I Ran a Marathon Without Training: How & Why
Disclaimer: I don't recommend anyone try this but I also try not to tell people what to do/not do, so read, train/don't train at your own risk. The human body is an amazing thing and you know yours better than anyone else so listen to it and do what you wish.
I ran a marathon on Sunday with virtually no training and not only did I finish, but also found it to be quite enjoyable. You might find yourself saying, "Congratulations, Why do I care?" and to that I would simply say, maybe you don't, in which case, stop reading now, but for those who take an interest in endurance events or are considering a marathon themselves, I thought I'd write a little bit about the experience as it may serve as an interesting case study. If nothing else it is certainly a debate I've heard before, "Do you think you could run a marathon without training?". It's one of those rhetorical questions that never really gets answered, something no one can really confirm or deny, so I'll lay out the facts of how this went down and describe how it felt for anyone training for a marathon or anyone having this debate who needs closure.
Let's start with a little background info:
I have wanted to run a full marathon for a while now, I have always been attracted to these endurance events that test your body and more importantly, test your mind. I believe that most people can gain a lot from completing one (any kind 5K, Ironman, whatever) and more people should do them. It's an easy way to remind yourself how good setting a goal and accomplishing it feels. Everyone is an athlete, the problem is most people forget this after they graduate high school and have no more games to be played or races to be won. Competition is a critical part of life and endurance events are an easy opportunity to remain a competitive athlete for the rest of your life.
Endurance races have not always been a passion of mine, I didn't grow up dreaming of marathons and triathlons, rather my racing days began out of a desire to out-run two 50 year old ladies. I was 19 and fully immersed in the college lifestyle, working out was not a priority but I still fancied myself an athlete. My mom called one day and told me that she had signed up for her first half marathon with her running partner; I immediately replied back with "I'll do it". I didn't even know how long a half marathon was but I figured if my mother could do it then I should be able to do it too, and I should probably be able to do it faster. Lucky for me, I could and did, however, it wasn't pretty, I was totally shot by the finish line and struggled the whole way. I hated every second of it and thought I would never do it again.
I stayed away for a while, but I couldn't stay away forever, my racing history now includes a little bit of everything, sprint triathlons, half Ironman, half marathon, century bike ride etc. I have a little experience in a lot of different events and have come to enjoy the hours of discomfort that they bring. That being said, my list didn't include a full marathon yet, and I was getting antsy to try something new. My intention was to sign up for a full in the fall and train for it throughout the summer until my roommate told me last Wednesday (April 8), that he was running a half marathon on Sunday (April 12) that started right outside our door.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to run a half and get serious for marathon training, but then the thought of trying the full quickly crept into my head. The fact is, anyone can run a marathon, literally anyone, if they follow a proper training program and even more, most people can probably predict their finish time within 10 minutes if they train diligently. I couldn't resist the opportunity to try something different, to really push myself and see if I could finish the full marathon on 3 days notice. Doing a half again really didn't interest me, the next goal had already been set and it was a full, I couldn't stand the thought of running a half again and realizing I could have gone further at the finish line. The final straw was the fact that the full was only $10 more than the half; they were virtually the same price, it was settled, I was doing the full marathon in 3 days.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN "WITHOUT TRAINING"?
I mean I had no intention of running a marathon within the next 3 months and had not been running much at all. I ran the 6 mile loop at Forest Park about 3 times within the past 2 months and thats it as far as running goes, otherwise I went to the local YMCA a couple times a week to lift weights, shoot 3 pointers, or play racquetball. That's it, that is the extent of the athletic activity I have had within the past few months, no marathon training schedule, no build up, no taper, nothing.
I find that registering for these events always gives me an immediate 2 hour high followed by a short period of buyer's remorse wondering "What the hell did I just do"? I can say with certainty that though I had been unprepared for events in the past, this was certainly the most ambitious timeline I had ever put myself on and the most aggressive case of buyer's remorse I'd ever had. Signing up for a Sprint Tri or 10K without training was one thing, but this was a full marathon, I immediately started to google "Marathon Training". Every internet expert in the world indicated that running a marathon without training was not only impossible but dangerous, reckless, irresponsible, and a disgrace to the sport. I don't disagree with those assessments but like I said above, nobody knows your body and your mind like you do so I was excited to give it a try (and I have no dependents so I figured I'm the perfect guinea pig). After googling training programs, my first instinct was to go for a run, it's like after reading all that negativity I had to prove to myself that my legs still worked. It took everything in my power to sit still and rest; I knew that the least I could do after putting myself in this predicament was to get 2 1/2 days good rest. So that's what I did, I hung out for 2 1/2 days, ate as much food as I could, drank a lot of water and watched every motivational video on Youtube.
I didn't tell anyone that I was doing the race because I didn't really want anyone to try and talk me out of it and I wasn't interested in opinions or tips. The reason I wasn't interested is because I knew they would all be negative, literally no one was going to tell me this was a good idea or that they thought I could do it; that being the case I decided it was best not to solicit opinions at all. The only person I told was Mike because I had to put him down as the emergency contact in case they had to scrape me off of the road.
The alarm went off at 6:00 AM and I was feeling rough, I obviously couldn't sleep the night before, it was like my body refusing to give in to the night because of what awaited me in the morning, like a dog that won't get in the car for a vet trip. I woke up and took a cold shower to wake up and then started eating; granola bars, bananas, apples, anything I could find in our apartment that wasn't pizza. I am usually not a planner but today I had a plan and it was simple:
- Don't start out too fast
- Eat as much goo as I could
- Don't acknowledge any pain until at least the 13 mile mark
- Have a solid playlist
That was it, that was the plan; as they say, the separation is in the preparation and I was ready.
I headed off to the start line and got in my corral, I looked around at all the different people and again thought to myself, if they can all do it, then so can I. I saw the 3 hour 45 minute pacer and figured he might be the perfect person to follow around, the lack of training didn't help, but in general I am a terrible pacer as it is so I thought today would be the perfect day to try out a pace group. This became a last minute addition to my race plan
5. Stick with the Pacer
The race began and with that we were off, no more time to overthink it (though I suspect I was the last person at risk of overthinking this race today). The group immediately turned to a chaotic stampede of people and I didn't even make it 3 blocks before I had lost the pacer. This was concerning as my tenuous race plan immediately started to fall apart at my feet. I started to enjoy my music and set into a steady pace.
One thing that I have learned through racing in the past is that counting down to the finish is a bad way to race, especially in a long race. For example, if you get too excited at the first of 26 mile markers, you are going to be in for a long day, you have to surrender to the fact that you are going to be out there for a long time and you can't even dream of the finish line until you are at least halfway done. With that in mind, I set my body on cruise control and settled in for a long flight.
I think that the first couple miles in these events can be difficult at times as your body gets loose and tries to find a rhythm. This was certainly the case again for me and I really only started to feel comfortable during the fourth mile. A few minutes later I spotted a pacer up ahead of me, I sped up to catch him so I could settle into his group. I assumed it was my 3:45 guy but to my surprise it was the 3:35 guy! I didn't know what to do, I thought, surely there is no way I can roll with this crew for 26 miles, I'm the kook that didn't train, there is no way I can keep their pace. I settled in behind and figured at some point I would fall off the back and then get caught by the 3:45 group and try to run with them.
The miles were flying by and I was feeling good, the weather was perfect for the event, slightly overcast and maybe 60 degrees. I had been drinking a cup of water and a cup of gatorade at every water station without slowing down to do it.
Goo Station #1: Damn it, Vanilla Bean
At this point I'm still feeling good, I'm gooed up, the playlist has been on point thus far and somehow I'm still chilling in this pace group. The halfway point is fast approaching, this is where I said I would pull out of the race if I have to, but I'm feeling good, Onwards!
The second half has arrived and my mentality immediately shifts, I am much more aware of the miles passing and the long waits between mile markers.
Goo Station: Vanilla Bean, WTF (The theory I came up with is that the goo company just donates all the inventory that doesn't move which would include undesirable flavors like vanilla bean and mocha, so prepare for a steady diet of mocha or BYOG)
Alright now the race is starting to feel long, I'm still feeling good, I'm just bored with the whole running thing at this point.
Solid, I'm feeling good but I am pumped to get this thing over with
No pacer, all of a sudden he's gone, I've been in this guy's back pocket the whole race and all of a sudden he just disappears. I'm a little bummed because I literally wasn't doing any thinking or calculating for the past 18 miles, just playing follow the leader and now I'm trying to figure out if I'm going too fast and got ahead of him or what happened.
The agony has set in, my legs are hurting and I'm counting down the minutes to the finish line, not even a great playlist can distract me from my own misery now.
I can see the Arch, we are heading back downtown and the STL landmark is calling my name, just keep running. I'm eating goos just because I have them at this point, I am officially bored.
Uh oh, we've got a long uphill stretch and I feel my legs start to cramp, I'm worried because I can already hear the crowds of people and I don't want to be the guy with noodle legs at the end that can't make it to the finish line. Its time to hedge, I start to walk for the first time in the race, I decided that finishing with style is much more important than 5 extra minutes and decide to walk up any more uphills so that I don't cramp.
The move pays off, I'm back in the spectator chute with thousands of people lining the street and my legs feel strong, I finish the race in style and about 15 minutes faster than I was hoping for at 3:46.
I enjoyed that race more than any other endurance event I've done, not only am I proud of the accomplishment but during the race itself I was actually having fun. The course took us through some beautiful parts of the city and I had literally zero expectations for myself so I focused more on the environment than my own performance and body the whole time. My time didn't win the race or anywhere near it but it was respectable when considering the circumstances and I was happy with the pace I kept and how I felt the entire time.
In regards to my lack of training, I would say it didn't prove to be that big of an issue, these events are supposed to hurt a little and though I started to feel it in the last 4 miles that would have been the case whether I trained appropriately or not. I didn't go out there with a death wish and would have stopped if I thought anything was too serious but it never even got close to that point in terms of discomfort. It was funny to stand in the starting corral and hear people trade stories about how "unprepared" they were, I heard things like, "I'm screwed, my longest run was a 16 miler" and "I only started training 8 weeks ago". I didn't bother to tell these people my training regimen but I'm sure it could have made them feel a lot better about their preparation.
In summary, I really enjoyed the whole experience on Sunday and would do it again, maybe I'll even get serious about training and try to qualify for Boston next time. Endurance events can truly be whatever you want them to be, some people are trying to set the course record and other people are trying to finish the course before the cutoff times and thats great, the sports need all kinds of people. I wanted to do this just to see if I could, these events are largely mental and I hear way too many people psyche themselves out when they are more than prepared for the event. At the end of the day, you can never know what running 26 miles will feel like until you have run 26 miles, don't solicit too many opinions because opinions are just others projecting their own limitations on you and their limitations are completely irrelevant to your life. Like all good things, its going to hurt a little but if you do it for the right reasons you might gain more than a medal and a sticker from the experience.
NOTE: Did you enjoy this post? Pat has just begun his next adventure, training for an Ironman, and he's documenting the whole thing on the IronHuey blog and instagram account. Follow along as he trains for the Wisconsin Ironman in September 2017:
IronHuey Blog: http://www.hyde-sportswear.com/blogs/ironhuey/training-for-an-ironman
IronHuey Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ironhuey/