Caboose Life: On Marathon Training as a Completely Average Runner

I had a lovely long run the other day. Cool temperatures, a slew of podcasts lined up, and I even managed to sneak out of the house before the rest of the family woke up. I covered 14 delightful miles and ran into several friends along my route.

And then I ruined it: I scrolled through social media.

“22 miles and time for a bath with a cup of coffee,” said one friend’s Instagram post.

“15 miles at 8:39/ mi,” said another’s Strava entry.

By the time I was done stretching and rolling out my calves and IT band, I was tense again — this time seething with resentment that other people could spend so much less time on their long runs than me.

You see, I’m not setting any land speed records. I do my long runs at a solid (but right-for-me) tortoise pace which slows when the weather is warmer. That 14-miler? It took me more than two and a half hours. I’d love to be done with my runs sooner to stretch, roll, spend more time with my family, relax, and just get stuff done, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Even if you’re of the school of thought that most training runs can be done by time, not by distance, the long run is an exception. Matt Fitzgerald writes, in his book 80/20 Running:

“A long run is simply an extended foundation run that is measured in distance instead of time … With most workouts, time is a better way to give runners of different abilities an equal challenge. For example, if I tell two runners to run five miles, and one runs ten-minute miles and the other runs six-minute miles, the slower runner is going to be out there for almost an hour while the faster runner is only going to get a half hour of training. It’s better to give everyone a time and let the faster runner cover more distance in that time. But long runs are different, because their job is to build the endurance needed to cover a particular race distance. So long runs really need to be prescribed in distance to give every runner equal preparation to go the distance in their race.”

Basically he’s saying: The marathon doesn’t get any shorter. The marathon, all 26.2 miles of it, doesn’t care if you cover 20 miles in four hours or two. Do the 20-miler and deal with it. Put it this way: the caboose covers the same distance as the rest of the train.

So what’s the solution? Wake up earlier? (OK, sometimes I set my alarm for 5am. Sometimes I prefer a lie-in. And sometimes I wake up at 5:30 to a toddler exuberantly yelling “WANNA MAKE PANCAKES” in my face anyway.) Split some of my longer weekday runs in two? (I do that regularly, too.) But the long run…is the long run.

It seems like an easy fix to quit social media so I don’t care about what other people are doing. But let’s face it, as an (elderly) millennial, that’s how I keep in touch with friends. And I actually like Strava for accountability. There’s no fudging your training there, because the Garmin (mostly) doesn’t lie. There’s no pretending to yourself you did eight miles when you really did 7.65 … ish. In fact, I looked again at my training log there and discovered that last week’s 42 miles of actual running had really only taken me about seven and a half hours. That includes a long run, a speed workout, a tempo run, and a couple of playground runs with stroller and kid. Seven and a half hours!! That’s an hour a day and change. Surely I can find an hour a day for what matters.

Time management guru Laura Vanderkam agrees. Vanderkam argues that if you work 60 hours a week and sleep 8 hours a night, that still leaves you 52 hours to do things that matter the most to you. Obviously, some time is lost to the friction of commuting, daily life stuff (food doesn’t prepare itself, nor does laundry fold itself) and other transitions, and you’re not going to have equal physical or mental energy during all of those hours, but the principle remains. Let’s say I do 10 hours of running during peak weeks; that still leaves 42 hours for everything else. More, even, because I don’t work 60 hours every week.

I don’t have to do this, obviously. I didn’t sign up for a marathon because I wanted a walk in the park. I’m doing all this running because I like to run, and I like to push myself. I want to finish a marathon to the best of my ability – to race myself, if you will – and feel that I genuinely put in a good effort. And part of putting in this genuine effort, part of not lying to myself, is showing up and doing the training for it. I don’t have to do a long run that takes me three or four hours. I choose to. And I get to. Says this caboose.

Are you jealous of faster runners? How do you make the time?

Tropical transplant to the chilly Northeast. Professional writer and researcher, cantankerous editor, mom to two! inquisitive children, asker of inconvenient questions.

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  1. i definitely have phases where I’m jealous of people who can do way more miles per week in the same amount of time I spend on my 40 or so. Oh, and during marathon training it was so disheartening to finish a 2.5 hour run completely wrecked and realize it was still at least ten miles short of a marathon! But what can you do other than embrace the cabooseness (caboositude? Caboosence?)

  2. This really strikes a chord with me. In fact, I wrote in my last training notes for Coach to see, “I have to stop using Strava. It is killing my confidence.” After last Saturday’s run, I scrolled through and people posted stuff like, “21 miles with last five fast! Awesome!” “Awesome 15 miles!” “Just 18 easy today!” And I’m like, WTF are you people smoking. I struggled through 14 and it was 75 degrees out with a matching dewpoint, and I felt like I was running in a convection oven.

    I don’t know if I’d call it envy, what I’m experiencing…I mean, sure, I’d like to run faster more easily, but I’m not feeling ill will toward faster runners… I guess it’s just frustration that I’m not having an easier time of it.

    1. I agree with you Jennifer, I think for me when I struggle with SM & running etc I think it’s more about the frustration with my own self (whether rational, warranted or not).

    2. I totally agree. (Sometimes I suspect many runners take a look at Strava and are like NOPE NOPE NOPE and delete their accounts.) I don’t feel ill will toward faster runners, either; as jrab says above, it’s more the frustration of feeling like I should have made more progress ‘by now’, whether that’s warranted or not.

  3. Over the years making the time pretty much came down to scheduling things on my calendar, even runs and workouts. But also- remembering the value of 10 or 30 minutes and what you can do in that time. I really like what you pointed out about even if you work x hours a week and sleep x hours a week you still have Y hours a week for other things….it really brings to light how much time we do or don’t have and what we can do with that. For me even if I’m having one of those days where it’s just hectic I’ll tell myself to do something for 10 or 30 minutes. 10 minutes for recovery? 30 minute shakeout run better than nothing. 10 minutes to just do a quick pickup of the house so I can enjoy the rest of the evening. We get so caught up in doing things for hours that sometimes we feel defeated when we really could do something in 10 or 30 minutes and feel better. Obviously all your runs cannot be 30 minutes if you’re training for a race, let alone a marathon- but using this principle for recovery methods, and general daily activities for life helps me make more time for those longer runs etc.

    1. Agreed! I did a version of this in the early small-baby days, when I was still juggling work *and* pumping! My rule of thumb was ‘if you only have time for two miles, do the two miles – you’ll feel better’. The principle of ‘what you can, when you can’ goes quite a long way. Perhaps not for a commitment as significant as marathon training, but it certainly works for getting back into cardiovascular shape after time off, or maintaining a good base for future races.

  4. It’s a catch 22 for me, I like seeing others success and many days it pushes me to go a little faster. Other days, especially the bad run days I say inappropriate words to the screen and put my phone down. I will admit to a degree of envy to faster runners-but then I try and remind myself of how far I have come as a distance runner and that usually helps me (or I try to convince myself it does).
    I make time by writing things on the family calendar in the kitchen. I also send my wife iPhone invites for days I have especially lengthy long runs so she remembers that particular day to not schedule anything until mid day. I also keep a calendar in Google Sheets of my mileage and the dates so I have a sense when things come up about how I will need to plan that particular day. It definitely is a balancing act.

    1. That’s a good idea! My training logs are all scribbled in a notebook, but I do look at my planned runs each week and figure out which one goes on which day…and my husband knows he’s on kid duty every Saturday morning. Even my 2-year-old knows ‘mommy go run’ and ‘go to the store with daddy’ every Saturday!

  5. That 14 mile run would have taken me over three hours if I ran it at my current long run training pace. I have finished in the bottom five at more than one race and had the unpleasant and depressing realization at one point in a race that I was probably last. I ended up not last, but it was more a great sense of relief than one of triumph. Since everyone is faster than me anyway, being jealous of them would be all consuming. I think it would end running for me.

    Do I sometimes wish it didn’t take me so darn long? You bet. I wish I was faster not because other people are faster, but because I thought I would be faster by now. I find that more frustrating than anything else.

    On the other hand, it’s what I do so the people in my life just have to deal with it. My oldest can babysit his siblings now which means my kids complain less since they’re no longer spending that time out on their bikes with me. Dealing with whining and bickering children at mile eight of twelve brings a whole new level of difficulty to the mix I do not miss. I also figure running is basically my hobby so even if I take 7-9 hours a week doing it, it’s a pretty normal number of hours to spend doing a hobby. It’s also less time than I spend driving three kids to soccer practice, sitting at soccer practice, driving kids to soccer games, watching soccer games, and being team manager for a kid’s soccer team.

  6. I definitely understand the caboose life! I do like the idea of time spent on a run for the non-long runs, that does make me feel better about myself. Sure, some of my strava friends are running 9 miles and then I feel bad about only running 5-6… but then I look at time spent on that run and both of us ran for an hour. I can either choose to let myself feel bad about that, or happy that I am spending just as much time on MY running as other people are spending on theirs…. they get high mileage because they get it done faster. lol.

    Those long runs though, it’s a grind to know that I will be out there for 2-4 hours at a time every Saturday. I don’t mind making the time for it, it’s just the physical act of running for that many hours. I’ve heard faster runners say things like “I could never imagine running for 3 hours for a training run!” And I don’t know if that’s supposed to make me feel shitty or badass.
    But, like you said, we choose this… and I suppose one or two extra hours out there on a run is one or two fewer hours of me having to cater to the demands of my kids. 🙂

    1. HAHA! I totally feel ya! “I could never imagine running for 3 hours for a training run!” Well…uhh…you call it an extraordinarily long time on your feet? I call it Saturday morning. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I never know whether to feel shitty or badass, either. How about both?

      1. additionally, I get Strava heart rate envy! Easy run today! Average HR 125- felt great! Really pushed myself on today’s run, average HR 160!

        Um. My average HR is actually NEVER below 160. Even on easy runs that actually feel easy. 160 is like my baseline. Tempo/speedwork I’m easily maxing out around 190, and averaging in the 170’s. Even when I’m at my most fit, this is the case. Which is weird, because in my day to day life, I tend to have a low resting HR in the upper 40’s, low 50’s. Dunno!?

        1. Oh man. Same. My HR on my easy runs are supposed to max out at like 145. I try, and I’m good for 20 minutes or so, but then it goes up in the mid-150s and there’s nothing I can do to bring it down. And sometimes I get anxious outside because I’m convinced I’m about to be mugged, and I’m at 160. I’m getting a little better about hitting the right targets but improvement is SLOW.

  7. On the flip side, there are some well-respected coaches (Daniels, Hanson) who suggest long runs shouldn’t be more than 2.5 hours… regardless of how far that takes you. This is where the magical 16 mile long run from Hanson’s comes from (faster runners will run more than 16, but not more than 2.5 hours). There are a lot of days when I decide I like that school of thought…. !

  8. I can completely relate! I work my rear off training and seem to never progress beyond average. It is frustrating to see other people’s fast times and what they can run in the same amount of time as me. Not sure how motivating it is for me though. I don’t begrudge them because most of them work just as hard. Although I have heard more than once someone talk about “well if you work hard you’ll get faster.” Not always the truth. I am very much a plan follower and never miss speedwork or extra miles and my progress when any is minuscule. Even after all this moaning I’ll still be plugging along at it tomorrow 😉

  9. It’s sometimes annoying that my easy 10k takes me 65 mins and my partner’s easy 10k takes him 45 minutes, but I know he trains hard to achieve that. It was more annoying when he didn’t train at all and could run that because I felt like he didn’t deserve it!

    I try really hard to mentally frame my runs as “me time” and “time away from email/stress/life”, and that has helped me a lot in ignoring the amount of time it takes. Accepting my own “caboositude” (I love that word from another comment) helped too – I will never be on the podium, but if I can beat my own times, I’m cool with that.

  10. You’re faster than I am and I’m training for marathon #6 (longer story #8)…it doesn’t get easier but it’s worth it.