Have You Dreamed of Running a Marathon?
A veteran runner and coach offers perspective and tips.
The Brushy Mountains are a spur of the Blue Ridge, with low ground near Elkin-Jonesville known as Frog Hollow and a sun-seared peak many miles up and away dubbed Buzzard’s Walk. Why anyone would run a 26.2-mile marathon there in the final days of summer in North Carolina is for a runner to answer. And so I will.
I had been working out with a group of sub-three hour marathoners all spring and summer, and I realized in August my training was peaking too early for the October 1982 Richmond Marathon in Virginia. I needed two hours and 50 minutes (2:50) to qualify for the Boston Marathon at age 32, and I thought I could do it, but not if I waited for Richmond. I had to re-group and find another race I could drive to, as soon as possible, and hope for the best.
There were only 49 other crazies at the start line in the Brushies on race morning — no cheering throngs, and just a few water tables along route. Wriggling waves of wicked dry heat rose from the roadbeds as my running buddy and I settled into a too torrid pace. One of the early miles was under six minutes, as we went up, up and up. We were in second place at the 13.1-mile mark, in one hour and 21 minutes. A lot of runners would be happy with that as a finish time for a half marathon race, but we still had 13.1 miles to go. And then it all fell apart.
We just didn’t know how to train back then. The running boom of the 1970s was only a few years old. Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar owned the most recent American marathon records, and I had witnessed Rodgers master his title at Boston in 1979, where I wrangled a spot to watch it, near the finish line. Rodgers excited me, and so many others, to tackle the distance.
Our running routine was this: We just went out and logged around six fairly fast miles every weekday, then ripped through several repeat 400-meter speed sessions on Saturdays at the high school track. Sundays started at dawn, busting through 15, 18, 20 miles without water and certainly without power food or ade drinks (which did not exist commercially yet). We became fit enough to chase the deer through area state parks, and I am certain we were chronically dehydrated. Runners World and Running Times magazines offered tip after tip, and proponents of running long and slowly for a period, followed by a period of faster running, were making waves. However, many of us still had no clue how to put it all together into a long-range, individualized training plan.
So in runner’s terms, in The Great Brushy Mountain Showdown I “hit the wall.” By neglecting a rational, reasonable pace, without planned periodic fluid replacement and not an ounce of energy replenishment, my body quickly consumed its carbohydrate stores then dipped into its fat content to fuel the effort. As I continued to run as fast as I could through the immense pain that resulted, I was probably down to muscle protein for “gas” to get me through the many final miles, and protein is a very poor energy source. Of course, I would not have known anything about the physiology of running back then. Most runners didn’t.
Somebody once asked me what it’s like to run a marathon, and there are a number of answers to that question. On this particular day, it was a worst case scenario. At its worst, the marathon feels as if your skeleton is straining over a load it cannot possibly bear. It’s like someone is taking batting practice on your thighs and twisting you into a shuffling bruised baboon. It’s like a layer of dust is settling on your brain at a time when you need your keenest faculties. It’s like story-telling time, to yourself: Yes, I can master 10-ton legs and spontaneous cramps. Yes, I can defeat depletion of energy. Yes, I will press on, but how, dear God, how am I going to lift this leg and put it back down?
I did press on to a 2:57 finish, running the second half in 1:36 and second place in my age group. I failed to qualify for the Boston Marathon by seven minutes. I had been trying to get into Boston for three years, and the hours upon hours of training, year over year, and the repeated failing just beat me up. I quit marathoning soon thereafter, with no intention ever to return. It just wasn’t worth the effort.
Dissecting my running life 40 years ago, with today’s advanced knowledge, it’s easy to spot the mistakes many of us made. Peaking too soon means I did not have a good marathon training plan, or none at all. My decision to pick a summer-hot race in the mountains when I needed a very fast pace to qualify for Boston was poorly made. Picking a rural race that did not supply ample fluids, and then not even wearing a light white cap to reflect the sun, merely reflected my running immaturity. I went out way too fast in the early miles and undertook a pace which was impossibly aggressive to sustain. The training leading up to the race was just dumb. Constant daily mileage at a too-fast pace with no accounting for recovery led to an overly trained , dehydrated and tired body. But I was too young and strong to feel the effects. And I had no clue what was happening to my body physiologically. Of course I wanted to quit. I had beat up myself to the point that it wasn’t even fun to run anymore. It was all just so haphazard.
The good news in 2019 is that running, coaching, exercise physiology and running science has come a very long way. I will go way out on a limb now and say that if we knew very little about proper long-distance racing back then, we may know most of what we need to take runners to their fastest lengths only a few decades later.
I told a friend recently that just a few years ago, Nike spent millions of dollars, deftly employed the latest scientific thinking and bio-mechanical analysis, then trained three of the world’s best runners to attempt to go under two hours in the marathon. It resulted in a managed race in the Autodromo Nazionale Monza outside Milan, Italy, in 2017. I told him that Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya finished in two hours flat plus 25 seconds, in that race against the clock. My friend said, “Well, that means he would have had to run four minutes and 35 seconds per mile for 26 miles,” and I confirmed he was correct. He absolutely would not believe it occurred, thinking it was “fake news,” even though the video of the event is available online.
It’s amazing to think that Kipchoge might have broken the two-hours barrier, but for one thing — nature. The temperature that day was three degrees warmer than optimum. Runners and coaches can control many of the factors that lead to success, but there are some you can only reckon and have a tactical adjustment in mind — like the weather. Unfortunately, the strategic adjustment for hot weather is to slow down.
As a marathon coach, I’ve trained dozens of people from young adults to senior citizens to finish or race the marathon, even folks who were relatively sedentary. My abilities to personalize the training methodologies of today’s best coaches enable me to help people realize their dream. I am a much better coach today than I was when I began around 20 years ago, as a result of staying attuned to the evolution of the sport and translating the knowledge experientially. So if you are interested in completing a marathon, with today’s advances, I’m confident the chances are good you can do it.
There are many important people and organizations around the planet to thank for making it happen. Some of the recent great ones in the United States are Runners World magazine, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), Coach and former U.S. Olympian Jeff Galloway and the brilliant young American Coach Greg McMillan.
I recommend you visit all of their websites and scope out their training methods. Jeff Galloway focuses on an alternating run/walk method. RRCA will refer you to one of its local certified coaches, who can build an incremental plan for you. Coach McMillan offers several different approaches, including your own online personal run coach or tailored plans based on your current level of fitness. Runners World has an off-the-shelf program that is much like one size fits all and includes a plan where you only run three days a week. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society caters to beginner marathoners with a gentle build in long, slow mileage, enabling virtually everyone to finish their first marathon.
When you make your choice, what you will receive in return for your time, your fundraising or your money is a proven plan that you can have confidence in following. It will include a reasonable finish time goal and the daily workouts and paces you need to do over many months to ensure your success. Your plan is your road map to building the physical endurance and the mental toughness you require to finish your marathon event. After you have followed and mastered it, you will have developed the patience and pacing of a self-controlled athlete, which will enable you to complete your your first marathon — and eventually your best marathon.
And what is a marathon at its best? The marathon is a sweet reward. On your finest days, you are a running machine. Breathing syncs with arm-and-leg-swings and the sun, the moon and the stars. You feel loose and fluid and your mind conducts the metronome that is your footfalls. You are a pilot checking systems over hours, and they all chime, “go.” Your stopwatch is the genie whose command is your very wish. You are a nuclear power plant, bounding forever, with the grace of a deer. You have the strength to soar.
About the author: Coach Ed Beckley received his run-coach training and certifications from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training, Road Runners Club of America, National Federation of State High School Associations, USA Track & Field, and Special Olympics-North America. After his father-in-law died of leukemia, he started marathoning again in 1994 to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as part of their Team in Training (TNT) program. He will complete his 40th endurance event with TNT this summer, by swimming 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) at age 69. He was a torchbearer for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He met his goal of qualifying for, and running, the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996 by using Jeff Galloway’s marathon training program. In 2007 he won the North Carolina State Senior Games 5 Kilometer race, becoming state champion. He has completed the marathon distance, or longer, 40 times and ran his final marathon at the Adirondack Mountains Distance Festival in New York in 2013 at the age of 63. As a coach for many years in the Dare County (Outer Banks) school system, his long-distance runners played critical roles in helping their teams win repeated championships. Several of his athletes have gone on to win scholastic, collegiate and open race medals. He is currently a member of the Coastal Race Productions Running Club in Ocean Isle Beach, and he recommends beginner runners join their local clubs to help them in their quest to become the best runners they can be.