Swapping Snickers for Sneakers – Marathon Training for Virgin Runners

The first (and only) marathon I ever completed was eleven years ago.

I was halfway into my college course at University and firmly entrenched in the student lifestyle of boozing, binging and exercising my fingers on speed dial for the local Chinese takeaway.

Fortunately I had enough self-awareness to catch myself and realise that I needed to haul ass out of that toxic state and get back into shape.

I had watched in awe as my older brother lost several kilo the previous Summer, seemingly without effort, even though his appetite was still as strong as ever. I had taken a passive interest in his dogged pursuit of fitness to tackle the beast that is the Marathon – 26.2 mile (42km).

When I watched him on the Dublin streets that October morning and witnessed the throngs of people that had come out to cheer the competitors, the seed was sown in me that day and I promised myself that I would complete it in my lifetime. I didn’t have to wait long.

My Motivation was pretty simple.

  1. Get back into shape (lose 5 kilo of fat)
  2. Improve fitness
  3. Look and feel healthier again
  4. Sibling rivalry – I REALLY wanted to beat my older brother’s recorded time

I was 21 years old at the time. Although I was tall and seemingly lean, I had a classic skinny-fat build with much of it accumulating on my waist line because of a sedentary lifestyle. The odd session in the gym lifting weights was about as much exercise as I could muster in those days.

The last time I had done any kind of running aside from the odd football match was probably in my early teens for track and field events at school. In my childhood I was very fast, a specialist at 100m as I towered over the other competitors who were usually in classes below me – visualise a white Norn Irish Usain Bolt.

I was hopeless at longer distances though, and I felt that my asthma especially during childhood impeded me so I felt more comfortable at short distances.

When I decided to take part, I made the commitment and signed up for the Dublin Marathon 2003, eight months in advance. I also told close friends and family who gave me enormous encouragement. Two of my friends also registered and the constant playful banter in the months ahead were a great motivation.

Not knowing a thing about running, mileage or how much to train I bought a book called The Competitive Runner’s Handbook. It was an invaluable source and covered a huge array of topics which I quickly became comfortable with.

My Geeky Training Schedule - Milages
My Geeky Training Schedule – Mileages

In it, the authors suggest writing a running diary and detailing each run together with times, locations and other impressions. Personalising this account, they said, can turn an otherwise boring and monotonous run into something much richer and fulfilling. I was sceptical, but decided to heed the advice in any case.

The sample plans they provided were very thorough – talk of interval training, fartlek and circuits was intimidating at first. However, there was one plan that suited my needs as a newbie runner.

The training to get from 0 to 26 miles would take between 16-20 weeks with distances gradually increasing over time. College was coming to an end for that semester and I figured I would find the extra time over Summer to juggle running with my stints on a building site, working with my Uncle during the day.

I was fortunate that by spending Summer at home in Northern Ireland in the small rural village of Cloughmills, it meant that I had lots of countryside roads to run on. I took the car for a drive and marked off each mile from our house for easy reference on the milage clock.

Of course now that I would soon be a fully fledged marathon runner, I had to look the part and bought the obligatory expensive running gear, breathable vests, ultralite socks, pump gel trainers, branded shorts, baseball cap and the rest.

I also filled up my Ipod with soundtracks to Rocky, Gladiator, Braveheart or any Hollywood Blockbuster for that matter where the title character was in battle or dying. I was all good to go.

Naturally, the first few times I went running were incredibly difficult. I could barely push my body more than 200 yards from my front door. Sometimes, I would have a stitch in my side within minutes which would prevent me from continuing. Aches in my feet and legs were not uncommon in those first few weeks – consulting the book later I self-diagnosed shin splints and went about correcting the problem with recommended exercises.

Diary of a Geek Runner - weather reports included (cringe!)
Diary of a Geek Runner – weather reports included (cringe!)

In short – it was bloody awful to begin with, and progress was slow.

But, I had made the commitment. Given myself plenty of time to prepare. Involved a supportive cast to support me in my goal, and was determined to see it through to the bitter end.

When the event came around four short months later, I had lost a huge amount of weight without trying. I felt stronger and healthier than ever before had spent many hours pounding the ground in training, at times entering some kind of elusive zen state where my body ran of its own accord and I was completely at peace (known as runner’s high).

I’m glad to say that I completed the marathon. My first and only effort. It took 4 hours and 7 minutes beating my brother by some 8 minutes. To see my cheering family at the finish line made it all worthwhile. It was an incredibly tough thing to put the body through and I had my toughest test around the 21 mile mark, generally the mark where runners ‘hit the wall’ – glycogen supplies depleted, the starved body begins it’s shutdown mode.

Mental strength is needed to overcome this obstacle, but a well trained and prepared runner can stumble through this obstacle.

It was one of the highlights of my life and something I would highly recommend to anyone flirting with the idea.

To boil it down, here would be the main points to keep in mind if stepping up to the challenge.

  • Get Motivated. A weak desire to complete a marathon will never come to fruition. It takes months of preparation and painful hard work. The Why needs to be strong enough that you still find the motivation to lace up your shoes after a long week of work and spend hours slapping a beat on the street.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. More than is necessary. There will be setbacks. There will be stag parties, weddings, holidays and lazy days. It is impossible to stay regimented especially when juggling with a full time job. Factor in an extra couple weeks to your training plan for the unexpected.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t go all out, too soon. It will only lead to disappointment and failure. To state the obvious, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Newbie runners also get disheartened in the beginning because progress is slow. In the opening weeks the main key is to build a habit, disciplining body and mind to adapt to this new lifestyle.
  • Create a Support Network. I couldn’t have made it were it not for my parents support. My Dad would sometimes drive out and offer encouraging words for some of my longer, lonelier runs lasting up to three hours. Those moments kept me going.
  • You don’t need the latest trendy gear. You don’t need to look the part. It might make you feel better, and if that helps your confidence, keeping you motivated – fine. But in truth a lot of the latest and greatest footwear and gear don’t add anything to your performance. Shoes are important, but make sure that if you are buying new trainers that you have worn them in – spend up to three weeks walking in them before taking them for a test drive. Your shins will thank you for this.

    My Short and Illustrious Career as a Runner (bookshelved moved back into place once picture was taken!)
    My Short and Illustrious Career as a Runner
  • Chart your progress. How else would you know if you are improving? Psychologically it is a great boost to your confidence to see week in week out that you are covering off more miles.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes I had to shuffle around runs because of terrible weather or something unforeseen that came up. Rescheduling runs for a time that is more appropriate as opposed to cancelling is inevitable for the long distance runner. Don’t beat yourself up that you couldn’t squeeze in that run. Correct course further down the line.
  • Eat right. Don’t run on a full stomach. Don’t make long runs on an empty stomach. Drink plenty of water daily, but be careful not to take too much on board during runs. You’ll find the sweet spot with practice.
  • Listen to your body. Running through the pain barrier is silly. Running lopsided through a side stitch is silly. Running through blister pain is silly. Injuries are a sure fire way to dampen your new found enthusiasm about running. Avoid it by listening to the little messages your body is telling you. With experience you can distinguish pains from mild discomfort and know when to listen and when to ignore the messages.
  • Have fun. Join running groups. Listen to music. I personally listened to Audiobooks and learnt French in my evening runs. The running felt effortless because my mind was preoccupied with other things instead of focussing on another monotonous loop through familiar countryside.

25 thoughts on “Swapping Snickers for Sneakers – Marathon Training for Virgin Runners

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