The 600 Mile Marathon

Starting at the finish line

I ran the Banff Marathon on Sunday, June 19th. I finished in 4 hours and 11 minutes, but the race was the culmination of a training effort that took months. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.

Table of Contents

Starting at the start (or why I did this to myself)

I graduated a semester early, so I was searching for something to fill up my extra time. Having just submitted my grad school applications in December, I decided to run a marathon, an ambitious undertaking that is frequently compared to a certain other one that I recently committed toWhy do I want to do a PhD?.

A natural-born athlete, I am not. I was on the track team in high school, but as a pole vaulter so I could minimize the amount of running to about 60 feet at a time. I tried and failed to pick up distance running as a hobby multiple times in the past. Being a runner was something I had always aspired to, but never actually achieved.

I wanted to run because it seemed like a cheapIt turns out running shoes are not cheap., healthyIt turns out it's pretty common to get injured running. activity that I could do anywhere. But more importantly, I wanted to run to prove to myself that I could. I figured the push to a marathon finish would yield some amount of self-discipline and other useful lessons I could take with me as I started my PhD in the fall.

The journey, not the destination

Having explicitly decided to run a marathon as a character-building exercise, here are the character-building lessons I learned in the process (in no particular order):

  1. There will always be bad miles. It's impossible to run a lot and feel good about every mile. The bad runs -- the ones that were slow or painful or just felt harder than they should've -- are inevitable. Just accept it and look forward to the next run.
  2. Take time off to recover. I was guilty of not doing this enough in my training block, which resulted in the knee injury I'm hobbling around with now. It's tempting to stick to the schedule, especially when there's a set deadline, but that can lead to worse injuries and worse performance in the future.
  3. Be consistent, but be flexible. I traveled a lot in March and April visiting grad schools. My schedule was all over the place, and I frequently had flights on days I was supposed to run. This meant I had to shift my training around to accommodate. That can be difficult because I was leaning heavily on a set training plan to make up for my lack of experience, but it also meant I got to go on some very scenic runs in Switzerland and Ithaca and Berkeley (with lots of hill running).
  4. Run your own race. I'm a competitive person, and I feel the strong temptation to pass people, but I had to learn to run at my own pace. Getting a running watch helped me to keep my own time, but I also learned to accept that everyone is training at different levels. I set a time goal I'd personally be happy with and focused on that instead of comparing myself to others.
  5. Lean on your support network. Having (and finding) a community also helped me a lot. My friends helped me so much with encouragement and general enthusiasm for my plan, and the broader running community is so supportive and willing to share knowledge with runners at all levels.
  6. "Just keep running." When push came to shove and I was feeling all sorts of pain at mile 24 of the race, I knew I had to just push myself to run to the finish. For the last 2k of the race, I kept repeating to myself the mantra of "just keep running". Focusing on putting one step in front of the other, I tried to ignore the pain. Eventually, I rounded the corner and the finish line came into view.

Finishing past the finish line

Crossing the finish line, I felt such an overwhelming sense of relief that I burst into tears. The race didn't just span the 26.2 miles I had run that day, but the 600+ miles I had run in the months leading up to it.

Within an hour of finishing, though, I already found myself thinking about the next race I wanted to run. So here's biggest lesson I learned in this whole experience, and one that I didn't understand until the very end: there is always going to be the next race.

I have a habit of getting into obsessive sprints: two days to code a website, six months to run a marathon, a year to finish a paper. Even when I was training for an endurance race, I approached it with a fixation on a single, short-term goal: finish the Banff Marathon in June.

That approach has aligned closely with my world so far, which was one delineated by quarters and semesters and final exams. But looking into the future, the terminal points are becoming less clear, and short obsessive bursts of energy either won't be enough or will cause me pain in the long runHeh. Get it?.

Facing this reality is scary, and I'm sure internalizing and adjusting to it will be hard -- maybe the most difficult thing I have ever done. But I've learned a lot about running long runs and doing difficult things in the past few months; I feel confident now that I'll learn plenty more in the years to come.