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Health & Fitness Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 11, 2010

Testing sanity and finding friends in the grueling ramp-up to running a first marathon

By Anne Hayden

To a lot of people, running a marathon — 26.2 miles — seems daunting. It was more than intimidating to me four months ago. Even now, weeks after I’ve successfully completed the distance, thinking about doing it again someday scares me.

But, as anyone who has run a marathon knows, it isn’t the actual race that is nerve-wracking; it’s the months of preparation that can drive you crazy — literally. Training for a marathon will force you to question your sanity. It won’t matter if you have been running for years, like me, or if you only started running after impulsively signing up for a marathon; inevitably, you will wonder just how insane you truly are.

Most “experts” agree that it takes between 16 to 18 weeks to get your body prepared to run 26.2 miles. There are all sorts of variations on four-month training plans out there, available on the web and in books. That’s the first thing that will drive you to distraction — trying to pick the right plan.

The one I chose was an 18-week “novice” plan, because, even though I’ve been running since I was a pre-teen, all the sources said if you have never run a marathon before, you have to start out slowly. I printed out calendar pages for September through January, and filled in the mileage I was supposed to run each day. I used markers to decorate each page because I figured if it looked pretty, it might distract me from the big, bold mileage numbers staring me in the face.

If you are training for a marathon, starting from day one, you will do things you never thought you would. You will spend an exorbitant amount of money on sneakers — maybe more than you have ever spent on a really nice pair of boots, or dress shoes. You might even buy more than one pair, so that you can have one just for long runs, and keep the other for short runs. After all, worn out sneakers can lead to injury.

Speaking of injury, you will start to obsess over every single ache and pain you feel in your body, minor or not. You will wonder if it might be the start of a muscle strain, tendonitis, or, worst of all, a stress fracture. Then, you will debate whether it is better to rest your legs to avoid injury, or if taking days off will only backfire on you when it comes time to race.

Unless you’ve trained for a marathon in the past, there will come a series of weeks during which you will run more miles at one time than you ever have before. In that phase, you will question not just your sanity, but your ability. You will start to drive other people crazy by constantly asking, “Do you think I can run 15 miles? But what if I can’t?”

You will consume things that you never would under normal circumstances; things like electrolyte gels, which have the texture of melted Vaseline, and the taste of melted cherry lip balm.

After your long runs, you’ll eat more calories in one sitting than an adolescent boy. No one will question you when you tell them you’re either “carbo-loading” for an 18-mile run, or you’re recovering from one.

A routine will develop after each long run; mine, because I was training throughout the winter, involved stopping at Starbucks for an organic chocolate milk (a good recovery drink for the muscles, so I’m told), and a venti coffee, which I would rush home and drink, standing under a hot shower.

The body undergoes some interesting changes during marathon training. People will tell you that you can’t train for a marathon without putting on a little bit of weight, and I can now tell you, from experience, that it’s true. The good news is that muscle weighs more than fat; the bad news is, your clothes might not fit right anyway, because muscular thighs don’t like to be encased in tight denim.

The most significant change might be the appearance of your feet. If you thought feet were ugly before, wait until you have run 400 miles over the course of four months. There will be blisters, calluses, incurable dry skin, and, if you’re lucky, like I am, one or two black toenails. If you’re doubly lucky, you might even lose a toenail, but I survived my marathon training with all 10 toenails securely attached to their rightful toes. Dark purple nail polish handily disguises the few discolorations.

Other people, who aren’t runners, will tell you things about your body, as if they are facts. “You know running will ruin your joints,” they will say. When you tell them it’s a risk you are willing to take, and they ask why, you will only be able to respond “Why not?” and secretly hope you won’t need a knee or hip replacement in 30 years.

Friendships will be forged with new people that you never before thought twice about, people who may otherwise be your polar opposite. Running provides a very unique bonding experience. Differences are cast aside as you run beside someone else for over two hours, and, since exercise is so often cathartic, you may find yourself sharing some of your deepest secrets with your new running buddies.

Lots of things previously considered embarrassing will no longer faze you. For instance, you will stretch in public. Often. People will stare at you, but you won’t even care, because your muscles will be so sore and tight.

When you’re running, even when there are cars driving by and other people out walking, you will spit. You won’t have a choice. If it’s windy, you might even spit on yourself, but you will just keep running. If things get really bad, you might even blow what is called a “snot rocket,” but I’ll leave the description of such a thing to your imagination.

Maybe the best part of marathon training is the “runner’s high” that comes with finishing a particularly grueling long run. People get endorphin rushes after running three or four miles, so imagine the huge burst that results from running five times that distance. It is enough to sustain an incredibly good mood for a whole day.

Of course, after four months of training, you still have to get through the whole 26.2-mile race. You might think that all the training would give you enough confidence to approach the starting line without nerves, but you would be completely wrong. If my own experience is any indication, you’ll tell anyone who will listen that you made a mistake, you changed your mind, and you can’t do it, at least 20 times in the 48 hours before the event.

You might even cry a little on the morning of the race, when you wake up in the pre-dawn hours and realize you have to run so far, and you know that everyone you have told will be calling you to find out how it went. You’ll wonder if you will disappoint them, and you’ll wish that you had kept the entire marathon a secret.

Once the starting pistol goes off, though (or the starting fireworks, if you’re running in Disney World, like I did), you will completely forget your nerves. Your legs will do what they have spent so long practicing, and you will just run.

Most of the things you have experienced during all of your training runs will repeat themselves during the race; you’ll eat your gels, feel a blister forming on your toe, spit, blow your nose, stretch, and question your sanity.

Best of all, you will make new friends. That’s the thing about running a marathon. It’s a sport, but, unless you are an elite runner, the only person you are competing against is yourself. Therefore, the other people in the race aren’t enemies, but people to encourage, and take support from.

In the end, you’ve all gone through the same experiences over the course of the last four months. You know exactly what it’s like to have trained so hard for something, to the point that failure is not an option.

And, if you waver for even a moment during the race, your new friends will tell you “You can do it!” They will remind you, “You’ve worked so hard, don’t give up!” They may only have known you for an hour, but they know that you have put your blood, sweat, and tears into this, because they have, too.

The whole thing will go by in a blur. You won’t remember which mile it was that you had to use your teeth to open up your gel packet because your fingers stopped working. You won’t recall exactly when a guy on the sidelines called out, “You’re almost there!” and you wanted to smack him, because 10 more miles did not feel like “almost there.” You will only know that it was somewhere near the finish that a disgruntled racer next to you screamed, “Where the hell is the finish line!?”

One thing you will never forget, though, is the moment you spot that finish line. At first, you will wonder if it’s a mirage. Then, when you realize it isn’t your eyes playing tricks on you, a rush of adrenaline will surge through you, providing you with energy you didn’t think you had. Suddenly, you’ll be crossing the line, and someone will be telling you “You’re a marathoner!”

And then, you might cry just a little more, not from nerves this time, but from sheer amazement. You have done more than you ever thought you were capable of.

When it’s all over, you will question your sanity more than ever, because you’ll be trying to figure out when to start training for the next marathon.

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