12.5 easy ways to screw up a marathon

It is exactly one week since I ran the Illinois Marathon in my slowest ever (uninjured) time. Age grading the result in the Yale Run Age calculator (aka The Runner’s Time Machine) confirmed that I performed as my 75 year-old self. In short it was a ‘stinker’.

Recalling the interview with the eminent sports psychologist, Dr. Jim Afremow, a winning mindset looks at a defeat as a learning opportunity. Dr. Jim advocates “Win or Learn” rather than the more typical Win-Lose mentality.

Having conducted a mental postmortem and reflected on my preparation ….I’m at the keyboard wearing my Illinois Marathon shirt and sharing just 12.5 (there were probably many more) mistakes I made. Interestingly, the classic: ‘starting too quickly’ was not one of them.

No. 1
‘Cherry pick’ your training plan

Trying to fit in marathon training around a busy work/life schedule is never easy and this winter I skipped a number of tempo and speed work sessions, hoping that binging on Saturday long runs would compensate. I did complete three strong 20 milers following the pacing advice of running guru Matt Fitzgerald in his book 80:20 – but clearly this wasn’t enough.

Lesson: Stick to your program. You can always find the time.

No. 2
Neglect mental training

It is now apparent that mental conditioning, like physical fitness is not permanent and you have to continue to work at it. For previous (more successful) races, I have followed a routine of simple daily mental drills.

Lesson: Mental Toughness can be achieved in only takes 10 minutes a day –  Dr. Jason Selk.

No. 3
Lazy tapering

As usual, I cut back the long run mileage in the final two weeks, but still didn’t include sufficient tempo or cross-training workouts.

Lesson: The Taper is an opportunity for ‘sharpening’ and preparing…not for drinking beer and eating cakes.

No. 4
Gain weight

The lack of effective preparation, also applied to my diet and I arrived at race-day 8 pounds heavier than for my previous marathon. Hardly morbid obesity… but the equivalent of carrying 4 bags of sugar would probably impact performance over 26.2 miles.

Lesson: Re-Read Matt Fitzgerald’s book Racing Weight.

No. 5
Arrive stressed

The majority of previous marathons have been on Sundays…. the Illinois Marathon is a Saturday event and on Friday’s journey to Champaign; I was dialing into conference calls, checking emails, negotiating deals, chasing contracts. Clearly, not ideal preparation.

Lesson: Relax on the day before a race.

No. 6
Run sleep deprived

The University of Illinois Union hotel has a clock tower next door that chimes every 15 minutes and ‘bongs’ loudly like Big Ben at the top of the hour. This might be quaint during the daytime – not so much at 3 am. One member of our running crew travels with a ‘white noise’ box, he had a good night’s sleep and only missed a PR by one minute.

Lesson: Try to sleep well in the week and day before the race. Bring ‘ear-plugs’.

No. 7
Have no race plan

Long run training on your home patch or running a favorite race is relatively easy. Everything is familiar, you know the milestones and have a mental gauge of the distances to the finish. A new race is a different ‘kettle of fish’ and I did not even have the foresight to go online and study the course map, or check the reviews of previous runners.

Whilst, the Champaign course is not Boston, there are a number of steady inclines that would justify including a couple of hilly sessions in training.

Lesson: Have a race plan for every stage of the race. Also have a plan B (C,D…) prepared in advance to allow you to adapt quickly.

No. 8
Get distracted by external factors

On race day we woke up to heavy rain. Soaked to our bones and shivering in the start corrals it was easy to feel resentful that the weather would ruin the day. The rain did not let up and there was one long stretch on a narrow parkland path where we literally sploshed through a stream over our ankles. To further test the resilience of the runners, in the final few miles a sharp wind whipped up to drive the rain into our very souls.

Lesson: Focus only on what you can control – note… this doesn’t include the weather! Think positive thoughts: “This is better than running in 80-degree heat – the rain is keeping me cool…”

No. 9
Make bad gear choices

Most runners, know the sound advice not to experiment with new gear on race day. Also, traveling to race away from home, it is not practical to pack your whole running wardrobe to cover every possible weather eventuality.

My gear was well tested, but I had not prepared to run for hours in the rain, therefore like many runners on the day…. blisters and chaffing were a factor. Another comrade wore shorts that were clearly made of sponge material and with the heavy rain they gained pounds in weight and he ran the last few miles with one hand clutching his waistband to avoid indecent exposure.

Lesson: Over prepare – Battle test your gear in all weather conditions.

No. 10
Poor hydration/nutrition

The day before the race my consumption of water and carbs was similar to any typical working day. Due to the weather distractions I also wasn’t sufficiently diligent about taking on water and gels in the early part of the race…again I should have had a firm plan for fueling. Volunteers were giving out gels at some of the aid stations, I started the race with 5 gels and finished with 6 in my pockets….a net gain.

Lesson: Don’t ‘wing it’…have a hydration and nutrition plan – and stick to it. Eat your gels..don’t just take them for a ride. Re-Read Matt Fitzgerald’s book Racing Weight again.

No. 11
Lose focus

It was clear I was having ‘a bad day at the office’, at mile 5 the medical tent spotter asked if I was okay? Despite having a tough race….I managed to avoid the temptation to follow the Half Marathoners to the stadium at mile 13. My negative brain was selling me hard on stopping: “The misery will be over, they have hot coffee….they might give you a medal anyway”. Waving the lucky Half runners goodbye, I took the right fork into another 13 mile adventure. I was beginning to make deals with myself….”Grind it out to mile 20 and you can take a short walk break”.

Crossing the 20 mile mark – I checked my watch to see that I was bang on 3 hours….surely I could run (even jog or crawl) 6.2 miles in under an hour to at least get a respectable sub-four time. Unfortunately, I was over-thinking and my focus was now broken, consequently the ‘wheels fell off the wagon’. I didn’t hit the wall….it felt as though it was strapped to my back. Despite revisiting positive mantras my legs were like jelly and I was treading water as the 4 Hour Pace group sprinted past me. I finally limped home in 4 hours 10 minutes.

Lesson: Learn to remain relaxed and maintain focus

No. 12
Have fluffy goals

Looking back, I actually had no goals for the race. Even as we entered the start corral I hadn’t even decided on whether or not to join a pace group. At one point, I was following a runner who had the phrase: “Don’t Suck” on the back of his shirt – unfortunately this appeared to be my only objective. If I had embraced a true, challenging goal, for example achieving a Boston Qualification…then I would have had the focus and mental toughness to avoid most (if not all) of the mistakes outlined above. Training for the Chicago marathon starts in June, having learned some hard lessons, I will definitely be establishing my goals before I lace my shoes.

Lesson: Goals, Goals, Goals…..

No. 12.5
Don’t follow the Rundamentalists blog

If I had read my own blog and followed the advice of our experts, then I would have enjoyed a positive race experience.

Lesson: Sign up for the latest tips on mental toughness for runners…..and then read them.


None of these mistakes was individually catastrophic. However, if you do some simple math and assume that each of the 12 issues accounted for just 6 seconds per mile….this compounds to nearly 32 minutes of lost time over the full distance. Ironically, this would have meant achieving a Boston Qualification for my age group…..if only I had set some goals!

In his latest book, The Champion’s Comeback, Dr. Jim Afremow states: “The bigger the setback, the more opportunities to learn and the more glory and satisfaction to be gained upon a successful comeback.”

A final thought:

Experienced marathoners may not be as intimidated as a beginner by 26.2 miles….but as I discovered, we can pay the price for over-confidence and under-preparation.

"Mental toughness can be achieved in just 10 minutes a day" 

Dr Jason Selk


Quick tip:

Have a race plan for every stage of the race, and a plan B prepared to allow you to adapt quickly if needed.

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