Five Things I Learned (the Hard Way) From Running My First Marathon in Nairobi

Yes, it says "Full Marathon Women"

Yes, it does say “Full Marathon Women”

Sunday morning in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital) was cloudy and temperate – the perfect climate for marathoners and half-marathoners racing through its Central Business District, up Machine Hill, and (for the marathoners) looping around Mombasa Road before finishing at Nyayo Stadium. The organizer – Standard Chartered Bank – did an excellent job of ensuring that the race was clearly-marked and safe.

I ran, and finished, the race. It was my first marathon, and though I did it in a semi-respectable time (sub four hours, but at least 30 minutes of that was spent walking in pain), I was pretty disappointed by the result. I wanted – and expected – to do better.

Fortunately, I learned a few things from the experience, and I think they’ll help me better prepare for the next marathon. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

1.     If you don’t train well, you won’t run well

This is trivially obvious to most people. But prior to running, I didn’t respect how vital proper training is for a marathon – or at least, for running a marathon in a time you’re happy with.

Due to a combination of near-constant travel for work, a few minor-but-annoying bouts of food poisoning and stomach flu, and pure obstinance, I didn’t put much effort into training; my only long runs were 12, 13, and 20 miles (with the 20 two weeks before the race), and I never trained at altitude (Nairobi is 5,450 feet above sea level – higher than Denver). In the two months preceding the marathon, I only ran something like 150 miles.

The end result? I wasn’t prepared – physically or mentally – for the race.

So, my knee (wonky earlier this year) started to act up right around the time I hit “The Wall” (a runner’s term for using up the glycogen stored in the liver and muscles), and my legs just weren’t prepared for the strain. The minute I stopped to massage my knee (see #5), every muscle seemed to ossify, and re-starting jogging was an exercise in futility for far too long.

Mentally, I expected the marathon to be similar to a long half marathon, but it wasn’t. I assumed that my inborn stubbornness would be enough, but it wasn’t.

So the lesson is obvious: finishing a marathon at a desired pace requires consistent, effective training, and mentally it helps to have hit the wall in the past.

2.     Have a specific goal

Duh. But because most of my (limited) training consisted of running on pock-mocked dirt roads (many of which were more pothole than road) without an app to track distance, I didn’t really know what I was capable of, so I didn’t bother setting a hard goal; I figured I would just run at what felt like my normal pace.

I should have set a goal. When I hit the wall around miles 20-22, something specific would have helped me to push harder and break through it (mentally, anyway) and probably would have caused me to put my knee issues to the side until the race was over.

 3.     Pacing is the hardest easy thing to do

When the starting gun blasts, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment – the crowds of fellow runners, the cheering onlookers, the competition – and run way too fast at the start. You can do this for a while without noticing (adrenaline is fantastic), but like going one too many nights without enough sleep, eventually you’ll reap the consequences.

Halfway through the marathon, I was running at a Boston-qualifying pace – about as fast as I’ve ran half-marathons in the past – and it felt great. At about mile 19, I felt it catch up with me, and the rest of the race was a slog.

So: pace yourself. If you’re running an American or European marathon, you can probably run with a pace group, which presumably makes it easier.

4.     Don’t get sick the week before the race

Obvious, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Eat right, get enough sleep, and try to stave off any bug you may pick up.

Oh, and stay off of 12-hour buses next to a clearly-ill man with hygiene issues. This may save you from being mostly unable to eat solid food for three days.

(Pro tip: carbo-loading is a lot easier when you can eat food.)

5.     Don’t Stop Running

Unless you feel seriously injured, “walking off” a wonky knee is not going to help and will only make things worse. Walk it off at the finish line, not at mile 22.


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