Any runner’s first marathon, regardless of their credentials at shorter distances, can be a shock to the system.
Mo Farah, Haile Gebrselassie, and Meb Keflezighi all didn’t knock it out of the park in their first efforts over 26.2 miles — and it’s understandable why.
The heavy mileage, long and grueling workouts, and why am I still out here? long runs take a toll not just physically, but also tear away at the mental and emotional state of a runner in a way that you simply don’t experience when preparing for shorter distance races.
So we decided to check in with Katie Matthews and George Alex, two marathon rookies debuting at the USA Marathon Championships on December 3, to see how their preparations are going.
Here’s a little background on both of them:
A native of Rocky Hill, Conn., Matthews was a five-time All-American during her career at Boston University. (Editor’s note: Katie wrote a heartwarming tribute to her college coach, Bruce Lehane, who passed away earlier this year. You can read that here.) Since graduating from BU in 2013, Matthews has competed for the Boston Athletic Association’s High Performance Team. She enters her debut marathon with a half marathon best of 1:11:57.
Alex was a standout at Oklahoma University, where he set school records of 3:58.76 for the mile, 7:52.92 for the indoor 3000 meters, and 13:35.27 for 5000 meters. Alex joined the Zap Fitness training group out of college but has since returned to train in his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz. He has a half marathon personal best of 1:02:54.
Also making his debut at CIM is Parker Stinson, the ex-Oregon star who was part of so many successful Ducks cross country and track teams. Look out for more from Stinson on our site in the weeks to come.
Why the marathon, and why now?
KM: I’ve been moving up in racing distance the past few years, so trying a marathon just seemed like a natural progression. I didn’t want to run a marathon too early in my career, nor would I have been ready, but it seems like good timing to try it out this fall and see what I think.
GA: Since I started running, I have lived one day at a time in four-year increments. Those four years are set on the Olympic cycles. The 2020 games will most likely be my last cycle in the sport unless, of course, it makes sense for me to stay. My Oklahoma coach, Martin Smith, once told us, “Running does not owe you anything.” My last four years can definitely attest to that. I hit setback after setback, coupled with injury and missed opportunities. I touched some success on the track and on the roads, but overall, I felt mediocre in both. Therefore, in this final cycle of my training, I want the marathon to be my hedgehog, as exemplified by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. The marathon is an animal of a race and truly anything can happen within 26.2 miles. I have witnessed sub-13:00 minute 5000 meter athletes crumble at the distance, and then seen men who have run 13:40 make marathon teams. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you have run on the track, and that is what intrigues me most about competing in the marathon.
What’s been the biggest challenge in marathon training thus far?
KM: The biggest challenge has probably been adjusting to the length of the workouts. The paces aren’t very fast but it’s just the long grind that I wasn’t used to yet.
GA: Clearly, it can be just as mentally as it is physically challenging. There have been plenty of mid-week long runs where I have gotten a mile in or a mile to go and have felt like walking. Days like these take a toll mentally and physically, and it can feel like all this work I have put in has been a waste of time. Then, there are those awesome days where I feel on top of the world, and any previous doubts get eliminated. Winning the San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon [on October 7] this year was one of those days.
How are you approaching the balance between the competitive element of racing a marathon versus just getting through and surviving the 26.2 miles?
KM: I think that I’ll have to make a call at the later stages in the race about how competitive I can be. It’s really uncharted territory for me, and I’m just wrapping my head around the fact that I am capable of holding a fast pace for that long.
GA: Since racing CIM this coming December will be my debut marathon, I have no idea which aspect I will be confronted with on race day. From what I have seen, there seems to be a fine line between being competitive and surviving 26.2 miles. If the race is anything like my marathon build-up, then I can confidently say the two elements will oscillate at different sections of the race. I predict that at some portions I will feel like a competitor, and at other times I will simply be trying to survive. Regardless, I would say being competitive and surviving may be synonymous with respect to the marathon. In the end, the athlete who wins probably did a better job in both areas.
Is there something about marathon training that you weren’t expecting or that has surprised you?
KM: I’ve had a good amount of friends train for marathons before, so nothing major so far has come out that I didn’t anticipate. I think I’m surprised that I can actually do the workouts I’ve been prescribed because when I first talked to my coach about what they would be, I was like, “Woah, no way!” That, and the increase in my grocery bill!
GA: In marathon training, I was not expecting the amount of support and advice from local runners, coworkers, and sponsors. I work at a local running specialty store in Phoenix called Sole Sports. When at work, I will often mention to a customer that I am training for my first marathon and many will immediately respond with tips on nutrition, diet, etc.
What’s your biggest worry for the race outside of actually running? Bottles? Blisters? Chafing?
KM: I can’t say that I’m too nervous about those things, but maybe I should be! I actually got a very bad blood blister during training and had to deal with that, so I hope it doesn’t happen again. I’m probably most worried about hitting the infamous wall, cramping up, or something that I seemingly can’t control. I usually get more worried about training and doing the best prep I can than the actual race day logistics.
GA: I believe my biggest worries include the learning moments that can only come by actually competing in the race and then having to reflect on them later. Approaching my debut marathon, I will ride the emotion of being naive. My coach, Dave Barney, has done a lot in helping me to keep my mental worries in check. We have spent a good deal of time focusing on things we can control, and accepting that there are some things we cannot. Throughout this training cycle, he has continually said, “You write your goals in stone and everything else in sand.” We view this upcoming race as an important short-term goal, viewing it as sand in our master plan for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Mistakes will most likely be made, but with this idea in mind, they are already accounted for in our long-term plan.
Full list of debutants:
Name (Hometown), Half marathon best
Katie Matthews (Belmont, MA), 1:11:57 (2015 Houston)
Gabi Anzalone (Madison, WI), 1:14:51 (2017 Green Bay)
Lauren Martin-Masterson (Alamosa, CO), 1:15:42 (2016 San Diego)
Amy Schnittger (Aptos, CA) 1:16:55 (2015 San Jose)
Name (Hometown), Half marathon best
George-Byron Alex (Phoenix, AZ), 1:02:54 (2016 Houston)
Parker Stinson (Boulder, CO), 1:03:17 (2017 Houston)
Cole Watson (Ashland, OR), 1:03:50 (2017 Phoenix)
Nicolas Montanez (Provo, UT), 1:04:29 (2017 Provo)
Bo Waggoner (Cambridge, MA), 1:04:50 (2015 Philadelphia)
Ben Sathre (Chaska, MN), 1:04:50 (2015 Duluth)