Milestones, marathons and a dash of mental toughness

The Bolte Bridge from Docklands

Route: Thornbury to Etihad Stadium, return (via Merri Creek & Capital City Trail)
Distance: 30.1km (296.4km total)
Duration: 2 hours 53 minutes (27 hours 27 minutes total)

Ever since I started training for the Melbourne Marathon back in May, I haven’t really followed a training manual or done the things I really should have done. I haven’t trained more than two days a week, I haven’t run more than 35km in one week and I haven’t increased my distance in a uniform way.

The few pieces of training advice I have read have all said that the distance of your long run shouldn’t increase by more than 10% each week.  On Saturday afternoon, being the rebel that I am, I increased my distance by 20%, covering 30km in a little under three hours.

As I left the house I realised it was going to be a difficult day out on the trail as it was far warmer than I’ve ever run in. Sure, it wasn’t more than about 27 degrees, but when you’ve been training in the cold, wet bleakness of the Melbourne winter, it’s a bit of an adjustment to make. Luckily I managed to negotiate the heat just fine and the numerous water fountains along the Capital City Trail meant I could rehydrate frequently.

For the past few months I’ve taken to running without any sort of music or other audio distraction but on Saturday I was glad for the company of some podcasts courtesy of This American Life. If there’s a better-researched, better-produced, more compelling example of radio-documentary-making anywhere in the world, I’d like to know about it. In short, if you haven’t listened to TAL, you should.

With my brain distracted by the dulcet tones of Ira Glass et al. I covered the 15km to Docklands with very few difficulties. I had initially planned to cover 14km before turning around, but when I reached that point another kilometre (and hence a 30km round trip) didn’t seem too much more effort.

By the time I’d turned around and covered 20km I was starting to hurt and the water fountains couldn’t come often enough. By the 25km mark I’d used up my two energy gels and I was relying on some kind of mental fortitude to drag my aching, tired body back home.

I’ve written previously about the need for mental toughness in this ordeal, as much as physical fortitude. I’ve also spoken about how I haven’t really needed to dip into that reserve of mental toughness in order to complete a run. On Saturday I was dipping deeply and frequently.

Etihad Stadium

Looking back on it now though, the whole experience was fascinating. The fatigue and discomfort that joined me after about 25km was something I was able to suppress without too many difficulties. Sure, every step was uncomfortable and I was looking forward to stopping, but it was never unbearable and I never thought I wouldn’t make it.

And I think coming face-to-face with that discomfort and fatigue was, in some strange way, a bit of a relief. I now know what I’ll be up against on the day of the marathon and I know what I have to do to get through it — just keep going. Sounds kind of obvious, but that’s about as sophisticated as my thinking was in the latter stages of Saturday’s run. Just. Keep. Going.

When I got home I flopped unceremoniously onto the lounge room floor and stayed there for the best part of an hour. Every muscle, tendon and joint in my lower body hurt, I was dehydrated in a big way(despite the water fountains) and I was ridiculously hungry, despite being unsure if my stomach could hold down any food.

(For those that are wondering, I burned more than 11,000KJ during my run — around 3,000KJ more than an average sedentary adult needs per day.)

Yet, despite all that, it was one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had. Not only had I just run 30km — a significant milestone in itself — but I’d leapt some kind of psychological hurdle. For the first time I started to think: “Yeah, maybe I can do this thing.”

And I still think I can.

There’s a bit of received wisdom in marathon running that goes something along the lines of: “If you can run 30km, you can run a marathon”. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to read/hear, but I reckon it must be true. If I can get through 30km running on my own, with little sense of occasion to motivate me, surely I can push through the pain to complete my first marathon. Right?

Hey, it’s going to be tough. I don’t doubt that, but I’ve worked too hard over the past five months to let it slip at the last hurdle. Plus, there are at least two other people relying on me to finish this thing.

So, where to from here? Well, my plan is to run 32km next Saturday morning before watching Geelong take on West Coast in the AFL Preliminary Final. The two weeks after that will be spent tapering and restocking the glycogen stores in preparation for the Melbourne Marathon.

You know what? I think I’m starting to get excited …

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About Matt de Neef
Assistant Section Editor at The Conversation

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