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10 Lessons I Learned In My First Marathon (As An Ultrarunner)

On January 16th, I ran the Carlsbad Marathon. This was the first time I had ever raced a marathon. To be clear, I have covered the distance on numerous occasions. However, I’ve never run a marathon as a race.

I thought my experience running ultras would adequately prepare me for the 26.2 miles. I figured there would be no surprises and I would have little trouble.

I was wrong.

I’d like to share my story and 10 lessons I learned during my first marathon.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

Most runners follow a standard trajectory when it comes to race distances. Start with 5ks. Move up to 10ks. Then a half marathon or two. Then run the marathon. Just finishing a marathon is a monumental undertaking for many runners. This is why many individuals spend years building their way up to it.

I took a different approach.

I trained to run a marathon several times in my mid-20s. However, I never signed up for one because I generally got burned out or injured.

The main reason I never signed up is that I wanted to run as close to 3 hours as possible. I never felt I was close to doing so. I knew I could run 26.2 miles and had little interest in running a marathon just to finish.

Ultramarathons had always captured my interest more than marathons. 50 miles seemed like something that would challenge me to finish.

So in my early 30s, I began to train seriously to run a 50-mile ultramarathon. Along the way, I covered 31 miles (50k) on a training run with my wife, celebrating her 31st birthday.

In October of 2019, I finished my first 50-mile ultra. It was a difficult yet gratifying experience.

Since then, my attention has turned back to the marathon. I finished the Pikes Peak Ascent in August and started training for a winter marathon. 

I selected the Carlsbad Marathon and flew out to California for the race. I figured that since I had run ultramarathons, this would be no problem.

I had no idea just how wrong I would be.

Below, I’ll share 10 lessons I learned in my first marathon, as an ultramarathoner.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

1. It’s A different type of discomfort

Completing a 50-mile ultramarathon is difficult. I was on the trails for just shy of 13 hours. I went up and over 2 mountains and gained over 6000 vertical feet of elevation.

I spent a large portion of the day in mild discomfort. My muscles were sore, my stomach cramped from improper fueling and exertion, and the general fatigue of being on my feet and moving for half a day wore me down.

None of this fully prepared me for what I would experience in the marathon.

I most likely went out at a pace that was too fast for me. I hit 13.1 miles in 1:35:50, and my leg muscles were already in a lot of pain.

Even if I had gone out easier, I think the same thing would have happened, just later in the race.

Even though the course only featured 500 feet of elevation gain, my muscles felt worse at 13 miles in the marathon than they did at any point on the ultra.

I wrongly assumed the discomfort I had experienced during the ultra would be similar to what I felt during the marathon. 

I learned that while the marathon is half of 50 miles, the discomfort that you are going to experience will likely be much greater if you are pushing yourself and going after a specific time.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

2. Fueling is a little easier

Fueling is incredibly important during an ultramarathon. Legendary ultramarathoner Ann Trason once said, “Ultra marathons are just an eating and drinking competition with a little bit of running thrown in.”

I had a difficult time fueling for my ultra. I took gels and sports drinks exclusively for the first 25 miles. This resulted in a lot of sugar and caffeine in my system. Around 30 miles, my stomach started cramping, and it kept up for the rest of the race. This made it hard to eat any food, and I constantly felt like I was about to puke.

It did not make for a pleasant experience.

I dialed in my fueling a bit more for the marathon.

I had gels that my stomach tolerated better. I would drink every 3 miles and take a gel every 6 on my long runs to simulate what I would do on race day.

At the Carlsbad Marathon, they had aid stations at just about every mile marker. 

I started taking water and sports drinks early, thinking that since there wasn’t much in the cups, I would get ahead of it.

I took my gels at 6, 12, and 18 miles, and everything was going well.

I only had stomach issues the last mile or 2 of the race. I even felt like my stomach was full, so I didn’t take a gel at mile 23-24 as I had planned.

Since the race took less than a third of the time of the ultra, fueling wasn’t quite as important as it was during the ultra.

Between that and practicing my fueling more, I had a much better experience during the marathon than I did during the ultra.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

3. Strength training is important

I think a lack of strength training was the biggest mistake I made in my marathon buildup.

I’m great at going out and getting my runs in. It’s the little things that I tend to skip over. I know I need to do strength training, core work, injury prevention, and active recovery. 

However, these are the things that I let slip through the crack on busy days.

Doing leg workouts, in particular, would have been extremely helpful in dealing with the pounding my muscles took during the marathon. A bodyweight workout a couple of times a week would have gone a long way toward preparing me for the physicality of the marathon.

It’s a mistake that I will not be repeating in future marathons and ultramarathons.

4. Be overly cautious on pace

Being my first marathon, I wasn’t exactly sure what pace I should be aiming for.

I thought I was in 3:15-3:20 shape, so I planned on going out with the 3:15 pace group for the race.

This went well for the first half of the race but ultimately led to me slowing down and then blowing up around 19-20 miles.

My logic for the 7:30 pace was that I had run a half marathon at the beginning of summer at that pace. I had also run a half at the beginning of December, at altitude, and even after feeling rough and slowing down the second half finished at 7:30 pace.

I figured if I could run this pace at altitude when I felt rough, I could manage it for a marathon at sea level.

In the end, that proved to not be the case. It was a tough way to run a marathon.

A more cautious pace of 3:20-3:30 would have been a better approach. There’s still a chance I would have slowed down or even hit the wall. However, I would have only had 2-4 miles left instead of 7-8.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

5. The atmosphere is more high energy

My first ultra was a point-to-point 50-mile trail race. There were aid stations with a few volunteers and spectators that dotted the course. The race wasn’t very large, and after the first few miles, you were largely on your own, running through the woods of North Carolina.

The marathon was a completely different experience. The course ran down the Pacific Coast Highway in Carlsbad, California. It featured two out and back loops that were lined with spectators yelling, cheering, and partying.

The constant cheering from the spectators and encouragement from runners around me helped immensely when I was having a tough time.

After the first loop, the half marathon runners joined the course, and it became a sea of runners that helped propel you forward.

Due to the pandemic, the number of racers had been limited. In previous years, there were 8-9 times the number of participants. 

While I love trail races, there was something special about a large road race with tons of other runners and spectators around you. The collective excitement was contagious.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

6. The recovery takes longer

I have a run streak that is over 800 days. This means I run at least a mile every day. When I ran the 50-mile race, I wasn’t sure how my legs would feel the next day. I was surprised to find it wasn’t too different from how you feel after a tough workout or long run.

The marathon was a different story entirely. It must be the difference in pace and intensity. I made sure to walk around a bit after the marathon and the next morning, catching my plane home.

When I went for a mile jog the day after the marathon, it felt like my muscles were almost completely locked up. Even after a session with my chiropractor the following day, my legs were still in rough shape.

It was almost a week before I felt like I could run a mile with some sense of normalcy.

I’m now almost two weeks post-marathon, and I still feel like my legs are recovering when I’m doing runs over 30 mins or if my pace gets too fast.

I was expecting the recovery to be similar to what I experienced after my 50-mile run, but I’ve been surprised by how much longer it’s taken me to get back to normal.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

7. 15-20 mile long runs should not be missed

I can not stress this enough, try to get in as many 15-20 mile runs as you can safely fit into your training leading up to the marathon.

A quick look at my training log shows I had 4-5 good efforts at 15-20 miles in the last three months of 2021. 

I had a few other runs that were in that range (even a 28 miler), but most of these consisted of large amounts of walking, which I would not consider good training for trying to run a marathon at a specific pace.

While walking during runs was normal training for an ultra, it’s not as helpful for training for a marathon where you are shooting for a 7:30 pace.

I had a couple of more runs planned, but a few weeks of hip pain caused me to abandon 2 of them.

More of these 2-3 hour runs would have gone a long way to helping me prepare my legs for the pounding of 26 miles.

8. Do plenty of workouts spending 1-2 hours at marathon pace

In addition to the long runs, doing more moderate runs at marathon pace would have done two things: it helped me be prepared for running that pace for a marathon and also gave me a better idea of what pace I could realistically maintain.

I did plenty of work at 7-7:30 pace during runs and races. However, most of these were intervals or tempos of less than 60 mins.

The fact is you have to know what pace your body is capable of 90 minutes into a run.

This was not something I had to worry about for the ultra, as my goal pace was my normal training pace.

If you are getting ready for a marathon, make sure you get in longer runs of 60, 90, or 120 minutes at or around marathon pace.

These will be my go-to workouts in the buildup to my next marathon.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

9. You will make mistakes

I made mistakes before and during my 50 milers. I should have gotten in some back-to-back long runs to better simulate what my legs would feel like 30-40 miles in. I should have eaten more real food and less sugar and caffeine.

I also made mistakes in the marathon. I could have done better with training or I could have gone out slower. The list is long.

Mistakes are part of running. Even the best of us make them. The important thing is to learn from them.

The same day I was running the Carlsbad Marathon, Keira D’Amato broke the American Record for the marathon in Houston, running 2:19:12.

In an article, she talked about how, a few months before, she ran the Marathon Project. In that race, she ran 2:22:56, an 11-minute PR for her.

“When I ran 2:22, that felt like a pretty controlled effort,” D’Amato says, recalling her Marathon Project experience. “I finished that race thinking that I could run faster since I never really hit a wall. It felt really smooth. And marathons never really feel smooth.”

It might be crazy to think of an 11-minute PR as a mistake, but she realized after that run that she could run faster. This enabled her to come back and break the American Record.

It’s important to reflect on each race and figure out what you did well and what you could have done better. Realize that you will make mistakes and figure out how to improve on them for your next race.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

10. Don’t forget to have fun

There were some tough, dark moments during the marathon. While I never felt like I wouldn’t finish, there were periods when I was hurting and feeling sorry for myself.

During several of these moments, I just reminded myself that I was incredibly lucky that I was able to do this and have fun.

I got to run to see the sunrise as I ran next to the Pacific Ocean, waves crashing on the beach right next to me. It was my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean and a surreal experience to have during a race.

At mile 16, when the half marathoners had joined the race, I was in the midst of falling off my pace. I was hurting and feeling pretty low.

10 Lessons I Learned in My First Marathon as an Ultrarunner

Suddenly in front of me, a guy running the half knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend who was cheering him on. I just smiled and laughed. What a unique thing to see in the middle of the race.

Along the course, people were partying, wearing costumes, and just having a good time. When it got tough, I just looked at them and reminded myself that this was something I was able to do, not something I had to do.

The transition from an ultra to a marathon is not an easy one. There are plenty of things that can go wrong and lessons that will be learned. Just remember to have a good time no matter what the outcome is.

You can check out our marathon training plans here!

Photo of author
Adam Rabo has been running since junior high. He has coached high school and college distance runners. Adam recently completed the UTMB Canyons 100k, making the cutoff for the Western States 100 and UTMB. You can generally find him on the rodes or trails in Colorado Springs, training for upcoming marathons and ultramarathons.

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