On October 5th of this year, I accomplished something that had been in the back of my mind for most of my adult life: I ran a full marathon.
26.2 miles. I did it. The whole thing.
It’s been a month, and I’ve had a chance to get some perspective, and here are some of the things that I learned that I think can be applied to life in general.
Something worth doing is worth doing twice
That’s a saying a professor of mine in college said. He was alluding to that sometimes you start a project, and you have to go through it once, only to do it again with some lessons learned.
I was forced into this because I attempted training for a marathon last year, but due to an unrelated injury had to stop about 3 months in. I was frustrated, but for whatever reason wasn’t discouraged. I simply started my training again this year, but with that previous set of experience. And it really helped make the second go around go much more smoothly. How? Namely:
When trying something hard, you need to communicate clearly to those around you
I have a very supporting wife, and understanding children, who wanted me to do the thing I had set for myself as a goal. But the first time I started a training program, I didn’t do a great job at communicating my needs clearly.
In my case it was when I had to go on runs, and how long they would be. The first time around, I knew my running schedule, but they did not. I would get all bent out of shape when I couldn’t get my runs in, or if I did go for a run, it was a surprise to them. It led to a lot of stress within the family.
The second time around, I was very straight forward about how often I needed to go running (I had a regular schedule of days in the week), and in the days leading up to my long training runs, how long I would be. This way, they had clear expectations about what I was doing. For instance, my wife would know that Sunday mornings were my long runs, and that also meant that I was also going to be wiped out for a good part of the day.
I think that the first time I went through this, I was feeling selfish enough trying to do this, so blatantly saying what my needs were felt really selfish. However, I now know the opposite is true.
The people around you, the people that care about you, will support you - but you need to be clear and up front about what you need.
This means being blunt and to the point and saying things like “I need to go for a run sometime tonight” or “tomorrow morning I’m going out for a 10 mile run”. This was really uncomfortable for me at first, but it really led to better communication, which meant everyone was happier.
People who care about you want you to succeed if you’re trying something hard, but you can’t be coy about the time or resources that you need.
Find a way to break it down
This has been said in many, many ways before, but it is true - when tackling a big, hairy challenge, you need to break it down into small achievable pieces.
In my case, I found a book that had a training program all laid out. Each run was specified, every week. It showed the progression in distance from a few miles in week one, to a 20 mile run near the end.
Your ability to look at a big problem and deconstruct it into smaller pieces is an incredibly important skill. It’s the “trick”, if there is such a thing, to true achievement.
The goal: make the thing itself as close to a non-event as possible
This is sort of a frame of mind that I’ve learned from development work, but it became clear to me it’s also for other things in life during the course of my training.
When working towards something hard, your focus should be not just that one day or event, but working towards making that one day or event as trivial as possible.
On the face of it, I realize it sounds kind of bananas. But my running program had me running all the time, and building up to longer and longer runs. My longest training run was 20 miles. Because I had built up gradually to that point, the 20 mile run, while long, was just a continuation of the program.
But here’s the thing: the marathon itself was just an extension of my training.
By the day of the marathon, I felt very prepared. I knew I could do it. It was just a slightly longer version of what I had already done.
The hard part of running a marathon wasn’t the day itself, but the work leading up to that day that made the marathon, frankly, a foregone conclusion. Or to paraphrase my running book - it isn’t getting to the finish line that’s hard, it’s getting to the starting line.
This doesn’t apply to just running, either. Gymnasts and ice skaters practice their routines relentlessly to the point that when the big performance comes, it’s just one more run through the program.
In web development I’ve also learned that “big launches” need to be broken down as much as possible so that the actual launch is as trivial an event as can be managed. That could mean working with feature flags while still pushing code to production so that the ‘big reveal’ is a flip of flag.
Now, I stress as possible in the header above because, hey, you’re still doing a hard thing. A 26 mile run is still a 26 mile run, even if you are prepared.
Control the venue as much as you can
When attempting something really hard, try to control what you can control. You have more control over the venue of your challenge than you might think. Don’t get trapped by typical approaches or other’s expectations. You’re defining your challenge. As much as is within your control, dictate when and where it will happen.
In my case, my goal was to run a full marathon and finish. My goal wasn’t running a particular marathon, or a particular time. I happen to live in the Washington D.C. area, so most people would jump to the conclusion that that meant running in the Marine Corps Marathon. And I did look into it.
However - the MCM has 40,000 runners. And I hate crowds. No. Way.
I decided to look around and see if there were any other DC area marathons. I found a very small one (200 or so runners) that was run on the banks of the Potomac. It was perfect for me - I got to be surrounded nature the whole time, and I wasn’t fighting crowds.
I know this is a diversion from my usual code-focused posts, but I hope these lessons are helpful for you if you decide to tackle something really, really hard.