Thursday, October 30, 2014

The 10 things I've learned in 10 years of marathon running!

This past Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of my first marathon. In 2004, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon for the first time. At that point, I had been running for 17 years but hadn't yet done a marathon. It wasn't my first stab. I trained for the 2003 Marine Corps but had to defer my race entry due to injury. It was horrible to have to accept it wasn't going to happen that year, so getting to the start line in 2004 was a victory in and of itself.

That first marathon changed my life. It brought me lifelong friends that mean the world to me, it paved the way to a new career as a running coach and it brought new meaning to the phrase, "anything is possible." I've learned a lot in the past 10 years of running marathons and ultramarathons. I could write pages and pages on what I've learned, but here are the 10 most important things I've learned, in no particular order. And while I know there's still so much to learn, I'd be honored if you'd join me as I look back at the past 10 years.

1. The race is the easy part. My first marathon was done before I had my first baby. So, needless to say, I've done more races since having kids than before. Trust me, the race is easy compared to training on so many levels. Scheduling runs around obligations, weather, vacations, sleeping, breastfeeding, etc., gets pretty hairy. You have to become a master at multi-tasking. Race day is one big party after months of juggling things around. At least it should be.

2. Runners make the best friends. I have come across some of the best people through running. The ladies I trained with for my first marathon are now some of my best friends, one of which is the godmother of my children. In fact, some of the most important people in my life are those I've met through running. If they train with you, they know everything about you (and then some) come race day. If they are friends but not training partners, they at least know and can relate to things you're dealing with. Running connects people on so many levels and every runner I come into contact with is a future friend.

3. You can get through anything, physically and mentally. Training and running a marathon is definitely a test of your patience and perseverance. There are so many things just waiting to derail you from your goal. Your perseverance and persistence in getting through them is more important than actually running the miles. And those victories along the way are just more weapons in your arsenal come race day. Telling yourself, "Well, I got through X, I can get through this," may be all you need to get to that finish line.

4. Running is therapy. While running is a social event at times, I cherish the solo runs as well. It can be a time for so many things: to relax and reflect, organize my to-do list, tune out, get away from my family, deal with my emotions. There was no better therapy for me during the most tragic time in my life. In 2009, we lost our second baby. We lost our son about half-way through the pregnancy. Giving birth to a baby we could never hold is the most horrendous, the most devastating experience I have ever experienced. And you can't understand unless you've been through it. And yes, I know there are harder things for people to go through, but this was the hardest thing my family had ever been through. I still feel like there is someone missing from my family. But in those months following our loss, it was only running that helped me. I actually didn't want to be around anyone, so going for a run was a good excuse to get away from people. But it wasn't fun. At first it was awful. I would cry more than run. I'd make it about a half-mile down the street before I'd have to stop and sob. I still think about this section of bushes where I would hide, sit and cry. But those stretches of running got longer and I got to the point where I could finish a run without crying. Those times became my therapy sessions and I don't think I would have been able to get through the year after our loss without them. It was also at that time when I quit my last office job and decided to make running my career. I felt there was no better way for me to give back to the sport that helped me so much than devote myself to it personally and professionally.

5. Running gives you the freedom to love and care for yourself. For some reason, when we enter adulthood, taking care of ourselves becomes shameful. Taking a day off from work because you're sick: you're selfish and not a productive employee. Getting a massage: you're selfish and indulgent. Going for a run: you're selfish and not a good mom/dad/whatever. F that. You cannot be a good mom, dad, spouse, friend, employee, person without taking time for yourself in some way. You will falter and burn out and be useless before too long. You know that saying, "He/she snapped!" I guarantee that person wasn't given the opportunity to have a little me-time. Everyone has their go-to way of de-stressing and grabbing some me-time. For me, it's running. It's my time for myself and without it I'm not a happy person. That's why injured runners get depressed. And with running (or any exercise), you're more likely to eat better, get the sleep you need and generally take better care of yourself so that you can keep running. Running is the gateway drug for better health. So when you go for a run, or think about starting a running program if you're not a runner, don't think of it as a selfish thing away from your obligations. You will find a way to balance everything and you will be a better person because of it.

6. It's ok to lose control. As a Type A personality, it's hard to relinquish control of things. I have to credit running with my becoming a more Type A - or Type B + personality. With running and racing you can only control so much: your training, your clothing/shoes, your nutrition. You can't control the weather, people, race routes, etc. You can only prepare and then you can only prepare so much. Do what you know to do, trust in that and then go along on your merry way. If you obsess over every little thing, you're going to lose your mind and then the fun is all gone. After that, what's the point?

7. Running transcends all aspects of your life. Really, what I mean by this is that running accomplishments, however big or small, transcend your everyday, non-running life. Get through an especially hard 10-mile training run? Well, that project at work may not seem so daunting now. Complete a crazy Tough Mudder race? Well, giving your kids a bath isn't as much of a physically demanding thing anymore. With every run I complete, I know my everyday life is going to benefit. And I don't just mean I'll be a better mom/wife/coach, etc. I mean I will have the confidence to get through whatever ugly action item may be looming in the background. Confidence is huge and without it, life is pretty unsettling. Without running, I probably wouldn't have the confidence to do half of the things I do, from the big action items like public speaking, to the small action items like introducing myself to someone new. Confidence is a game-changer and I have running to thank for that.

8. You have to learn to accept defeat. This was a big lesson for me and I learned it early on in my running career. Things don't always go your way. You get injured. You have major stomach issues during a race (at least I do and they suck). Sometimes life gets in the way and you can't run a race you want to, you can't meet friends for a run because your spouse is out of town or you get sidelined by work and can't run as much as you need to. It happens to every runner. No runner can say they've had a seamless, perfect running career. There are low points. There are bad days. There are days that are so bad you regret even being a runner. But when you learn to accept these defeats and not let them overcome you, define you, you become a better runner. You learn from the failures, you prepare better and you learn to roll with the punches. Doing this as a runner has helped me so much in my non-running life, I can't even put it into words. Sometimes it takes several defeats, several failures to truly learn how to change things. And once we learn to do this, running is so much more enjoyable. Don't let that first setback stop you. Stop, regroup and carry on. It's worth it.

9. Running changes the way you see the world. And I don't mean is some spiritual, philosophical way, though it does. I mean in a more down-to-earth kind of way. I think runners are more compassionate people. We run to raise money and awareness for certain causes, we volunteer more of our time to things (we all know how important our race volunteers are so we like to give back!). I know we probably pay more attention to other runners and pedestrians while driving since we don't like to be run over. We look at sidewalks, city streets and trails and wonder how they'd be to run on. We plan trips and vacations around races. We look at the world as one big running route and do our best to keep it happy, clean, safe and around for a long time for all the future generation of runners.

10. Running is the easiest and hardest thing to do. Running is easy. Put on shoes, go for a run. Simple. There are things to look forward to like fun runs, beer runs, endorphins, runner's highs, race finishers medals, post-race food and massages. Running is the best! But is it? What about thinking about pace, stride rate, running efficiency, negative splits, VO2 max, lactate threshold, the talk test and specificity? How about overuse injuries, chafing, blisters and bloody nipples? And let's not forget pre-sunrise wake up calls, absolutely no motivation, sore muscles and The Wall. It's a love-hate relationship, really. But it's working through those most-hated moments that allow for us to experience those moments we love. Honestly, I wouldn't change a thing. Well, maybe chafing. That's no fun.    

So what have you learned as a runner? Whether you're a new runner or have run around the block a few times, chances are you've picked up a few nuggets of wisdom. I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts in the comments.


  1. My whole heart loves you Jenn! Thank you for bringing your expertise, your knowledge, your love of the sport and most of all, YOU into my life! I am printing this post out and reading it every so often in my journey to becoming a marathoner. A journey I am so glad you are taking with me, at least part way! LOVE YOU my FRIEND! #runnersmakethebestfriends

  2. Jenn, this is a fantastic article and something I'm definitely saving for reference every so often as I continue this running "journey." You've shared both personal experiences and practical advice and it means a lot to me (and, I'm sure, your readers). Although it's somewhere in between the lines above, the other "nugget of wisdom" I've learned is that after all of the training miles, the hard work is over; once you're at the starting line, it's the beginning of your "Victory Lap." An expression I'll never forget. Thanks for everything you do!