How and why I ran my first marathon

When we went into our very first lockdown in March of 2020, I was one of the many people who decided to take up running. Seasoned runners would complain on social media and various forums that their favourite tracks were now clogged with rookies and amateurs. Well, that was me.

All throughout my childhood I had been athletic – gymnastics, soccer, cross country, little athletics, swim club, and countless types of dance. Even throughout high-school and university I exercised in some form or other a few times a week, at the gym or in pilates and yoga classes. But when I graduated and entered a full-time office job, I naturally lost quite a bit of fitness. My office was lucky enough to supply us with a gym and weekly workouts facilitated by a trainer, but I still wouldn’t say I was in great shape.

So when we went into lockdown, I began to re-evaluate my priorities and where different types of sport and fitness fit into my new WFH lifestyle. I ultimately decided to take up running.

It was the perfect lockdown activity; fresh air, no equipment required, lots of time for podcasts, and you can do it more or less wherever, whenever.

I started with the Couch to 5km app, which quite honestly made me feel like I was dying. I vividly remember my lungs screaming at me, nausea rising in my belly, and breathing so laboured it was borderline pornographic. Running for just a minute or two at a time required all the grit I had, and the day I ran for eight minutes straight I remember feeling on top of the world.

Within three months, I went from running a minute at a time to my first 5km. I was so elated, I promptly bought the Couch to 10km extension – which only took a further six weeks to master.

By this stage, gyms had opened up and I had begun a new job. So with my new job and new daily routine, I began to make it a priority to run 10km every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

It occurred to me one day that I was more or less running a marathon each week, which made me wonder – could I actually run a marathon?

A marathon had always seemed to me some sort of superhuman endeavour. It was something only really remarkable people did, like save someone’s life or grace the cover of a magazine. Something totally inaccessible and out of reach for me.

Then I got really stubborn.

Running a marathon is hard – but who said I can’t do hard things?

So, I decided I’d set my sights on my first marathon.

Getting to my first half-marathon

It stands to logic that if I wanted to run a full marathon (42.19km), then I’d have to be able to run a half marathon (21.09km) first. By this point, 10km was a standard day for me and I had pushed up to 12km and 15km a few times.

So, one morning, I took a bottle of Powerade, Coke Zero, and a pack of Allen’s Party Mix down to the oval and set out to run my first half-marathon.

And I did it.

Granted, it wasn’t a particularly impressive time. It took over three hours and I stopped every 5km for a swig of water and a few lollies, but I finished it.

I limped home on cloud nine, and gushed over the accomplishment with my housemates. That was the moment when a marathon began to actually feel like something I could do.

I signed up for the closest marathon to me – the Blackmore’s Sydney Running Festival – which was scheduled for nine months after my first half-marathon.

At this point, I began to train quite seriously.

How I trained for my marathon

Most marathon training plans out there consist of a few key elements; long runs, tempo runs, easy runs, cross training, and rest days.

For those not in the know, tempo runs are where you push yourself to run at a particular pace or put a higher priority on the time in which you finish a run.

Long runs are those days where you set out for maximum kilometres and try not to stress about the time too much.

Easy runs can be any length but mostly refer to running at a pace where you can also hold a conversation.

And cross training is any kind of exercise that works other muscle groups – which is important to prevent injury and just make sure you’re not tiring out your legs too much.

I checked out a couple of different plans, but tended to kind of make my own. I would do hill sprints once a week, two or three easy runs, and weightlifting or pilates four times a week. Every weekend, I’d go for my long run.

Now, long is relative. Some weeks this was 15km, some weeks it was 25km, and some weeks it was 30km. Throughout the course of nine months, I ran five half-marathons in total and clocked up hundreds of kilometres.

I stretched, ached, took supplements, saw doctors, discovered I had strong opinions when it came to sports bra’s and leggings, wore through expensive sneakers, found a god-send for blisters, and decided that expensive running socks truly are worth it.

I’m hesitant to talk about nutrition, but did use Gatorade and GU energy gels on my longer runs because those were going to be provided on race day at Blackmore’s Sydney Running Festival.

Then disaster struck…

Sydney had another severe COVID-19 outbreak and we plunged into lockdown. Just three months out from the date of the marathon.

As the weeks and months ticked by, we remained in lockdown and just a few weeks out from the day, the marathon was cancelled.

I was pretty upset – all those hill sprints and a year of training gone to waste?

Absolutely not. As I said, I’m stubborn.

I decided I’d run a marathon anyway.

My dilemma was that we were heading into Spring in Australia, which meant the heat was about to soar. Between the increased foot traffic and crowded parks, humid days, sunburn and risk of heatstroke/dehydration, I had a small window in which to run my marathon.

On Tuesday, I made the call to run a marathon that Saturday. 18 months of running came down to just six days of preparation, and I had to get serious.

Preparation and planning

In marathon training, it’s best practice to taper down the amount of running in the 3-4 weeks leading up to the big day. Luckily, I had just completed a month of Whole30 which had meant I was running significantly less in the past few weeks.

I did the classic carbohydrate loading in the days before – lots of oats, sweet potato, rice, and pasta – and stocked up on Gatorade.

I also employed every single psychological trick I knew about motivation. I listened to my favourite running song and vividly pictured myself running laps of the oval, with a little tally in the corner counting the number of kilometres I was clocking up, all the way from 1km to 42.2km.

I would sit down and write pages and pages full of affirmations like “On Saturday, I will run a marathon. I will run 42.2km. I’m so glad I ran a marathon this Saturday. I feel so accomplished that I ran a marathon” – all with this song playing.

I didn’t tell too many people because a small part of me doubted I could do it. Just my little sister (who just “gets me” and would know exactly what I needed to hear), my dad, one friend, and my housemates.

The day before, I was walking up my street and glanced down, and spotted a four-leaf clover. I picked it up, then spotted another one, and another.

I figured that was as good a sign as any. Armed with three lucky clovers, I banished any doubt from my mind.

Race Day

I woke up at 3:00 am the morning of my first marathon, having gone to bed at just 9:00pm that night.

I prepared some oats with protein powder, banana, chocolate chips, an egg, and a spoon of almond butter then gulped down some water. It’s a fine balance, because you need to be properly hydrated with plenty of carbs for fuel – but you need a lot of time to digest so you’re not dealing with cramps, stitches, or diverting blood from your muscles.

Once fueled, I went back to listening to my favourite running song, and did a bit more visualising, wrote a few more affirmations, and got to stretching.

I chose to run the marathon as laps around a nearby oval. This park had bubblers, public toilets, and it meant I could take a gym bag with me and leave it under a tree, rather than have to run with a backpack. In said gym bag I had numerous bottles of water and Powerade, GU Energy Gels, sunscreen, bandaids, Body Glide, a towel, and a change in shirt in case I sweat too badly.

I also once heard of a psychological phenomenon where your brain slows down the perception of time when you’re in a new environment, to account for all the stimuli it’s taking in. It’s why the car trip to a location always feels longer than the return trip back. I kind of hoped that running the same oval for hours and hours would work in the same way.

So when it came time to start running, I put that favourite running song on once again. I’d conditioned myself with visualisations and affirmations of completing a marathon, like Derren Brown in The Heist. A lot of motivation was anchored to that song, and it started me strong.

From there, it was just a matter of running. For hours.

The disappointing thing about not being able to run the properly planned marathon, was that I didn’t have anyone on the sidelines or people running alongside me to keep me motivated. I had no loved ones waiting at the finish line, there were no encouraging signs or cheering crowds, and I had barely told anyone I was running it.

Luckily, my sister kept me motivated with texts like “only hot girls run marathons,” and “holy shit, you’re officially better than everyone.”

Courtesy of my younger sister.

I stopped every 7km for fuel and hydration – and mentally braced to hit “the wall.”

A lot of runners describe “the wall” as when you can’t physically or psychologically keep going. Your legs are jelly, it’s hard, you’re tired, and your muscles are depleted of glycogen which makes your body quite literally feel like the task at hand is impossible.

Luckily, that didn’t happen for me. At around 30km, I certainly felt the struggle. It was hard, and there’s no denying that. But once again, I reminded myself (somewhat indignantly), that I can do hard things. Besides, there was absolutely no way I’d give up now.

I began to stop more frequently for energy gels and Powerade, but I kept going everytime.

I watched on my Apple Watch as the kilometres ticked by, eventually cracking 40, 41, 42… and then my favourite running song came on.

My Spotify was set to shuffle; I hadn’t planned this. What were the odds?

I remember laughing to myself at the synchronicity, feeling equal parts baffled and blessed, then looking down and realising my watch read 42.2km.

I had just run my first marathon.

The recovery process

I’ll admit, I didn’t run a second longer than necessary. I slowed to a stop immediately, shook my legs out, and then plodded back to my bag where I promptly downed as much water as humanly possible and sank to the grass.

I lay back in the shade, mopping my face with a now-damp sweat towel, and informed my parents and closest friends that I was now a marathon runner.

After shuffling back home, I now had recovery to consider. The rest of the day consisted of lots of stretching, magnesium supplements, napping, and an ungodly amount of calories.

I mostly took the day to watch movies on the couch, stretching every few hours to ward off stiffness, and applying aloe-vera to the rosy tops of my shoulders. Congratulations rolled in, blisters rose to the surface, and my first marathon journey was complete.

My entire progression from first-time runner to marathon was defined by the pandemic. I started in lockdown, trained in lockdown, and completed my first marathon in lockdown. It was nice to have running to distract, anchor, and push me at a time where so much was up in the air – although I’l be very glad to run another marathon under more conventional conditions one day.

My first marathon was over a month ago as I write this – and I still run most days. Just don’t ask me to do hill sprints anytime soon…

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