Retrofit Blog

It's a Marathon, But No One Told Me What That Meant

July 3, 2014
Gary Ditsch Running

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie L. Church

I was holding my desired pace pretty well as the miles continued to go by. I had made it through the 20-mile marker, which is where everyone anticipates hitting the mythical "wall". I knew that the wall was not something to fear, as this was not my first marathon. In fact, it was not my tenth marathon either. I had been through this experience quite a few times in the past, but this was a race I had targeted for almost eight solid months. This race, for me, was an attempt to break a big-time barrier and set a personal best at the same time.

Though my pace had remained quite steady, I knew internally that the pressure was mounting. I was calculating splits, playing mental games, acknowledging the crowd, anything I could think of to get my mind off the reality that my body just wasn't responding. I could imagine playing the old Nintendo game Excitebike and doing nothing but redlining the engine at every chance I had. There were only 4.5 to 5 miles to go. Surely, I could tough out a simple five mile run and finish.

I went from running under a seven-minute pace for approximately 22 miles to taking 28 minutes to cover a single mile. The truth is that I do not recall all that happened. I remember getting a little wobbly. A fellow runner yelled at me to get out of the way. Although, as I think back, maybe she was yelling for someone to come help me. The only clear thoughts I had were of two volunteers chasing me down with water and Cytomax and then walking a mile with me, handing me off to another volunteer who walked another mile and a half. Then, I slowly jogged to the finish line.

The saying, "It is not a sprint, it is a marathon" is commonly used to emphasize to people that they need to take a long-term view. That managing progress should happen over time and that we should not always expect immediate results. The advice is used in everything from financial planning commercials to product slogans. The phrase is even a guiding principle that our wellness experts adhere to at Retrofit. Within the context of weight loss, the principle implies that for sustainable weight loss, an individual needs to adopt a new lifestyle and behaviors. These results happen with thoughtful processes not with rapid solutions and momentary choices.

The marathon versus sprint analogy is often paired with the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare. As the fable teaches, "slow and steady wins the race".

What I have always wondered when I hear someone use the marathon analogy is the following: Are they suggesting that taking the marathon approach is a guaranteed path to success? Is the advisor implying that taking small and methodical steps will always lead to progress and improvement? While that may not be the intent of the message, I often feel that it is the way the advice is being interpreted.

I have coached hundreds of runners, with many different types of backgrounds and abilities. The one thing that I have learned through all of these cases is that sometimes it does not work out. There are times that the best plans with the most dedicated runner do not lead to great success. And this is where I believe the "It's a marathon, not a sprint" mantra truly comes into light and provides a powerful framework to view your efforts.

In every marathon, there will be moments that a runner feels really good and energetic. It can be at the start of the race, but there are also other moments throughout the race that runners can feel like they are making progress with almost no effort. The runners that have completed a marathon know that these periods of high and low energy are not following a steady decline from start to finish. As common as the moments of high energy and low fatigue, there will be times that feel difficult. In those moments, which can happen at any point over the 26.2 miles, runners can feel like they are completely out of energy. It might take all the motivation he or she has to simply keep moving forward. During those low periods of a race, it can start to become mentally difficult and emotionally draining. The desire to quit can often start to creep into the runners thoughts.

The resilience a runner develops through training and experience becomes useful in these moments. When you know that these phases of a race are to be expected, it allows a seasoned runner to appropriately adapt and carry on. The runner with an established resilience will know that even in the worst moments, if they can continue on, there will be better miles in the future. This can often occur within the same race. It can even happen within the same mile. And, it is often difficult to predict when these periods will appear.

In New Orleans, on the day that I went from running well to losing any amount of clear thinking, I was able to adjust and still get through the finish line. It was a great opportunity to learn some lessons as we drove the twelve and a half hours home to Kentucky. When it comes to persistence and resilience, I learned the following lessons:

1. Have a solid support system.

I had a group of runners with me on that trip, which provided the source of support necessary to put the race into perspective. When you face the challenging moments on your path to your own goals, it is ideal to have constructed a support system as you get started.

2. Assess the positives.

There was no personal best achieved at that race, but I did complete a marathon in the state of Louisiana. So while the immediate outcome was not accomplished, I was able to end the trip feeling positive about what I had completed. In your journey, consider ways that you can have multiple "wins". A great example in weight loss is to have other measurements of success in addition to just the number that appears on the scale.

3. Find some quick wins.

Having just spent six months training for the race, I knew I had one of two options. I could get down on the outcome and internalize the perceived failure, or I could get proactive and find ways to have several quick wins. Knowing I was in good shape, I signed up for several more races in the following months. I ended up with a new 10k personal best and ran my second fastest marathon. The opportunity to follow up moments of defeat with chances for success is a key strategy that can increase your resilience.

4. Return to your personal, "Why?"

It is likely that as your journey continues, the goals shift and your expectations change. It is a good practice to regularly take time to reflect back on the reason you started the journey to begin with. In my case, I started running in order to dedicate myself to a positive and healthy habit that would motivate me. Remembering this vision allowed me to see how lucky I was to be capable of running a marathon in the first place. As you continue in your journey, maintain a clear vision of what you are attempting to manifest within your life.

The next time someone suggests that you consider your journey as a marathon and not a sprint, I want you to realize that it does mean that taking a long-term point of view is better than expecting quick, yet fleeting, results. And in the true spirit of a marathon, it also means there will be times that giving up will feel like the best decision. Respond like a marathon runner, with resilience to carry on despite the challenges that may come your way.

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Gary Ditsch Retrofit Lead Exercise Physiologist

Gary is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Certified Personal Trainer and a Level 1 Triathlon coach. He holds a Masters of Science in Kinesiology and Health Promotion from the University of Kentucky. Gary loves motion. He lived on an airport as a kid, worked on a riverboat, and has ridden his bike across Iowa - just because.

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