Get the marathon monkey off your back

Any runner who has managed to train consistently for and complete at least one half-marathon eventually grapples with the question “could I do a full?”.

Knowing how shattered you are after a half shouldn't make you answer “no”, because the point of any race, no matter the distance, is to have nothing left in the tank at the end. It's about managing your energy levels to get the best out of your body for that distance.

If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I'd never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

Of course, the marathon is quite a step up, requiring greater commitment over a longer preparation period, which must be weighed up against all of life's other responsibilities. And yet ...

Marathon running for women - officially, at least - began after a milestone event in 1967. Kathrine Switzer challenged the all-male tradition of the Boston Marathon by entering and finishing, despite the race director's attempts to physically pull her from the field (pictured below; from AP Images) while the race was under way. The convention at the time was that women couldn't and shouldn't run marathons.

When Switzer was 19 she decided she wanted to give Boston a go. Her coach, Arnie Briggs, said the only way he would help her enter was if she could prove to him that she could do the distance in training. In her memoir, Marathon Woman, she wrote: “As we came down our home stretch, it felt too easy, so I suggested that we run another five-mile loop just to feel extra confident about Boston. Arnie agreed, reluctantly. Toward the end of our 31-mile run, he began turning grey. When we finished, I hugged him ecstatically - and he passed out cold.”

Switzer has now run 39 marathons, with a 2 hour 51 minute personal best for second place in Boston in 1975. She's now 66 and still racing and promoting running worldwide, especially as a means for positive change for women in poor countries. She will be guest speaker at the Melbourne Runners Lunch on August 2 to launch the Melbourne Running Festival.

“The difference between a marathon and a half-marathon is the difference between writing an article and writing a book,” Switzer says. “You have to do the pages, or you have to do the kilometres. There are no shortcuts. It requires time, dedication and willingness to commit. You have to change your mindset to this: The marathon event is the reward. The process of preparing for it has to become your true love, or true dedication. At least for a while.”

Switzer took a 32-year break from the distance. Then, aged 62, she chose a difficult, totally off-road mountain marathon in the South Island of New Zealand (The Motatapu Icebreaker) for her comeback and trained 18 months for it.


“It was extremely tough and I had done lots of five-hour training runs with a backpack and in the huge Wellington hills for it, and when I finished in 5 hours and 21 minutes, I burst into tears,” she says.

“I'd never cried after a marathon before. I was quite surprised; I was just overcome. Then, in Athens in 2010, after having been denied entry into that race in 1972, I ran it on the 2500th anniversary of the marathon and I must say, after having leg cramps and wondering if I could finish, coming into the ancient stadium (4:48) with the Zorba music playing, I burst into tears also.

“So why does this happen? For me, it was because I was wondering if I could do it again after all those years and putting in a lot of hard work to do it. In Athens, it was emotion after experiencing a mid-race meltdown over cramps and for the first time having physical self-doubt.

“In simple terms, the marathon lays you bare. You're exhausted, yet high on adrenaline and endorphins, so emotions come to the surface. You are out of glycogen, so you are bone-weary, and don't have an emotional filter. Sometimes we cry with huge joy, too, it's the sense of accomplishing something very difficult, and being just so tired and happy thinking, 'Yeah! I did it!' The marathon, because it does all these things, is different from any shorter race.”

Australian Tristan Miller (pictured above at Chapman's Peak, South Africa in 2010) ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks across 42 countries in 2010, having only taken up long-distance running in 2005. He's an ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy League in Queensland in next month's City2Surf, and is training for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in France, a 168km lap of Mont Blanc.

“I didn't exactly have the race pedigree to pull off the 52 marathons,” Miller says. “I think the beauty of my story is that I'm incredibly normal. Like everyone, I grew up benchmarking myself against people around me. It took a long time to realise that I was limiting myself, so I started pushing the envelope as far as I could. Every time I found myself outside my comfort zone, I knew I was more alive (and often more afraid) than ever before. It's an addictive feeling and will inevitably make you a bigger, bolder person.

“There are all sorts of mental games we can play with ourselves to keep going in training and through a race. In training you're simply putting in the groundwork so that you'll have the most relaxed and enjoyable race experience. The harder and more consistently you train, the more you'll succeed with your race plan.”

In 2007, at the time of writing his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Run-ning, author Haruki Murakami had run 26 marathons.

Murakami took up running in his 30s. He entered a 5km race and soon graduated to a 15km race. Then he wanted to test how far he could run. In his book he writes: “I did laps around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I went around seven times, for a total of 22.4 miles, at a fairly decent pace, and didn't feel it was that hard. My legs didn't hurt at all. Maybe I could actually run a marathon, I concluded. It was only later that I found out the hard way that the toughest part of a marathon comes after 22 miles ...”

Twenty-six marathons later he observed: “Up to 19 miles I'm sure I can run a good time, but past 22 miles I run out of fuel and start to get upset at everything. But after I finish and some time has passed, I forget all the pain and misery and am already planning how I can run an even better time in the next race.

“Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I'm not going to lay off or quit just because I'm busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I'd never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.”

Have you done a marathon? What's your advice?

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