The Run/Walk Approach to Running a Marathon – Steamtown 2011

October 10th, 2011 | Posted by Alison Spath in Fitness

I do not recommend running a marathon on short notice.

I will never do that again.

But do I regret it?

Destined to Be an Old Woman with No Regrets

Absolutely not.

And if you told me you wanted to try it, I wouldn’t talk you out of it either. If you’re an experienced runner and have run a marathon or two before? Go for it.

With that said, it’s obviously best to run a marathon when properly trained – but if it weren’t for the fact that I went into this under-trained, I probably wouldn’t have investigated the run/walk approach to a marathon.  From where I sit now, I’m very grateful I had a reason to try it.

The First Time

I spent the entire summer of 2008 training for the Rochester Marathon.  Part of my goal was to make it the whole way without stopping to walk once. The idea of walking at all seemed like a total cop-out.

Real marathoners don’t walk, they run. It’s called RUNNING a marathon for a reason.

Yeah, forget that. That’s stupid.

That year I finished in 4 hours and 18 minutes. I ran the first half really fast and strong, but then the air temperature rose very quickly and I was forced to run/walk the rest of the way. My legs hurt SO BAD for the last 4 miles, I had no idea how I managed to keep them moving forward.  And I hurt for days afterwards – it was half a week before I was walking normally again.

The Second Time

My experience this year was very different.  As planned, I took walk breaks from the first mile, just as Jeff Galloway recommends.

This line in particular kept playing through my head whenever I felt inner resistance to walking:

By shifting back and forth between walking and running muscles, you distribute the workload among a variety of muscles, increasing your overall performance capacity.

As I slowed to walk in the first mile, I heard a man behind me say to his running mate: “We’re not going to do that lame run/walk thing, are we?”

Shortly after that I passed a little girl sitting on the side walk who said: “aren’t you supposed to be running?”

I’ll admit that both those comments triggered some insecurities. It felt stupid to be walking already. But those insecurities faded as I reminded myself that I was doing this to increase the likelihood of making it to the finish line intact.  It also helped to see others walking early on too.

My knee brought itself to my attention at Mile 3 – and I immediately wondered whether or not I was going make it another 23 miles without having to be escorted to the end or seriously injuring myself in the process of getting there.

The pain was dull so I kept going, walking for about a minute nearly every mile.  I stopped at every water stop (about 2 miles apart) to stretch my IT Band, quads and calves. I walked up every hill, even the small ones. The dull pain in my knee never eased up, but it didn’t get worse either. I just kept taking it one mile at a time, hitting each mile at about 10:30.

I hit the half way mark at 2:22, more than 30 minutes slower than my typical half marathon time – but it was working so I stuck with it. My knee hurt, but not unbearably so.  Beyond that, I felt good.

The Second Half

Just before Mile 16, something happened – I knew I was going to make it to the end. That realization brought a surge of endorphins and I suddenly felt very, very happy.  I picked up my speed for a couple of miles, putting a dent in my average pace and reduced my walk breaks significantly.  My fastest mile was at Mile 16; 8:48. I eventually dropped back to 10 minute miles, not wanting to push my luck – still walking, but now less frequently.

Things got really interesting for me around Mile 19 when I noticed everyone around me was running out of steam. I almost felt guilty for feeling as good as I was when most people were hitting the wall. Having been passed by runners non-stop at the beginning, I was now the one passing people left and right.

I remembered well from my first marathon what it felt like to have no energy left at the end – wondering how on earth you were going to make it another 6, 8 or 10 miles to the finish. It was so different this time! I was tired, but evidently no where near as tired as everyone around me. I knew it was because of the walk breaks early on and having “shared the work load of going so far between running muscles and walking muscles”, as Jeff Galloway describes.

The Home Stretch

The last few miles were up hill and I walked most of them. The crowd support throughout the entire course was great, but it was especially great at the end. People who lived along the route dragged out speakers and blasted music – GOOD music. There were live musicians, high school cheerleaders, family and friends of runners, people offering free showers with garden hoses, a man dressed in a devil costume at Mile 25 offering cold beer and a “comfy chair to sit in”.  Everyone was saying encouraging, positive and uplifting things. It was incredibly moving and helped make the end more bearable.

The finish line wasn’t visible until Mile 26 – the last .2 miles were down a huge hill and cheering spectators lined both sides of the street. I was tired and very ready to be done, crossing the finish line was as awesome as it was the first time.  I tried hard to not be disappointed with a time of 4:50 – 30 minutes slower than my first.  In that moment it was so easy to forget that when I started, I was worried about making it to the finish.

A Few Noteworthy Items

They were no gels on the course, but some water stops had REAL food.  I was carrying coconut water in my hand held water bottle and date/coconut oil chews knowing there would be no gels.  I didn’t count on real food, but definitely took advantage of it when I saw it. It was AWESOME to eat orange wedges, small pieces of banana and granola as well as handful of apple chunks and pretzels along the way.  I’m sure that helped with how good I felt too.

Carrying my own water for the first time during a race also helped – I’ll never run a half or full marathon without it again! In the past it felt easier to not carry anything and just rely on course nutrition, but it was great being able to take small sips whenever I wanted.  I drank before I felt thirsty, I refilled my bottle at water stops with a mix of water and All Sport (like Gatorade) whenever it was near empty.

The Next Time

When I run my next marathon, I will absolutely run/walk it again – probably less, and hopefully uninjured and therefore at a faster pace – but I will still slow to walk through the water stops after this experience, seeing first hand what a difference it makes to conserve some leg power for the end.

Many people have set personal records and even qualified for the Boston Marathon with this approach – and now I know why! Because you don’t feel like laying down on the side of the road to take a nap in those final miles!  My friend who ran this race with me also walked through the water stops and crossed the finish line in 3:31.  You can absolutely finish fast with planned walk breaks.

My knee is still sore today and probably will be for some time, but my quads are no where near as sore as they were in the days following the race in 2008.  Of course I ran it 30 minutes slower this time – but I’m sure I spared myself some recovery by choosing to walk before I was forced to.

You Can Run a Marathon

The run/walk approach to a marathon (or training runs or any distance that feels tough to you!) gets a major endorsement from me!  I’m officially a Jeff Galloway believer.  I have no doubt that just about anyone could go the distance (and enjoy it!) using this technique.  Giving yourself permission to walk part of the way makes it a lot easier to break it up, and it makes it seem a lot less intimidating and scary too.

And you’re still a runner even if you walk some of the time – don’t let any little kid sitting on the side walk try to tell you otherwise.

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11 Responses

  • Jennifer says:

    You are awesome! I am a new runner and have done two half marathons in the past two weeks. I am so inspired by your marathons that it gives me motivation to try it (maybe next year)! Keep up the great work!

  • Jennifer says:

    I think you did great!!!! A 30 minute difference from your last time with walking AND an injury is just fantastic!! I give you a lot of credit for even doing it. :) That’s a loooonng race.

    I cracked up about the devil with the beer. Too funny. At least you had entertainment. :)

  • sarah says:

    That devil with the comfy chair guy is BRILLIANT. As for the Galloway approach – I SWEAR by it. It’s gotten me through three half marathons and I do ALL my runs that way. Those two guys who think it’s lame? They won’t think it’s so lame when it’s twenty years from now and you’re still running marathons and they’re limping back and forth from the couch to their beer fridge.

  • Congratulations!

    I was thinking, you only lost 30 minutes with all that walking and stopping… which to me says that pushing yourself to hard isn’t worth it. I’d much rather take some time out by walking than to hit the wall. I’m so glad you mentioned the walk/run approach… as a new runner, I feel *lame* that I walk quite a bit still, but knowing that even Boston Marathon qualifiers still walk is inspiring.

    Love the devil with the beer and the comfy chair… that had to make many tired runners laugh and smile. :)

  • Katheryn says:

    Congratulations again. With your IT band issues, this was a fabulous time!

  • Robin says:

    That is a great time. Congrats on finishing and running with such short notice.