9 Things I Learned Running a Marathon with No Training

“Do you know what happened to the first guy who decided to run 26.2 miles? He dropped dead after.”

This was my response anytime someone asked me if I was interested in running a marathon. I have short legs. Why subject them to that?

And yet, here I am in mile 13. My knees are in so much pain that I’m wondering, “Does Amazon sell wheel chairs?” The better question is, “Why am I running a marathon, by myself, on 12 hours notice?”

That answer begins one year earlier when I decided that, in 2019, I would become “a runner.” I committed to running 183 miles (averaging 3.5mi per week) before December 31st.

Flash forward to December 30, 2019.  I tallied my progress, and low and behold, I was exactly 26 miles short. What are the odds?

Staring at the milage in my excel spreadsheet only one question remained – “Am I a quitter or will I see this resolution through to the end?”

Sure, I’d never run farther than 3.5mi in a single stent. I didn’t even own running shoes. But honestly, how hard is a marathon anyway? 

Famous last words. 


1)Nutrition Is a Force Multiplier or a Force Detractor
You’d think I’d already know this given that I work for a nutrition company, but alas…

Because I planned to begin running at 5:50am and imagined I’d finish before 11am – my normal breakfast time – I planned to maintain my normal intermittent fasting routine (no food from 7pm-11am). Yes, I thought I could run a marathon with no training, and no food.

So, I had a glass of water (hydration is important), threw on my sneakers and headed out.

What happened? At mile 8, as I trudged up a monstrous hill, my legs stopped working. I mean they literally wouldn’t move. In the endurance community this is called “bonking”. Your muscles run out of glycogen and can’t push any farther. I managed to limp into a gas station and promptly wolfed down 3 Clif Bars and a liter of blue Gatorade. While this was more processed food and sugar than I typically eat in a week, it felt great.

That was until mile 10. Tummy troubles. I looked at my GPS and saw that my apartment was 6 miles away. “I can make it!

Flash forward to mile 14 – “…I’m not gonna make it.”  The Clif Bars and Gatorade were racing for the exit. By this time the sun had come up and I was on a public running trail. I’d already seen two bikers on their morning commute, so hunkering behind a tree wasn’t an option.  Racking my brain for options I remembered I was near a construction site which might have a porter potty.

As I approached the site, I saw it. Like a man finding water in the desert I sprinted toward it; each step nearly ending in disaster. When I arrived I grabbed the door handle and pulled with desperate exuberance. But, it didn’t budge. I looked down at the latch which showed RED – locked. In disbelief, I attempted with all my might to rip the door off. Nothing doing. I was now out of options. So in broad daylight, in the center of the construction site, on a Tuesday morning all that was left to do was make sure my drawers were pulled down. 

Afterwards, I sacrificed my compression shorts for a quick clean up and headed back into the run.  As I jogged away I glanced back to see a man in a construction helmet exiting the porter potty. Apparently, it was not only locked, but occupied…

2)Have a Plan

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” – Yogi Berra 

Boy, did I end up somewhere else… 

My plan: The night before the run I located a Chevron station in Google Maps roughly 9 miles from my apartment. I planned to run to that and back. Then I’d loop around my neighborhood. I had never run, driven, or even seen this route, but how bad could it be?

Imagine my surprise when shortly into the run I watched my sidewalk disappear and be replaced by a construction site. At 6am, in pitch black I was hurdling cement mixers, running through gravel piles, and high stepping pcp piping like a Tough Mudder course – all by the light of my iPhone flashlight. 

Later, I found myself running on the shoulder of a windy, highway in total darkness.  I had no reflective gear (in fact I was decked out in all black to really push my luck), so when the first Ford F-150 passed I was pushed off the road and tumbled into a ditch.  This went on for 2 miles. 

3)If you can be present, everything becomes more manageable
By mile 15 my back had completely seized up and my knees felt as though each stride is causing a bone-on-bone collision. As I mentioned, I didn’t actually own running shoes, so I was jogging in 4-year-old Nike Metcon’s. These are weightlifting shoes designed with hard rubber soles to limit cushion and promote stability (basically the modern day Chuck Taylors). 

I had told myself that people have been running long distances forever and that even people in the ’80s didn’t have “Flyknit Technology.” But, by mile 15 that logic felt idiotic. At age 40 I’ll be able to trace my mid-life arthritis back to this run.

I wondered what irreparable damage each additional step was creating? If it feels this bad now, imagine how I’ll feel after 10 more miles! 

Fortunately, I’d read in Mind Gym that the physical pain we feel in a workout is only part of what we perceive as pain. The physical pain is actually amplified by the anxiety that the pain may get worse, and the long term repercussions if we fail to yield. Basically, we’re creatures of self preservation and our imagination makes the immediate pain feel worse than it is. 

That said, if we instead focus on just the actual pain in the moment it becomes more manageable. “If this never got any worse, could I handle it? — Yes.”

For the remainder of the run, each time my mind wandered to fears like, “Is my office handicap accessible?” or “Would my dad would recommend his back surgeon?” I’d force myself to come back to the present by assessing only the actual pain. 

That said, my knees were unable to bend for the next 3 day’s. But, eventually everything heeled. Fear-not, the human body is pretty resilient. Stay in the present!

4)Pay attention to your surroundings
Toward the end of the run I literally forgot how long a marathon was. At mile 24 I thought I was 1 mile from the finish. In a move of inebriated exuberance I picked a 1 mile route which finished on a long steep hill. I cued up Welcome to the Jungle on loop and prepared to empty my gas tank.

As I drove my legs across the crest of the hill, using up every ounce of energy I had left, my GPS chimed in, “distance completed, 25 miles.” I HAD 1.2 MORE TO GO!

Gut shot…

To add insult to injury my phone battery was 2% which meant if I wanted to keep the GPS tracker going I’d need to closed out all of my other apps. For the last 1.2 miles I ran in dead silence with only the sound of my knee joints colliding to remind me how dumb I was.

5)You’re already capable of 5-10x of your current capacity
On December 30th I was a 3.5 mile runner. On December 31st I was 26.2mile runner.  Same body, different mindset. (On January 1, that body felt like a senior citizen… but I digress)

In fact, my first thought after completing this run was, “Imagine if I’d trained. I could have run 100 miles.” What other areas of my life am I settling for a 5k when I’m already capable of a marathon?

6)Planning is overrated 
If all you do is plan, nothing actually gets done. Yes, this contradicts lesson 2, but contradictions make for great philosophy. 

If I’d planned out this run perfectly I might have avoided ruining my joints, nearly getting hit by a car, and soiling myself in a public construction site. But, it’s just as likely that I’d have never have actually run it. The list of barriers becomes too steep: “I should wait to scope out the root. I should give it a day to carb-load and plan my nutrition. I need real shoes.” The list is endless. 

You’ll almost never feel 100% ready for everything. At some point you just have to dive in and know that you have the resourcefulness to figure it out, and the fortitude to see it through to the end. 

7)Be a Finisher
Prior to my generation (millennial), they didn’t give out trophy’s for simply starting the race.

I’m often guilty of being an 80%’er. I’ll start something and lose interest, or realize it takes more effort than I’m willing to commit. My parents attic is a museum of my half-assed hobbies and short-lived fads. (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t throw out my fish tank. I could still become a marine biologist one day!)

According to 2012 census data, only about 0.5% of Americans have ever run a marathon. It’s completion (that last 20%) that separates this top 0.5% from everyone else.

The 1% gets a bad rap these days, but if we’re willing to see something through to the end, we all have opportunities to join this echelon in some area of our lives. Simply being a finisher often puts you in rarefied company relative to the rest of the world. Sometimes you just need to cross the line.

8)Everything takes longer than you think it will
I assumed there’s no way this jog would take longer than 4.5 hours. Well, 5 hours later as I crossed the finish line it became clear that when you add in bonking from no food, a “gut cleanse” at mile 14, and stopping at home to change your shorts (which takes 12 minutes because your back has seized up and you have to lay on the floor to get them over each foot) it’s going to take longer.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown sites the following study. Students were asked to estimate how many day’s their final paper would take to complete. Here are the students average estimates:

  • If everything goes perfect: 27.4 days
  • If everything goes terrible: 48.6 days

The actual average time to complete each paper: 55.5 days. 

We’re optimists. We thrive on enthusiasm. But we stink at predicting duration. 

Don’t let that take the wind out of your sails, but prepare to be in the game longer than you expect.

9) Share the Moment
I was never wild about those people who find any excuse to bring up their latest marathon.

A Crossfitter, a vegan and Marathon-Rob walk into a bar. How do you know who’s who? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you… 

I did not want to be that guy.

*please ignore this 4000-word post dedicated to my marathon*

When I completed my run I was proud of the fact that there was no medal, no crowd, no friends or family to greet me at the finish line (hell, there was no finish line).  All that awaited me was an old Asian woman smoking a cigarette… (just what I needed after 5 hours of running)

I took a selfie to commemorate the run and proceeded to hobble 3 blocks home to shower, eat, and head to the office…to get something productive done

Eventually, I’d share this story with friends and family, and laugh about the calamity. But, in hindsight, would the run have been easier if I’d had people cheering for me at home? Probably. 

They say if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. But, I now believe that you also go faster with a team behind you. Don’t forget to share the moment. 

So, it turns out that first guy who ran a marathon (the one who kicked the bucket) was a bit of a drama queen.  With the right planning, mindset, and optimistic ignorance anyone can exceed their current expectations. Keep that in mind for your next undertaking. Aim higher, its just as much work as aiming for the middle. 

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