Letter to a First-Time Marathoner

My best friend since childhood, Dr. Francesca “Kika” Tronchin, is running her first marathon this weekend, St. Jude’s in Memphis. She’s weathered the training with her usual blend of gusto and wit, and she’s going to have a great day on Saturday. I wish I could be there; I’ll be thinking of her as I run in Central Park. We’re hatching plans for a buddy ultra in the near future.

When I visited Fleet Feet Carrboro‘s No Boundaries group last night, they’d just received t-shirts reading RUNNING CHANGES EVERYTHING. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. True? Well, yes. Here Kika and I are sixteen, sitting down to a meal of french fries and soda. We might still do that today, but we do it with a different perspective on our bodies and our lives, in great part due to endurance sports.

Here are thoughts I sometimes share with the first-time marathoners I coach and teach, and which I enjoyed talking through at Runner’s World‘s Marathon Challenge panel in Richmond.

First, set an intention. For the first-timer, this is, obviously, “Survive,” with a secondary goal of “Finish.” Time goals are for the next race. Having a clear goal when you go into any major undertaking eases the decision-making process once you’re in it. When you’re faced with a choice between X and Y, ask, “Which is in line with my goal?” The answer gets clearer.

Second, FORM AND BREATH. At the beginning, when things are easy and slightly boring, find the most relaxed, efficient form you can, and breathe as fully as you can. At the end, when things get hard, do the same. Let go where you can, work only where you need to, and continually return to the most efficient form available. Into that space, breathe.

Third, be open to what comes. Don’t shut out the experience around you. You might take in energy from the crowd, fellow runners, a pretty view. You might investigate discomfort, parsing it down to simple sensation instead of pain. In my first marathon, I took a Tootsie Roll from a spectator and held it like a magic baton, all the way from mile 15 to mile 22. If the proverbial wall comes sooner than expected, don’t be surprised. Relax your form, deepen your breath, and remember your goals. (And eat something.)

Finally, if you find yourself wondering about whether you are going to be able to do it, swap that thought for this one: “I am doing it.” The narrative is not over; you are in control. Stay in the present tense. And when you’re done, you will forever be able to conjugate the verb differently: “I have done it.” Kika, you can keep yourself busy conjugating in Latin! FESTINA LENTE, make haste slowly, as your tattoo reminds you. lvoe yuo rots/