How I Ran a 2:40 Marathon

Ryan Fan Carolyn M. Dimmick in Connect Savannah

In November of 2018, I stepped on the line of the marathon, thinking that I was screwed — I really needed to go to the bathroom, but the line was way too long. It was going to be a long, and horrible race.

However, once I got off the line, the adrenaline started pumping. My need to go to the bathroom magically went away, and within three minutes, I found myself trailing some of the leaders of the race. Two guys were well ahead of me and I was trying to keep my pace maintained and controlled — so I let them go.

I went in thinking I genuinely could win the Savannah Rock n’ Roll marathon, my first marathon. After all, I had some pretty good workouts and I was running 80 miles a week at points. I don’t want to boast, but the winner the previous year only ran 2:42 in the marathon — a time I knew, during my senior year of college, that I was capable of running on a good day.

Within a mile, however, the two leaders kept pulling more and more ahead. I knew that it was a 26-mile race so I chose not to try to catch up to them. I would have been digging myself a long and painful hole if I was — but they just kept pulling away more and more.

Meanwhile, a white truck started following me and then pulling in front of me. A woman in the bed of the truck pulled out a camera and started videotaping me. I wondered if it was just because I was the third-place guy in the race — but she pulled a banner that said, in all caps, “MARATHON”.

I didn’t think too much about it, and I thought I was going pretty slow, but I wasn’t feeling great, so I didn’t want to speed up at all either. I didn’t see any clocks to show how fast I was running, and truthfully I didn’t want to know anyway. But once I hit the 5k portion of the race, the clock appeared in front of me. The two guys in front of me were actually running the half marathon — so I was winning the marathon, unbeknownst to me.

The time was 17:45. I was going 5:42 mile pace. I felt alright, probably a little better than I did in the beginning — but this was faster than I’d ever run for more than 15 miles. I started to panic a little bit. I was going pretty fast, but it felt, well, fine? It made sense, then, that I was leading the marathon.

I would keep running just as fast for 18 miles and actually lead the race through that amount. Two guys would pass me around that time as I started to slow down and my legs started getting heavier. By mile 20, it would get ugly. I considered dropping out because I was slowing down considerably and didn’t even know if I could finish the race.

However, I resolved to put one foot in front of the other and just finish. I would eventually finish an excruciating race, seeing the finishing time, I was at the upper margins of 2:39 in the marathon. I was running faster than I even imagined I would.

I put in one last sprint, gave it everything I had, to the applause of my friends and the entire crowd. I would cross the line in 2:40:06, a Boston Marathon qualifier time and genuinely much faster than I thought I could possibly run.

My body paid the price. After I finished the marathon and received my bronze medal, I could barely walk. I sat on the curb, with people asking me “are you alright?” and offering me Gatorade, water, and food, to which I graciously took. I didn’t know where my friends were, but it would be about five minutes before they could find me and help me walk off the finish line.

I was proud. My friend brought me to the massage tent where I got my muscles massaged — and I eventually went on the podium to officially be recognized for my accomplishment.

My marathon success did not come overnight

At the time, I had been running 80–85 miles per week intermittently. It’s not like the performance came out of nowhere, but I was also training for my cross country season in my senior year of college. For personal reasons, I quit my team, but I had all my fitness and training that I didn’t want to just waste.

Consistency was key. I started out the first week of training after my break running 30 miles a week, which isn’t much when you consider the length of the marathon. However, I would build — gradually. In the third week of training — I would run the Peachtree Road Race on the 4th of July.

I was just doing the race as a workout, but it ended up being a pretty damn good workout. I would run 34:08 in the 10k on a hilly course — 5:30 mile pace for 6.2 miles. It surprised me as much as it did anybody. from the author

I just did it for fun. Running, at the time, was not the center of my life. It was just a hobby. I was studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and that definitely took up the majority of my summer. Running had many roles — it helped clear my mind and give me a break, as well as help socialize with my friends who were runners.

I was training in Atlanta, Georgia, at the peak of the summer. If you know nothing about Atlanta, the least you can know is that it gets very, very hot in the middle of the day. But Atlanta, as an inland city, had fluctuations in temperature — which meant that a reasonable temperature at 6 or 7 a.m. would be 70 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Every morning, my friends and I would make a pact to wake each other up and keep ourselves accountable. I would never be the first to wake up, but we were too invested in the process to stop. Waking up in the morning after not a lot of sleep ended up being the lesser evil — the alternative was that we run in scorching hot 100-degree weather.

Needless to say, I couldn’t have done as much training without some help.

I would eventually jump to 80 miles a week within two months of training. I would maintain that mileage pretty consistently, with the exception of down weeks at the discretion of my coach.

I had a coach that guided me through my training — and that was essential. I trained for six months continuously with almost no off days of running prior to the marathon, so that when I ran 2:40, it was a surprise, but not a pleasant surprise.

My teammates and I always kept each other accountable. We pushed each other to be better, and sometimes that would happen in a friendly competition where we tried to outsprint each other at the end of runs or beat each other in workouts.

Now, as a hobby jogger and non-racer in the midst of a pandemic canceling most races, I wish I still had that company to run with. I struggle running alone. As a matter of fact, I hate it. I can’t pace myself. I get bored. I get too deep in my thoughts, and it’s overall not as much fun as running with people.

My struggle with pacing myself has long roots. In my high school junior year championship race, I got really nervous before the race and would try to maintain my pace throughout the race. I had one of the worst races of my high school career.

My coach would tell me in an individual meeting after the race that just in spectating, he noticed me make five or six sprints throughout the race, expending my energy before the finish. After, he would urge me to only make one move the entire race, and save my one sprint or surge for the finish in our even more important race the next week.

That week, I gave myself a mantra: “no surge”. I would tell myself not to surge the entire race. Several of my teammates went in front of me at the beginning of the race, and since I usually run with them, I usually would have gone with them. But I told myself “no surge” and ran my own race. Out of the start, I was almost last place on my team.

But I stuck to the plan and the mantra. I would gradually catch my teammates over the course of the race. I would have a sprint that I never expected of myself, and finished as the top finisher on my team and a 30 second personal best.

I followed the same plan for my marathon, to great success.

I paced myself

A younger, less mature version of myself would have chosen to try to sprint to keep up with the two leaders of the marathon. But I didn’t. I knew that I would burn myself out, and that those surges would have killed me in the long run.

So I stuck back and let them go. I had to stay in my lane and run my own race. Although I was going fast, I wasn’t going too fast. I kept running my own race even though these two people were putting me in the dust, ostensibly. If I went with them, my race would have been over almost immediately.

And so I kept it steady with no surges until the 18th mile of the race. I was leading the race with one other runner. We actually chatted throughout to keep it chill, and apparently, we knew mutual friends, so he was a great person to run with. A lot of pictures of the race have us smiling and talking to each other.

But at mile 18, I thought “this is it. I’m going to break him.” I made my move then, making a surge that I hoped would help me win the race. After all, I was winning the race and felt the high of my first marathon, and I gapped him a significant amount.

I was going to take home the crown. I was going to win my first marathon.

However, within a mile, I realized that move was a huge mistake. I should have heeded the advice of my coach more seriously that you only have one move every race, and within a mile, my rival would catch up to me and pass me. I had nothing left to go with him. My legs were drained, and at that point, I was in survival mode.

I don’t know if my sudden tiredness was a result of my move or, well, the fact that I’d been running for 19 miles already. It probably was a combination of both, but another runner passed me and it seemed like he paced himself better than both of us did.

By mile 20, I was seriously hurting. I thought the entire field was going to pass me, and I was simply putting one foot in front of the other to just survive. I knew my two rivals for the victory were just getting further and further away — and I saw the guy who passed me later pass the person I tried to break at mile 18. They were at least two minutes ahead of me by mile 22.

That reality almost broke me, but I’d come this far — and I wasn’t going to give up finishing the race just because I felt terrible.

I refused to give up.

Every runner and running coach will tell you that you shouldn’t look back in your races. In fact, it’s absolutely useless to look back. It’s not going to make you run any faster — it’s just going to exacerbate your anxiety when you see another runner coming up on you.

But I denied that advice. I looked back every five seconds, to see that, luckily, no one was catching up to me. I believe that that relief helped me push through the last four miles of the race. I would pass a point where mile 22 and mile 23 intersected, and encounter the fourth place runner — which meant he was at least a mile behind me.

Barring some miracle, he wasn’t going to beat me. It was just on me to finish.

In the Savannah Marathon, miles 23–25 were on a bridge. Usually, there are spectators and fans throughout a marathon, but on the bridge, it was lonely, windy, and deserted. Getting through the bridge, for me, was only possible because runners that were running in the 4-hour range of the marathon cheered me on and gave me encouragement.

It was excruciatingly painful, but I got through the bridge. I came off the bridge to see a sea of runners going towards a road. Naturally, as my first marathon, I thought I wasn’t going in the same direction as the sea of runners. I thought that, of course, I had to go in a different direction.

For some reason, I thought the direction I had to go was back on the bridge. I started running in that direction until a race official said “hey man! You’re going the wrong way.” I’d already been running in that direction for 15 seconds, but obviously that situation could have been a lot worse. I went back towards the sea of runners, and I had a little more than a mile to go. Nothing was going to stop me from finishing.

I started to feel a sharp pain in my left calf and my left foot. Every step started to come with a stabbing pain. I could feel myself getting injured and I knew for damn sure that I wasn’t going to run for several weeks after the marathon — but I kept going along with the crowd of half marathoners cheering me on.

I hit 26 miles. The pain was worse than ever, and yet I had to keep going. Rounding a corner, I started to see the finish line, and I knew that was it. I had to start sprinting. I saw the friends that journeyed with me to Savannah cheering me on, running alongside me, and that pushed me to the finish line.

I got the bronze medal on my neck, almost collapsed, and simply couldn’t walk. I knew that as much as I trained for the marathon, the training didn’t mean anything if I didn’t execute. from the author

My friends helped take care of me

Fortunately, my friends found me and helped me walk to the podium and finish line. They gave me food, water, and companionship as I went to go receive my medal.

After the marathon, it was clear that I was in no position whatsoever to drive. We lived four hours away from Savannah in Atlanta. I was too tired, too winded, and could easily get into an accident.

Two of my friends rotated shifts driving as I sat in the backseat and collapsed in my fatigue. It’s cliche to say I couldn’t have done it alone, but I couldn’t have gotten through my experience without them.

The takeaway

I didn’t run a 2:40 marathon without a lot of factors going in my direction. I had a lot of friends who took care of me, a lot of friends who helped transport me, as well as coaches who gave me great guidance on how to race that I failed to understand before. Not only that, but my coaches gave me guidance and accountability on my training, so my success in the marathon was not an overnight success, but a long-term plan in the making.

It was the help of all these people and the racing lessons I learned that I was able to execute, and while the same might not work for you, what matters is that you have a long term training plan that you’re accountable for, friends and training partners to keep yourself accountable through the training process, and a race day plan to execute.

With these ingredients, you, too, can run your best marathon.

Originally published on June 23, 2020 on Runner's Life.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

Baltimore, MD

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