Why I Ran A Marathon Without Training

I woke up this morning to a slew of Instagram posts from the Philadelphia marathon and was quickly brought back to November 22, 2015. Almost exactly 2 years ago I did what most of my immediate friends and family consider to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever tried to do; I ran the Philadelphia Marathon without training. To make matters worse, I’d never run more than 5 miles consecutively prior to that and I didn’t even start to consider running in it until less than 3 days before the race.

Before you scroll to the bottom and comment whatever combination of “insane”, “reckless” and “why in the _____” you feel is appropriate, at least let me get out a few necessary disclaimers.

  1. I suffered a brief stint of tendonitis and I strongly advise to train for a marathon if you’re considering running one
  2. Although I’d never run more than 5 miles, I had only stopped playing college soccer the year before and I was always one of the fittest players on my teams
  3. Growing up, I watched my father start running marathons when he was 48, so I understood, to some degree, the preparation and the tactics that were necessary to finish a full marathon
  4. I obviously have a few screws loose

Now that that’s all been established, let’s answer the glaring question of what was going through my head (if anything) when I decided to run the marathon without training for it?

I don’t quite remember where I was when this happened, but the Thursday afternoon before the race I saw one of my friend’s posts about her training routine leading up the marathon on Sunday. Coincidentally enough, the Philadelphia Marathon was also the first one my dad ever ran in, and ever since then I’d decided that no matter how much I loathed running (yes, the guy writing about running a marathon on a whim hates running just as much as you do) I would run a marathon before I died. So when I saw this post, it immediately made me start thinking about how brutal running 26.2 miles would be. Then I started thinking about how many miles I would have to run to properly train for a marathon. For someone who’s not a fan of running, this thought was much worse than the first one. So much so that my next thought was “I wonder if I could run a marathon without having to train for it.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was without a doubt physically capable of running 26.2 miles. I know that this may sound ridiculous, but I knew my body and I knew that training regiment or not, the level of fitness I had maintained after finishing soccer was still well above the level of the average person that would be attempting the race on Sunday. I realized that for me, attempting to run this would be much more a mental challenge than a physical one. I also knew that I was competitive enough to potentially pull it off. So as the day went on, the question quickly shifted from “can I run this without training?” to “should I try to run this without training?”

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When I woke up Friday morning, my first thought was “You need to run that marathon!” I actually laughed to myself after that because I recognized how absurd it all was, but at that point I was all but decided on attempting to pull it off. Nonetheless, I decided to see what some of my close friends, some of whom had already finished marathons, had to say about it throughout the day. As you can imagine, most of them laughed in my face at first. My buddy Steve actually asked a random girl in the gym working out next to us to confirm whether or not I was insane; she obliged. Thankfully they were willing to at least play along and talk me through what it might take to actually pull off finishing the race.

During one of these conversations, my then roommate said something along the lines of “The fact that you’re even considering trying this says a lot about you, which probably means you can do it.” That was it, my mind was made up. Although I probably would have gone for it regardless of whether or not he’d said that, that statement really cemented in my head that if I put my mind to it, 1 of 2 things would happen; I’d either fall flat on my face and confirm my personal limits, or I’d push hard enough to accomplish it and blow the doors off of what I previously thought I was capable of. Once I realized that, no excuse I could tell myself could justify me not going for it. I at least needed to try.

By the time Saturday night rolled around, all that was left to do was get a pick me up playlist together for when I hit “the wall”, pack some snacks I could easily carry while I ran and try to get some sleep. Fat chance on that last part as I could barely calm the jitters and was wide awake well before my alarm went off. At 0 dark 30, I walked down to the corrals with one of my finisher friends John to see me off. After making my way into the endless sea of people, I quickly gave up on warming up and decided to sit back and take in whatever moments we had left before the start.

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I didn’t tell anybody before the race, but I’d set a goal of finishing in 3 hours and 30 minutes. I’d done the math and an 8 minute pace seemed sustainable given that I could easily crack 6 minute miles. Unfortunately, since I hadn’t really talked about focusing on my time, I didn’t really take the time to fully understand how the corrals were sectioned off by pace time. By the time I figured this out on the ground, it was way to late. The race was about to start and I was in the 10 minute 30 second pace group. Not ideal to say the least. I was able to move up to the 10 minute group before we reached the finish line, but that was as far as I got. Mayor Nutter sounded for our group to go and I was off, quickly gaining ground on the pace groups in front of me and soon after being forced to weave in and out of runners to maintain my desired pace. Although I turned this into somewhat of a game within the race, I knew my mistake was already costing me a lot of wasted energy.

To add to the botched start, I reached the first mile marker in just under 7 minutes, a whole minute ahead of my attempted pace. Concerned about not burning out to quickly, I slowed down, missed seeing the second mile marker, panicked that I’d overcompensated and sped up, and then reached the third mile marker in less than 22 minutes (still way to ahead of schedule). Ya boy was in shambles.

Over the course of the next few miles I got my shit together, started dialing in the 8 minute miles and started appreciating the Brotherly Love being shown from the sidewalks. Typically, I’d be bored after 3 miles of running, but this was such an event that I was easily propelled through Center City during the first 7 miles until John called to check if I was still standing (answered using headphones). Mile 9 rolled as we left University City and I decided it was time to start relying on some music (I don’t usually run with music but I knew I’d need it for this) to keep my head in the right place. I passed the halfway turn off slightly ahead of schedule and absolutely shocked at how well things had gone up until the point.

However, around mile 15 I really started to notice some mental blocks starting to form. I’d tripled the furthest distance I’d ever run, but was well aware that I still had over 10 miles left to go. I’d eaten so many gels and fig newtons out of sheer boredom that I was starting to get a heavy stomach.The gaps between each mile marker seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and each veer to the left or right began looking like it could be the turn around point to head back towards the city that was in reality still miles down the road. The urge to stop and walk, just for a step, at each water table was growing deeper and deeper. And when that urge finally took over, each first running step after the water breaks became the most painful I’d ever taken. This was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before and my body no longer knew how to fake its way through it. I could feel my legs shutting down. Just before mile 20 was up, I was forced to sprint into a CVS for what we’ll call an emergency rest stop (I’ll leave it at that).

Right around mile 22 was the closest I came to quitting. At this point every step hurt, even if I walked for a few steps to try to recover a bit. But right when I was hurting the most, I got another call to see how close I was to finishing. Although the last 4 miles still seemed like an eternity away at that point, it clicked during the call that I really was getting close to finishing what I’d set out to do. Reenergized, I put my head down and hit the home stretch until I crossed the finish line. I looked down at my watch to see a magical set of numbers. 3:41:23.

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Elated, excited, overwhelmed and exhausted. The emotions running through me were well beyond comprehension. Although I hadn’t quite hit my goal of cracking the 3.5 hour mark (yes the stopwatch was still running while I was in CVS bathroom) it was still a time I was proud of.  All I knew was that I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do and this was a feeling that nobody could ever take away from me.

So let’s break it down one more time to make sure we’re all clear. Why did I run a marathon without training? Well up until the exact moment I crossed the finish line, no matter how confident or convinced I was that I’d be able to do it, there was no way of truly knowing whether or not I could do what I’d just done. Similar to my Why We’re Here post, I knew that this unknown was one that was worth pursuing because regardless of the outcome, it would teach me about my limits and what I was capable of.

I obviously can’t sit here and encourage you all to try to run 26 miles to try to find your limits. What I can suggest is that the next time you’re faced with a seemingly ridiculous challenge, don’t shy away from it or immediately discredit it as outlandish. Instead, ask yourself what it would look like if you gave twice the effort you thought you were capable of giving, and decide if it’s worth going after. I promise that if you’re willing to push yourself in this manner, you’ll be amazed at all of the things you’ll let yourself accomplish.

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