The Difference Between Running and Racing a Marathon

No matter the pace, racing a marathon means those final miles are tough!

My coach is fond of saying that I have only raced a few marathons. What, you may ask, was I doing the other 20-some times I toed the marathon line? According to Coach I was just running. Is there really a difference between running and racing a marathon? I think so.

I know countless great runners who do not race their marathons; they run a few marathons year after year always finishing in the same 10 minute range, and I wonder what they could do if they were just willing to put it all on the line. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with simply running your marathons without racing, but any way you slice it, you still have to cover 26.2 miles! Crossing the finish line is a big deal in itself! It’s not for everybody but if you suspect you’ve never really raced a marathon, I encourage you to consider taking the leap. You might be surprised by what you’re capable of!

If you’ve never done it before you may be wondering, “How exactly do I go about racing a marathon rather than simply running to the finish?”

The first thing to do is to set an aggressive but achievable goal and work on getting out of your comfort zone. We often drift towards picking a safe goal because of our fear of pain or fear of failure. When we actually go for it and race a marathon, it really does hurt and yes, it’s hard! No sugar coating here! Whether during or after, racing a marathon is going to take more of a toll on your body. You need to be prepared to suffer. You also need to be ok with risking failure, because when you really put it all on the line you’re less likely to reach your goal. And that’s ok! You will only find out what you’re truly made of if you put yourself out there and try.

It took me years to figure this out for myself. My big breakthrough realization on what a marathon should feel like came during a training run. I had 12 miles on tap somewhere around 6:40 pace, which sounded INSANE. I headed out with a group of runners who were all at a higher fitness level than me. I remember really going to the well to keep up with them the last few miles when what I really felt like doing the entire run was slowing down. We had run most of the workout faster than goal pace and I was whipped, but somehow I held on and had a mental breakthrough.

On race day in Columbus 2010, the first marathon I think I ever really raced, I was nervous about my pace during first 10km. It would have been so easy to back off my pace, but I reminded myself that as long as it didn’t feel worse than that training day, I would get through it. And surprise…I did!

Those last miles of a marathon race HURT! But the results are SO worth the pain!

The marathon is a tricky race and I’d say when you really race it you need to be prepared to have patches where you don’t feel great. When we really race we feel a little out of control, and that’s normal. After all we are supposed to be out of our comfort zone here! There will be miles where you feel like you won’t be able to keep the pace up and doubts creep in, but most often if you just keep plugging along things will improve and you’ll get over the hump. You just have to trust that at some point whether through fueling, a change in terrain, or even a change in the group of runners around you, it will get better.

And remember, when you race a marathon, those last miles hurt! It’s not going to feel like smooth sailing if you’re really pushing it to your limit. Also, when you put yourself out there and really go for it, more things are likely to go wrong. Cramping, bonking, etc. are more likely to occur when you’re running 26 miles at breakneck pace. If you’re risk-averse really racing a marathon is probably not for you! But just like the stock market, high risk can yield high reward.

Racing a marathon is not for everyone, but if you think you can stomach it, I encourage you to really get after it during your fall marathon this year and reap the rewards you deserve from all your hard training! If you’re willing to out and really RACE your marathon, take the risk! Go for it!!

Have you ever really raced a marathon? If not why not? Is it worth the risk to really push the envelope and see what you’re made of?

This post originally appeared on Salty Running on October 12, 2012.ย 

A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. I’ve never raced a marathon, but as my 2nd one approaches this Sunday, I’m itching to really race one. Since this is my hubby’s first, and mentally he’s not there, this won’t be my “race”. I think this may be his one and only marathon, and I want him to enjoy it and finish feeling amazing, whatever that will look like on the clock. But next fall…watch out!

    1. Jan good luck to you and your husband! Running a marathon with a friend is a great way to get excited about your own marathon. So go enjoy it and get fired up for next fall ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I’ve always been one of those people who just runs marathons to finish and all of my road marathons were within the same 5-6 min, between 4:30 and 4:36. But I ran Akron this past weekend and decided I wanted to set a new PR and lined up with the 4:20 group, still super conservative. Everything just clicked and I realized I could run a lot more aggressively than I thought and ran a 4:11. Those last two miles were the fastest of the day and they did hurt! But it was SO absolutely worth it to go out there and really push myself. It was definitely the best marathon experience I’ve ever had!

  3. Looking back, I would say that I attempted to race the last 3 marathons I ran. The first two, I had time goals but the paces weren’t much of a stretch from my training runs. The next three, I did speedwork and targeted paces that were faster than just regular training runs. Two of them, I went out “guns blazing” and fell short – but have no real regrets about it because at least I tried.

    Part of what keeps me from hopping back on the marathon train is knowing that I would want to race one – and I am not sure that I have the time available to train like I’d need to. The other part is not knowing if I can handle the heartbreak that comes from working so hard for so long, and then having it come apart on race day.

    1. MG I am not sure how I feel about my few guns blazing attempts at racing ๐Ÿ™‚ There’s a fine line between racing and blowing up! I’m glad I have had a few successful racing attempts now and I know what they should feel like for me, that way I don’t need a goal time or pace to know that I am racing. It’s great for marathons where the weather gods don’t play nice, or where your fitness isn’t quite where you had hoped it would be.

  4. I agree, and this is a really useful article for me. I’m about to run my 8th or 9th half marathon but I feel like this is the first one I’m going to race. The others have been for the experience or for fun or as part of a training plan. But this one, I’m going for my first sub two hour time. I think I can do it but I also think I may not. I’m going into this one fierce like a mother tiger, ready to leave everything on the course and run AS HARD AS I CAN!! I’ve trained for it, I just need to do it now!! Grrrr….

      1. Healdsburg, in California Wine Country. Apparently there’s wine at the finish line…that should take a minute off ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Awesome Cathryn! Good luck and just remember when it gets tough you need to be tougher ๐Ÿ™‚

      My friend Athena and I like to cheer ridiculous things at runners, and one of our favorites is “You’re a Tiger, Grrr!” Go get em Tiger ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I love this post! I am ready to race my marathon. I think that of my previous three fulls, I’ve started out with intentions to race them all but had to switch to just running on two occasions.

    1. I think unless you are elite most people’s first few marathon really are just to finish, regardless of pace. Hey it took me like 20 attempts before I figured out how to race them ๐Ÿ™‚ Here’s hoping you can get ahead of my learning curve!

  6. My first marathon was definitely to finish, but then I decided I wanted to BQ. That took 2 tries but I’m still not sure I would have called it racing those (and certainly not Boston where I was deathly ill). Now that I’m officially training to race one in December with structured workouts at marathon pace, etc. it feels like a whole other (and scary) ballgame. I feel like the mental part is a much larger piece of the puzzle for me the faster the pace becomes because the temptation is just to slow down a little bit. But I’m hoping by the end of a nice taper I’ll be raring to go!

  7. Well, I’m definitely not at the level where I can race a marathon, but I’ve finally gotten into racing my 5k! The first marathon next spring will be to finish… then who knows!

  8. I have little interest in “running” marathons anymore – I treat each of them as a race – not always to win (but sometimes), but always to put my best into it, and that only comes about by proper preparation – by, as my latest post suggests, relishing the process as much as the outcome. Additionally, I think the competitive dynamic – scoping the starting area, reacting (or not) to the early moves by other runners – makes the experience that much more interesting. Maybe this is why I’m a little fonder of smaller races now, where that dynamic can play out easier than it can with, say, 40,000 other runners at Chicago.

  9. I knew that I had finally raced a marathon when the memory of it was so scary that weeks, months, and coming up on years later I still don’t want to go back to do it again.
    Even as my head has been saying “Yes,” my body still says “No!”
    It’s kind of like when you’ve eaten something and become ill shortly after, you don’t want to eat whatever that was again. (No meatball sub for me, even after almost 30 years … the thought still makes me queasy.)

    It was a scary place, spending almost the last hour of the race with grayed out tunnel vision and wobbly wheels. I just told myself:
    1) the faster you run the faster you’ll be done and
    2) you can do ANYTHING for an hour

    Still, I pretty well raced the next marathon I did. That time, I was angry the whole way – angry at myself for putting myself in a position to endure such suckitude (esp for a time that wouldn’t be better than the previous race).

    I’ve since endured a string of early breakdowns that have left me out of contention and given me (poor) excuses for not racing – the body rebelling. But, I’ll get over it. Really.

    You’re absolutely right – and I’ve learned this at every other distance as well – it’s supposed to hurt.
    If you let it, you’ll get over the hump. And you’ll be amazed.

  10. This is a great time for me to read this. I usually race my marathons and, as I am getting ready for Chicago in a little over 4 weeks, I am feeling excited and nervous. I have a pretty audacious goal and I admit I am scared I might hit the hurt tank and blow up. So it is great to have the reminder that yes, it takes guts and yes, it hurts, but often you can get past it. Filing this one away to pull from for mental toughness on race day.

  11. I still don’t understand what a marathon is in relation to a race. Are there prizes in a marathon?