10 Things I Learned From My Second Marathon

“The marathon can humble you.” – Bill Rodgers

By Leo Babauta

Do you know that you guys were in my head for almost my entire marathon on Sunday? I thought about you guys — your encouragement, what I would say to you about my marathon, not wanting to report back that I had failed.

You helped me get to the finish line, and for that, I am again indebted to you all.

And it was a success! Not only did I finish, and run a relaxed race (well, until the last few miles), and have a great time — I improved on my first marathon time by nearly 50 minutes! I was extremely happy with my race, both in terms of enjoyment and performance.

Summary of my first marathon: I ran it only a year after getting into running, and was probably ill-prepared; I started out at a pace that was too fast; ran out of gas by mile 18; cramped up after mile 20; had an extremely hard and grueling time finishing; came in about an hour slower than I had hoped, at 5 hours and 3 minutes. It wasn’t the most enjoyable first marathon (at least, the last 8 miles weren’t) but I finished, and I was proud of it.

This time, I was better prepared. I had lower expectations, and just went out to do it for fun. I ran a more relaxed pace, and ended up doing much, much better than I expected. I came in at 4 hours and 14 minutes — not a fast race by any experienced runner’s standard, I know, but an excellent time for me. I was just hoping to break 5 hours, and if I came in at 4:30, I’d be thrilled.

I had planned to run a 10-minute/mile pace — a very relaxed and easy pace for me — but I ended up going at about 9:30 in the beginning. It still seemed very relaxed, and I had a few other runners going at that pace so we stuck together. I was feeling very good at the halfway point, so I kept up the pace. In fact, even at mile 20, I was feeling strong at that pace, and it wasn’t until the final 5K that I felt like slowing down or walking.

Those last three miles were tough, but I pushed myself to finish strong. I kept up my pace (between 9:30 and 10:00 per mile) and actually passed a bunch of runners at the end (I didn’t worry about competitiveness this time, but those runners were struggling, understandably). The final mile I did at under 9 minutes, so I was very proud of that.

Of course, I nearly collapsed at the end, and had to pour water over my head and nearly strip naked to keep from overheating, and had to lie down for awhile when I got really dizzy. But it was worth it, because I did my best.

A note on the Guam Marathon: it gets very very hot and humid on Guam after 7 a.m., especially if you’ve been running for a few hours already, so we start at 4 a.m. If you are a slower runner, and come in after 4 hours (like me), you are at a huge disadvantage, because by then the sun is beating you down, and you lose fluids rapidly, and you are at a huge risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. That happened to me in my first marathon, and it started to happen this time too, but I got a little lucky because for about 30 minutes there was a light rain and overcast skies. I can’t wait to run a marathon in a cooler climate!

Another note: besides you, my faithful readers, my biggest supporters were my wife Eva, my kids, my mom, my sister and her kids. Also, my friend Glen gave me a wake-up call at 2 a.m., and that was a big help. I couldn’t have done this marathon without any of you! Thank you!

And now I thought I’d share some of the things I learned this marathon:

  1. Running experience matters a lot. One of the biggest differences from my very tough first marathon, and this more successful second marathon, is that this time I’ve been running for more than two years, and that time I’d been running for about a year. The difference is that my body is more adapted to running higher mileage and longer distances, and I had a much easier time. When I started training for my first marathon, I hadn’t run anything more than a 10K in my life, and so each of my long runs were very difficult for me. This time, my long runs were a bit tough (only because I hadn’t run long in awhile) but still enjoyable. Another point to make: I have two friends in their 50s who ran their first marathon a couple years ago, but had been running competitively for years. They each did their first marathon in well under 3:30, and though it wasn’t easy, they were obviously better prepared for doing a marathon than I was the first time. I expect to get better as I continue to do marathons.
  2. Pacing is huge. The next biggest factor is going at the right pace for the first half of the marathon — a time when you feel great, and can easily run faster than you should. It’s difficult to know what pace you should run, as you run shorter races at a much faster pace. There are online calculators that will tell you your marathon pace if you enter the pace for shorter races, but I’ve found that for me, their estimates are too fast. I found that out my first marathon, when my 8:30 pace for the first half exhausted my energy stores, and I ran the second half on fumes. This time, I ran a much more relaxed pace, and ended up being able to hold that the entire race.
  3. Extra weight also matters a lot. Probably the third most important factor for me that made a difference between my first marathon and this second one was my weight. I ran my first marathon about 30-40 pounds overweight (although I had lost about 20 pounds at the time). It made things more difficult — running long is hard to do when you’re carrying extra weight. This time, I’m still a bit overweight (I could lose another 10-20 pounds) but I’m about 15 pounds lighter than I was last time. I hope to lose another 10-15 pounds by my next marathon (either at the end of this year, or next March).
  4. Be relaxed and have fun. For most of us, a marathon is an experience, not a race. We’re not racing against the other runners — we’re joining them in a life-changing event. If you go out with the attitude that the marathon should be something to enjoy, you’ll have a much better experience. At one point, running past the choppy ocean waters with the colorful early morning light surrounding us, I said loudly, “What a great time to be alive!” I smiled and cheered on my fellow runners. I had a blast.
  5. Test out your gear beforehand, on a long run. This is an obvious one, and I knew it before this marathon, but I violated the rule anyhow. I had tested out my shoes and running clothes and watch in my 22-miler, three weeks before the marathon, so all of that was fine. But I ordered a footpod to go with my running watch a couple weeks before the marathon, and it didn’t come in until a few days before the race. I knew I was taking a risk by wearing the footpod during the marathon, untested except for a light 2-mile run two days earlier, but I really wanted to be able to have pace information in my running watch, so I wouldn’t run too fast. It actually helped, I think, but the footpod bothered me the entire way, and I now have a bruise where the footpod dug into my foot. Next time I’m getting a GPS running watch.
  6. Keep your upper body relaxed. This is something I often forget. I will go a few miles before I realize that I’ve been tensing up my upper body. Then I take some deep breaths and relax, shake out my arms, stretch my upper body a bit while running. But the tensing takes its toll over such a long race, and drains some of your energy reserves. My upper body, from my abs to my shoulders and back, are very sore right now.
  7. Plan your day before well. I know very well that you’re supposed to rest the day before the marathon. However, my kids had soccer games and there was a wedding show we really wanted to go to, and my daughter had a school performance that evening … so I ended up walking around much more than I had hoped, and staying up later than I had planned. End result: I was tired the morning of the marathon, which isn’t smart. Also not smart: playing soccer for about 45 minutes with my son and daughter after their practice two days before the race. It was fun though. No regrets!
  8. Having people to talk to is great. For the first 12-13 miles, I ran with a few guys who were going my pace. I didn’t know them, but we just happened to be going the same pace. It was nice to have people to talk to, as the race is long and your mind needs distraction. I might never see them again, but we now have a bit of a bond from running 13 miles together. I also ran another five miles or so with another guy, and that was useful. I ran the final 8 miles by myself, and those just happened to be the miles where you start to question whether you really want to be running this fast for this long, but I really enjoyed having people to talk to for the first 18 miles.
  9. Have a reason to keep going at the end. In the final 5K, there were many moments when I felt like quitting. I thought how nice it would be to just walk for awhile. It was hot, and each mile seemed to take an eternity. But I thought of you guys, I thought of my wife, and my kids (who were there at the end to cheer me on), and my mom and sister who were also there. I thought of how proud I would be to finish strong. I thought of how much training I had put into this, and thought about how I would regret not giving it my all. If I didn’t have good reasons to keep going, I would have stopped.
  10. The long run is your marathon training — speed work doesn’t matter (much). My training for this marathon consisted almost entirely of my long runs on Sundays. I also ran during the week, but my mileage wasn’t very high and I did almost no speed work. I did some intervals on the track a few times, but not much. It was almost all the weekly long run, and it turns out that that was enough. Sure, I probably could have run a little faster if I had done more mileage and more speed work, but I don’t think it was necessary. Next time, I will probably do more mileage and start training earlier (I just started in January), but I don’t think I’ll do speed work.

“You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” – Frank Shorter

Update on book writing: Honestly, I haven’t written since Friday, as I was busy with the marathon and have been recovering the last couple of days, but I am going to start writing in a few minutes, and will resume my regular schedule starting now.