Day 47: The Marathon, Demystified (Or “I’m Learning How to Learn”)

As a teacher, I regularly watch others as they literally learn how to learn. When it comes to playing piano, people generally start out with preconceived, often-incorrect notions of what learning piano entails. They often impose unrealistic expectations on their own learning. They might think, for example, that they should be able to play new music at full speed, just like the recording. Or they might expect themselves to be able to quickly learn to sight-read. Their ideas of what they should be learning and how fast they should be learning it can be a handicap to their actual learning.

As they work with me, they start to replace guesswork and assumption with actual experience about the learning process. If they seem unsure about their ability to play piano, I tell them, “You will always learn as long as you are focused and know what to work on.” If they overwhelm themselves by trying to do too much at once (such as while reading music), I say, “Let’s just back up and focus on one thing at a time.” If they are being overly harsh on themselves, I say, “Progress is what matters, not perfection.” Over time, my students gain greater confidence in their abilities as they build a track record of positive progress. They may modify their expectations of their abilities, but they also become more confident and trusting in the process as they realize that learning is easier than they thought it would be.

In other words, bit by bit, they stop making it hard on themselves.

I’m sure this is just as true for running marathons. I include myself here when I say that most people probably view running a marathon as a very hard task, perhaps of superhuman proportions. I know that I did. Now that I have completed two marathons, I have experienced both the good and the bad in the process. Maybe I am ready for a more mature view of marathoning, one that is not so “hard!”

My new running coach, Jeff Galloway, is helping me demystify the marathon process and make it practical, manageable, and sensible. In his book “Marathon: You Can Do It!,” which I am using to train for marathon #3 , Galloway writes,

The marathon is primarily an endurance event. It is only secondarily a race and should not be an ordeal. This isn’t to say it’s a walk in the park, but you should be able to finish a marathon, enjoy the sense of achievement it gives you, and look forward to running your next one.

“Marathon: You Can Do It!” p.2

When I first read this I was struck by Galloway’s sensible and accessible approach to the marathon. It was quite different than how I experienced my first two marathons. Like a new piano student, I had all these ideas of what doing a marathon was supposed to be.

First of all, I thought marathon training had to be intense, requiring an all-consuming focus. My first two training programs involved an unrelenting string of weekend long runs and took up all my extra energy. Although I loved the process dearly both times, my experience reinforced the feeling that training for a marathon meant I couldn’t have much else going on in life.

Happily, I know now this is not true. Wanting to balance marathoning with the rest of life is a primary motivation for doing the Galloway program. As Galloway writes, “Yes it’s possible to train for the marathon and have a life!” (p5)

Second of all, I thought I always had to run fast. I had learned as a child that running equals racing!* Marathon training has forced me to de-emphasize speed so I can train properly for endurance. The problem with always running fast is that you risk burning out. And doing a marathon is primarily and firstly about endurance. You need to be able to keep going.

There is so much more to running a marathon than speed! Galloway definitely puts speed in its place:

Having run more than 60 marathons for time and more than 90 just to finish, I believe that time improvement is for the ego, although there’s nothing wrong with that. The speed game is interesting, but most of the satisfaction in running in a marathon comes from crossing the finish line.

“Marathon: You Can Do It!” p.6

Overall, each time I train for a marathon I learn a little more about what the process is, and what it is not (or doesn’t have to be). I’m replacing old assumptions or guesswork with actual knowledge and experience. Just like my students, I am learning how to learn 🙂

*To be clear, I still love running fast. Last weekend I did four mile repeats, running each mile at or under 8:00, which to me is quite fast. I loved it. However, I do speed work within the context of a training program that has a well-rounded plan. Before, I tried to run fast every time I ran! But now I embrace fast running in the proper time, in the proper amount.

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