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This past weekend I completed the Berlin marathon with only one week to prepare and with minimal recent marathon training.

This was a crazy idea. I admit. But I did it in the name of learning and teaching.  I did it to understand what it feels like to attempt a marathon with minimal training. I also did it prove to myself, and to others, that running a marathon is largely a test of mental strength. I did it to prove that if you believe, you can achieve.

I’ve been a long-distance runner for years.  I love it! But for the past couple of months I’ve been in a serious training slump.

Because of personal and family illness, I hardly ran or trained for two months.  My dad has terminal cancer and  I had been helping him sort out his end of life care. It got tough and I put my training aside.  My priorities had shifted. And when it was time to shift them back, I couldn’t find that fire again. I couldn’t find that spark that drove me day after day to train purely for the love of it. Some mornings I could hardly find energy to get out of bed.

Perhaps I needed this slump as a call to do something big. Perhaps I needed something big to help me through this.  When a spot became available to me just one week before the Berlin marathon, I jumped at the chance to participate.

At the thought of it, my eyes lit up and I had that same feeling of excitement that I had when I ran my first.  I knew I had to try.

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I kept my expectations manageable, however. I decided to approach it as a learning experience, not a race. With my minimal preparation for this event, I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t or couldn’t finish. I wanted to walk away from this experience unscathed.

As I only had a week to prep for Berlin, I knew there was little I could do for my physical training and any attempts might be too much given my recent slump. So I didn’t train and took care to stay fresh and well-rested. This included my usual pre-race massage.

I also followed my preferred pre-marathon diet, which consists of various root vegetables, greens, peppers, fresh vegetable juices, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, quinoa, oats, apples, berries, and no wheat or dairy.

Instead of running or strength training, I focused on my mental preparation. I researched the course, worked on my goals, developed a race plan, and visualized my race.

Before a marathon, I come up with three goals: good, great and excellent. For this event, my “good” was to cross the finish, my “great” was to do it in under the 6-hour time limit and my “excellent” was to do it in under 5.

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Starting off, I wasn’t even sure it would be smart to finish. So I ran the first 15 kilometers supporting my boyfriend’s brother Andrew and sister-in-law Sabine (pictured above) who were first and second-time marathoners.  I ran at their pace at an average of 6:36 for their hopes of a 4:30 marathon.

The next 15 kilometers, I ran for myself. By km 20, my calves and hamstrings were stiff. To take care of me, I took full advantage of the mid-race mini-massages on offer every 5 kilometers from km 25 to the finish.  This portion of my run was the most physically demanding. 

When I met my boyfriend at kilometer 22, I considered quitting.  I knew my “good” miles were behind me and I still had half of the race to go.  He asked if I wanted to come with him to the km 33 cheering point or if I had it in me to run there.  I decided to keep going.

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The last 12 kilometers I chose to run for my father. He’s suffering from a pretty tough illness and I figured if he can remain jovial and optimistic in the face of adversity, I can get through this marathon. By kilometer 33, I felt revived.  Even my boyfriend’s nephew noticed that I looked much better than I did at km 22.  With only 9 more to go, I knew I had to keep going.

Despite the odds, I managed to make my “great” goal.  Heck, I managed to finish. 

At first it felt strange to collect my medal.  For a few minutes I felt I didn’t deserve it.  While still in shock that I’d finished, I thought to myself: I didn’t train for it…I walked a good portion of it…I could have done much better…I even stopped for massages. 

Then I quickly remembered that 42 kilometers is serious stuff no matter how you slice it.  Anyone who makes it from start to finish merits their medal for many reasons, whether that be their exceptional speed, endurance, strength, courage, determination, tenacity, perseverance…and the list goes on. 

If you run, jog, walk, crawl, roll, or fly, it doesn’t matter.  You signed up.  You showed up.  You started.  You finished. 

Every one of these steps—for any type of runner—is commendable.   It’s about what you put in, not what you get.  One must remember that.

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3 things I learned from this experience (and you can too!)

For those of you who are training or thinking of training for a running event, don’t try running a marathon without proper training.  Instead, here are a few things I’ve learned from this experience which I hope can help you.    

1) If you want to enjoy it, get proper training

I’ve run a few and I can definitely say that running a marathon with proper training is by far the way to go.  You feel so much better.  You’re at less risk of injury or illness.  When you’re physically prepared, you have to rely less on your mental toughness to get you there.  You increase your chances of crossing the finish line, and with a greater sense of accomplishment.  Plus, you can actually enjoy it!

2) Undertraining is better than overtraining  

When training for a long-distance running event, runners often fear we haven’t done enough, that we can do more, or that we should do more to better perform.  There’s a fine line between just enough and too much.  In long-distance running, training more does not always lead to better running.  Many runners tend to overtrain by doing more than their body is ready for at that moment.  And overtraining often leads to injury, fatigue, or illness, which is no fun. 

I was definitely undertrained for this event and I wouldn’t recommend anyone attempt a marathon with as little training as I had.  However, I proved to be better off than being overtrained.  After all, I made it (safely) to the finish and for many first-time marathoners that’s the main goal. 

3) Believe in yourself and you will go far

A good portion of (marathon) training is confidence building.  We take small steps toward our goal, expanding our comfort zone and setting new limits.  Each time we exceed our previous limits and each time we reach almost-impossible goals, we feel good.  We believe we can do more.  But we’ve got to believe from the get-go.  I would have never finished this Berlin marathon had I not believed that I could.

We mustn’t forget to recognize our progress and applaud ourselves for all the work we put in to get there.  It’s easy to think that we can’t do it or that we’re not good enough.  That’s fear speaking.  But we can and you are good enough.  We’ve gotten ourselves where we are now and we can carry ourselves wherever we want to go.  Believe it and you will achieve it.

We’ve gotten ourselves where we are now and we can carry ourselves wherever we want to go.  Believe it and you will achieve it.

Disclosure: I do not believe that running a marathon without proper training and preparation is a good idea. I am a qualified trainer and coach, and overall am in very good physical condition. Despite my recent slump, I have a solid foundation of strength and running training which made this personal challenge doable. In addition, I am experienced in tuning in to my body’s limitations and requirements to stay safe and injury-free. I also finished this marathon in 5:27:08, a good hour slower that what I would have been capable of this year with proper training and preparation for this marathon. That extra time made this challenge easier to accomplish and easier on my body.  Please do not try running a marathon untrained or with minimal training without the guidance of a knowledgeable professional.

Got comments or questions?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Laurie Villarreal

Laurie’s an accomplished endurance athlete and has been running since 1998. She’s the founder of House of Running and a professional Running Coach, a certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Health & Wellness Coach. Laurie’s trained and worked with nearly 1000 runners since 2010. She’s a master in her field with over 10,000 hours of run coaching experience. Laurie helps ambitious professionals make running part of their healthy lifestyle through on-on-one online coaching and fun group training programs. She has a unique holistic approach to running, helping her runners think beyond running to realize their running dreams. Read more about Laurie here.

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