What I Learned Running My First Marathon

This last week I got the opportunity to run in the San Diego Rock ‘N Roll Marathon. Running a race of 26.2 miles is an amazing experience full of just about every emotion possible, including (but not limited to): Excitement, fear, laughter, frustration, joy, loneliness, despair, enlightenment and genuine ecstasy. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Over the last 5 months as I went through my training I had many, many conversations about running. Most people thought I was crazy. Often people admired my goal. A handful of very intense and fit people told me marathons were a good start and I should really shoot for an ultra-marathon (I think those people are crazy, but I digress).

The one thing pretty much everyone wanted to know was what I learned from my experience. Honestly, I learned a lot of things. Some of those lessons I am still processing – lessons that will probably take me a long time to fully absorb and implement. Questions about what is meditation, how to fully overcome self-doubt, why my emotions are so chaotic and many others.

But I did learn several concrete lessons that made a difference for me. Whether you’re planning to do a marathon, starting on your first 5k or simply wanting to push yourself to the next level in any area of your life, these guidelines can help you get there.

Lesson #1 – Marathons Are 95% PREPARATION / 5% RACE

I started running approximately 20 weeks before my marathon. During that time the Runner’s World training program I used required almost 600 miles of training for a 26.2 mile course – very close to a 95/5 split of training miles/race miles. This is not an accident.

Your body needs time to adapt to the abuse you’re going to be dishing out. Your heart and lungs need to get stronger. Your arteries and veins need to expand to be able to pump more blood. Your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints all need to whipped into shape.

In short? You need to grow.

If you’re a beginner, you can’t finish a marathon in the same shape you were when you started. When I began my training I struggled to finish a 6-mile run. Fast forward five months and I felt so good after 26.2 miles that I was a little annoyed with myself for not running faster.

I had done the work and it had paid off.

Application To Daily Life:

If you’re going to accomplish a big goal – like say passing your Medical Boards – the test itself is almost an afterthought. The real work happens every day for many months leading up to it. The same is true for sales presentations, public speeches, live performances or any other major event that’s coming.

What I Learned Running My First Marathon 1

Plan in advance. Break down the event into all the critical steps necessary. Make sure you have enough time to finish strong. Then, once you’re ready, start doing the daily work that you will prepare you for what is to come.

Lesson #2. That 5% RACE Is the Key To the Entire Training Process

Even though the race itself is only a small fraction of your overall work, you must be thinking about it at all times. Because running becomes exponentially more difficult as you increase your mileage, it’s vital for you to know what your current knowledge and abilities are compared to where you ultimately want to be.

In a recent article I talked about the amazing value of using Kaizen and the PDCA Cycle to slowly improve your abilities. If you want to succeed on race day you should be using a system like this to constantly check your work and make small changes. The following is a list of the questions I asked myself (or should have asked myself) on a daily basis:

How many miles does my program want me to run this week? How are those runs going? Am I doing speed work? Hill runs? Intervals? How is my body feeling when I push it to the limit? What are the consequences if I skip a workout? What about if I skip a week?

What am I doing for recovery? Am I stretching and/or foam rolling enough? How sore/tight are my muscles? If I’m very sore, am I overtraining? Am I using massage, cupping, acupuncture or other bodywork to help? Am I getting blisters with certain socks or shoes? Chafing? Raw skin? What gear/supplies do I need to fix that?

How many rest days am I taking per week? Am I allocating enough time for sleep every night? What things in my schedule need to be rearranged so I can get the sleep my body requires?

How is my daily nutrition? Am I getting enough carbs? Protein? What about when I eat on long runs? What works and what makes me sick?

What is the course I’ll be running? Where are the hills? Where are the aid stations? Which stations have fuel? Salt? Vaseline? What will the temperature be at the beginning of race day? How about after running for four hours? How well does my body respond to those temperatures?

After five months of asking these questions I didn’t have any major surprises on race day. I knew what could happen before it happened and when those problems appeared (ie. Six bathroom stops, blisters, low electrolytes, foot soreness) I was more than ready to deal with them and succeed.

Application To Daily Life

If you have a major sales pitch in two weeks, block out every step you must take to ace it. Plan everything. The numbers. The future growth. The possibilities for your client. Find 10 reasons why they absolutely need your product. Then find 10 more. Then 10 more. How will you respond to negativity? What are the top 20 issues that someone could have with your product? Make sure you have excellent answers to all of them. How good are the Powerpoint slides? Artwork? Handouts?

Plan your pitch. Where will you stand? How long will it be? Will you do it alone or in a group? How many people will you be talking to? What will the technical situation be in the room? Computers? Projector? White board? What will you wear? What will you eat the night before and the day of? Do you need coffee? Where and how long will you be sleeping?

Make a detailed list of everything you’ll need, when you’ll prepare it and how it will go down. Then spend time every day on that list until know everything backwards and forwards. Then go over your list again.

Your upcoming pitch is going to be difficult but if you do all the necessary preparation with that pitch in mind you will nail it!

Lesson #3. It’s Not About Winning – It’s About Not Stopping

Almost 5,000 people entered the 2019 Rock ‘N Roll Full Marathon in San Diego. This huge number of contestants makes marathons different than other races because for all but a select few elites the goal is not “winning” in the traditional sense. You aren’t trying to beat other people. You aren’t going for money or glory or to have your name in lights. Your goal is something much bigger.

You want to find out if you have what it takes.

Can you push your body for 26 miles in a row without quitting? Can you deal with the pain of hour upon hour of grueling work? Can you, in the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling, “force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone / And so hold on when there is nothing in you /  Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on””?

If you can figure out how to make it happen, it doesn’t matter whether you’re one of the fastest people in the world, a middle of the pack runner or even one of those inspiring souls who bravely suffer for seven hours and finish right before the official cut-off. The result is the same. Everyone that crosses that finish line has run a marathon.

Once I finished my marathon I knew it was an achievement that could never be taken away. I could have gone faster. I should have done some things differently. I definitely made several mistakes along the way. But as soon as I crossed that line none of it mattered.

I had run a fucking marathon.

Application To Daily Life

Have you ever been at the doctor’s office and asked him or her what his grades in medical school were? Of course you haven’t. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. If they can pass medical school then they are fully qualified to take care of you. They’ve done the work. They’ve passed the test. They’re ready to practice medicine.

Just like becoming a doctor, the major tests in our lives are not graded on a curve – they’re pass/fail. Did you pass your drivers test? Yes/No. Did you convince the girl to marry you? Yes/No. Do you own a house? Yes/No. Do you have a master’s degree? Yes/No. Did you finish writing your novel? Yes/No.

In everything that really matters, it makes no difference if you’re the best in the world or if you just showed up every day and did the work. As long as you complete the goal you are a success!

Lesson #4. Pain Is Your Friend

Runners are masochists. Having run close to 700 miles this year I can say this with certainty. Running hurts. It stresses your heart. It sets your lungs on fire. It makes your muscles sore, your feet burn and it drains you of energy. Even better, the longer you run the worse it gets.

Bizarrely enough, runners seem to be drawn to the discomfort. It’s a love/hate relationship that’s truly fascinating. Dean Karnazes, winner of the positively inhuman Death Valley Badwater 135mile, sums it up like this:

“Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.”

Life comes with pain. It’s a prerequisite for existence. It is also an incredibly powerful, multi-functional tool.

When your body hurts it’s a sign that something is happening. If you get burned you flinch away because it hurts. Your body sends that pain signal to alert you that you need to move your fingers before you get cooked. The same is true with any body part. If your ankle starts throbbing you probably twisted it. If your feet are rubbing raw, there’s a blister about to form. If your low back is aching it probably means your spine isn’t moving the way it’s supposed to.

These are all metrics your body uses to inform you of what’s happening. There are many levels of pain, from the slightest pressure to very uncomfortable all the way to absolutely intolerable. Each one of them sends a different message and they’re all important.

The secret – especially for newbie runners – is to realize that those pains are rarely as important and dangerous as you think they are. Although it sucks, you can absolutely run with blisters. You can go for many miles on a sprained ankle (I know this from personal experience). It’s even possible – as many people have proven – that you can complete a marathon with broken bones!

Now I am obviously not advocating running with an injury. What I am saying is that pain is important and necessary. It gives you valuable data about where you are and how you are doing. But it can and often must be ignored if you’re going to finish your long runs.

The key is to remember this: Pain is always temporary. As soon as you get to the end it immediately begin to fade.

Marathons are always somewhat painful. Anyone who tells you differently is under the influence. The good news is that once you learn to run through the pain you can use it to assess your progress, sharpen your focus and motivate you to cross that finish line ASAP.

Application To Real Life

Pain is everywhere in life. Whether it’s physical, mental or emotional, the human organism is rarely free from some kind of suffering. Most people run from the pain but there is power in embracing that pain.

Life is a marathon. Every major and minor goal you have in life has an end point. If you can learn to embrace and learn from your discomfort, adapting as necessary, fixing as necessary, you will become capable of overcoming any painful circumstance to achieve your goal.

Lesson #5. Run Your Own Race

After finishing the marathon, Lucia, one of my co-workers, asked me what my finish time was. I told her it was pretty good, just about 4 hours and 30 minutes – roughly a 10:30/mile pace. She nodded and said “That’s okay. Not too bad. You should do another one and go faster. Next time try for a 9:30 pace. You can do it. You’re in good shape.”

Now I must admit my initial response to her challenge was to feel offended. After all, I ran my ass off for four and a half hours, finished strong and felt good. Now she’s telling me I need to do another race and go faster? Shouldn’t she be praising my name and telling me I’m amazing? Who did she think she was anyway, being critical of my hard work?

Then I had to step back and realize who I was talking to. Lucia was once a semi-professional runner in Brazil. Her fastest marathon time was under 3 hours. That is smoking. As I thought about it, I realized she was actually complimenting me by saying she believed I could go a lot faster. From her perspective, she didn’t just see my hours and hours of grueling training, suffering and grinding on race day. She saw a much bigger picture. She saw this event as a stepping stone to greater things.

My marathon was different from her perspective than it was from mine. I had run a different race. In fact, everyone I’ve met during this process has run a different race.

One guy had never run a marathon before. He actually passed out in the middle of the course and forced himself to get back up and complete the distance. Another guy zoomed around me at mile 19 and as I watched I realized one of his legs was carbon fiber. One lady told me it usually takes her about six hours her bi-monthly marathon. Another guy I met runs barefoot. No shoes. No socks. Just bare feet on asphalt for 26 miles. Damn.

As I really started to think about it, I realized the truth is we all run our own race. There were over 23,000 runners that crossed the finish line on Sunday and every single one of them had a different experience. Each of us had a different story, a different struggle and a different triumph.

With that in mind, I remembered that my goals for my race were to A) run smart, without B) running out of energy and hitting “the wall,” without C) hurting myself, and to D) cross the finish line feeling strong in E) about four and a half hours. Check, check, check, check and check.

I had run my race. Not Lucia’s race. Not some elite runner’s race. Nobody else’s race. Mine.

And it felt awesome.

Application To Real Life

No matter what anyone else says, your dream is your choice. Whether it’s running a 10k or being #1 in sales for your office or spending a year in Africa or finding the love of your life – your race is YOUR race.

Because it’s your goal that means you get to set the parameters. You can go as fast or slow as you want. You can push hard. You can take breaks. You can whittle away at it or put everything else on hold and make it your #1 priority. You do you, boo.

You’re not anybody else and nobody else is you. Don’t judge your progress based on someone else’s journey. It’s not appropriate, it’s not fair and most importantly it won’t work.

Run your own race.


Here are the five main lessons I learned during my experience.

  • Lesson #1 – Marathons Are 95% PREPARATION / 5% RACE
  • Lesson #2 – That 5% RACE Is Critical For The Entire Training Process
  • Lesson #3 – It’s Not About Winning – It’s About Not Stopping
  • Lesson #4 – Pain Is Your Friend
  • Lesson #5 – Run Your Own Race

Now it’s your turn. If you’re ready for an awesome challenge I guarantee will change your life click here to find a marathon near you. Whatever your marathon looks like, get out there, use these guidelines and finish YOUR race. Get started right now and before you know it you’ll be crossing that finish line!

Stay Superior!

What I Learned Running My First Marathon 2
Reports of Jay’s demise were greatly exaggerated

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Jathan is passionate about helping create a community of great men. He enjoys beautiful women, altered states and Monty Python jokes. He lives in San Diego with two cats and a lot of books. Email him anytime at jathan@wearesuperiormen.com

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