Baltimore, MD

What I Learned After Running Four Marathons

Ryan Fan
Photo by Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

As of last weekend, I have run four marathons in my life. Actually, I have attempted to run five, but I dropped out of the 2020 virtual Boston Marathon (no surprise — I was very unprepared for it).

In all four marathons, I have finished in what most people would consider decent times. My first marathon was the fastest when I ran a 2:40 in Savannah, Georgia. The next two became progressively slower when I ran 2:52 in Albany, Georgia, and 3:09 in the 2019 Baltimore Marathon.

However, this past marathon was the best marathon I’ve run. I ran a 2:45:56 marathon in Baltimore, which is significantly hillier and a difficult course. I also did it on a hot and humid day for marathon conditions, and I feel like the only trajectory is up from here.

Luckily, I feel like I’ve learned some wisdom from my four marathons and all the preparation that went into them. Here are some of the lessons that apply not only to running but to life:

If it’s hard for you, it’s hard for everyone else

Everyone running a marathon and everyone you train with is a human being. They’re not robots. They’re not machines. If you’re ascending an incredibly steep hill and your legs are burning, the chances are everyone’s legs are burning and they’re having trouble breathing on the same hill, too.

I’m not saying every runner is the exact same. I’m not a strong uphill runner. I’m a strong downhill runner, and people usually pass me up hills.

The message I want to convey, however, is to run your own race, your own workout, and dictate your own run instead of letting what you think you’re supposed to do. Don’t let where someone else is dictate where you think you should be. Let people pass you if they’re feeling better and you don’t think you should go with them.

Again, no one out there is superhuman. Someone breathing really heavily and going all out at the beginning of the race is probably not someone who’s going to win. This always happens at the beginning of marathons — someone will try to be on live TV in the front, but big, sudden surges will always catch up to them.

During marathon training, it’s always better to feel like you have more in the tank and feel like you’re holding back than to feel like you’re going all out. Unless it’s the last quarter mile of the race, the 26.2 mile, 42 kilometer race is very, very long.

Acquaint yourself with what marathon pace feels like — for you. There’s a term in runner circles called “marathon effort,” and if you feel like you cannot maintain that effort for 26.2 miles, it’s too fast. Don’t go by what time you want to hit or where you think you should be — marathon effort is dictated by how you feel and where you are.

I have better running and racing instincts than any other time in my life. I am lucky to have gotten to this point, but it took me way too long to learn my lesson at points. It’s hard to explain, but over time you will be less critical of yourself for not being where you think you should be — holding back and saving energy is critical to making it through the whole marathon and not making it any harder than it needs to be.

Generally, though, you’re not alone in how you feel — in anything. I keep this in mind when I take difficult standardized tests, most recently the LSAT. On difficult questions, I had to remind myself “if this is hard for me, it’s hard for everybody.” On chaotic days as a teacher, I have to remind myself “we’re all going through the same thing.”

Internalizing the fact that you’re not alone is helpful in any domain, not just running, because feeling like you’re the only person who’s not doing well, feeling like you’re the only person who’s struggling can be incredibly discouraging and isolating. Above all, it’s just not true — you’re not the only person struggling.

You are your preparation, and your preparation needs to be consistent

This might sound obvious, but preparation is extremely important for the marathon. If you step on the line for a marathon and you haven’t run in three months, it’s going to be one of the worst physical sensations of your life.

Anyway, it’s not just the running preparation that’s essential. It’s the sleep, diet, and hydration as well. Any run over 18 miles, for me, needs hydration and nutrition. I can’t do it without drinking water and taking a running gel.

Establish a running routine. What I mean is to find what works for you and stick with it. If eating a large pizza the night before a longer run and drinking a cup of coffee the morning of works, then do that the day of your race. I know someone who has pizza and beer the night before every big race and he’s one of the fastest people in my city. It’s not ideal, but he’s used to it, and it works for him.

Your preparation is essential to figure out what will give you the least resistance during the race and what won’t give you tremendous cramps and bathroom emergencies during the run. Nothing will ruin your race faster than having a bathroom emergency during a race and not having a porta-potty for several miles.

Do not do anything you normally wouldn’t do on race day. I repeat, do not do anything you would not normally do. Don’t experiment with different amounts of caffeine than you’re used to because that can spell bathroom emergencies and overexcitement at the start. Find what your bathroom routine is — I always need to use the bathroom before a much longer run or I’m in trouble.

Not only does it save a lot of time, but it guarantees a lot of comfort. These might sound like small logistical things, but the routine is essential.

Keep doing what works for you. It’s a lesson from running, but it’s also a lesson for the classroom as a teacher. My classroom and lessons are imperfect. I used to try to put on a show of what I thought my administrators wanted to see, but this would usually end up being an unnatural lesson where kids said “we don’t do this every day!”

Instead, I learned my second year to keep doing what I was doing every day. I was not the perfect teacher, but my administrators’ jobs were to find flaws in my teaching so I could improve. I wanted them to see the real deal, and see the routines, procedures, and instructional strategies I used daily rather than unnatural strategies I did not normally use. This led to my first highly effective evaluations, and I stuck to my guns throughout the year and kept getting effective or highly effective evaluations.

The best preparation is repetitive, consistent preparation. If you can run consistent weeks of 30–40 miles, which is difficult with full working schedules, you will improve and you will improve significantly.

Your biggest friend as a runner is consistency. Consistency is boring, but if it’s something you’ve never done before, don’t do it on race day. Don’t try a new food or new hydration formula because a friend tells you to — go with what you do regularly.

Marathons are expensive

A marathon will easily cost you more than $100. Travel might cost you more, and race photos might be the biggest rip-off I’ve ever encountered. Here are 59 photos of me running the Baltimore Marathon last week, and I have to pay $75 for all of them.

Yeah, no thanks.

On a more serious note, marathon training and running are expensive not only in terms of money. They’re expensive in terms of time and energy. Trust me, sometimes after a long, stressful day, the last thing you want to do is run. And when you’re doing the high volume of marathon training, running does not energize you. It sometimes makes you feel like an absolute zombie at work. There is no way a 15 mile run before a full workday makes you feel like working harder.

This means running requires sacrifices, and you have to weigh whether you benefit from it or not. That’s an individual choice for all of us.

Work smarter, not harder. Don’t go too hard in practice.

This might also sound cliche, but since my running and racing instincts have developed, I don’t run hard anymore. I hold back and run smart, and the results have paid off significantly.

I used to go all out in every effort. I used to push myself to the wall every workout, and treat every mile repeat session as a race. If I wasn’t giving every practice my absolute everything, I was doing it wrong.

But my favorite NBA player, Allen Iverson was right: we’re not talking about the game. We’re talking about practice. Practice is important, but it’s not as important as the big race and big performance.

Because I was going so hard in the paint every practice, my races would be awful. I wouldn’t have good tactics. I would never race as well as my workouts indicated in high school and college, much to the confusion of my coaches.

I shifted my mindset. I stopped going so hard in practice, and I realized that if it wasn’t the big event, you weren’t supposed to give 100%. There should have been some limit and some threshold I shouldn’t have crossed that I constantly did. As such, I was much more tired than I should have been during races, and it showed.

I’m not saying you’re not supposed to work hard and put in effort in practice, because you are. However, your body and mind should have a gauge of how hard you’re supposed to go, how much effort you’re supposed to give, and when crossing a certain limit of effort stops being beneficial. The greatest skill I’ve learned in workouts, now, is when to stop, not do the extra set, and save some energy in the tank for the race.

As an example, I had a goal to do a 12 mile run on the track at marathon pace, two and a half weeks before my marathon. I felt great throughout, but I started struggling around mile 10. I had to make a decision: stop at 11, or go the full 12. It was a small decision and I certainly could have done the full 12 miles at 6-minute pace.

However, I knew pushing myself to that point would not be beneficial. It’s hard to explain how I knew pushing to that point wouldn’t be beneficial. It would take me much longer to recover. I’ve simply developed a lot of instincts from running. I stopped at 11 miles, happy with my effort, and recovered smoothly.

No practice should be a harder effort than the race — absolutely none. Practice should never be a 100% effort. The race is.

I hope this was helpful. What works for me might not work for you, but I think every marathon runner would benefit from more grounding, better tactics, and knowing how to prepare strategically. Every marathon runner, and person in general, can benefit from knowing when they’re giving too much effort and when to pull back.

I have a fifth marathon coming up in five weeks. I am only a week out from my last marathon, but all I’ve done is short, easy runs to get my legs to recover. I hope to keep doing what I’m doing and carry these lessons to a personal best.

Originally published on In Fitness and In Health on October 17, 2021

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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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