The (Real) Reality Show

iesA well-planned training program + well-executed race strategy will increase the likelihood of a great race.

Unlike the hoopla and hype surrounding the reality shows – I personally don’t watch them by the way – training and completing a marathon (and you can insert any endurance event here) is the real deal. By now trainees for their maiden race would’ve been acquainted with stories and quotes about how monumental completing the marathon is. Life-changing it may well be but in reality preparing and running one is really no joke. In the words of Michael Biehn who played a SEAL Team Commander in the hugely entertaining actioner The Rock, “I shit you not”. If it was an easy thing to accomplish, your colleague sitting next to you would already be a marathoner or if he’d run one before, is still training for one!

This post will hopefully temper any excess excitement, over-confidence and over-optimism the newbie marathoner-to-be may be harbouring approaching an undertaking that has the potential to change their lives.

So relax and let me tell you about my maiden marathon experience back in 2003. Mind you, I’ve not led a sedentary lifestyle prior to my debut. I’ve internalized much of the running lore having built my passion since the late ’80s and ’90s. I worship heroes of yore like Douglas Wakiihuri, Juma Ikangaa, Ibrahim Hussein, Steve Spence, Bob Kempainen, Bill Reifsnyder (sporting cool Oakleys!), Joan Samuelson, et al. I’d already harboured dreams of running New York (yay, done it!), London (one day!) and Boston (this one is tricky but if there’s a will…). For my first, I selected the friendliest race for debutants and one that’s not in this country to add on a little bit more incentive and excitement. I needn’t look far – just across our southern border. Back then New Balance was a sponsor Singapore Marathon and the race wasn’t that big a monster it is today. That was decided and I was to travel with the Pacesetters contingent.

Being a rookie, I settled for a 4-month program (after running my 10th (as at Apr 2010), I know now that that’s too long for me, more of that later) and other than the periodic run-ins with Lawrence who was also training for his first, I was doing my weekday training including the 13 milers alone. I found Lawrence’s regimen too difficult and volumnous to follow but in reality I was being a softie. I also took rest days a little too liberally. As you can well see, there were already so many mistakes mentioned in this paragraph alone!

Because I was training alone, I was always going to be slacking. Missing runs didn’t gnaw on my conscience. The longest run I managed in the lead up was a single 28K, and I was struggling like crazy to complete it. I couldn’t even run non-stop for the 28K. My taper period was way too long at 3 weeks, which would’ve been fine had my work rate been high and intense. But I was under-training.

It was ridiculous, thinking back on my mistakes:

  1. Going solo. Not finding and hooking up with running buddies of similar capabilities. Going at it alone is often very tough, hence my utmost respect for those who train alone.
  2. Training period. 4 months were just too long for me. Keeping up with the motivation were a challenge. Only through experience will you know your optimum period. I go with 3 nowadays.
  3. Underestimating the distance. Again, with experience you’ll get more comfortable with it.
  4. Poor fueling plan. I started my first marathon fueled by a Powerbar and gel. By the time I toed the starting line of my 10th, I’d downed 2 Powerbar, 1 Powerbar Triple Threat, 1 bagel, a cup of coffee, a bottle of Gatorade. You’ve got to experiment over time to know how your body handles pre-race meals.
  5. Plain numskull. Thinking that having run many shorter races automatically made me marathon-ready. A definite no-no. Right up to my 9th, I still wasn’t that much into the mileage game. There was a quote I read which went something like “You’ll finish your marathon in a lot of pain riding on a single 30K. You’ll finish in slightly lesser pain on several.”

But despair not! Newbies these days are smarter and will avoid committing most if not all of the mistakes I made. Simply because today there’s a proliferation of online communities and blogs of experienced runners. The mistakes have all been made and well documented. You just need to avoid the pitfalls and stick to your training plan. Information are readily available – which is why I strongly encourage newbies to blog about their experience for other newcomers. My online resources then were basically limited to U.S. sites like RunnersWorld, Jim2 and Ultrarnr which will providing a wealth of information, don’t provide tidbits in the local context. I relied on Gavin Bong’s Malaysian Runner for tips. Whatever I learned and experience I posted on my website. You can just dig through the Archives to read about it, starting with this one and this one. When you’re tapering read this post.

Technological advancement will also make the task of crossing the finish line slightly easier. I say “slightly” because you still need to do the training, running past the pain threshold, managing the Wall well and sticking to a sensible raceday plan. Compression tights and advanced sports drinks weren’t the norm in 2003. I’m not saying that these aids will work for you or will guarantee a great race experience. Hardly. But at least you have options.

As newbies, you’re definitely better placed to complete your first marathon than I had. Link yourselves up with fellow debutants and support groups, and pick up tips from veterans. Training in a group can’t be beat. Team dynamics will ensure the level of motivation is maintained and a sense of camaraderie that we’re all in this together. Someone once mentioned, “Done alone it’s 42K, but together it’s a marathon”. Running a marathon ought to be something you really want to do for yourself. It shouldn’t be based on peer pressure or that it’s something you need to step up to after doing a certain number of shorter races.

When seeking tips from vets, don’t only focus on the obvious questions. Ask questions, and don’t be shy. Have you asked about how to manage your toilet duties while running? How about best way to treat black toes and preventing sore nipples? Or best type of briefs or bras to wear? Just ask the vets and they’ll be ready to share.

I completed my maiden race thoroughly disappointed and angry. I’d started to walk by the 25K mark. My legs were hurting so badly since my Mizuno Precision 3, a lightweight trainer, wasn’t giving the protection a slowpoke like me needed. I can race the marathon now in racing flats but not then. Strength and speed needed to be developed, and I was hardly race ready. I knew that but still made textbook mistakes. Finishing 5:40 was a chastening, if forgettable, experience. The only positives were that I didn’t lay off the marathon. I also made many new friends and resolved to approach my next one in a better way.

I hope this post makes sense to you, the newbie, and doesn’t come across as being preachy. All the resources that you need to run perhaps the most meaningful race in your lives are available to you. In a few weeks’ time you’re going to be toeing the line, confronting your own demons and killing them. It’s up to you to know what you want and stay the course. Fall back on group dynamics to carry you on. Be realistic and never underestimate the distance. At the same time, never underestimate your abilities. Don’t forget that after crossing the finish line, to come back for more!

Note: This is a re-post from April 2010, with minor updates for relevance. As we start off on a new year, many will be attempting their first marathons. Hopefully this post will set the newbies on the correct approach.

Published: January 1st, 2015