Some of us run to push our limits, to see what we are really capable of. Others run for the camaraderie—the feeling of belonging to a tribe. And others, run to vanquish demons and soar to new heights. Whatever your reasons are for lacing up and setting out on a 42.2 km journey, you are bound to stumble on some bumps along the way. As a veteran of over 80 marathons and many ultra marathons, I thought I would share some of the lessons I've learned on the road.
1. The enemy lies between your ears.
To the normal people out there, it just doesn't seem sane to push your body through the hell of training for, and competing in, a marathon. If we listen to those naysayers, we set ourselves up for failure. I've learned that pain is often caused not by the current unease or discomfort, but by your perception of it. Learning to quiet those voices in our head telling us "It's too difficult. You can't do this" is what separates us mere mortals from the elite athletes. As Dr. Seuss said: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go."
2. You are not going to like this, but…
If long-distance running has taught me anything, it is that what I think I need, may not in fact be what I really need. Coming in from a 35 km training run, all I want to do is hop in a warm shower—the problem is, that's the worst thing for my recovery. What I have forced myself to do is to jump into a freezing cold ice bath to flush the swelling from my muscles. Other tricks I've learned that seem counter intuitive is to go for a little run the morning after a marathon or long hard training run. Trust me, your brain will be screaming No!, but your legs will thank you later that day.
3. Getting your medal is all about testing your metal.
There will be points during your training, and throughout the marathon itself, when you'll want to give up. Success in endurance sports requires walking the tight rope between overtraining and under training. Whenever I encounter a rough patch, I look at all the adversity I've come through in my life. I've managed to battle a drug and alcohol addiction, and I am now 17 years clean and sober, one day at a time. I'm also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, so I draw on my resiliency to get through any adversity. I invite you to consider all you have come through in your own life, and use it as a wellspring to power you through adversity.
4. Instead of listening to Justin Bieber, why not just be there?
I head out the door most mornings at 4:30 to run through the streets of Toronto. I don’t run with an iPod or any other type of headset because I want to be totally aware of the traffic noises around me especially considering I usually run in the street rather than on the sidewalk or trails. I’m a little militant when it comes to runners zoning out to their iPods, and I would be ecstatic if they were banned from races. I really believe that you put yourself, and those around you, in danger when you run in a “music bubble”. Running on a treadmill with an iPod is another story entirely—You might lose your mind if you don’t have something to distract you.
If I listen carefully, the streets of Toronto have their own rhythm—their own chorus. On my morning runs, I’m serenaded by the grinding of the streetcars along King and Queen; downtown I hear the echoes of the early morning delivery trucks; when I arrive back to the Beaches, I’m greeted by the waves lapping up on the shore. I’m also intimately attuned to the sounds of the changing seasons—The screeches of the raccoons in spring, the humidity-induced rumbling of the thunder in the summer, the shuffle of the blowing leaves in the autumn, and the crunch of the ice and snow under my feet in the winter.
5. Don't lose focus now that race day has arrived.
So you put in the long hard miles of training—now is not the time to lose your focus. Learn how to manage your race to get the most out of it. 42.2 km is daunting, so break up the distance into manageable 5 km chunks. All you need to do is make it to your next mental milestone. One of my biggest race pet peeves is erratic behavior at the water/aid stations. Practice proper running etiquette—Don't dart out in front of other runners to grab your drink, and don't stop suddenly in your tracks. When you see the aid station coming up in the distance, make your way over to that side of the road well in advance. Another strategy I rely on is if I know there is a part of the course I am dreading, maybe it's a hilly section, I try to do a lot of my training runs going over that section. That way, when race day finally arrives, I'll attack this section with confidence. Finally, even the best plans go awry, so make sure you have an "A", "B", and "C" goal. Weather, stomach issues, and even a last-minute injury may cause you to reevaluate your goal.
6. It's a lot easier summitting Everest with a Sherpa.
In the midst of an endless sea of running advice, a critical consideration is often neglected—Have you lined up a faithful running Sherpa? If you don’t have your running Sherpa already lined up, my wife has provided some sage advice on how to cultivate or acquire your very own. Pick destination races that offer a great time to check out a new city or country—preferably ones with excellent shopping and fantastic restaurants. Also, don’t hold up in your hotel room the day before the race saying: “I want to rest my legs before the race.” Remember that running is a family affair and it can be an awesome time to break you out of your comfort zone and explore a new place with your loyal Sherpa. Most importantly, remember why you started running in the first place, and be thankfulof all of the incredible things you will discover about yourself along the way.