Whether you're thinking about running your first marathon or just looking for the next one on the list, read all about my first marathon experience right here!
I didn’t always want to run a marathon. In fact, I didn't add it to my bucket list until I grew to have a relationship with running.
From the beginning, I spent most of my time as a runner training for races by myself. I loved the early mornings watching the sunrises and being alone with my thoughts were therapeutic.
It wasn’t until I joined a running group that my training style changed. I was challenged, encouraged, motivated, and supported, which only deepened my love for running.
Long story short, I ran a half marathon with the ladies in a running group. It was so fun! At some point on that trip, I agreed to both running a marathon. And doing a triathlon. Those commitments were the starting point of it all!
Note: Once I verbally agreed to a marathon and triathlon, I definitely had a time period of questioning I committed to. However, despite my fear and lack of confidence, I stuck with my commitment and am SO glad I did!
You’ve probably heard that marathon training is brutal…. and now I can officially confirm that it is! There were absolutely positives, but it was also challenging in SO many ways — physically and mentally!
Physically, there were aches, pains, and times of pure exhaustion. Mentally, it was a constant battle of pep talks, repeated mantras, and proving to myself I was strong.
I knew if I wanted to have a successful race, then training for the marathon needed my full commitment. This meant sticking to a schedule and making training a priority.
The challenges of marathon training
Sticking to the training schedule was one of the more difficult parts of training. This wasn't necessarily because of the time commitment, but mostly because of the winter weather.
Over the course of the winter I heard several farmers in the area say “this is the worst winter we’ve had in a while!” and of course, that just happened to be the winter I was going to train though… We trained outside only, from November to March, which covered every single miserable weather day.
Ice storms, several inches of snow, negative temperatures — you name it and we were out there running the streets. We did try to adjust our schedule to avoid bad weather as much as possible.
For example, if we knew it was going to ice during our Saturday morning long run, we would try to switch things around to make that our rest day. This resulted in some EARLY morning runs before work with 4 a.m. wake-up calls…. Again, we were committed to this race so we did what we needed to do to be successful.
The hardest part of marathon training
The hardest part of training was the cold weather. The mornings were freezing (literally) but I learned how to dress in layers! (For temperatures in the 30’s: leggings + long sleeve, 20’s: leggings + 2 top layers, 10’s: cold gear leggings + 3 top layers, single digits & negatives: 2 leggings + 3 top layers. All of these temperatures were paired with ear muffs, gloves, and a neck gaiter!)
The joys of training
You might be reading this and thinking “If it was so terrible, then why did you even do it?” In all honestly, I actually REALLY enjoyed training. I loved the challenge! I enjoyed pushing myself physically and mentally, and seeing myself become stronger.
Of course there were times I didn’t love it. And towards the end of training I was definitely ready to be done. But overall, I had a positive experience.
I also think my positive experience came from the fact that training actually worked. What I mean is that I was able to stick to the plan with success. The slow progression and building up on miles, the amount of rest, etc. all came together. I was able to complete weekly trainings and long runs without major injuries.
These weekly successes then led to my ability to complete the marathon itself.
My favorite part of marathon training
My favorite part of training was the ladies I trained with. You might notice I keep typing “we” and that’s because training for this marathon was totally a group effort! There’s absolutely no way I would have made it through training without Janet, Sonya, and Nancy.
Each of them provided so much encouragement and support when I didn’t believe in myself. They were an extra push when I started to get lazy and held me accountable during training. These women truly have inspired me, and continue to do so!
The marathon training program
In terms of a specific plan, we followed Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 2 Marathon Training Plan. We tweaked around a couple of things, but used this for the most part.
It’s important to find a training plan that is realistic so it can be something that works. Following Hal’s program made sense from our running base when we started training.
Note: I’ll be honest that I didn’t put any research into picking out the program — it was the plan that the group picked out and I completely trusted their judgment!
What training looked like
Realistically, we ran 5-6 days a week with a weekly mileage average of 40-50 miles of running. Our weekday training runs started at 5 or 5:30 a.m., depending on the amount of miles we needed to run.
The weekend runs sometimes started a little later if we decided to “sleep in” and had a 6 or 7 a.m. start time. In addition to running, we had one rest day (usually Fridays) and one cross training day (usually biking or swimming).
Throughout training, I learned to go to bed early and fuel my body so that I could have success in the morning. I knew that training would be a big time commitment, which was one of my reservations to committing in the first place, but the time put in definitely paid off.
Gear I used while training
Let me save you a lot of money...you don’t need to buy new, fancy equipment to train for a marathon! It’s tempting to get the new gear, but I made a point to use what I had.
- Short and long Under Armor leggings
- Balega & Feetures running socks
- Dri-fit shirts
- Buff headbands
- Running shoes
- Winter gloves
Additional purchase I made (to get through the winter):
- Cold Gear Under Armor leggings
- Cold Gear Under Armor long-sleeve shirts
- Running belt
- Columbia Neck Gaiter
- Clif Running Blocks
Nutrition while training
Nutrition is a very important part of training, both for fueling for hard work outs and recovery! There was a lot of trial and error for learning what worked the best for my body during training runs.
I kept it simple and stuck to a lot of proteins (chicken, ground turkey, greek yogurt, cottage cheese). For carbs I had veggies, fruits, and grains. Healthy fats were avocados, nuts, seeds, oils). Of course there were other staples like ice cream, pretzels, waffles, protein shakes, etc.
Meal-prepping healthy meals and snacks was so helpful! This made sure I could fuel my body with good foods and avoid hanger!
Specifically for running, my staple pre-long-run meal was a toasted english muffin with nut butter and banana!
The only nutrition I had during runs was water and Clif Energy blocks. Clif blocks didn’t mess with my stomach, and the salted watermelon flavor was always a pick-me-up!
Overall thoughts of marathon training
Marathon training is no joke. It’s something to take seriously. It’s important to prioritize safe and smart preparation to have the best training and experience on race day.
Before committing to the race, I didn’t know much about marathon training. The longest I had ever run consecutively was 14 miles so I didn’t know about going longer.
I made a list of questions and sent it to some of my inspiring runner friends who have conquered amazing races. Their marathon training advice was super helpful for a place to start!
There’s not one “right” way to train — it’s all about figuring out what works for YOU and YOUR body. I can definitely offer insights into my experience, but know it will probably vary for you. Personally, I had a positive training experience and did the best I could, which led to a successful race day!
We participated in the 9th Annual Carmel Marathon Weekend in Carmel, IN. We chose this marathon because of the date (it worked for all of our schedules). It also had a Boston qualification aspect and the location (it was within driving distance from home!)
The week before the race
I was not excited the week leading up to the race. The weather forecast was thunderstorms the entire race weekend, which totally psyched me out. The thought of attempting one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done and having to do be soaked while doing it had me feeling very anxious.
It seemed so unfortunate that after making it through training in the ice, snow, and cold temperatures that there would be a thunderstorm the morning of the race. After being a Negative Nancy most of the week, I decided to end the week with a positive attitude.
Friday before the race
I woke up and immediately began the “hype” process, which was positive mantras. I knew I had trained for months for this race and wasn’t going to let a thunderstorm stop me from doing my best.
We went on a two-mile run Friday morning to loosen up our muscles and get our bodies moving. It felt incredibly weird running for such a short distance in comparison to what we had been running for the past few months.
We spent the afternoon commuting to Carmel! Once we actually got to Carmel, we went to the Fitness Expo for packet pick-up. After we checked in to the hotel and then found a place for dinner.
Exploring the local restaurant options is always one of my favorite things about traveling for races! We chose a place called Matt the Miller’s Tavern because it had a large menu and great reviews. The dinner was great and I had my lucky pre-race meal. (It was a big toasted sandwich with sweet potato fries. I’m convinced that the meal was part of my race-day success!)
After dinner we spent the evening chilling in the hotel room in preparation for the next morning. A lot of the time was spent looking at the weather forecast, talking about our paces and goal times, and trying to decide what to wear. We all went to sleep with crossed fingers for a great next morning!
The morning of the race
Here's the quick recap of what happened the morning of my marathon.
Unfortunately, we woke up to thunderstorms. The temperature was in the upper 40’s/low 50’s so I decided on my spandex shorts, a dri-fit t-shirt, and rain jacket. I also had my lucky sports bra, Balega socks, tennies, and running belt. My running belt was stocked with Clif Blocks, gum, and my phone (all in ziploc bags to protect from the rain).
I packed my pre-long run meal because at this point it is part of my ritual. I had an english muffin with nut butter and banana, and plenty of water!
I spent a lot of the morning mentally preparing for the race. Mental preparation was just as important as the physical preparation. I reminded myself I had worked so hard, trained, and was totally ready for this.
A recap of the full race!
The night before the race, we agreed that we all supported each other to do whatever needed to happen to individually complete the race. Training was absolutely a team effort because we trained together and stuck with each other through long runs. But racing has an individual element to it.
It’s about running YOUR race.
We didn’t talk about this in a selfish way or plan to leave each other in the dust, it was just mutually decided that we all were supportive of each other’s goals. Basically, if you’re feeling good in a race, then you should take advantage of that and GO.
The start of the race
I am not someone who shows up to races early. I just get anxious if I’m standing around, so I’m a big proponent of just showing up with enough time to find my corral. This is usually about 5 minutes before the race.
Luckily, the ladies I run with have the same opinion, so we sat in the car until 10 minutes before the start time in an attempt to avoid getting soaked.
We were already drenched by the time we got to the starting line. My rain coat was soaked through, my socks were squishy, and I was uncomfortably cold. Nevertheless, I started jumping up and down, mentally played my race hype song, and got excited because we were about to do this thing!
The beginning of the race
The very beginning of the race was slightly chaotic because of the rain. There was supposed to be a wave start, but because they wanted to get everyone moving as soon as possible. Everyone ended up starting at one time.
The mass start made it really difficult to find the right pacing group and I felt all over the place. I spent mile 1-6 with a running partner, mostly chatting, and didn’t really find my groove until mile 6.
Planned running pace
I trained for the race for the goal of running a 4:10-15 marathon, which would have my pace be between 9:32-9:43. When I trained, my long runs were usually around 9:30/miles and my shorter runs were closer to 9-9:15/miles. Though I had a time goal, I ultimately had a finishing goal, so I barely practiced pacing during training.
Every once in a while I would look at my watch to see how fast I was going, but I never really adjusted my speed. This was because I was more so focused on completing the mileage than achieving a certain time.
However, on the way to the race, my training partners convinced me I could run faster than I was planning. I decided the night before to try to run a 4:05 which would have me running 9:20/miles. So, at the starting line I planned to run somewhere in between the 4:05/4:10 pace group.
Actual running pace
Miles 1-6 felt all over the place, but I kept checking my watch to stay around 9:15. After mile 7 or 8 I was feeling really good, so went with it. I would pick different people running around the same speed as me and stick with them for an extended period of time. Every once in a while I would check my watch to make sure I was going around 9:15.
To my surprise, most of the time I was faster than expected. Most times I checked my watch I would be going somewhere in between 8:55 and 9:15. Part of me was worried I would burn out towards the end of the race, but I just went with it. (Alan is convinced I ran faster because I wanted to get out of the rain, which is totally valid logic.)
I didn’t run the race with headphones for two reasons. One reason was because I was planning on running with a friend. The other reason was because my headphones weren’t waterproof. Other than the first 6 miles when I ran with a friend, I was alone with my thoughts for 20 miles.
While there were times this was extremely difficult, it was a true test of my mental toughness. For the ENTIRE second half of the race, I did my best to fill my mind with positive thoughts about myself and the race. I reminded myself I had trained for this, and that I was strong, tough, and could do it.
Also, I would say training without headphones made me a much stronger athlete for race day. Of course there times I wish I could have played my favorite albums, but I was much more prepared for the race itself because of the mental toughness I had built in the months leading up to the race.
Like expected, the rain caused some physical difficulties. My clothes were soaked and socks were squishy before we event started. Because of this, I felt cold for most of the race. There were a few times when I rolled up my sleeves because I felt a little hot, but overall I felt cold.
I don’t know if it was because of the temperature or my pace (probably both), but I couldn’t feel my legs for the second half of the race. I felt queasy towards the end of the race as well (not surprising) so I just prayed I wouldn't puke!
The second half of the race
Do you all remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the start of the Triwizard Cup? It’s the part when all of the wizards are in the maze and the crowds are cheering and everyone is exciting. Then each wizard gets further into the maze, the crowd becomes distant, and then they are kind of alone? That’s what the start of the second half of the race felt like.
The course made a figure 8 shape. The end of the half marathon was the start of the second half of the race for the marathon.
We literally had to the cross the finish line, watch other people stop running, but then turn a corner and keep going. There was this short time when I was crossing the finish line for mile 13.1 and everyone was cheering for the half marathon finishers. But then the marathoners turned this corner and suddenly it was quiet and kind of eerie because of the rain.
There were other people around, but it was truly me, myself, and I at that point. There were other racers around, but 95% of people had headphones in so there was nobody to talk to. I made it a point to thank every public official and volunteer I ran by (this also kept me focused on something other than myself!)
It wasn’t until mile 20 that I looked at my watch. I did the math and realized I was on track to run a SUB FOUR HOUR MARATHON. I freaked out because if I kept up the speed I was going, I would be able to do it.
You might have heard people say “The last 6 miles are the real marathon” and there’s some truth to that. The last 6 miles I was all over the place.
I would go from thinking “Okay Jordo, all you have to do is finish, it doesn’t matter what time you get”. To “Okay girl, you can get sub-4” to “Just keep freakin’ going legs!”
The last miles are also when the personal mantras kicked in. I started to feel really exhausted, and just wanted to be done. BUT, I kept pushing myself and just took one step after another.
No race stops
There wasn’t a single long run I ran without stopping for a potty break. I had the port-a-potties plotted in my head so I knew where I needed to stop if needed. I guess I was so focused on the race that I didn’t even think about stopping.
Towards the end of the race I was worried that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start running again (…really.)
My cheer squad
One of the best things about this race was the fact that I had real-life, actual guardian angel humans that supported me! It was around mile 3 when I saw one of my best friends, standing on the corner in a rain coat! I screamed and freaked out because I was so surprised!
It was from then on that I had the best game of of “Where’s Waldo?” but for my friends. They were AMAZING race spectators and were at least at 6 spots along the course cheering their heads off. It truly was the best thing and helped so much.
What I learned
In a general sense, I learned that I race very different than I train. Something weird takes over my body and mind on race day, and it’s quite amazing (maybe it’s adrenaline?)
I also learned that mental strength is just as important as physical strength. I realized the value of this during training. It was super important for me to build my confidence and hype before every long run and the race itself.
Another thing is the power of spectators! Knowing I had friends along the course was HUGE, and I loved that.
Finally, I learned that I am capable of more than I think. Running a marathon seemed like an impossible feat, but I feel victorious for being able to do it.
This is still the part I can’t wrap my mind around. I crossed the finish line in 3:59:07!!! My overall pace was 9:08, which was a lot faster than I ran over the months of training. I was shocked!
I finished the ran filled with joy because truly, I loved the marathon experience.
Other things about the race
All of the races for the weekend were held on Saturday, March 30, 2019. The weekend races included a marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K, and marathon relay. All of the races utilized the same start and finish line. This gave spectators that opportunity to see the opening ceremonies and start/end of the race.
The overall event organization was excellent. The race website was very detailed and easy to navigate. There were plenty of race communications to share important information with participants. Visiting the Fitness Expo the day before the race was painless. The check-in process and packet pick-up was organized and quick!
As a participant, I was impressed with the course. The race course was clearly marked with so many signs and volunteers. Volunteers on the course at each aid station were always prepared with water and encouragement.
Public officials were always standing in the street blocking traffic. There were several signs that clearly identified which direction to run so it was impossible to make a wrong turn. (As someone who has almost gotten lost on race courses, I really appreciated this!)
The only part of the race that felt disorganized was the very beginning of the race. The rain made it feel very frantic and confusing. The race was supposed to start runners in corrals and with pace groups. However due to the run, the officials decided to start all runners at one time which created chaos.
As a participant, it felt like I was taking part in an event that was a well-oiled machine. This was helpful because then I worried about logistics and could focus on preparing for the race!
I was slightly disappointed in the finish line, only because there weren't many food options. However, I did get a medal put around my neck which was a great feeling!
I was not a fan of the race t-shirt. Though it’s nice that it is dri-fit material, it’s highlighter orange and pretty obnoxious. I probably won’t be wearing it around too much.
After the race
After the race, I was more sore than I had expected. I think the reason came from sitting in the car for a couple of hours pretty soon after the race. I made sure to move around on days I did long runs which I think helped prevent stiff muscles.
The soreness lasted a couple of days and made stairs difficult! I took a week to rest. I didn’t run and instead focused on stretching and crosstraining.
The few weeks getting back into running were tough. The first couple of runs back felt like I had never even been on a run before!
At this point, I don't have my sights set on another marathon. But I know this is only the beginning of marathons, and I’m excited for the future!
How to train for your first marathon
There's no one right way to train! It totally depends on your experience level and prior training. Ask for advice, follow a training plan, and get race accountability!