Whether you run a marathon in 5 hours or two and a half, there are many lessons the marathon can teach you—about running and about life. At the recent Chicago Marathon, I ran 2:32:44 to place 7th. Great time and place, no doubt, but I could have been better. We all have races like that. But it's what you learn from the experience that enables you to be better next time. Here are three of the lessons I learned on the streets of Chicago.
Lesson 1: Your Race Plan May Not Always Pan Out the Way You Expect It To
The most crucial mistake I made during the Chicago Marathon was choosing to stick with my designated pacer, even when he ran the 15th mile 15 seconds faster than planned. Even though I felt good enough to speed up, there were still eleven miles left in the race and the extra energy I used in the 15th mile contributed to the decrease in pace over the final few miles.
When run correctly, a marathon is a deliberate unspooling of a precise amount of energy. It should feel comfortable at first and challenging at the end. One common mistake that many runners make is running the early miles of the race too fast.
Even when you run with a pace group, there may be times when you have to decide to run your own pace. Pacers are human, and if you find yourself running too slow or too fast for your designated race plan, know when to break from the group and set your own pace.
Many large marathons now offer pace bracelets that you can personalize with your own race plan ahead of time so you know where you should be at each mile marker. If you're diligent about hitting all of your splits, you can keep your race plan intact and avoid crawling home the last few miles or, contrarily, feeling too good too late in the race with not enough pavement to make up those extra minutes.
Lesson 2: Focus On the Things You Can Control
On the morning of the race, 15- to 20-mph winds blasted runners on the course, slowing race paces and finishing times. Leading up to the race, I was unsure how the wind pattern would play out, and on race morning, I knew it would not be in my favor.
On any given race day, perfect conditions are rare. Race day may be too cold, too warm, too windy, too rainy or too sunny. You may end up having to run in "no man's land" without a group because you cannot control anyone else's race, just your own.
Embrace the unexpected. Because there was wind on marathon day, I made sure to tuck behind a group of people so that I wasn't wasting any more energy than I needed to. I visualized myself as a wedge, slicing through the wind and, above all, I stayed positive, telling myself that the wind was not slowing me down.
Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst is important for marathoners. During training, don't shy away from running in adverse conditions, as you may have to face them on race day. Training in the wind, rain, heat and cold will build the confidence you need to tackle anything on race day.