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I couldn’t sleep. My excitement had me up hours before my start time. I leapt out of bed, ate a light breakfast, changed into my running clothes, and began my warmup routine. I had been training five months for this day. A day I thought would never come and an event I thought I could never complete. After all, I was not a runner. Running was for track stars, who were crazy enough to love the pain and repetition, and not for me. Yet on Sunday, October 21st, I ran my first 42.2 kilometer marathon, clocking in at a time of 3:53:01, never stopping once to rest and smiling the whole way through.
If you have ever spoken to someone who has run a marathon, they may tell you that it’s a physical battle but a mental war. This couldn’t be truer. The five months of training for this race has taught me a lifetime of lessons. Below I have outlined the most notable ones.
Lesson 1: Figure out your ‘why’
It was a calm evening in June. Wine glass in hand, I was at my office desk assessing my accomplishments thus far in 2018 and planning what to do next. I have always been one to challenge myself physically. I thought to myself, “what is one thing that would scare me to death if I had to commit to it?” Without a doubt, this was distance running. It was something I was never strong at and certainly did not enjoy. So the obvious thing to do was enroll myself in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
Looking back, why did I sign up? Was there some subconscious reason behind it? Or did I simply want to see how far I can push myself? Phil Knight, founder of Nike, in his book Shoe Dog said it best:
“You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you’re running towards some goal, chasing some rush. But really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.”
Not stopping. That was my why. Whatever I did, I needed to keep moving forward and progressing, never stopping.
Yes, telling people to “find their why” is an overused statement. But it’s done so for a reason. It’s the most important part to any endeavour. Without your why, difficult situations become too easy to quit. You are only accountable to yourself and if your mind is weak, you will forfeit your goals in pursuit of comfort. When things got tough, when I was beaten mentally and physically, I kept referring back to that idea. Don’t stop. It was powerful enough to get me out of bed in those early brisk mornings and lace up my shoes.
If you want to run a marathon, start off by finding your “why”.
Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid of discomfort
It’s 5:30 AM and my alarm goes off. My legs are sore, my feet are throbbing, and my bed has never felt more comfortable. I am week 9 into training and the difficulty is starting to ramp up. I know I have to get out of bed and make my morning run but my mind has other plans. I start to think to myself, “I’m too tired. My legs are too sore. My sprained ankle isn’t fully healed. It’s too cold. It’s raining. No one will know if I skip one run.” This is the conversation I had not only this time, but every single training run I had to do.
I was sore, tired, and in pain. I would have to run fatigued which would lead to more fatigue. More fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult and more pain was likely. Despite this internal dialogue, I still went for my run. No matter what, I never missed my run.
At some time during training, everyone will go through this pain. At times this pain and fatigue will test you to your very core. Despite this, you must remain laser focused on the task at hand and remain consistent with your training. Over time, the pain lessens. Over time, your mind realizes that trying to convince you to stay in bed is a losing battle. Over time, you get stronger.
If you want to run a marathon, don’t be afraid of discomfort.
Lesson 3: Focus on the next step
It’s week 14 of training and I embarked on my longest run up until this point. It would be the first time I would cross the half-marathon threshold. Halfway through the run, I turn around to run back. With my legs heavy and lungs racing to catch my breath, I see the CN Tower way off in the horizon, the landmark for where my run ends. Thinking I would have to run that distance was beyond intimidating. At this moment, my mind began telling myself to just call an Uber home since 12 kilometers was more than enough for today. It was at this very moment where I decided to refocus. I knew where I needed to go, but began to completely focus on the next step. That was all I could control. I put my blinders on, one step turned into two, two into two hundred, and eventually I completed the full 24 kilometers.
Training, like life, can get overwhelming. Putting in the work four to five times per week - while at the same time ensuring your diet and recovery is on point - is hard work. Without focusing only on the task at hand, the distance can become paralyzing.
If you want to run a marathon, internalize your end goal, but focus only on the next step.
Lesson 4: Go slow so you can go far
It’s race day. I’m at the starting line. Adrenaline is flowing through every part of my body. The crowds of people all around me make me want to sprint out the gate. Yet when the race starts, I go out slow. Every bone in my body is screaming to let loose and pass everyone in front of me. But logic tells me otherwise. I know what pace I need to hit to break a 4-hour marathon, my goal for this run.
In training, I always started off too fast. If I felt good, I thought it made sense to shave time off in the beginning when I was fresh, and grind through the end when I had little left. This is a recipe for disaster. Many participants that started fast out of the gate hit the proverbial “wall” three-quarters into the race and their bodies shut down. I maintained my planned pace throughout - no faster, no slower. I remained focused on executing the plan.
When it comes to execution, it’s difficult to have a long-term orientation. Too often, we make rash decisions because we want to accomplish the result now, and too often a lack of patience ends up harming us. Though it is necessary to remain energized throughout any endeavour, it is valuable to remember that consistent effort trumps patches of extreme output.
If you want to run a marathon, go slow so you can go far.
Lesson 5: Reframing negative situations
I am 33 kilometers into the marathon. I have already surpassed my previous best distance and with a much stronger pace. Physically, my legs have nothing left. Every step was painful. There was fewer than 10 kilometers remaining, and I knew I had the mental strength to push through. I started to say to myself, “That pain that you feel? Enjoy it. You earned this pain. Not everyone gets to experience pain this grueling. Never forget the work it took to earn it.” Mentally, I turned what is objectively a negative experience into a positive one. I saw the pain as an accomplishment, not as something to fear or succumb to.
There will be times in running and in life where you feel like giving up. Where you feel like you have given it your all and you still come up short. When things are going bad, there is going to be some good that comes from it. This run is too hard to finish? Good. Tomorrow will be easier. Sprained your ankle? Good. Now you can focus on mobility. Legs too fatigued to continue? Good. You now have the opportunity to see what you’re made of.
If you want to run a marathon, be able to frame negatives as positives.
I was not a runner.
Training was not easy. In the beginning, I was mentally and physically weak. 5 kilometer runs would leave me sore and I would sometimes have to stop mid run to catch my breath. Only after consistent training did I develop the mental ability to push through and get stronger. In time, I constantly surprised myself with what I could accomplish.
You can read the lessons above and see them as obvious, but they are only ever internalized once you go through the pain. Pushing yourself physically allows you to grow mentally.
I am not a runner, but I became one, and so can you. Start off by finding your why. Know your end goal but stay focused on the next step. Things will get tough so don’t be afraid of discomfort. Never forget that you must go slow to go far and train yourself to reframe negative experiences.
Most importantly, don’t ever stop.