How I ran my first marathon
Updated: Jun 10
On 18 May 2014 I officially became a marathon runner. I finished without any injuries, pains or even soreness (apart from my toes) and I was pretty content with my official time of 4:19:09 at the Leiden Marathon.
I didn’t have a specific time in mind for my first marathon. Most of the information I found online suggested that first-time marathon runners should be happy just to make it to the finish line. I never joined a running group either – it was just something I did on my own, with occasional support from my dad, who was the only person who seemed interested in my plan.
While I didn’t worry about my finishing time, I did obsess over my pace. I realized at some point that if I’d start too fast on race day, I might not make it to the finish (not running, at least). My training pace had been around 5:30 min/km, except for distances over 25K, which I ran (much) slower.
I figured that it would be overly ambitious to start out with a 5:30 pace and expect to keep it up. Even though running at that pace would put me under the 4-hour mark, which is something most runners love to beat, it was simply not going to happen. I figured that four and half hours would be more realistic.
On marathon day, I first made my way over to the 4:30 pacers. When I asked them about their pace, they told me they would run 6:23 min/km the whole time. I thought about it for a minute, then decided it would be too slow for me. In the end, I settled for the 4:15 pacers, who would run 6 min/km.
My pacers were two incredible women by the way. You would never know from the way they looked, but they were both Dutch ultra race champions. Champions on the 100K! Another astonishing fact: they both completed almost 200 marathons.
THE REALITY OF RUNNING MY FIRST MARATHON
It was very difficult for me not to run too fast during the first 10K of the 42.195K marathon distance. I was feeling good, the weather was gorgeous (although a bit hot), I was used to running faster, and I didn’t like the fact that everybody was overtaking me.
Without noticing I would speed up, only to realize that I lost my group. Then I had to force myself to slow down again. After a while of this I decided, instead of running in front of my group, to run next to them to keep my pace constant. It felt a bit boring to run so slowly, but I enjoyed participating in the conversations. Basically, we talked non-stop (and took a quick pee-break) during the first 15K.
At the 15K mark, my husband, son, and dad were waiting for me to cheer me on. I waved at them, stopped for a quick kiss, and re-joined my group. Then I turned on some music. I’d carefully selected about 150 songs, but most of the songs just annoyed me. The only real motivational song I heard within the next hour was “Until I Collapse” by Eminem.
Because the music wasn’t really doing it for me, I tried to enjoy my surroundings (cute Dutch villages) and put my mind to getting to the 28K mark, where I would see my family again. All around me I started noticing people walking and taking breaks. I still felt happy and strong. I was even happier when I saw my family, and as I re-joined my group after greeting them I told myself I was practically there.
Unfortunately, the route suddenly became very boring. The next 10K stretch was a straight road through the fields. It had gotten pretty hot, and there was no shade. I suddenly noticed that I didn’t feel very fit anymore – perhaps I had burned through my energy reserve? My legs weren’t really tired but I felt drained, which worried me. The next time I saw someone holding out a tray of fruit, I took two pieces of banana.
About five minutes after eating the banana I got a side stitch. Was it because of the food? Or was my body telling me that I was overdoing it? Worried as I was, I was determined not to let the pain stop me. It had happened before during a recent training run, and it had stopped me in my tracks. This time, I told myself, it was going to be different. I was going to pull through.
I never stopped, but the pain slowed me down significantly. I lost my pacers, who kept running at the same speed. I was on my own now. The pain got worse and I had to bend over to breathe it out at least five times. All the while I kept telling myself: this is not going to stop me.
I reminded myself of something a runner told me once, which is that when you run a marathon, you run the first half on training, and the second half on character. I also thought of my family waiting for me at the 37K mark; all I wanted was to make it over there. Running – not walking.
So I ran. Later, my sister who was there claimed that she saw me walking, and my dad mentioned that I looked pretty terrible at that point (see the picture, judge for yourself), but I'm pretty sure I managed to get to the 37K mark in a slow jog. When I finally reached my family, however, I allowed myself to walk for a minute so I could talk to them for a bit.
It felt almost impossible to start running again after that, but I didn’t want to waste valuable minutes and I managed to pick up the pace again. Even though I’d lost my group, which would finish at 4:15, I still wanted to make good time. I tried every self-motivational technique I knew to get myself going again.
The road into town led me along a canal and between the heat and my ever-increasing thirst, all I wanted to do was to jump into the water and call it a day.
Then, I saw a clock. Whatever the time was, it told me that I was still on track to make a decent finishing time. Then, for some reason, my mind started playing tricks on me. Strangely, I suddenly believed that the marathon was 45K. So when I passed the 40K mark soon after, I got worried. I couldn’t believe that I had another 5K to go!
Fortunately, it only took a minute for my mind to correct the mistake. I realized that I actually had only 2,2K to go, which made me so happy that I managed to go faster. I raced over Leiden’s little bridges and canals and through the small (thankfully shaded) cobblestone streets until I finally saw the finish.
My eyes became blurry as I crossed the finish line, holding my hands up in the air, hardly believing I was finally there. Out of nowhere one of my pacers materialized and gave me a big hug. She’d stuck around to see me finish, which made me feel amazing.
My family, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. They totally missed seeing me finish as they were taking their time to get there. I later understood it wasn’t their fault though – the city was almost impossible to navigate because roads had been closed off for the marathon.
I needed to drink something urgently, so I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade from somewhere and downed the whole thing at once. I felt better immediately. Then, to celebrate my achievement and because I thought it was a cool thing to do, I went to the Amstel stand and downed a whole cup of beer.
FIRST DAYS AFTER THE MARATHON
If you’d ask me if it’s hard to run a marathon, I’d probably downplay the whole thing. I sort of think that if even I can run a marathon, everyone can run a marathon. After all, I did it after I’d had a baby only six months prior and, to be honest, I skipped a lot of training days.
I’m also tempted to believe that if you can run a half marathon, you can easily work your way up to a whole marathon. You just have to do a couple of longer training runs, and expect to experience a lot more exhaustion (and perhaps anxiety) during the race. To me, it’s mainly about having the right attitude – as in, really wanting it – and avoiding injuries at all cost.
At the same time, another part of me believes that completing a marathon is much more than just running. It takes a lot of planning and effort to train for it, and it can be mentally draining. Many, many thoughts have crossed my mind during my numerous runs, and lots of them told me to give up (on the other hand, lots of them told me I was doing something awesome).
Food, at least for me, was another issue; I liked losing a bunch of weight during training, but I worried about eating enough and staying healthy. Also, I’m not sure I really made the right decision by not using any gel packs during the race, and not getting used to taking food and water during training. It’s hard to know what is best for your body because what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. It seemed like tons of people were eating gel packs during the race, but I also heard that one guy ended up in the hospital because of them that day…
I wondered and worried about gear too: were those flimsy trail running shoes I ran on really the best way to go? Could I have prevented the blisters somehow? Should I have worn a cuter outfit for the pictures (not all of my problems are serious, obviously).
The most serious issue for me is probably injuries: after the marathon, I realized that my right ankle was far from happy. It healed well, but I worried about it for quite a while. During training, I also had to ignore and overcome several kinds of pains, including shin splints, chafed arms, and sore knees.
A few days after the marathon I went on a 9K group run and suddenly hit a massive wall; apparently my body was in a state of recuperation and I really couldn’t afford to do one more run – not even a relaxed one – until I’d healed (not sure what had to heal, exactly, but I definitely felt something wasn’t right for a few days after that).
The event itself was extremely fun and uplifting. I loved seeing how many different kinds of people run marathons. Some people had terrible form, and yet plenty of them managed to overtake me and finish way before me. Some runners were overweight, and others were well into their 60s, maybe even 70s!
Will I ever run a marathon again? It was very tempting to sign up for another race right away and start training to break my PR. However, I wanted to give my body a rest first. I decided to focus on running shorter races (to increase speed) and do trail runs (which are more fun).
Still, I know I will do another marathon one day. It’s a little bit crazy but I find it much more inspiring to run when I have a clear goal in mind. I also love running because, at age 24, it finally sold me on sports, and now that I’m in my thirties and have two kids, I feel fitter than ever!