One of the most admirable qualities of a distance runner is ambition. Beginners often start thinking about running their first 10k within months of discovering the pleasures of running. And sometimes, those who have just run their first 10k immediately start planning for their first half-marathon or marathon.
I first noticed this pattern in the 1980s, when road running boomed and millions of people discovered our sport. As publisher and editor of Running Times magazine at that time, I received many reports of men or women who took up running and, within a year, completed a marathon.
To run a marathon within a year or two of taking up running is unquestionably a remarkable achievement. And the stories of people who did that were usually stories of memorable, exhilarating, milestones in the runner’s life. Often, they were “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences.
But that “once –in-a-lifetime” aspect often turned out to be a misfortune, for many—and still does, today. If you ramp up your training for that first long race too fast, you may be able to go the distance on race day, but at a cost to your future enjoyment of the sport. It takes time to build strength and endurance to levels that can actually be sustained for long-term enjoyment, and for most people it takes longer than a year or two.
Back in the 1960s, when I first got into road running, most runners would run 5- to 8-mile races for several years after high-school and college cross-country, before attempting a marathon. But when they finally did go for that mythic 26.2 miles, they’d be strong enough to run marathons for many years.
In the last couple of decades, as many of us have become more impatient and demanding of quick rewards, runners who ramped up their distance too fast have had much higher likelihood of the marathon being a physical ordeal. And even if the achievement was memorable, the runner has often concluded, “I’m glad I did it, but once is enough!” The exhilaration of the finish has too often been undermined by extremely sore calves or quads, blistered feet, and physical depletion that lasted for days or weeks. Too often, it has ended in premature “burnout.”
If you’re thinking of going for a longer race than you’ve done so far (whether it be a half-marathon, marathon, or ultra), by far the best way to prepare is to increase your training very, very gradually. The real goal for the big day not to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but to be the start of a many-times-in-a-lifetime endeavor that will become even more rewarding as the years go by.
You can read more about Ed and his extraordinary running life at his blog: endurance and sustainability and please feel free to interact with him!