Everyone knows two things about marathons: a) because they are hard on your body, you should probably only run one or two per year maximum, and b) you can’t tell marathoners what to do. Am I right?
When I started out training for the 2015 Baltimore Marathon, I didn’t realize that about halfway in, when I moved to an apartment less than a 10 minute walk to the Marine Corps Memorial, I would get a serious longing to run the Marine Corps Marathon again. I hadn’t entered the lottery, so my only option was to enter the race through a charity and raise money– not my strong suit. Plus, more importantly, the Baltimore Marathon was only 8 days prior to the Marine Corps Marathon. It was a lot to consider. But the more I did consider it, the more I thought, “Pffft, I can do that!” I mean, why not? I would have the opportunity to give back to a good cause and I remembered a time when running a half-marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday for the Goofy Challenge was out of my league, but in 2013, I did just that. I wasn’t trying to take on too much here, but I couldn’t see a reason why I shouldn’t do it. So I registered.
Now, I admit, I was completely freaked out about how I was actually going to pull this off. It felt crazy. When people hear I’m going to run a marathon, I usually get at least one “you’re crazy” but when I told people I was going to run two marathons, almost everyone said it. Literally everyone repeated that when I said they were within a week of each other. I’ve gotten used to hearing “you’re crazy” when I tell people I run marathons, but running two marathons within a week, the “you’re crazy” started to sink in a little. Because, well, it is crazy. A simple Google search will yield scores of articles about the physiological impact of running 26.2 miles, some in more gruesome detail than others. But you know what’s even crazier than all of that? Our body’s ability to repair itself. Will and determination. Prayer. There are levels of crazy: there is genuinely, certifiably insane and then there is inconceivable. Running two marathons within a week may be a little bit of both, but it is not impossible. Crazy does not equal impossible.
How Did I Actually Do It?
I’m sure there are tons of ways– maybe talk to one of those people who run a marathon every week for a year and learn from what they do. When you only have 7-8 days between races, your only goal should be to recover or get as much of the benefit of rest as you can before you hit it hard again. Recover, rest, and repair. Lather, rinse, repeat. If your race is a couple of weeks out, you should still focus on recovering but you have a little more wiggle room to run so you don’t get rusty. In general, I think the principles are the same here.
Here are my tips for how to recover in time to run two back-to-back marathons**:
- Starting with my victory meal, I ate a LOT of protein. Beans, quinoa, steak and fish, eggs, veggie patties, milk, edamame, Greek yogurt, oatmeal. I prefer to get my protein from plan sources, and I don’t consume a lot of dairy; however, there was no source of protein I wasn’t willing to consume to prepare for this feat.
- Get no less than 9 hours of sleep per night. The general wisdom going into race week is to rest as much as possible in case you can’t sleep the night before the race, but I added 2 hours of sleep to my typical 7-hour slumber. Luckily for me, this was easy because I was exhausted. You might be, too.
- Foam-roll every night. But don’t overdo it. You should only go for about 3 minutes per sore area at a time, but listen to your body. If you’re used to massages, get a light one. If you are relatively new to sports massage, now is probably the worst time to try. Which brings me to my next point….
- Don’t try anything new. You’ve just put your body through a lot and you might be getting excited to try new fitness activities now that marathon-training is almost over. However, your priority should be on resting and rebuilding. Even a simple yoga stretch that you’re not used to doing could result in an adverse reaction. I didn’t want to take that chance personally.
- Run very slow, easy miles before the next race. Since I only had 8 days in between races, I only ran once to shake out and it was a very slow 3 miles. Run very easy light mileage, nothing over 8 miles if you insist on a long run, and don’t beast-mode anything. You have nothing to prove anymore!
- Take a daily inflammatory. Baltimore was very hilly and my quads were sore, so I needed it. It helps cut down on muscle inflammation, too.
- Lower your expectations for this race. You may not be able to get a PR, but you can finish what you started. Also, without any expectations except to just enjoy the race, you may actually end up doing better than you thought you would!
- Make sure your health is sound enough to handle it. Personally, I don’t believe it is “hardcore” to finish a marathon with a walking cast on. I don’t think it’s cool to limp your way through 26.2 miles. While I admire where that determination comes from, personally if I knew I had a condition that could get drastically worse followed by weeks off the trails and months of physical therapy and the bills that come with it, I would not run anything and focus on healing instead. The night before the race, I took a really bad misstep off a curb– I thought the ground was in front of me, but it was about 6 inches under me and I landed with a straight leg and felt the jolt through my spine. While I felt fine before and during the race, I couldn’t walk afterwards. The doctor thought the misstep plus the marathon caused a hip fracture, so I got an x-ray to check. It came back negative, but while I waited to heal, driving past my running trails wishing I could be out there enjoying the unseasonably warm October rain and fall colors was probably the worst I’d ever felt– and that was only ONE week off from running. Imagine if it was 6 to 8 weeks. I almost regretted my decision to run back-to-back races. In my opinion, there is plenty of time to finish what you started at next year’s race. The time is not always now.
What I Would Have Done Differently
So, I was able to pull off running two marathons in a week and I ended up with two races I can be extraordinarily proud of. But it doesn’t mean there are things I would change if I ever decided to do that again. Specifically:
- I would have actually planned to do this; meaning, I would set out with a goal of two back-to-back marathons instead of hope my training was enough to carry me through both of them. While I love spontaneously signing up for things I didn’t initially plan to do, this approach probably doesn’t work best in the marathon setting.
- I would have incorporated more strength and core work into my training. For runners, this should be a given regardless of whether you are running a 5K or an ultra, but I knew that I was about to wreak a shitload of havoc on my body. I should have prepared accordingly by strengthening my stabilizing muscles. After I ran Baltimore, what astonished me most was how weak certain muscles in my hips and pelvis felt. I went into the Marine Corps Marathon with weakened muscles that I should have burnished with iron and it led to injury after Marine Corps. Nothing sucks worse than running 26.2 miles in four and a half hours only to be reduced to a hobble two days later. Total blow fest.
- Pick two courses that are similar. Baltimore was a hilly course while the Marine Corps Marathon is relatively flat. If I could do it again, I’d have chosen to run another race with similar topography. Hill training requires different muscles than flat-level training. While I tried to incorporate a little of both to train both muscle groups, I might have lost out on valuable time training on one or the other. So pick one or the other: hilly course or flat and fast.
- I’d have planned one helluva celebration dinner. After the Baltimore Marathon, I hobbled down to the burger joint below my apartment and took home a thick butter-cinnamon milkshake and a single medium rare burger called the Regulator, then ate it in front of a movie. That’s kind of all I had the energy to do, but I can’t lie that I was texting around seeing who wanted in on some steak and eggs with a side of pancakes and a tall thick milkshake at the diner up the street from me. No takers. After Marine Corps, I almost passed out in the shower because all I ate for two hours after the race was watermelon and a banana. If you pull off this feat, you have every right to celebrate. So make plans with people ahead of time– do not be afraid of throwing out an invite on social media or email that says ‘When I run two marathons, I will want some steak! Who’s with me!?!’ and set a reservation ahead of time. I promise, it’s not the same thing as bragging. Let people celebrate the big moments of life with you, and yes– this is one of those big moments.
Would I do this again? Probably not. I’m just being honest. I love running so much, but I don’t know if I am strong enough to keep doing back-to-back marathons because I am focusing on how I can stay a marathoner for life. Right now, I’m forcing myself to take two full weeks off from running and it suuuuucks. I don’t like to not run and I get impatient with resting. So, you have to decide what you love more and adapt to that. But– I have to admit– it is completely, totally, and pretty much absolutely awesome to get to tell people you once ran two marathons in one week. The “you’re crazy” instead has turned into, “You’re badass!” That feels priceless.
**Nov. 3, 2015 update: After getting a few questions about what I did or thought about the whole time I was out there running, I realize that I didn’t include any tips for mentally getting through two marathons. The usual things apply here– crowd support, a good playlist, maybe an audiobook or something to keep your brain stimulated. The best answer is that you zone out, don’t think, and just run. But it took me a long time to figure this out: the key to mentally getting through a marathon or two is to be present. Don’t think about the medal, what you’ll eat to celebrate later, the finish line, how tired you might be in an hour. You just have to be present and focus on the mile you are in. Easier said than done. Like I mentioned, it took me a long time– 5 marathons– to figure out how to do that. But it works. Practice that on your training runs so you can execute in the marathon. Think only about what you are doing right in that moment, don’t think about the next mile. Just run, observe your surroundings, pay attention to your movement and breathing, stare straight ahead and run to one point and then another and another. Keep going until it is time to stop.