I Ran a Virtual Marathon Once, and Here’s What I Learned: Tips for Planning, Fueling, and Finishing
It’s race week here in the five boroughs, but for a select group of runners, this week presents a different kind of TCS New York City Marathon. The TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M is offering runners who complete a “virtual marathon”—26.2 miles in one run, anywhere and anytime between today (Thursday, November 1) and Sunday, November 4—guaranteed entry to the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon.
Before we send runners off for that race, though, I’m here to offer some advice based on what I learned when I ran a “virtual marathon” of my own. In 2013, I had written some human-interest stories for NYRR’s coverage of the marathon, and at the end of a lot of those interviews, the people I spoke with would ask me, “Have you ever run a marathon?”
At that point, I had not, so I decided to take things into my own hands (…or feet?) and designed a 26.2-mile course in my hometown, in order to check that item off my “bucket list.” Here’s a look at the route I came up with:
I will say, one bonus to creating your route in Strava is that, if you run with the app, it can provide you with turn-by-turn directions for your route. From experience, I can say that this can come in handy once you get to about mile 20 and your mind isn’t quite 100% with it anymore.
And here are a few things I learned when trying to take on the distance.
It’s Like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story—Plan Your Route As You Wish, But Be Smart About It
When you have 26.2 miles of road to fill, you almost need to get creative with what you run past. If you want to run 13.1 miles out and 13.1 miles back, you can. If you want to find out what it’s like to run a marathon on a track, go for it—all 105-1/2 laps of it.
Personally, I stitched together a couple of my normal training runs, but added in some landmarks such as my grade school, the main street downtown, and the town pool (my first place of employment) to make it a little more meaningful.
One spot I maybe should have reconsidered was one of my favorite places to train: South Mountain Reservation. I’ve run more miles than I can count there, and in November, the foliage is really something, but to get there, I had to climb a hill that was more than a mile long at an average grade of almost 5 percent. On its own, that hill is not terribly difficult, but I had 10 miles in my legs at that point and still had 16 miles to go.
I say this because you can have some fun with how you plan your route, but the ultimate goal is just to finish the distance. Leave the real intense challenges for November 3, 2019—and thankfully, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, the steepest incline on the course, is less than a mile long and only a 3.5 percent average grade on the way up.
So we’ve tackled how to approach designing your own course, but regardless of whether your route is a rollercoaster of ups and downs or just pancake flat, you’re still going to need the energy to complete the distance. This is something I very much overlooked on my run.
Granted, your virtual marathon will not have fully stocked aid stations with Gatorade® and Poland Spring® Brand 100% Natural Spring Water—much less a crew of volunteers to hold a cup out for you—but you can plan ahead to make sure you’re keeping yourself properly energized.
For my run, I left a mostly-full bottle of Gatorade® on the front steps of our house—which I wouldn’t pass until mile 21. That was it.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that a long, steep hill could have an effect later on? Turns out, when I tried to climb another (albeit slightly less steep hill) on mile 20, I found myself slowing to the point where walking seemed faster.
And lucky me, this mini-breakdown happened right in front of my town’s high school when students were outside for lunch. So on top of bonking, I now had to deal with thinking these kids were watching a grown man in short shorts run, then run progressively slower, then walk, up the street.
So, what’s the solution, then?
I would recommend one of two things:
· Plan for stops along the course where you can refuel (definitely earlier than mile 21)
· Carrying energy gels with you on the run
· Creating a route with a fuel station “checkpoint”—maybe you could emulate the original New York City Marathon course, which covered four loops in Central Park
If you’re planning to run someplace where the town may have turned off the water fountains already, you can also run with a small water bottle. Camelbaks® and hydration packs are not permitted on the TCS New York City Marathon course, but fuel belts and hand-held water bottles are allowed. Plus, some hand-held water bottles come with a pocket to store your gels—a two-for-one special.
One final note on this: Just like how there are no volunteers to hand you a cup of water, there are also no volunteers to clean up your discarded cups and gel packets. Be sure to throw your trash away in a proper receptacle—don’t just toss it into the street, despite how tired you might be.
So we’ve established that there will not be a team of 10,000 volunteers on your course, ready to provide you with food, water, medical aid, and nearly anything else you might need to get to the finish line.
There also—most likely—will not be one million-plus spectators lining those streets to cheer you on. You can recruit some friends to run with you for company, but you might just have to be your own cheerleader along the way. Reminding yourself why you’re doing this can help get you through the rough patches, and can reassure you that you will make it to the finish.
In your case, it’s your ticket to running the biggest marathon in the world next year. In my case, I was running because the day I had planned to run would have been my sister’s 27th birthday. She had passed away in the spring of that year, and she had stood outside for more of my cross country and track races than I can count—and often in not-so-nice weather.
Obviously, running wouldn’t change anything that had happened, but when I ran out of energy and started to walk, the idea that I wanted to honor her kept me moving forward at whatever pace I could manage. I ended up having to take three walk breaks in total, so I didn’t run anything that would be considered world-class, but I finished. I didn’t give up.
For you, maybe it’s someone you love that you want to remember. Maybe it’s someone who told that you were nuts for trying this, and you want to prove them wrong. Or maybe you’re just curious to see what it’s like to run a marathon by yourself.
However, wherever, and for whatever reason you’re running a virtual marathon, as long as you finish, we’ll see you on the Verrazzano next November.