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Katherine Hopper: Setting Goals for Your First Marathon

Goals are good, but should be toned down for your first marathon.

Why are you running a marathon?

Do you simply want to complete the distance? Or maybe you have a goal time in mind?

When I started training for my first marathon in 2011, I didn’t have any specific goals in mind, other than just finishing the race. I was running a marathon because the challenge intrigued me.

As the training season progressed, I was comfortably hitting my training goals, paces, and workouts. I became a little greedy and set my heart on running my first marathon in less than 3 hours and 35 minutes. I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

It ended up being dangerous for me to go into my first marathon with such a strict goal time.

When I got to mile 17, I felt like I was halfway dead and I realized I wasn’t going to make my goal time. At that point, I mentally checked out and let myself lose focus. I was slowing down and decided that if I wasn’t going to meet my goal time, I didn’t even want to finish the race. I borrowed a friend’s phone and called another friend to come pick me up at mile 20. Thank goodness he talked some sense into me and reminded me how upset I’d be if I were to not finish the race.

I begrudgingly slugged through the remaining six miles in a painful state of leg cramps and negative thoughts. It was NOT pretty, but at least I finished. When I crossed the line, the joy and sense of accomplishment of finishing my first marathon was overwhelming. It was all worth it at that point.

I couldn’t believe I was so close to stopping at mile 20 just because I was not going to make my goal time. I vowed to never be so hard on myself again.

It can be useful to pick a goal time, it can help you structure your training and build motivation. However, it is important to not obsess over your goal on race day. There is a lot that can happen during your first marathon that you can’t control or anticipate, no matter how well prepared you are.

The Solution–Choose Multiple Goals

Instead of choosing one strict goal for race day, choose a variety of goals to aim for, depending on how everything goes. Don’t create limits by putting an immense amount of pressure on yourself.

  • Your “A” goal should reflect what you’re capable of doing if everything goes perfectly according to plan and include a specific time goal. This time goal should be based on your coach’s advice or be based on a pacing chart that takes into account your comfortable running pace and finish times from previously completed shorter races.
  • Your “B” goal should be a realistic situation if things don’t go exactly according to plan on race day. For me, this would mean finishing the race without walking.
  • Your “C” goal should be something that is realistic to accomplish. An example is to finish the race.

On race day, trust in your training and keep in mind all the time and effort that you committed towards completing your first marathon. Don’t be a slave to a time goal; it is impossible to control all the factors on race day! Decide a range of goals ahead of time and you can’t go wrong.