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!
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.