How to train your marathonist.

This is not going to be one of those “run a marathon in 3 easy steps” post (although…), but also not a certified training plan (that you’d never follow anyway). I will basically braindump what it took me to run my marathon at 42, because I know the experience will fade. So buckle up, it’s story time.

As a very brief intro…

I started running back in 2009 if memory serves. Did a “my first 5 km” training plan, and settled at that level for many years, 2-3 times a week. I was cycling at that point around 20-30-40 km a day in the city (Budapest, so not a flat city either) and on top of that I didn’t really need more workouts. Frankly, I can’t even remember why I started running… maybe to lose weight? I was probably around 90 kilos at the time.

Eventually I settled on this 5k level, with typically ~6.5 min/km (6:24 mostly, for some reason.)

Fast forward 5 years, I moved to The Netherlands, and almost instantly grew a cancer in my lymphatic system (and spleen; and spinal marrow). Dropped my weight to just north of 70 kilos, but after a long(ish) chemo treatment I recovered.

At the peak of the sickness I obviously stopped all workouts (including getting out of bed at some point…), but already about 2 months into the chemo I started walking, then cycling again. And yes, even running, albeit only like 2-3k at a time. (You wouldn’t guess the logistics included in running during chemo, including e.g. tight running gear, because loose skin hurt…) My average time from this period is between 7-8 min/km. (But then again, I was in chemo… sometimes with a very low red blood count.)

After chemo, I restarted running proper.

New motivations, new discipline.

From what I see in my old records, around spring of 2016 I was back to my previous, 5k-a-pop level, with the famous 6:24 min/km average, typically running 3 times a week. (And next to this, cycling 20k to-from work per day.) My weight got back to “normal” levels of course, averaging ~86-87 kg. (This by the way gave me an “overwight” BMI, but for some psychological reason I needed a 5 kilo “buffer”.)

Then something snapped, and I suddenly ran a 8k.

I particularly remember the first time I did this (pretty sure it was 18/Jun/2016), while listening to The History of The World, in a 100 Objects podcast (which is a habit by the way I picked up during the chemo). It felt liberating, and it felt like I could run to the end of the world. My first runner’s high, I guess.

A week later I did a 10k. In another week, a 11.5k. Another 2 weeks a 14k. Easily.

From basically one week to another I upgraded from a 5k runner to a 15k runner, and the first half marathon was not unreachable, in fact I started planning for it.

But didn’t do it until 2017; with a good training cadence (2 times 5-6k, once 10+ per week, typically) I finally ran my first half marathon (I think) in July (9/Jul, to be precise).

After this I “got stuck” at the half marathon level, running a couple every year, sometimes more, for my own fun. The funny breaking point with the half marathons was always ~18-19 km for me, that was when it always turned from fun to struggle. At some point I started toying with the idea of “doing a 42 at 42”, ie. running a marathon before I turn 43. But at this point it still seemed unreachable (partly because of that breaking point at 19k… it’s OK to run another 2k, 4k, 6k after that, but how could I do another 23?!)

Fast forward again, to 2020, and to the pandemic.

This is where I think the “42@42” evolved from idea to target. In the first months of the pandemic I lost a bunch of weight. Probably a combination of a bunch of things.

In the very first couple of weeks I (as so many others) was so scared that I didn’t even go running, at least not for long, and not that frequently. Instead, I picked up the jumprope and did ~1000-1500 jumps a day.

Additionally, with all the home office, my movement (and daily “just moving around” calories) got really limited, and luckily my food intake dropped with it. (Oh yeah, for a time we were also genuinely afraid there would be food shortages so we rationed… sounds funny now I know.)

I dropped from 86-87 kg to 83, and never gained it back, even when I restarted running in earnest. What that -5 kg did though was it accelerated me from my 6:24 min/km, to a consistent 6 min/km by the end of the season.

In the wintertime I usually stop by the way; wasn’t able to run in the cold before. Tried running treadmill in a gym, but well, let’s just say that was not an option in the winter of 2020.

But exactly because of the pandemic I made another important mindset change: I must go and run, I just… must. I can’t do treadmill because covid. So I must run outside. If I can’t run 5k in the cold, then I’ll do 3k. If I can’t run a 3k because it’s 2 degrees and raining, then I run 2k. This was another liberating thought — letting go of the performance pressure. As long as I run /something/, I already did a thing. I just need discipline to go out. And discipline I have.

This training regimen then got me through the winter of 2020, and I could hit the ground running in 2021 (figuratively speaking).

My already lower weight and faster pace gave me longer distances and just more calories burned, which spiraled into losing some more weight. Eventually I reached 80 kg.

By Jun I settled on a pace of ~5:30 min/km. In July I did a half marathon at 6:16 min/km. In August, a 5:22 min/km 10k, and my first sub-5 min/km run. By the end of Aug my pace was closer to 5 min/km than 5:30. I started kayaking during the summer and typically mixed kayaking, cycling, and the running, sometimes on the same day. Out for a 5k rowing before the sun’s out, then a run still before work, then cycling to and from school with the kids. Clearly a case of escalated “sporter’s high”, I never enjoyed myself so much just being active. We were really lucky with late summer / early autumn weather too, that helped.

In september, I did a “4.x m 7.x k” (7.6k @ 4:56 min/km). And on 12/Sep, I did my sub-6 min/km half marathon. I remember this run, I felt like I could run to the of the world… But I had daddy duties that day and so didn’t have time. I noted this in Strava: “Next long run will be the full 42@42”. I was now ready.

Fast forward another almost 2 months… we had home renovation (with a leg injury and a lot of exhausting physical work), travel, work shit, so I didn’t get a chance to do that next long run. I tried to keep my level up, or at least degrade as slowly as possible.

I knew that I had a very short window of ~2 weeks end Oct – beginning Nov when the weather is still bearable plus I finally have time to do it: consecutive 5-6 hours for the actual run of course, but also a day before when I can carb up properly (“eat pasta – run fasta”), and don’t have to e.g. cycle 14k with a kid on the back of my bike to some extracurricular activity.

The sub-6 half marathon also helped me decide I was going to run the full 42k in the next door park (which is an island, actually, with a ~6 km circumference), and not e.g. to Monnickendam and back. This gave me freedom, removed the dependency on someone following me with my supplies. I know where the watering hole is in the park, and although my bag with my supplies was stolen, it was only stolen in the last round so I didn’t miss my protein gels during the run.

And so eventually on 7/Nov I ran a marathon.

So what made it possible?

Discipline, mostly. Or call it… determination?

I didn’t follow an “official” training plan. Maybe I read one, and probably instantly decided I would never had had the time, so I ignored it. I knew the end goal and I knew it was in the head, it was about discipline. The most I ran (purely because of the time allowances) was like 28k, but, as I mentioned, I felt when I was ready. The same discipline that got me through the chemo helped me to my marathon.

That’s not to say of course I didn’t run a lot, I did. According to Strava, I ran 4000+ km before my marathon, and this year I did 500+ km. That’s probably more than average, right? There is a cadence too, 2 short runs and a long one on most weeks. So, not a training plan, but regular training. And also not to say I didn’t improve along a clear pattern. I got gradually faster, see above.

The Pandemic helped, in one of the few ways this pandemic actually brought positive change. Starting with the jumprope, losing that weight (I’m still around 79 kg now), becoming faster, and just to have a “pandemic project”… I guess these things mattered. Also, winnng that 1.5-2 hours every day that I didn’t have to spend driving to/from the office probably meant a lot too in what kind of time I could feed into my training.

The next thing?

Not another marathon, that’s for sure. Although I didn’t sustain any injury on any body parts I could train, my right foot got injured (around the inferior fibular retinaculum), my guess is simply because of a posture problem, ie. how I step with my right foot. TL;DR: my right foot is not built for marathons, probably, and this is not something I want to relearn at the age of (almost) 43. This 42k was clearly a vanity project (I can do it if I so decide), and now that I’m done with it, I’m not interested in it anymore.

Half marathons I can still easily run, and I’ll probably stick to these distances. And cycling.

Oh, and by the way, here’s how to run a marathon in 3 easy steps:

Step 1: run 1k

Step 2: run another 1k

Step 3: run another 40.195k

You’re welcome!

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