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26 Strong: Defining Race Moments

After 13 first-time marathoners completed the 2015 Chicago Marathon as part of the Saucony 26 Strong Project, they reflect on their race day "success."

Success is determined by more than just finishing a marathon.

When training for a marathon, reaching the finish line after 26.2 miles of running is the ultimate goal, but it’s far from the only achievement. For first-timers, success happens when logging runs of double-digit mileage for the first time, earning a new 5K PR or tackling a previously intimidating hill. It’s choosing sleep over Netflix, a group run instead of happy hour or a green salad over chili cheese fries.

Just as a marathon finishing time isn’t the only mark of achievement, no single workout or decision makes or breaks a marathon season. Instead, it’s a collection of successes—adapting to the physical and mental stress, listening to your body, overcoming obstacles, executing your training plan and, of course, ultimately running 26.2 miles.

Success [sek’ses]
noun—the accomplishment of an aim or purpose
*According to Oxford Dictionaries

Professional runner Megan Lizotte sees each workout as a drop of water in a bigger bucket. Each workout, just like each success, builds on the ones before it until you eventually reach your goal. This is the same theory behind the building blocks and measured progression of marathon training.

For the participants of 26Strong—a collaboration between Competitor and Saucony pairing 13 experienced marathon mentors (coaches) with 13 first-time marathoners (cadets) with the goal of running the 2015 Chicago Marathon on Oct. 11—the successes were as unique as the runners themselves.

Training Success

Some cadets were running hobbyists. Others ran in high school or college. And quite a few had trained for a half marathon prior to joining this year’s training program. But longer runs and increased intensity of marathon training were definitely new territory for all of them.

“There were many times I doubted myself and my ability to conquer the distance,” says Kellen McAvoy, a cadet from San Diego whose personal mantra was: you are stronger with every mile. “Training for the Chicago Marathon was one of, if not the most, mentally and physically challenging things I’ve ever attempted.”

The time commitment was also a big adjustment. Training for a marathon takes dedication and time that has to be carved out of already busy schedules. Whether cadets were students, parents or going to the office every day, fitting in the training was a challenge.

“I started a new year of residency training and marathon training at the same time,” says Kendall Shultes, a pharmacy resident in St. Louis. “Being able to juggle my new position and running farther than I ever had made me feel successful.”

Success comes from adaptability—switching to morning or evening runs, perhaps running to or from your kid’s soccer game for a long run or fitting in a speed work session at lunch.

“Because of my schedule, I had to learn to love to run in the afternoon and evening,” Shultes says. “The struggle was real the first couple of times, but now I can’t wait to get home and run in the park after work as the sun sets.”

Listening to your body

Focused training can lead to growing pains as your muscles strengthen and your body is taxed in different ways. New sensations, both good and bad, take getting used to. The trick is learning what’s right for you. If you pay attention, you’ll start to notice when you need to ingest more electrolytes, replace a run with cross training or take an extra day of rest. 

“After battling nagging tendinitis back in 2013, the last thing I wanted to do was reinjure myself,” says Brittany Champagne, a cadet runner from Buffalo, N.Y. “I was finally cleared for a run/walk regimen last year. To go from not being able to run, following my recovery plan and running the Chicago Marathon, injury-free, in the span of two years is a huge success.”

Training helps your body adapt to the stress loads of a marathon. Expect aching and fatigued muscles. Learn the difference between an achy muscle that needs extra time on the foam roller and a niggling pain that might require a visit to the physical therapist.

Overcoming race-day obstacles

No matter how much you rehearse and prepare, something
always goes sideways on race day. Unexpected weather, lucky socks left at home or long bathroom lines—these and similar hiccups are almost a given. Using long runs as race-day rehearsals helps you prepare for different scenarios. As for the physical component, trust your training to carry you to the finish.

“I had to take a break after colliding with another runner at a water station in the middle of the race. I could feel the anxiety begin to creep up as I struggled to find my pace,” says May Zhu, a cadet who moved from Charleston, S.C., to Chicago during her marathon training. “My mind flashed back to all of my hard training, and I knew I had to keep going.”

Laura Baughman, a cadet from Portland, Ore., suffered debilitating leg cramps, definitely not part of her race-day plan.

“I’ve had minor problems with cramping in the past, but nothing like this,” says Baughman, who regularly encourages her two teenage daughters to set their sights high and strive for their goals. “Even with the cramping, I powered on, and used each mile marker as my next goal. I was ecstatic when I passed the 25-mile mark and saw a sign that said 800 meters, then another at 400 meters. I knew these distances. I knew this was just two times around the track—I knew I could run that far.”

Achieving your goals

When it comes to the marathon itself, your feelings of success
often relate to the goals you set when you began the journey. Did you want to set a PR, qualify for Boston or run the entire 26.2 miles? Multiple goals are smart for on-the-go expectation adjustments if needed. Whether it’s to place in your age group or thank every volunteer you can, make race goals that are meaningful to you.

“I had a Goal A and a Goal B. Goal A was to run the whole 26.2 miles, and Goal B was to finish,” says Ruth Fizzarotti, a first-time marathoner at the age of 59. “I had to take walk breaks, but I crossed the finish line. And I was thrilled. There will be more marathons and opportunities to go for my goals.”  

Often goals are time-centered. Not only is the goal itself worthy, running numbers for 26.2 miles is a great distraction.

“My real goal was to finish in under four hours. It’s hard to run a smart race, and I’ve been known to go out too fast,” says cadet Lauren Fisher who ran with her coach, Katherine Hopper, as her pace taskmaster. “Katherine had me keep my speed in check until the halfway point. We ended up running negative splits and a 3:53! I felt exhausted but surprisingly good at the end.”

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