So when are you going to run a marathon?

Although one of the most commonly asked questions, its words have haunted me! For years, I’ve been asked over and over again when I was going to run a marathon. And time and time again, I would explain that I simply wasn’t interested in running the distance. Physically, I found it hard on my injury-prone body. I actually tried training for a marathon 3 times—but each time I would get injured (disclaimer: looking back, I’m sure that I could have done things differently to avoid injury). Emotionally, I wasn’t very motivated and I worried that I would get bored on the long runs. I liked capping my long runs at 1h30min! Still, it felt like there was this looming unspoken expectation that I should be running longer.

But then at the end of 2014 I had a medical episode that forced me to back-off completely from training. As I started to heal, I found that I could tolerate longer workouts so long as I kept the intensity easy. So I started training longer. And longer. And all on the trails. Before I knew it, I was running for 2h+ most weeks. My long run capped at 3h:45min. I ran a 37K trail race in the French Alpes (which took 5h30min due to the CRAZY elevation) followed by a 50K trail race in NY State (which had me running for just over 5H, due to the crazy but oh-so-fun hills). And I absolutely LOVED IT ALL!!!

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All smiles after winning Virgil Crest 50k

So what caused this sudden transformation? First of all, I discovered that my body could handle a larger training volume – distance and intensity, by incorporating trail running. The softer terrain, in comparison to the road or pavement, as well as the ever-changing direction and elevation of the trails, bode well for my body. Second, the time-off forced me to change my training habits and my expectations. Unlike when I was training for my first marathon, where I was gunning for a fast time, my goal this time was to simply finish the race. Plus, I had no choice but to keep the intensity easy, otherwise my symptoms would flare up. Combined, this removed any pressure and made my training much more relaxed, enjoyable and less stressful. I didn’t worry about nailing a certain pace for a particular run; my main consideration was to gradually build the amount of time on my feet regardless of the distance covered (disclaimer: training approach for ultra trail race is slightly different than training for road race). I never monitored my pace, distance or heart rate—in this sense, I was totally carefree! I simply went back to the basics of listening to what my body was telling me and adjusting my run accordingly. Finally, there is the element of timing – I believe that I simply wasn’t ready to run longer prior to now. My mind knew that, and my body was trying to tell me that as well. Trying to force something that you are simply not ready for only ends in disappointment.

To my surprise, I wasn’t bored with the long, solitude runs. I rediscovered a new love and passion for running by embracing the slower pace and longer distance. My weekly long runs became therapeutic and meditative for me. And the two ultra races I did were the perfect distance – I never reached that dark lonely place where I would ask myself “why am I doing this”? Instead, I embraced every KM of the race with a smile on my face.

Its now been a few months since I’ve ran beyond 1h30min..and I’m definitely feeling the itch to go longer again. And I’m starting to plan for my next 50K races. Will I ever run a marathon on the road? At this point, my best guess is “not likely”—except perhaps when I run an Ironman! But who knows, perhaps next year I will be motivated to train again for shorter distances. But at the end of the day, the distance covered is not what’s distinguishes me as a runner. There is NO underlying and unspoken expectation that running longer is better. What makes me a runner, just like all of the athletes I coach or train with is the dedication and commitment that we put into it, and the joy that we derive from it! So whether you are training for a 5K, 10K, 21.1K or marathon this season, road or trail, remember to let your passion, and not your expectations, fuel your runs!

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We should all celebrate our victories! 

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