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6-Week Marathon Journey (Part 1)

Oops, I did it again! My second full marathon is officially on the books. It felt like a mission impossible, but I managed. This is a three-part post about training for my second marathon (the first in a decade), preparing mentally for it, and a recap of how it went.

Signing up

Running a marathon starts with a mental commitment to doing something epic and picking a date to do it on.

Selecting a marathon isn’t the easiest thing, especially in a place like India where I live. Not all marathons are created equal. I wanted to do a marathon that was big and well organized, with a flat course. I preferred to do it in a place with moderate temperatures that didn’t require travel. Living in Mumbai, the only race that somewhat fit these requirements was the annual Tata marathon but that wasn’t until January and I knew it would be pretty hot. I’d done the Tata half marathon twice and the full marathon is basically a double loop.

I’d already booked a weekend trip to the Netherlands in April, and it suddenly occurred to me to look for a marathon there. What happened next felt serendipitous. The Rotterdam marathon was that weekend! One of the top marathons in the world! The weather and course are ideal for beginners and top athletes alike. Also: if I ran it, I’d complete my second full marathon exactly ten years after I did my first, which was also in the Netherlands—in Leiden. I got really excited about the idea.

Registration closed

Unfortunately, the Rotterdam marathon was only six weeks away and registration was closed. I almost gave up the idea immediately. Why did I think I could train for a marathon in six weeks anyway? What a dumb idea! Then again: maybe there was a resell market for these tickets? Bingo! At least 40 tickets were offered on the official website for a reasonable price. All I had to do was submit my name and email address to the sellers and wait.

I waited. And waited. Why was nobody replying to my offer? It made no sense. Was there a problem with the website? I tried a different email address. I turned on VPN. I submitted ten more offers. I enlisted my sister to submit offers for me. I even emailed the organization asking if their website worked. Getting a ticket became an obsession!

Finally, I submitted an offer for one of the more expensive tickets (€135, which was still only €15 above the official asking price) and got a reply. I paid this guy at once without asking questions—I didn’t want to scare him away! Fortunately he was an honest person and transferred the ticket to me as soon as he received my payment. Phew!

The plan: 6-week training schedule

Now that I cleared the first hurdle, I urgently needed to turn my attention to the training plan. Training for a marathon in only six weeks is not advisable, but I had a few things going for me: I’d run a marathon before so I knew how it worked. I’d also just completed three half marathons in the past six weeks, and a number of 10K races, all with good results. I estimated that I could get away with a six week training plan because I was about as fit and trained as if I’d done the full 4-months training schedule at this point.

Given the similarities between my current fitness and my training level ten years ago when I was preparing for my first marathon, I figured I could have a similar result: 4:19. Then again, this would only be possible if I trained very seriously and successfully completed three major runs in the next three weeks: 25K, 28K and 32k. This thought was extremely daunting. Another problem: I was ten years older now and more prone to a variety of pains. So I lowered my expected finish time to 4:30/4:40. In other words: just completing the race without walking.

I also told myself that failure, and the sensation of failing, was a real possibility. Not only because it was doubtful I could run a whole marathon with so little time to prepare but also because training mishaps are common. In the past I’ve had to stop some of my longest training runs because of the heat, side-stitches, thirst, or getting lost.

I decided to run as many miles as possible to get my body used to what was coming. That didn’t  mean running every day though. Mentally, I need a rest day after every run. So I wanted to run 3-4 times a week. The idea was:

  1. One slow, long (25K+) run for the fist three weeks, then one medium (15K) run in the two weeks prior to the marathon

  2. One short recovery run (3-4K)

  3. One medium run (8-10K)

  4. One short and fast run (5-7K)

The reality: how I trained

Week 1

During my short runs, I noticed I was constantly getting faster. Each 10K run I completed in the past six months had been faster than the previous one as I mentioned in my blog post about 11 running principles I swear by. Because of my age group (I’m 39) and how little female competition there is in Mumbai, I’d won several trophies and cash prizes by ending up in the top three!

However, this meant I’d have to slow myself down during my endurance runs. The first time I put this to the test was the 25K run—the longest run I’d completed in a decade. I’d signed up for a 15K charity run. It was a race, except I wasn’t racing—I just tried to keep a steady 6min/km pace. After everyone else finished I turned around and ran another 10K.

I was nervous for this run for a simple reason: if I couldn’t complete it, the marathon plan was off. I was also worried because I experimented with Honey Stinger gummies, which I hoped would make me feel less depleted. Ultimately, it all worked out. I ran the whole distance with a 6-minute average (though not exactly steady) pace and the gummies seemed to work. I felt soreness in my right hip during the second half of the run, but nothing terrible.

Week 2

I ran a short recovery run on Monday, but the heat and traffic in my neighborhood bothered me and I didn’t feel very strong. Still, I was proud that I was running again already, and my hip didn’t hurt anymore.

The next day I decided to go for an 8K run, because the rest of the week looked busy. I waited until the sun set—I left the house at 18:20. I let Spotify pick the songs. Everything went well except two things: I got another blister and realized it was high time to buy double layered anti-blister socks (I just read about this in one of my books). The other thing was that l was getting nervous about the next long Sunday run. Was I really gonna run 28K? I felt it would be dull and difficult. I decided not to run much any more this week until Sunday in an effort to get plenty of rest and lift my spirits once more.

The rest of the week I worried. My body had taken a beating and I noticed a dull pain from my hip down the side of my lower right leg. I was unsure if Sunday was going to be another success. What would I do if it wasn’t?! I’d be traveling to Sri Lanka the next week to take an open water diving course—the chance of completing a 32K run there would be even less likely there!Worries worries.

On Sunday morning, I went through my usual routine: I got up at 4:30. I drank herbal tea, swallowed two Ibuprofen and ate two slices of bread with fried eggs. Also, I drank water with electrolytes right before the run (another thing I recently picked up from a running book). I crashed a half marathon event in my neighborhood for which I hadn’t bought a ticket. The course was nothing special—just loops through every minor and major street of my neighborhood. I felt guilty for using their hydration stations because I hadn’t paid for the race, but I needed to because I’d ditched my own hydration pack early on—I was testing out a camelback and the sloshing water drove me nuts! Apparently you can prevent this by sucking the air out…. good tip for next time!

Anyway, the run was a major challenge! Increasing my distance from 25K to 28K didn’t come easy. I felt like I was fit enough, but my hips (right hip, again) protested like crazy. After the 25K mark it became especially bad; I paused for a minute as the word “contraction” crossed my mind. This is starting to make me real worried about the marathon. As soon as I stopped running my body was fine, but can I run in pain for 17km? Doubtful! Clearly, I’m not really ready for such a long distance.

But I wasn’t gonna give up. I decided to add hip strengthening and other exercises to my training schedule with the idea “Let’s see what I can accomplish in four weeks.”

The rest of the day I rested, a lot. I watched the Oscar nominated movie “Nyad” about a marathon swimmer. It’s an incredible story about endurance, determination, and defying the odds. Exactly what I needed! If a 62-year old lady can swim 110 miles to Cuba, surely I can jog a silly 26-mile marathon, right?

Week 3

On Monday, I felt remarkably wholesome. My worries from the day before had mostly dissipated. After all, I did what I set out to do and now I was painfree again! Clearly I had no serious hip injury, thank god. Perhaps it’s true that most pain is just a mental state of being? Apart from an insignificant little blister I felt no pain anywhere—until I did my recovery run. After 10 minutes of pre-run strength training I started my usual 5K neighborhood loop. After barely 3K my right knee started to ache. It was a familiar pain I thought I’d gotten rid of last year. How was it possible that my knee didn’t hurt at all during the 28K run two days earlier and now this?!

Two days later I was at it again—an 8K run. I started off slowly to warm up my knee. Thankfully the run went well. It was hot outside but I kept my pace stable, I didn’t get tired, and most importantly: I had no real knee pain (perhaps a bit of stiffness but that’s all). At that point I became hopeful I would start the race fit and uninjured. At the same time I remained convinced I was not as prepared as I should be. Almost certainly, the second half of the marathon was going to be hellish.

Week 4

On Sunday I was supposed to attempt the 32K monster run, but I went to diving class instead. I did a short interval training the day before (another first, also based on advice from a running book!) but the endurance run had to wait. I wanted to focus on diving because I’d been looking forward to this for a long time. Also, it was really hard to imagine running in the wet and tropical heat of south Sri Lanka! The diving course was an intense three days and I was pretty tired. I decided to count the diving as a form of cross-training…

On Wednesday, the day after I completed the open water diving course, I got up at 6AM and went for a run. My goal was a moving target. First, I ran 7K mostly uphill and downhill avoiding school buses filled with adorable Sri Lankan kids in white uniforms. Once I arrived at a main road I committed to another 8K, after which I bought a second bottle of water and used the restroom of a random guesthouse. I felt I had another 5K in me, so I turned around and ran to an unappealing industrial town where I suddenly felt like I was back in India. I turned around towards the resort town and called it good at 20K.

On Saturday I was back at it again with a shorter run: 6K in a suburb of Kandy, still in Sri Lanka. It was relatively cool, the road was good, and the traffic was not great but manageable. Everything went smoothly until I twisted my ankle, panicked for a millisecond, then realized I was fine. Phew.

Week 5

Only twelve days until the marathon! With less than two weeks left, it’s time to start “tapering”: decreasing distance while staying active. I didn’t feeling great about skipping the 32K run, but I was at peace with the idea that I wasn’t going to run an amazing time anyway—I was certain some body part would start hurting and that it would slow me down, whether it would be real pain or imagined (harmless) pain as a result of my “perception of effort” (another concept I just read about).

On Wednesday I completed a 15K—a distance that now felt like peanuts. I ran from the middle of Mumbai where I live to the south coast in almost a straight line. Or at least: on the map it looked like a straight line but the reality was a lot more complicated. The enormous amount of people and traffic slowed me down, and occasionally freaked me out, but at least it wasn’t boring! I was wearing a different pair of shoes and towards the end I got that familiar knee pain again. It occurred to me I only felt it when I was wearing certain shoes. Maybe the shoes were the problem?

On Sunday, I did a 10K race in Thane. This happened to be my 40th organized race since my first race Uruguay back in 2010. It was a fun event with a few hundred women—for once it was for women only. I finished 5th overall and ran the last kilometer at a pace significantly faster than I usually do: in 4:55 minutes. I realized in that moment that I was either starting to develop a real race mentality, or that I’d just gotten significantly more fit. My overall result was 54:01, which is a good time for me given that I train for endurance instead of speed, and Mumbai is hot.

Perhaps I should have just left it at that, but I did a final training run on Tuesday. I was off that day and made the poor decision of going out into the 90-degree heat. I thought I could handle it but I could’t—my body refused to go on after about 4K so I went home to cool off.



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