Can you run a marathon without training?

I’m not going to recommend this. But maybe someone you know has casually suggested, “Oh yeah, if you’re in good shape, you can probably run a marathon anytime.” I used to say this even before I’d even run a half marathon. I always believed it, just never had a reason to test it. But that’s a pretty bold claim to make casually. Also, science.

So when I found out last Saturday that my friend had an extra bib for the Vermont City (Burlington, VT) Marathon happening the next day, I decided it was time to run some tests. After all, I had gone on a three-mile run the day before and had felt like I could have run at least five. My lungs had cleared up quickly from the pollution I acquired traveling in India. So I got the bib switched over to my name and started hydrating for the race happening in 16 hours.

Here’s what I mean by not training: In the six months leading up to the race, I went on a total of four runs. I ran 7 miles one time in March in India, and the heat destroyed me. I didn’t run anymore on the subcontinent. I got home to Vermont last week and went on three 3-mile runs. Then a day off, then the marathon. BUT, I’m in pretty good shape generally, as stipulated in the hypothesis above. I was recently doing a lot of walking in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have a regular yoga practice, and I have experience with long runs, including one previous marathon.

I did some internet research on running marathons without training, just to make sure I wasn’t going to die. People have done it. People in worse shape than me. People do die in marathons, but not training doesn’t seem to be why. OK, I feel encouraged. I also have good body awareness from the yoga, meditation, and other running I’ve done. So, I planned to go with the new-agey tactic of “listening to my body.” I promised to abandon my sense of ego which would be pushing for a faster time, and just focus on finishing the race.

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Blood from a blister that popped around mile 14

It worked pretty well. Around mile 4 I had a brief moment of terror, remembering what it means to run 26.2 miles. But by mile 8 I was in the groove, watching the scenery and slowly letting the miles tick by. I passed the half-way mark about 30 minutes slower than my first marathon, but no big deal, I was in really good shape for that. And, eventually mile 18. I probably kept up an 8:30 min/mile pace until then. But, oof. Hit a wall. My quads started screaming, my tummy grumbling. I started walking at water stations, ran through sprinklers people had put out, and strongly considered grabbing the beer someone was offering from the sidewalk. But, onward!

Slowly, slowly, to mile 20, 21. Two things happened simultaneously. Thing 1: I realized I was going to finish. Even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d finish before they kicked me off the course. Thing 2: The wall turned into one of those evil demon walls that doesn’t just block your way, but actually attacks you as you approach it. Things hurt, my brain was tired of trying. Everyone was passing me, except one girl who was puking on the side of the course. I passed her. But then she started running again and passed me, too.

made it

Celebrating the finish in the medical tent (just to get my toe cleaned up). Mustache is a must for impromptu marathons.

But, for science! I jogged as much as I could, walked a little bit, jogged some more. Eventually I found the finish line and crossed it. I made it in 4:01:53. Pretty decent time, mostly because I had a solid run for the first 18 miles. More importantly, now I know that it’s possible to run a marathon without training. And even more importantly than that, now I never have to do it again.

Maybe you are thinking (or have thought) of being stupid like me. Here’s some advice. Do you think you can finish a marathon? If so, I believe in you. You probably can. It will hurt, but that’s part of the “fun.” If you actually try this, don’t try to push your finishing time at all. I had some moments of wanting to break four hours (I knew I was right on the cusp), but speeding up might have meant pulling a quad or hamstring. It’s not worth it. Listen carefully to your body, and be fully prepared to withdraw from the race at any time if something is not right. Hydrate a lot before, and a lot during, especially if it’s warm out. Your body will be confused, and water helps everything, unless you don’t have enough salt. Eat enough salt. Plan to not be able to walk for two days afterwards.


Here I am not walking

Honestly, running a marathon in three hours was easier than running it in four. Less pain, less uncertainty, less worrying about injury. A lot more training, but I train because I like running in the first place. Now that I know this is possible, I’m not planning to ever do it again.

In summary: If you don’t like running, why would you run a marathon? If you do like running, you might as well train for it.

Marathon Running, Shifting Expectations

I ran my first marathon this weekend. This is something I’ve always thought I would do, but I had never really considered a realistic possibility until the last couple years. Before three years ago, I don’t think I had ever run more than about 6 miles in one go. Since then, my perceptions and expectations about running have gradually shifted, and I finished the race in 2:56:27, about 20 minutes faster than I had planned.

My thinking about running started to change when I trained for a half-marathon with friends a couple years ago. The idea was to build up mileage slowly until 13 miles didn’t seem like a big deal. We started with a 5 mile run on the weekend (along with a couple shorter runs during the week), and added a mile to that each week. When we got to 9 miles, I couldn’t believe how doable it was. Not necessarily easy, but nowhere near as bad as I had expected. (Around the same time, I got a new pair of running shoes which almost immediately eliminated joint pain I had always experienced running. There was obviously still muscle soreness, but that is way more manageable than knee and hip pain. This was a revelation.) Then 10 miles, and 11, no big deal. I ended up even doing a 13.5 before the 13.1 race, so I knew what to expect.

I used a similar strategy for the marathon, but started with a stronger base and went further. My plan was to start at 8 and add a couple miles each week until I had done a 22 mile run. This sounds like a crazy distance to run, but I gradually taught myself not to be afraid of it. I knew I could do 13, so when my 14 miler came along, it wasn’t such a big deal. 16 isn’t that much more than 14. 18 isn’t that much more than 16. The bottom line here: we can get used to anything, it just takes time. I might also be kind of a freak. Except then my training schedule got derailed a little bit and I didn’t end up running anything longer than 18 before the marathon. I figured it would be fine, though. The biggest problem I’d had on my long runs was getting really hungry and thirsty, which I would manage a lot better at the race. I was also doing a lot of yoga, rock climbing, and weight lifting for cross training, so I thought that might help.

The run itself turned out to be fantastic. It was the Eugene Marathon, which is really flat (as opposed to hilly Seattle where I trained). I had the added bonus of being familiar with (and nostalgic about) the course because it was all along the trails I ran and biked on when I lived there for grad school. And the weather was perfect: overcast and 60 degrees until the last stretch. I did a really good job of eating well, staying hydrated, and sleeping in the days leading up to the run – no coffee for 3 days, no alcohol for a week, 7 hours the night before despite 5 am wake up. Race morning I had a solid (but light) breakfast, had a well-timed bowel movement (crucial), and caffeinated just the right amount (best performance-enhancing drug).

I put a lot of focus on mental preparation as well. I know from experience (ultimate frisbee, mostly) that I perform a lot better when I’m happy and psyched. Leading up to the race, I was excitedly nervous for several days. I concentrated on the excited part of this and let the nervous part drift away. I wrote “HAVE FUN” and “PRACTICE GRATITUDE” on my hands before the race, and I made sure to thank all the traffic enforcement along the way (until mile 24 when I couldn’t do anything). I wore pink knee-length tights under my blue running short-shorts, neon-yellow mesh tank top and shoes, and a red, white, and blue headband, which all got a lot of cheers from the folks watching the race. All these things kept people smiling at me, which kept me smiling and happy and excited. I meant to make a duct tape name tag reading “VELOCISAPIEN”, but couldn’t find duct tape at the last minute. Somebody’s stereo was blasting Macklemore’s Thrift Shop at mile 19, which gave me an extra boost because most of my outfit actually was from Goodwill.

This all worked pretty much perfectly, and most of the run went smoothly. On the shuttle to the start line I met a guy celebrating his 60th birthday with the full marathon. Super inspiring. Once we got moving, I was a little worried about coming out too fast when people around me started talking about the pace, but I felt good so I didn’t slow down. At 11 miles the full and half marathons separated, so there was a lot more space. I ended up PR’ing my half marathon time by four and a half minutes, and still felt good. I met a guy running with me who was doing his twenty-third marathon. Holy crap. He was skeptical that I was doing this pace for my first marathon, but he said that I was keeping it consistent, which was a good sign. That guy was great, and I tried to keep him in my sights as long as I could (he probably finished a minute and a half or so before me). Miles 14-18 were euphoric. I had the total sensation of “runner’s high.” My legs didn’t hurt, I was just filled with excitement and happiness and gentle tingling. I kept eating gels and trying to drink two waters at each station and had a banana.

So eventually I found myself at the 20-mile marker having kept almost exactly a 6:39 min/mile pace throughout and feeling really happy about where I was (I wore a watch to measure my speed, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to display min/mile, so I was actually looking at miles/hr the whole time. Luckily by mile 20 I had figured out what that meant). My long training runs had been at a 7:30-7:35 min/mile pace, which I why I was aiming for about a 3:15:00 finish, but secretly I thought I could do it faster. So, after 20 miles I was on pace for about 2:54:30, and I knew I’d clear 3 hours as long as I didn’t blow it.

But here’s the thing: the last 6 miles of this run were REALLY hard. Like, one of the hardest physical endeavors I’ve experienced. My legs were done. I wasn’t getting any spring from my muscles, just drag. My stomach was really confused and I was constantly on the cusp of being out of breath so I couldn’t take the time to drink water from the stations. I ended up just throwing it in my face and on my head, which actually felt wonderful. My smile started to turn into more of a slack-jaw, and I can’t imagine I looked very good (my number 2 goal, behind actually finishing the race).

But I kept going, and started focusing on a meditation technique I had practiced. Basically, it is a Tibetan Buddhist visualization I read about in Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness, which involves engulfing yourself in a sweet, healing nectar. As your own pain and suffering diminishes, you are better able to spread this cessation of suffering to others. I modified this slightly to visualize myself being pushed by a river of healing water, sweet and cool and calming, whisking me along effortlessly. Maybe it is cheating or sacrilegious to use this for running. If so, apologies! It didn’t make the run easy, but at least it distracted my mind and kept me going. My top priority at this point was to not pull a muscle or have to stop for any reason, even if that meant going a bit slower. I felt like I slowed down a lot, but found out I had only decreased my pace to 7:00 min/mile for the last 6 miles. I didn’t have any energy for a kick at the end, except maybe the last 50 meters which ended on Hayward Track where I used to do track workouts with the Oregon men’s ultimate frisbee team.

After I crossed the finish line, all I couldn’t think about was how happy I was to not be running anymore, and how shocked I was that I broke three hours. I drank three liters of water and still didn’t need to pee for two more hours. Then I had a beer with some friends, and started trying to eat again. Now it’s about 36 hours later and my stomach is just starting to feel normal. My legs are totally beat, and a flight of stairs is a daunting endeavor (going down is worse), but all the pain is muscle soreness, and I didn’t hurt anything, which is fantastic. I’m not sure that I’ll do another marathon soon, but I’m really glad to have done this one! Maybe as my perceptions and expectations shift I’ll end up doing 23 of them like the guy I met, no big deal. Or 100-mile ultramarathons. For now, I’m definitely not going to run again until at least Thursday.