What I learned from running the worst race of my life

#lessons learned  #marathon  #my life  #new jersey marathon 

As if I haven’t spoken about this enough on Twitter and in my race recap, I had an awful marathon last Sunday. This was, by far, the worst race I’ve ever run. However, it’s in these moments of failure where we truly learn the most. There are probably thousands of clichés I could drop in here, but that doesn’t make this any less true of a statement. And here’s the thing, I walked away from this race even more in love with the marathon and running than ever before.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my race and trying to find every takeaway there is from the experience. This started the moment I finally gave up on my C goal way back in mile 15 of my race. I knew it wasn’t going to be my day and, even though I was super bummed and sort of wanted to just pull over and collapse into a ball of tears on the side of the course, I started looking forward to the next race. When would I give it another shot? What happened today and what could I do between now and next time to be better?

So far, this is what I’ve come up with…

Always take a moment to appreciate the positives

This one is the most important and this is why it’s first (the others are in no order).

Guys, I ran my sixth marathon! Come on, that’s awesome! Even if it didn’t go anywhere near how I wanted it to, I still got my ass across that finish line. As a distance runner, it’s easy to lose sight of how few people actually complete a marathon in their lifetime, let alone come back for more. When a large portion of your life is spent talking to other runners and talking about running, it’s easy to forget this isn’t a common thing.

And even though I’m chalking this entire race up as a disaster and my worst performance ever, I was still just 3.5 minutes off my time from last November in Richmond, which I considered to be a great race with almost perfect race day execution. I think that says a lot about how much stronger of a runner I am now than I was five and a half months ago. My training wasn’t for nothing.

I also proved to myself that, even though I can’t run _nearly _as fast as I used to before transitioning, I still have a lot of room to push myself and improve.

I’m strong and determined

Very little of this race went well for me. At mile 6, I was starting to have doubts. At mile 8, I was about 90% sure it wasn’t my day. By mile 10 or 11, I was 100% sure. It’s tough when such a long race goes south so quickly, but quitting was never an option to me. As upset as I was by how crappy my race was going, I stayed strong and resolved to finish the race instead of just giving up. I showed up to run a marathon, not to quit when it didn’t go according to plan.

I learned that I have it in me to keep that attitude going and use it as motivation to get to the finish. In the marathon, this kind of willpower is essential.

Spring marathons can kill you with the weather

As we’re all aware, this past winter sucked in the Northeast. I trained through it all and if this race had been on a day when it was 35º out I would have probably rocked it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality of the situation. Winter rather abruptly turned itself off at the very end of March and left little time to adjust to the warmer temperatures. I’m used to running fall marathons which result in weather conditions that are generally more favorable than training conditions were. With this being a spring race, it was the opposite. I didn’t have enough time at the end of training to get used to the weather I’d be running in.

My last two long runs and a few of the medium long runs at the end of training were rough. I had to stop a couple times because of dehydration and just feeling worn out. This should have been a bigger red flag to me, but I ignored it and told myself I’d be okay by race day. I wasn’t.

I’m not sure what can be done about this kind of thing. Really, there isn’t much. I suppose I could do a run or two a week at the gym on the treadmill since it’s always warm and a little humid in there. Better than nothing.

Don’t rely on the pace groups to keep you on track

You need to take responsibility for your own race. I like to run with the pacers for my goal time to help keep me in check. In Richmond, this worked out perfectly and the pacers were dead on the entire race. In New Jersey, they were about 5-10 seconds/mile fast while I was with them. That may not seem like a lot, but when you’re already planning to run at pretty much your max ability, it’s enough.

I forgot to look at the clock as I crossed the start so I didn’t know how much time to subtract from the clocks at each mile. I had no way to do the math in my head while I was running to even know I just a little too fast.

The pace groups can be a great tool to use when they’re on point, but you can’t put your race in their hands. It’s your race and no one else’s. That makes it your responsibility.

If the pacers are supposed to keep you in check, who keeps the pacers in check?

I’ll likely still run with a pace group next, but I’ll be more cognizant of what pace we’re running and adjust accordingly.

It’s important to start slower

This ties in with the last point about the group starting out fast. In previous races, the groups have started 10-15 seconds/mile slower for the first couple miles before bringing the pace down. This always felt like it worked well for me and mirrored the way I train. That’s really the point here, your training should reflect the way you plan to run the race. And even besides that, you should always start out a little slower for the first couple miles and ease your body into race pace anyway.

Practice your race hydration plan on long runs

I follow the same plan every marathon when it comes to fueling and hydration and it’s never failed me before. A vanilla energy gel every five miles and water at every stop in the first ten miles and whichever sports drink they’re giving out after that. In training, I don’t practice the hydration part, only the gel part. Actually, I don’t hydrate at all during my long runs, even when the weather is warm/hot. Normally, none of this is a problem.

Unfortunately, last Sunday, it became a problem. Because it was the warmest marathon I’ve ever raced (I’ve done “fun” marathons in warmer temps), I ended up switching to Powerade (or was it Gatorade? I don’t remember) a couple miles earlier than normal. It could have just been because I was off all-around, but I could feel it sloshing uncomfortably in my stomach. It didn’t feel right at all. At points, I even felt nauseous to the point of fearing I may end up puking on the side of the course.

Take nothing for granted

Going into the race I kept saying all I needed for a BQ was to not have a terrible day. Anything better than terrible and that BQ was mine, even if my goal of 3:30 was going to require nothing short of a great day. So what happened? I had a terrible day.

It’s good to have confidence in yourself and believe you can achieve your goal, but remember that anything can happen. Don’t assume that anything is owed to you–which, to be perfectly honest, is _not_ the attitude I had. I say it over and over about the marathon, but anything can happen and it’s true. Nothing is guaranteed until after it’s in your hands.

Don’t pack your backup goals too closely together

My A, B, and C goals were all within a five-minute window and I think this plays off the last point very well. I shouldn’t have taken 3:35 as being so “in the bag” as to make it my C goal. 3:35 should have been my B goal and C should have been to simply PR. When things went to crap and I blew through all my goals within the span of a few miles, I had nothing left to fight for. Nothing mattered to me except finishing because I had already gone into the race with the mindset that slower than 3:35 was a failure, even if it was still a PR. If I’d already failed, why bother trying? I was making up new goals on-the-fly, but none of them really meant anything to me.


There’s a lot to takeaway here and I have no doubt, as I continue to reflect on the race, I’ll find more. Some of my mistakes were new and others I repeatedly make. While no single one of these is to blame for my bad race and even all of them together may still not cover it all, they didn’t help matters any.

I’ll never run a perfect race and that’s good. It means I can always be improving and growing. Even if I fix all of these things for the next time, I’ll make other mistakes. That’s what life is, making mistakes and learning from them.

I just want to always be moving forward and improving.