Lessons Learned From a Marathon That Didn’t Go As Planned

woman training for marathon running next to the ocean

In March of 2020 when the world shut down, I was at the peak of my training for a late April marathon. After weeks of training in limbo, not knowing if the pandemic would shut down the race, I received an email notifying me the race was officially canceled. I was devastated. This would have been my third marathon and I was looking forward to shaving a lot of time off my personal record. 

After a year of delayed, postponed, and virtual races, I set my sights on a fall 2021 marathon taking place in my home city, meaning friends and family could cheer me on. This prolonged build-up made me even more excited to crush my goals and make this marathon my best race yet. 

In the end, I learned way more about myself as a person than as a runner. As a runner, I was able to complete the marathon without stopping and only two minutes off of my previous best time. As a person, these were my “bigger” takeaways from the experience: 

1. Maintaining a routine is uncomfortable, but rewarding

When I set out to make my training plan for this race, I sought advice from my friend who is a lifelong runner and marathoner. She helped me craft a 20-week plan, which was about a month longer than I’ve trained in the past. For five months, my life revolved around completing my daily scheduled workouts.

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During the first few weeks of training in the summer, I had a brutal time adjusting to the routine. It was hot, I was off from work, and the season was filled with vacations, get-togethers, and other responsibilities. It took everything I had to get up early for a workout and beat the heat, or to step away from loved ones to squeeze in my run after a long day at work or before a weekend outing. 

However, toward the end of my first month, I no longer had a sense of dread. Instead, these runs became a highlight of my day. I took pride in crossing off the run on my training log, and each Sunday, I would plan out when I would run and where, taking into account my work and family schedule. This helped me to be more productive with my time and energy and I began to get more done on the days I ran than the days when I didn’t. 

2. Plans are allowed to be fluid

About two months out from race day, I began to feel a throbbing pain in my right leg during the night. While I was still able to run, I began to take my recovery seriously: I started going to bed early, icing, and wearing compression socks. However, it was still mentally challenging to stay optimistic and not worry about becoming more seriously injured. Fortunately, the pain went away after about two weeks. 

Then, just when I felt myself completely prepared for the big day, I got a terrible head cold that lasted a solid 12 days leading up to my marathon. I had to take a few days off of work, and I missed most of my key workouts leading up to the race. 

I spiraled mentally: Did I train for five months for nothing? What if I fell out of running shape? There was a moment the week of the race where I wasn’t even sure if I could physically get out of bed to run it. I began looking up races in nearby states that I could sign up for to make sure I wouldn’t waste all my training. 

However, I listened to my body and leaned on my coach for reassurance. I rested, drank fluids, ate healthy meals, and ended up feeling well enough to run it. I had to learn to remain optimistic and take care of what I could control: rest and positivity. 

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3. The journey is what matters, not the outcome

I spent a lot of time setting intentional goals for this race. In racing, it’s best to set three goals. An “A” goal is the race you can run on a perfect day, or my ideal, reach-for-the-stars outcome where all the training aligns. For me, this meant crushing my personal best time by about 10 minutes. A “B” goal is a time you would be happy with, but not your dream goal. My “B” goal was to beat my best time even by one millisecond. A “C” goal is something you would still be content with even if nothing goes as planned. My C goal was to stay under four hours, which I felt myself capable of, thanks to my training. 

Despite some of the hiccups previously mentioned, during my training, I hit all of my goal times, ramped up my mileage, and felt in the best shape of my life. I could tell that this training session was going better than my previous two marathons, and because of that, I shoved the C goal out of my mind, and set my sights on my A goal. 

The first 20 miles of the race, I hit my times perfectly and was on track to reach my A goal. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I experienced painful heartburn and had to walk nearly the rest of the race. I kept moving, though, and ended up finishing two minutes slower than my personal best. 

I cried when I saw my time and negative thoughts flooded my mind. I should have been proud of myself for even finishing considering the circumstances, but instead, I couldn’t believe I didn’t at least achieve my B goal. It took a few weeks for me to fully process what this journey meant. 

In the end, I had to look back and reflect on how the cumulative 20 weeks meant so much more to my personal and athletic growth than the three hours and 50 minutes on the morning of November 6. I became stronger, faster, and smarter as a runner. I learned how to nourish my body for performance and to love my body through all the changes I experienced the last few months. I learned how to stick to a routine and stay disciplined with my habits. I learned how to approach setbacks and embrace failure. 

For me, my marathon experience became a metaphor for life: While we would be limiting ourselves by not setting goals, we shouldn’t forget the lessons we can learn from the journey it takes to reach for them.

Originally published on January 11, 2022.

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Allie Griffith is a high school English teacher and basketball coach in Indianapolis, IN. She is originally from Akron, OH and a graduate of University of Notre Dame. When not grading papers or at practice, she is exploring Indy's coffee shops writing essays and poetry.