Finding different ways to stay mentally engaged during a marathon
September is the usual month for runners to start training for marathons in December and January. The gradual buildup of miles and longer runs takes an average of 12 weeks training for a comfortable, and successful, marathon. The average time for a majority of runners is four hours. Over 50% of entrants in a marathon will run the distance in four hours or more. The next highest percentage of finishers are those that take five hours to complete. I remember talking to a fellow marathoner who had times under 2:30. I couldn’t imagine running that fast for 26.2 miles at an under six-minute pace. I managed just over three hours at a 7:07-minute pace and it was a very tiring experience. He was amazed that a runner could run for four hours or more. He just couldn’t imagine someone running for that length of time. For a runner completing a marathon, it is a matter of perspective to each individual. For some it is the fast time, for others it is the length of time.
I don’t know where I got the thought, but what does a person running a marathon for four hours or more think about during that time? There is that standard phrase in running that states, “Listen to your body.” The body will tell you how you feel and guide you to success, if you know how to listen, and understand, what your body is telling you. When I trained runners to run a marathon I always told them that you need to feel “great” at 13 miles, and 20 miles is the halfway point.
I think there are three different options to concentrate on while running a marathon. The first option is for runners trying to run a PR, or fast time. I used the Meyer System that divided the 26.2 miles into five 5 mile segments with varying times in each segment. I would write my times for each mile on my bib number to make sure I was on pace. When you are focused on 26 different times during the race much of your concentration is on your pace and maintaining that pace for five miles. The concentration on pace occupies much of your time when running.
The second option is to have an outside source to focus on. During one marathon we had a pack of 15 runners, and one runner had 26 jokes or riddles to read at each mile. Some were really good, and others were not quite as good. But, when you have a joke or riddle to listen to it gives the group something new to talk about each mile. The jokes being read each mile had others nearby listening in. I remember one runner coming up and asking, “I had to take a break and missed the joke at mile 15. Can you repeat it for me?” The pace was for a 3:30 marathon time and as the miles increased the number in the pack decreased. We were down to four in the last three miles and we decided that no matter what we would all finish together. The list of jokes was passed on to the lead pack so we did have an advantage when it came to thinking about something.
The third option is to run with friends. The main focus is to finish the marathon. The time to run the marathon is not as important as finishing it together. When you are exerting effort for up to four hours it helps to have something to think about other than listening to your body. Topics are the same as if you were talking over a cup of coffee, or eating lunch at a restaurant. Making friends with other runners running near you is a good alternative. During my Boston Marathon, I noticed Dr. George Sheehan running next to me. Dr. Sheehan was a famous author on running and also a medical doctor. I greeted him and said I enjoyed his book. He was polite and responded to my question but I am sure he wanted to focus on his running so the visit was very brief. In one marathon our group noticed that one runner had his wife drive up at various points and give him a candy bar. We jokingly asked her if she was handing them out. About mile 23 we were hurting a bit when she pulled up alongside of us and said she had one Snickers bar left. We divided it into four pieces to share. When your mouth is very dry, and you bite into a chocolate Snickers bar, the cheeks and lips pucker up and the tongue feel like it will stick to the roof of your mouth. The next water station saw us grabbing more than one cup of water.
Have a good run in a marathon. Have enough to think about for the four or more hours besides trying to listen to your body. You can talk to your body, just don’t expect a return conversation.