5 Things I wish I knew before runningWritten on March 15th, 2022 by Jonathan Tsang
I entered into the world of running fairly clueless. I had shoes. I knew how to run. But that was it. I ran here and there occasionally but never anything serious. I started going to races/being more serious about running ~Feb 2022. My races are compiled here. Then I set the goal to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
On Jan 23rd, 2022 I ran my first half-marathon in 1:35:02.
On Feb 20th, 2022 I ran my first marathon in 3:37:16.
There are a couple of things I wish I knew before I started running.
1. Every distance is vastly different (Marathon, half-marathon, 10K, 5K)
This was not obvious to me at first. I thought running was running. If you do a marathon, you can do a half-marathon, you can do a 10K, etc. But each distance is wildly different. You are probably going much quicker in a 10K than a marathon. People often specialize in a specific distance, so half-marathons might be their specialty but they can also do a full marathon with enough training. If you like doing 5K or 10K, it doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily do a full marathon, you just might enjoy quicker shorter races.
I didn’t even know what an “Ultra” was until someone told me it was any distance longer than a marathon. (can be 50K, 50 miles, 100km, and sometimes even more!) Trail running is also a subgenre of running, where you go on trails and more gravel. Personally I like paved routes, but some people specialize in trail running as their main races.
I also thought every marathon was like any other marathon, but that isn’t true. Every marathon is can be very different. Like a NASCAR race car going to different race tracks, each course is very different.
Things that can vary:
- Elevation gain/loss
- Weather on that day
- Terrain (paved, gravel, dirt, etc.)
- Knowing the course (home advantage of knowing a route versus studying the route on Strava)
- How frequent rest stops are scattered throughout the race, what the rest stops even give (hydration, electrolytes, gummies, etc.)
- How well the course is marked while running
- How well the course is barricaded from pedestrians
- How busy the starting corrals are
So a marathon in Boston is not the same as a marathon in NYC, which isn’t the same as Austin, and onwards.
2. Running season for most (Boston Qualifying) marathons is September - February
The main events are September - February. There is a reason for this, since after this period of time, events dwindle in numbers as it gets hotter. (especially the more south you are) Ideal running temperatures are not too humid, not too hot, and not too sunny. It’s a lot to ask for but cities make it work in those months.
Boston Qualifying ends in September (usually) so any races from that year onwards have to contribute to the following year’s marathon.
3. Pace zones
I didn’t know what “moderate”, “tempo”, “threshold”, etc. meant beforehand. It means much you are pushing yourself in a current run relative to runs of similar nature. I thought you go hard on every run, but that isn’t as effective. (and you tire yourself out) You want to take lighter longer easy runs to also have some recovery throughout your training. You also want to go quicker on some runs to build up endurance. It’s a more methodical process than just “run”.
Initially I would see people running around a track and I would be confused how interval training works. (To be honest I am still learning) Things like Yasso 800 where you train in spurts is a concept I am still reading about but seems to be effective as lots of people do runs on a track to build up anaerobic capacity.
4. Rest days are as necessary as training
I used to hate recovery days. I don’t like the feeling of just sitting down when I could be out there running. I like to run and be active. So why am I sitting here? For one, you get exhausted pretty quick. (Which is why even on race weeks you try to decrease the amount of distance you normally go)
No one is super human. We all have injuries, sore days, and need to take time off. Building that into the workout schedules allows for less injury-prone runs, more success long term, and feeling better overall on runs. I’ve come to realize that running is a gradual progression and it is more of a slow process than I initially thought.
5. Running is truly a competition against yourself
I have competed in many different activities at varying levels ranging from amateur to fairly competitive levels and every one had different types of competition.
When I did Leetcode contests and got to the top 1.5% of users, I always viewed it as you against a field of other people solving problems. You get ranked higher or lower based on your performance stacking up against others. You place higher by solving more problems than someone, or if you solve the same number, it is based on the quicker time to solve them. (or fewer errors/penalty) You have a rating and it is a fairly tied to this system of you versus others in solving overall quantity or maintaining speed of coding.
When I played Melee it was one versus one in singles matches. It is just you and another person, trying to beat them in a game as you try to outmaneuver and outsmart them. You win on the basis that if you execute, plan, and perform in this 8 minute match against a single person. That’s how you win that match. You go on to win a tournament by continually winning matches against increasingly difficult opponents. There may be other people at the tournament, but in the moment, it is only you and one other person to focus on.
Running is entirely different. Sure you have a crowd on the sidelines, runners beside you, and people ahead and behind you, but your progression is the main goal.
I knew early on that the talent was so wide amongst people. There are people that run the half-marathon in the same time it takes me to do the full marathon. There are also people that run the marathon in nearly half the time I run a marathon. It doesn’t necessarily take away from anyone’s performance because everyone’s circumstances are different. That’s why I think running is the true sport against yourself.
I recently travelled to San Antonio to do the marathon there. In my mind, I had new shoes and a (fairly) flat course, so I was expecting to set a new record for myself. But I neglected the fact that it was hot, humid and by mile 17 I was feeling dizzy and lightheaded from dehydration.
In the end I came in 20th place. On paper that sounds great, but it was actually my worst time ever for a marathon (of the two I have done) and I had to walk a portion of the race. There were less than 300 people who ran the full, which is fairly small compared to Austin having closer to 2700. If you ignore he context of the results, you can interpret the race incorrectly/entirely different.
On my running page I used to display my rankings for each race, but I have since removed it. Unlike competitive programming where your rating increases or decreases based on rating, there is no system for racing like that. And as I highlighted with the above example, rankings lack context even when you look at different genders and age-groups. (An overall ranking for the race may be inflated since on average males can perform better than females because of body anatomy. As well younger age groups can almost always out perform older age-groups due to your VO2 max being higher on average when you are younger. It isn’t always the case, but on average this causes rankings to be unreliable without context.)
As much as I was disappointed I didn’t set a new record in San Antonio, I walked away learning a ton of lessons. For one, weather is a big factor. Austin was a really chilly single digit at the start which definitely lended to not needing as much hydration early on (in San Antonio I was chugging water by mile 2). Also, competing out of town is a challenge in itself. Austin I knew the course fairly well (since I lived here) and nothing was too surprising. Every turn in San Antonio proved to be challenging since I had no idea what lay ahead. (I looked at the course briefly ahead of time, but there is a big difference between seeing a map versus running it) I was also (understandably) stressed since I took the bus into San Antonio only the day before the marathon to save money. I was also locked out of my apartment the night before traveling to San Antonio which almost caused me to miss my bus and the race in San Antonio. Luckily I got my stuff, caught my bus, and did the race.
I had to keep focused because on race day you don’t want to experiment and try new things. I try to keep in line to the same things I do any other day I do a long run. Any disruption from routine can be a little offsetting mentally and keep me out of rhythm.
The San Antonio marathon performance was good enough compared to others (shown by how high I ranked), but running isn’t a comparison against others. (At least not at my level) Right now I’m working on improving my times against my previous times. Running can still be a social activity, I go on group runs all the time, but there are always going to be the long runs where I am alone. It’s just me racing against myself.
Bonus Note: Everyone runs for different reasons
Building on top of the “running is a competition against yourself” point, I also found that we all run for different reasons. Some people just want a way to destress, get active and enjoy their life. That’s a good enough reason in itself.
In my brief travels, I found that something different motivates everyone to run. When I was in San Antonio, I met a couple who told me their goal was to do a half-marathon in all 50 states. She had done 10 half-marathons already. (I thought this was a pretty cool goal)
One of the people in my initial pace group for the San Antonio marathon (3:30) was trying to qualify for Boston with the San Antonio race. (Female qualifier for Boston is 3:30, and I think she ended up just ~3 minutes off, which is heartbreaking. She definitely could have done it if it wasn’t as extremely hot as it was that day)
A few people I met said they want to use running as cross-training and their main sport is actually biking.
Some people told me they train for triathalons like Iron Mans (The behemoth of triathlon, where you do a 2.4mile (3.8km) swim, 112 mile (180km) bike and 26.2mile (42.2km) run). For them running is just ONE of the three facets of that race.
One person I met said they were an All-American in high school for running. Nowadays they just like to run for fun and socialize.
I’ve met people who aspired further, hoping to qualify for the Olympics qualifiers (each US state sends a limited number of people each year, info here). This is approaching the upper echelon of running competition with incredibly tight timings like a marathon in 2:18:00 or a half-marathon in 1:03:00. I can’t even begin to fathom the time and dedication it takes to reach that level.
We all run for different reasons which furthers my point, we are competing with ourselves at every race. We all have our own goals we are working towards.
My goal is one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. It is a lofty goal, but I hope by being dedicated and putting in the time, I can make it happen.
If I accomplish that, I think doing an international marathon like Tokyo marathon would be a stretch goal and I’d love to do a full marathon in every state.