Posted by: Joe English | May 20, 2008

Training: Can I really finish my marathon?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

I’ve been spending a lot of time dealing with my first time marathon runners the last couple weeks as they get ready to run their upcoming races and there is clearly a common question on their minds: can I really finish this marathon?

I hear it in a lot of different ways. Sometimes people come up to me and say, “I don’t know if I can run 6 more miles” after finishing a 20 miler. Sometimes it’s the shaking voice and nearly tears version of the question, “I just don’t know if I can do this,” and other times its a more subtle, “I might need to adjust my pace goal — I don’t know if I can run 26 miles at that pace.”

All of this is the mind dealing with a difficult challenge that lays ahead of the body. These runners’ minds are playing out scenarios in their heads. Things like “if that 20 hurt bad, then what’s 26 going to feel like?”

Getting through these feelings takes a little bit of a leap of faith.

See through the season these runners have come along way. They don’t remember the fact that they started out running 3 miles in their first practice four months ago. They don’t remember the days when they didn’t drink enough fluid or eat enough calories or prepare for their runs properly. They don’t realize that in running 18 or 20 miles they become a little running machine that can be turned on keep going for a long, long time.

Those 20 mile runs probably took them three or four or more hours to complete. That’s not quite the length of their marathon times, but it’s a long time to run. And it shows they have built an engine that can keep on going as long as it has fuel and fluids coming into it.

They don’t recall that they used to run 10 miles a week and it might take a few days to recover from a long run of 5 or 6 miles. Now they run 40 miles a week and a 5 or 6 mile run is just a mid-week run. Now when they run 18 or 20 miles, they’re back on their feet running in a day or two.

But the brain is still working on over-drive asking lots of questions that it doesn’t know how to answer. Whenever we do something that we haven’t done before, the brain tries to fill in the gaps by relating it to things that it’s been through before. These first-time marathon brains have never run a marathon, so they don’t know what to expect. They’re going into uncharted territory and that makes the whole thing a little scary.

Fear of the unknown is causing all of these questions to be asked in the first place.

What they’ll see in a few weeks is that this fear is actually something very useful. The fear is sharpening their minds and telling their bodies to get ready for what’s to come. Another way to think about it is that this trepidation shows us that the mind understands that this is a big undertaking. It understands that it needs to prepare. It means that it’s getting prepared for something big.

So when that last week arrives and you’re brain is going nutso thinking of all of the things that could possibly going wrong, just know that this is a part of the process. Your brains are putting lots of energy into getting ready, thinking through scenarios, making sure everything is prepared. At the end of this process, race time will come and your body and mind will know it and be ready for it.

This is not to say that every person will finish their first-marathon. But the vast majority of the people that I work with — people that have gone through a training program to get them ready — do finish their marathons. In fact, about 20 minutes after crossing that finish-line, one of the first things they often say to me is “what was I so worried about?”

And what I often tell them is this: “you were worried for good reason. But that worry was a part of getting you ready. And it worked.”

See also:
Dealing with pre-race anxiety

First time marathon runner 20 miler anguish

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News



  1. AHHH….I wish I had read this before running my first (in March), but I am glad I read it today! Reading this gave me the “jitters” and made me want to sign up for my next one!

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