I started running in 2006, and ran my first marathon in Spring 2008 — motivated largely by the race sponsor, Ben & Jerry’s, and their promise of all-you-can-eat ice cream at the finish line. Two years later, I broke the world record as the youngest woman to run a marathon in all 50 states… but I didn’t stop there. This weekend, I ran my 100th marathon at the ING New York City Marathon, becoming one of the youngest members of the 100 Marathon Club at age 28. I’ve learned a lot over the last 2,600-plus miles, and the things I’ve discovered have helped me in both running and, more generally, in life. Here are my top 10 takeaways from going the distance 100 times (and counting!).
1. Judge the effort, not the distance. My first goal, back in 2006, was to run one mile without stopping. It honestly took me two months to train to do that, and I completed my first 5K — with walk breaks — a month later. I was so proud of myself that I thought it was basically an Ironman — three miles seemed so far to me at the time! Sometimes people tell me that they are “just” doing the half-marathon or the 5K. But it’s never “just” any distance; it’s personal to you, and it’s a huge accomplishment to push yourself out of your personal comfort zone.
2. You can do anything for 10 minutes! After graduating college, I started doing a race or long run every weekend — graduating from the 5K to 5-milers all the way up to 10 miles. I wasn’t training for anything in particular, but it just didn’t seem that hard to go only a single mile further than I had gone before. I still use this philosophy when I’m coaching pace groups in a marathon, reminding them to just try to make it to the next mile marker. Usually in 10 minutes, you start to feel better anyway!
3. Without a goal, you’ll get nowhere. Running marathons made me commit to training, traveling and running months in advance — even if I didn’t much feel like it when the time came (though my mood usually perked up once I got out there!). Having a larger goal in mind helped me push through when the going got tough — something that eventually helped me break a world record.
4. Positive attitude is everything. While physical training is incredibly important (and I’m not going to argue that you can run a marathon without it!), your mental state can shift your final time by as much as 20 percent. My fastest races haven’t been on the easiest courses or when I felt the best rested, they happened when I woke up feeling great and excited about the day ahead. Even if you miss your “A” goal, see if there’s an alternate “B” goal (like not walking up the final hill) that will still give you something to strive for — and help you maintain your positivity.
5. There’s more than one way to quantify a race. When I ran the 2010 Disney Marathon, I didn’t care about my time — I wanted to get pictures with as many characters as I could along the route. When people asked “how did the marathon go?” I responded with, “I got 119 pictures!” Running the fastest isn’t the only (or even always the best) way to enjoy a marathon.
6. One person’s success doesn’t mean another’s failure. Your friend might be disappointed to run a 3:05 marathon instead of going sub-3, while you’re thrilled to finish under five hours. But you can both support each other and share in each other’s successes (yay!) and failures (break out the Häagen-Dazs).
7. Helping someone else to reach their dreams can be just as much fun as reaching them yourself. I’ve worked as a coach and have also served as an official pace team leader at over a dozen marathons. There’s nothing more rewarding than encouraging someone else to do more than they thought possible — and then seeing the smile on his or her face when they realize they’re stronger than they think they are. Even when I’m not an official pacer, I’ve always talked to people and made friends along the way in my marathons. Smile at those you see on an out-and-back, or see if you can talk someone who’s walking into running along with you for company. Friends make everything better!
8. Sometimes it’s just not your day — and you need to know when to quit. My 35th marathon was in Newport, RI, and the 2009 race featured 40 mph winds, 40-degree temperatures and pouring rain. I stopped at the halfway point to warm up, forgetting that when my muscles cooled down I’d be colder than before, and then was shaking too badly to continue. It was a tough decision, but I’m so glad I dropped out instead of jeopardizing future races. Instead… I went back to Rhode Island a month later to run a six-hour ultramarathon — and covered 33 miles in that time. I also went back once again in 2010 for redemption on the original Newport course, nailing my 4th fastest finish ever.
9. Don’t be constrained by your plan; live in the moment and do what feels right. When I headed to Alaska for my 24th marathon, everything went wrong: I missed my original flight, had delays on my new flight, and arrived in town at 2 a.m. just five hours before the start of the race. I didn’t expect to do well, so I didn’t really look at my watch when I started running. Halfway through, I realized I was on track for a PR — and to beat Sarah Palin’s time on the same course. I started chanting “Beat Palin” to myself as I ran, and ended up doing just that – as well as finishing my first sub-4 hour marathon and winning 3rd place in my age group.
10. Finally, remember that the finish line isn’t what it’s all about. When I was going for the world record, my 50th state was almost a bit of a letdown. So many marathons had gone into this goal that despite the fabulous party my friends and family threw for me, the finish was somewhat anticlimactic. It really proved the point that life is about the journey, not the destination — and that’s proven true of each and every marathon I’ve run.
So what’s next? I haven’t yet wanted to commit to doing 200 marathons or even 150, preferring for the time being to take a bit of time to bask in the glow of my accomplishment. But I’m sure there will be another goal, more running adventures, and inevitably a few more marathons along the way. To stay up to date, visit my blog at www.50by25.com.