Processing a Marathon: How to Win a Little Bit without Actually Winning

By Becky Wade

October 22, 2017

A lot goes into a marathon buildup: months of training, several hundred miles, limit-testing workouts, regular gym sessions and more thought, nerves, and excitement than most of us let on. For such an infrequent event—once or twice a year, typically—it’s a long and consuming process. Just ask our significant others, family members and close friends: an in-season marathoner is not exactly your go-to person, unless we’re talking about an early movie night, a recovery run or just about anything coffee- or food-related.

So when the performance in which you’ve invested a lot doesn’t live up to your expectations, it stings. It’s hard to understand and harder to accept. That’s where I’m at with the recent Chicago Marathon. I went in with ambitious but realistic goals of smashing my PR and mixing it up with women who, on paper, were much more accomplished than me. I envisioned crossing the finish line feeling strong and euphoric. Instead, I struggled. I combatted a side stitch for a good two-thirds of the race and at 15K, I made a fateful decision to stop drinking as a result. I staggered to the finish line in 2:35 and in 10th place, averaging a page that, on most days, is closer to conversational than race effort.

Were it any other distance, I would have found another race in which to redeem myself in the following week or two. I would apply what I learned in Chicago and experimented with alternatives in a couple of key areas. I would demote that race from a raw wound to a small blip on the radar. And I still hope to do all that. I’ll just have to wait a few months.

In the meantime, I’m following my standard post-marathon protocol. Since I didn’t beat my body up as much as I would have had I blazed those 26.2 miles, this time is just as much for my mental rejuvenation as my physical. I did endure a grueling few months of preparation, after all, so it’s still important to back off for a bit before I go all-in again.

This is the format I follow after a big race or a long season:

First, I start recovering. I’ve never responded well to two or three weeks totally off, so I alternate pool jogging with short, light jogs (really more of a mosey). I don’t have a lot of structure and I take days off when I feel like it. Within the week, I also check in with my soft-tissue therapist/body guru to be sure I’m not harboring anything more than the usual amount of stiffness. And finally, I loosen up in other areas like bedtime and nutrition. Lacking inspiration? Look no further than The State Fair of Texas, where you could have found me with my family last Friday. If the Deep Fried Chicken Noodle Soup doesn’t speak to you, maybe the Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Cheeseburger will.

Within a week of racing, I record my thoughts on the race. Similar to the “wave of consciousness” exercises I did in middle school English, I jot down things that went right, things that went wrong and general thoughts worth preserving—like what I ate the day before, how I warmed up, what my exact fueling strategy was and how I felt at different points of the race. This is both cathartic in the moment and useful for future races. Seeing as most of my Chicago recap was focused on the evolution of my stitch, I’ll point you instead to a great example from Citius chief Chris Chavez on his recent PR in Berlin.

Next, I tweak my approach. If there’s anything in need of addressing or improving upon—like downhill running, even pacing or in my case, a cruel side stitch—the window between one race and the next build-up is the time to do it. It’s unwise to adjust too many variables at once, but there are always a couple of things worth scrutinizing and tinkering with. Since Chicago, I’ve been seeking insight from experts from a few different fields into the origins of stitches and how they might be prevented or reduced. If I come out of this one with a good answer, I’ll consider it a small win.

While fine-tuning my approach, I also map out my next goals. I talk to my coach and agent about potential races to target in the coming months and pencil in others that line up with those. I haven’t made any decisions yet, but seeing as I’m getting married next September… I’m planning for a big spring and summer.

And finally, I get back to it! Usually around the two-week mark, I’m sufficiently antsy. I have a tougher time sleeping than usual, I crave hard work, and I get eager to return to a disciplined, routinized lifestyle. I also find myself spending more time envisioning future races than replaying the most recent one. Those are all good indicators that I’m ready to ease back into normal training. Since I rejoiced when my coach gave me a 90-minute run for on Sunday morning and woke up extra early in anticipation, I’d say I’m just about there.

(Photo by Michael Scott & https://miscottrunningphoto.shutterfly.com)

Becky Wade

Native Texan, Rice University grad, Colorado transplant. Specializing in the 3K Steeplechase and Marathon. Author of “Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe,” which is available on Amazon and wherever else you get your books.