for some reason, it resonated with me. I knew it was a mental block I had; I knew that I was the biggest barrier to my own running.

the next day, I ran 14 miles, no problem. to put that in perspective, my last couple of “long” runs had only been 7 miles.

I began my marathon training with renewed dedication, and found myself looking forward to and loving those long runs again, like I had before — I used to run on Wednesdays in between classes, eagerly anticipating the moment when I could hit the pavement with my shoes and breathe in the fresh air. I did my long runs on the weekends now, but it was with the same excitement that I laced up my running shoes and headed out into the city.

I ran 14, 16, 18 miles – all without problem. I discovered I loved running without headphones on these long runs – it gave me time to reflect, to think, to be at peace with myself. I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and it also changed my life. it’s true – sometimes when you run, you don’t think about anything. it’s like a void. a peaceful one – meditative.

the things I learned about training time around (from practical to philosophical):

  1. bring water. I almost died of dehydration on a particularly hot 16 mile run because I assumed I wouldn’t need water and that the water fountains along the Esplanade would be turned on (fun fact: they weren't).
  2. make sure there are bathrooms along the way. on my 18-miler, I ran into a gas station at mile 11 because I just had to go. there’s nothing worse than not being able to finish a run because your body is just like nah.
  3. take rest days. they’re just as important as your long run or hard days. without that time to recover, your body can’t perform at its best. (if you need some inspo, follow @restdaybrags on Twitter!)
  4. it’s all mental. stop telling yourself you can’t, or don’t want to, or are too tired. if it was easy, everyone would do it. it’s not supposed to be easy.
  5. find your inspiration. whether that’s other people, books, yourself, your goals… let that drive you, fuel you, push you.

below is a modified 8 week marathon training plan that my fellow TITLE Boxing Club trainer Drew, who has run multiple marathons, sent me; as a fitness instructor and someone who boxes regularly, I was running far less than someone who was solely running. my goal was to get a long run in every week, with some tempo and interval runs thrown in.

drew race training plan

the bump in my marathon training road was when I returned home for break; I got a nasty case of food poisoning and wasn’t able to completely my 16 or 12 mile run. I think it was my body telling me to take a break though; I didn’t take any rest days after my 18 mile run (big mistake).

I came back to Boston and ran 10.5 miles with some easy runs thrown in. my last run was last Monday, 4 easy miles around the Esplanade, my favorite running location, and a mile walk back to my apartment.

the race

going into the week of the race, I felt 100% confident that I could do this. I was in great shape, I had been rested, I was carb-ed up… there was nothing left to do but run.

but the day before, walking around Newport, I felt anxious. the pre-race jitters were so real. honestly, definitely engaged in emotional-eating. oops. all pre-race fuel, right?

but that was fine. race day, I laced up my trusty Reebok sneakers, slipped on my worn-in Lulus, Vaseline-ed myself up (I learned from running my half in the rain that after a certain number of miles, sports bras chafe like crazy), and fueled up with a banana, a packet of Wild Friends maple sunflower seed butter, and a shot of espresso.

once I was at the start, I remembered why I loved racing. years of competitive swimming have instilled in me a love of the pre-race excitement: the people, the music, the athletes doing their own pre-race routine. this was no 100 freestyle, but it was the same feeling. I felt the adrenaline rush through my veins, and I was ready.

one lady who was trying to qualify for Boston was chatting with me before the race; one thing she said that truly stuck out to me:

you’re going to love it. I usually hate myself during some point of it, but then I love myself, and I love the entire feeling after. It’s the best feeling ever, and you might get addicted.

with that in mind, I lined up at the start line and took a deep breath. and ran.

actually running the marathon

photo by Danielle Chen

photo by Danielle Chen

I didn’t put my headphones in; I was used to doing my long runs without music. it’s a kind of peace, really, a kind of quiet time with yourself. plus, the scenery was so breath-taking that it somehow felt wrong to mar the views with blasting music.

thoughts during the marathon

  • miles 1-4: I feel awesome! this is awesome! this will be the best thing I do ever, I just know it. and the views. so. gorgeous. everyone’s energy around me is great. I love people. and I’m high-fiving children? they’re so cute! I was like an Energizer Bunny on crack. I checked my watch. 8:35 split? probably shouldn’t be running that fast. OK, slow down. slow down. oops, passed the 4:00 pacer.
  • miles 4-7: wow, I still have over 20 miles to go. OK. OK. slow down. for reals this time. didn’t I read somewhere (Jonathan Levitt, you probably Tweeted this) that a marathon was a 20 mile jog and a 6.2 mile sprint?

(update: found the Tweetthe article I was referring to is here on the Inside Tracker blog)

  • mile 7-8: shit. literally shit. I have to poop already??? well ok. Porta-Potty at mile 8. you got this.
  • mile 8: found a bathroom. thank God for Porta-Potties. OK, just got passed by the 4:00 pacer. that’s fine. you can still see them. that’s fine. just keep running. just stay ahead of the 4:10 pacer.
  • miles 8-11: downhill. OK I really hope we don’t have to go uphill. wow, I love these spectators. running is awesome. keep pushing. you’re almost there. kind of. well, almost half way.
  • mile 11-12: wow, everything hurts. at least my groin is fine. do I strike harder with my left side? my left hip hurts. my right knee also hurts. f*** it, everything hurts. my toes are going to explode out of my shoes. can I cut them off? can I cut my legs off? why do my shoulders hurt? why does everything hurt so much???
  • mile 12-13: I just want to jump into the lake. also why is my hair so heavy? can I cut that off too???
  • mile 13-14: well, at least I’m more than halfway. I really should not have taken that out so fast. OK, my splits averaging at 9:15. that’s fine. just stay there. once you keep running at a pace you can hold it. you’ll get under 4:10. that’s fine.
  • mile 15-16: I regret quitting swimming. I miss swimming. at least even with the longest event, it’s 30-ish minutes. I was a sprinter so what am I doing???
  • mile 16: oh thank God we’re turning around. thank. God. OK, I can do this. I just have to run back. more than halfway.
  • mile 16-17: I’m SO SORRY, body. I’m so sorry for what I’m doing to you. forgive me. oh ouch slowing down to drink water was a terrible idea I don’t think I can move my legs anymore.
  • mile 17-18: my entire body is breaking down. legit questionable if I can finish. it’ll get easier past mile 18 right?
  • mile 18-19: THINK OF THE BREAKFAST POTATOES. AND BACON. JUST ALL THE FOOD. oh f*** it I just want water tbh. where’s the next water station at?
  • mile 19-20: I literally hate myself so much. why did I ever think this was a good idea??? at least I’ve now ran further than I’ve ever run. it’ll get easier past mile 20 right?
  • mile 20-21: I don’t think it’s ever going to get easier. oh my gosh. I thought I was fit. why. are. all. these. old. people. passing. me. I don’t even care if I get 4:30. I just want to finish this goddamn race. my sister and a whole school bus of people drive by, shouting, "you can do this!" I fight the urge to start walking and continue jogging.
  • mile 21-22: I’ve been playing catch up with that guy in the green shirt who’s been walking / jogging. I wonder if I power-walked if I’d be faster than I’m going now. I’m literally just hobbling.
  • mile 22-23: I’m dying. I swear to God I’m dying. this is the last time I'm ever doing anything like this. I am never running a marathon again.
  • mile 23-24: OK, you can do it. almost there. 3 miles is nothing. just one mile at a time. just keep running. wow ok who am I, Dory? whatever. just go.
  • mile 24-25: SO CLOSE. SO FRICKIN' CLOSE. don’t give up now. you’re stronger than that. you’ve always been stronger than that. 2 miles is so short. you've done it on a treadmill. you're fine. you're fine.
  • mile 25-26.2: headphones in. all out sprint. maybe I should’ve started sprinting earlier because when I’m running this fast, there’s no pain.

and with that, 26.2 was done. I don’t know if there was anything as beautiful as that finish line (or honestly, that mile 26 marker).

I finished in 4:28, under 4:30 (thank God, or else I probably wouldn't have forgiven myself), and 8th out of my age group — not bad for my first marathon. it was:

  • humbling, because I wasn't invincible. I can't just run 26.2 miles and expect it to be easy. I can't under-train and expect to be fast.
  • amazing, because of the views. because of what my body can accomplish. because I could feel every single muscle, every single tendon; felt strong and broken and wonderful at the same time.
  • brutal, because it was hands-down the most painful thing I had ever done. it was a true test of mental stamina, because when you put your body through something like that, you need your mind to push you through.
  • beautiful, to see people of all ages and sizes running. there is no such thing as a "runner's body." if you have a body and you run, you have a runner's body. we were all in it together, every single step of the way.
race results

things that might happen to your body:

  • you might gain weight, or lose it. I gained about 5 lbs while training, but also lost some muscle mass in some places (hello, booty where you at???). that’s fine. let your body be where it needs to be. post-race, you can train it back to where you want it to be.
  • you might lose some toenails. um what? yes, your feet expand on long runs. the constant stress on your feet causes toenails to fall or rub off...so treating yourself to a pre or post-marathon pedicure is definitely understandable!

things I learned from running the marathon:

  1. bring your own water bottle and energy gels. I don’t take energy gels or anything during my long runs, but I stopped for a Clif energy shot, which was just pure cane sugar, and I wished I had a more natural from (like honey) with me. I also spilled water on myself because I tried to run and drink at once and it was legit so sad.
  2. it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you don’t train enough. I don’t know if I should’ve run more, strength trained legs more, done more hills, whatever. probably all of the above. it felt like I could keep going forever cardio-wise, but my legs were so painful that the last 10 miles, I was slowed down to an average of 10:15 pace. I was seeing people who I had passed long ago in the first half of the race speed past me in the last half.
  3. your body is amazing. one of the things that I’ve always loved about running is just how amazing the human body is, and just how much it’s capable of. running taught me that I can overcome limits. that I should never say “I can’t,” because I can. think about how crazy it is that you’ve just run 26.2 miles. TWENTY SIX POINT TWO.
  4. have fun with it. some of the best parts of the race were when I was high-fiving kids who came out to watch, when the spectators had funny signs like “you’re hotter when you’re sweaty,” when people by the side of the road set up a mister, and when an old man I had passed later passed me saying, “hey, smile! you were smiling earlier!” smiling reduces the pain (fact: it releases endorphins), but also by having fun with it, you’re making memories. 26.2 miles is a long way. have fun with yourself and with others while you’re doing it.
  5. you learn to be so in tune with your own body. 4-ish hours is a long time to spend with yourself and your thoughts. not only do you have to be mentally strong, but you have to listen to your body and its cues. figure out what it needs. listen to the pain, acknowledge it, and ignore it. pain is temporary.

finally, I couldn’t have done it without the support of every. single. one of you.

from every “good luck” text and message, to everyone who's ever run a marathon, to those who calmed my pre-race jitters down, to the spectators who brought a smile to my face and pushed me to run harder, to the volunteers who handed me water with a smile, I couldn’t have made it without you. *** (see the very bottom of the post for individual shout outs!)

will I run a marathon again? probably not. but who knows?

if you’ve made it to the bottom of this very long post, thank you! I’d love to know – marathoners – what are your thoughts? tips? those of you who aren’t – what’s stopping you? is it something you’ve always wanted to do? email me nancylinchen@gmail.com with questions or comment below!

some amazing and helpful articles from others who've run marathons:

bonus  — super shout out to all of these people: