Inside the Mind of a Marathon Runner

EDITOR: I’ve always wondered what prompts a person to decide to run marathons as they’re one of the toughest mental and physical activities that people can do “for fun”. My limit is the 14.3km City2Surf run so when I heard that my friend Lucy had successfully completed a marathon (42.2km) on the 1st attempt I asked if she could tell me her story…

gold coast marathon “Gold Coast Marathon” – photo credit: Michael Dawes

4 Step Marathon Preparation

Lucy James: The only goals that I had for the Gold Coast marathon were firstly to complete the race without stopping and secondly to do that under 4 hours if I possibly could. There were four main areas that I focused on to prepare.

The first and most important part of preparation was psychological; I knew my biggest hurdle to completing the marathon would be believing that I could complete it.

The other three areas were physical, logistics and ‘injury management’. Although they were all necessary and important they were really supporting my psychological preparation.

An an example my long training runs, while important in terms of building stamina and strength played a bigger role in strengthening my belief that I would reach the end of the race.

Logistics was straight forward, just get myself ready and to the start line in as stressed-free fashion as possible. So I got my kit, flights etc all fixed up and that genuinely made me feel better and gave me more head space to focus on the other areas.

I didn’t have long to get myself physically prepared because I only decided five weeks prior to the marathon to actually enter. I made my decision after completing a 30k run comfortably so I thought I was in good enough shape to take on the marathon.

Following that I ran as much as I possibly could, a combination of long distances and short, mostly to get my feet, ankles and knees used to extensive impact. I did extra cardio work – mostly swimming – to build stamina.

The running and swimming, due to the distances I was doing, helped me shed some pre-run weight. And I also did a lot of yoga which was great for recovery days, building strength and maintaining my flexibility.

Injury was a worry for me because I’m not a natural athlete, I don’t know much about sport and I was aware that – given my ignorance – I could do damage if I made a mistake. I tried to stay very aware of how my body was feeling and reacting to the training I was doing and especially to listen for any recurring pains or old injuries but all was fine.

So between all of those things I started to feel psychologically prepared: I went from believing that I could complete the marathon to knowing that I could, and that was an enormous step.

Race Weekend

Race weekend and things went pretty well. The practical elements all went fine: accommodation good, weather lovely, I didn’t really know what I was doing with pre-race ‘fuelling’ so I just ate enough pasta and bread for about 4 people.

I had done no exercise for 3 days prior to the race apart from walking and was feeling relaxed, in good shape. At registration the day before the race there was a good buzz, I felt like I was part of something, and that left me feeling quite hungry for the next day.

Marathon Day

Got up at 5:30am and didn’t feel tired – a good start. I got ready and had to really force down my breakfast because I was still so full from dinner. I walked to catch the shuttle bus and again it was good to be part of a crowd, there was a good buzz, and I could feel the nerves rising…

lucy james start of gold coast marathon

At the race precinct I ditched my gear (this was when I was happy I had all the practical elements sorted, everything just came together smoothly, no need to stress about anything) and chatted to a few people.

And then it was time to get to the start line and the emotions really ratcheted up: lots of people around me getting hyped, ‘game’ talk, excitement, fear, nerves. Despite my self-reassurance that I knew that I would get through this, I was terrified and very emotional.

For the first 5km everyone was sorting themselves out, getting their pace right etc. I was trying to get my pace right too and I was still nervous and distracted so it took me a while to settle down. This was my second slowest 5km of the race.

From 5km to 10km I stuck with a crowd just behind the 3hr 45min marker and I liked that because I could stop thinking about the running for a bit. Instead I occupied myself with other things: the view, looking at other people, counting bib numbers – this may sound crazy but I was just trying to stop myself thinking about whether I would finish or not.

During the 10-20km section the route doubled back and so I started to see how many people were behind me which I have to say was a very nice feeling. I was fairly distracted by the other runners and the different techniques that they were using: who had drinks, who had gels, who had supports, who had music.

I tried to observe but not compare to my own ‘technique’. I kept comparison out of my head and just kept running. Every so often I tried to vary my pace, change my stride or move my arms a bit different so that I didn’t get stiff and that was actually quite fun.

What I found strange about running the marathon was that even though I had run 30k before and been relaxed and cool and even enjoyed it I felt quite tense the whole time for the marathon.

I think it was knowing I had to do the distance, and the stigma (for me) of doing a marathon, and just the never-ending-ness of it all. It’s a good job the Gold Coast scenery and crowd were good because that really made a difference.

I got to 21km 6 minutes quicker than my previous half marathon time so that gave me confidence but I found 25-30km pretty tough. I just really wanted to get to 32km because I told myself that after that there was only 10km to go and I could do 10km really easily. I was focused, borderline obsessive at this point about reaching 32km.

Hitting The Wall During Killer Last 10km

From 30km onwards I was running the furthest distance I’d ever done. I had to slow down a lot and I lost all the crowd I had been with and for the most part there was no one else really around. And my goodness (and believe me the language in my head was very different to that at the time) did I hit a wall.

I thought I was hurting everywhere, but I wasn’t really: the soles of my feet hurt a great deal, and my ankles were aching, and I had a slight stitch all across the front of my chest. I was now obsessed with not walking, every step was about not stopping but keep running. I could just think of nothing else.

During this section we went through quite a lot of supporters and some of them were on the track and close to the track (which was fine).

This kid, 15 or so, was right up close to the runners and as I went past he said ‘Go on Lucy James’ (I had my name on my bib). It was the first person that actually cheered me on, and it was just when I needed it and I very nearly just burst into tears. But I didn’t have the energy so that was that.

There really were bits in this section where I just could not believe that I was still going but the anticipation of getting across the finish line and the desire to get there really kept me going. I kept telling myself head-down, head-down til 37km. At 37km you know there’s only 5km to go, and you can run 5km, you know you can.

I have heard it said before that a marathon is a race of two equal lengths: 30km, and then another 30km because that’s how hard the last 10km+ bit is. And it’s true, the kilometres just got longer.

As I got closer to the finish the crowd got thicker, and then I got to final few hundred metres and picked my pace up to get to the end. I over took a couple of people on the home stretch and was waving at all the photographers and then that was it, over the finish line.

Crossing the Finish Line

If you had heard me breathing at the end you’d have thought I’d sprinted but of course I hadn’t, the last bit of speed just took the last of everything I had. Over the finish line everyone was kind of stumbling around.

We stumbled up to the finisher’s enclosure and I groaned into a chair after shakily grabbing some water and orange quarters and set to recovering. Loosened my trainers, took my shirt off, washed my face, tried not to vomit.

So I achieved both of my goals. I didn’t stop; I ran the whole way. And my time was 3:53. I was pretty amazed with both results. I would love to be able to say I cruised it, that it was easy. But it wasn’t.

lucy james end of gold coast marathon

I mean, I didn’t train as much as I would have / should have, my recovery was fine, and I was very happy with my finishing time but by no means was this a breeze like it is for some people (Editor: I don’t think running a marathon is a breeze for anyone Lucy, even international class athletes sometimes fail to finish marathons they enter).

There are things that I would change about my preparation:

  • I would like to know more about what to eat pre-run
  • I’d like to know more about what to eat / take on during the race
  • I would do more long distances before the race to get my ankles and feet ready for that amount of pounding
  • I’d like to understand how to pace myself better and how to get off to a better start.

Having said that, I’m glad I didn’t spend months focused on this one thing and it didn’t take over my life because I still achieved what I wanted and I now have refreshed belief that anything is possible.


13 responses to “Inside the Mind of a Marathon Runner”

  1. As another City to Surfer, I found your article very interesting reading. Thank you Lucy (and Neerav)! I can’t say I’ll be trying to emulate your feat however.

  2. joshrodney

    I’ve always wanted to run a marathon. Maximum i’ve made it is 2 km. 😀 Need to lose a few pounds first.

  3. justinmiller

    43kms… I can barely make it that far in a car!!!
    Well done!
    Maybe I should take my fitness more seriously…

  4. Isn’t the feeling of accomplishment wonderful when a tough goal like this is reached? Thanks for sharing Lucy’s experiences and suggestions.

  5. Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience with marathon.

  6. Wow always fancied running a marathon but don’t think i will ever be fit enough 🙂

  7. Though I have never patticipates in marathons. but when I was in school I did took part in a racing event called “CrossCountry Race” (12 Kms), I must say it is really tuff.. But the feeling is great… 🙂

  8. hi, I admire the spirit of your friend in finishing the race. I had never tried entering a marathon actually because it scares me that i will collapse before i get to the finish line, lol. However, i did experience jogging a straight 4 km back and forth [a combination of jog and walk] and it was the farthest distance i ever took.

  9. Woow..that was really helpful. I am lanning to run a cross country this year and maybe follow it up with a full on Marathon by next year. As of now I can do about 70-90 mins of continous run (approx 11-14 kms).

    I am already charged up to run my first marathon!!

  10. I understand marathon runners, but recently have encountered ultra marathon runners, they run up to 50 or more miles. That I do not understand.

  11. […] Here’s an article I wrote for my friend Neerav’s blog on running the marathon. Click here. […]

  12. Thanks for sharing this nice experience, great post!

  13. alexxsandra

    It was nice to stumble across your marathon blog. I’m preparing for my first ever marathon but with only 3 weeks left to go I can’t help feeling I havent done enough. That said I know I’m going to finish it but whether I do it in the hoped for time or not is another story …?! Anywya thanks for sharing your experience and well done for achieving your goal x

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