Run a Marathon? Just Do it!

My Story of the Tucson Marathon
Sandiway Fong
December 10th 2006


I've always been curious about what it takes to run a marathon. Each year, thousands successfully complete one of these staged events. You've seen it on the nightly news. An invasion force swarming down some broad avenue: a testament to the popularity of this most participatory of athletic events. Some in costume, some in running gear. Everyone knows someone who has done it. Even the iconic Oprah Winfrey has managed it.

On the other hand, we also know the decision to run a marathon is not to be taken lightly. For instance, most of us are aware of the fact that it takes a substantial physical toll on our bodies. After all, history tells us an (already tired) runner named Phidippides expired after covering a hilly 42km in a rather studly 3 hours: thereby insuring the immortality of his act. (He was in a hurry. After all, he had to race from the battlefield at Marathon to warn the Athenians in a timely fashion of the approaching Persian army.) For the ordinary mortal in the modern era, we have cellphones for emergencies of that sort.

Instead, we run for a variety of reasons: some well-defined and altruistic; others possibly vague and inchoate almost to the point of nothingness. Today, running a marathon requires no lofty justification or sanity check. For those who are gripped by the very idea, properly structured, tried-and-true 26 week marathon training programs can be found all over the internet. Of course, one doesn't just simply wake up one morning and (whimsically) decide to attempt a marathon (for the first time) today. Conventional wisdom indicates that, putting the question of fitness aside, repetitve stress injuries await those who are less than patient.

The question explored here is: can a moderately fit individual run a marathon without training for one?

For this experiment, I have a statistically irrelevant sample size of one: namely, me. My running history is short and uncomplicated. Simply put, I began running 3 months ago with the student running club at the university where I work. As a conscientious geek, I felt compelled, i.e. took full advantage of the opportunity, to purchase the then-newly-introduced 2nd generation iPod nano and a wireless Nike+ kit. As a result, I have dutifully recorded and uploaded the data for (nearly) every run while listening to some awesome music. The record shows I have clocked just under 130 miles in 3 months. (See below.) Perhaps a decent base with which to begin a marathon training program, but certainly not decent preparation for running one.

8 miles
(longest bar)

My longest run is 8 miles in just under 1:08 (hr:mins). In other words, I have not attempted any long runs. (Most marathon training programs recommend building up to a weekly long run of 16 miles or more.) And the best time of 1:08 indicates I haven't been training long (or hard) enough to build up any sort of meaningful speed.

Finally, although I have not undertaken any explicit marathon preparation, as a long-time recreational cyclist, I can state that I came into this experiment already moderately fit.


Wednesday 6th December

Did a solo 8 mile run.
Saguaro National Park East.
Cactus Loop Drive.
My longest run.

Felt pretty good.
Decided to do the marathon on Sunday.

(GPS tracklog shown.)

Thursday 7th December

New shoes for the marathon arrived today at 4pm. Saucony Tangent 2s. I ordered them yesterday.

Installed the Nike+ sensor with double-sided sticky tape under the laces (see pictures).

Tested them on the treadmill. Pronounced them comfortable.

I've been using a pair of Mizuno Wave Elixirs (574g/pr). Light but they don't quite offer enough padding and the fit is only 90%. My previous pair of Saucony Omni Grid 4s are heavy (730g/pr) but are both cushier and fit better. So I decided yesterday I'd order lightweight Sauconys. A local running shop recommended the Tangent 2s (582g/pr) but didn't carry them. Internet ordering to the rescue.

Friday 8th December

Went to the marathon expo site at the hotel near the finish line.

Wrote a $90 check. Who says running is cheap? Man, that costs about as much as a really nice Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

Received number, shoelace timing chip and t-shirt.

Bought SuperFeet inserts at the expo. Seem overly firm compared to the inserts that came with the shoes.

Last treadmill run. Tested inserts.

Saturday 9th December

Rest day.


Can one predict a first-time marathon finishing time?

Several fellow cyclists (who had also done marathons) predicted DNF as my most likely outcome because of lack of training.

DNF = Did Not Finish.

One made an educated guess that I'd probably make it to about mile 18.

The McMillan Running Calculator can be used to estimate race performance based on pre-existing run times.

Taking the average of my runs at 4 miles and 9:00 min/mile pace, it predicts a finishing time of 4:28.


A trained Oprah Winfrey did the Marine Corps Marathon in 4:29:20.

Given the McMillan calculation, I could aim to beat Oprah.

In 2005, Mr. Joe Average marathoner finisher (40 years old) took 4:32:08.

This is remarkably close to the McMillan/Oprah marks.

Hmm, can I beat Mr. Joe Average without marathon training?

(Source: 2005 USA Marathon Report at Sample size was 228,000. Actually, to be pedantic, this is the average not the median time.)

Marathon Day: December 10th

Race start time will be 7:30am.


Wake up. Check the weather forecast again (low: 40s (F) to a max of 70F). Eat breakfast and grab gear.

It's 40s (F) desert cold, so I am wearing a track suit and thermal underwear over my running gear, plus a hat and gloves.

Apply chemical heating pads to my back and knees. Don't want to shiver at the starting line.


Arrive at a high school parking lot situated about 2 miles from the finish.

Marathon runners are bused from this lot up to the start in the town of Oracle. Line up single file for the bus.

(There is also a bus from the finish line back to the parking lot. Who would agree to run the extra two miles after the race? My $90 at work.])

Despite triple layering and chemical warming, I'm cold. Jeez, some guys are already in their shorts.


Bus leaves for Oracle. It's still dark.

We head up Oracle Rd, previewing the course. Crews have already cordoned off a slice of the road.

I know this road well, having ridden up to Oracle on many a bike ride. Plug in my iPod, close my eyes and try to sleep.

At mile 13, we pass the 2000+ (?) half-marathoners waiting to start their event at 7:00am.


Disembark from the bus.

Walk past a long line of parked buses to the porta potty lines near the start. It's freezing.

Stand in line again.


10 minutes to go.

Finally time to venture out of my warm-up gear.

Warm-up gear goes into a transparent Runner's World bag provided at the expo.

Bag is tagged with my race number (1415).

Hand it off at a bus window to be transported to the finish line.

The Marathon

Attach my Camelbak Alterra waist pack and secure the hose to my lapel. Purchased the pack on Wednesday and tested it on the treadmill Thursday. Holds just 24 oz, fits in the small of my back and doesn't wobble or slosh.

It's extra poundage (about 3lbs filled) but I can sip constantly and avoid the chaos of the aid stations for the 1st half of the race. The pack also holds my Gus (and a couple of PowerBars just in case I need to eat, ibuprofen and sodium tablets for emergencies). I wanted to bring my digital camera but realized there was no way I could take a non-blurry picture while running.

My iPod nano with wireless pickup is securely attached right at the front of the waist pack belt for easy access. Final check to see that the Nike wireless transmitter is on the laces on my left shoe and the timing chip on the right. Make sure the left shoe and iPod are communicating. Ai ya ya, so much technology in running.

With a couple of minutes left to go, I position myself 2/3rd of the way down the pack. No flag poles indicating projected finish times. It's a small event. There are maybe 750 runners here.

The countdown 10, 9, 8...3, 2, 1... blares over the PA system. Then silence. Nothing happens. A few seconds later, the starting gun goes off. We're off but nothing happens where I am. Eventually, I get to shuffle past the sensor pads at the line, chip time begins, I push the iPod center button to start recording and my shuffle turns into a jog.

First mile. I feel plain awful. My legs, lungs and back are complaining. I'm huffing and puffing as well. This is terrible. We go up a hill and I slow to almost a walk.

On the downslope, I pick up speed and suddenly I'm in the flow. Cesaria Evora is in such fine voice on my iPod. I will cycle through the first song on her album 4 times during this run.

Miles 2 and 3. I'm warm already. Thinking about taking off the gloves. I pull down the arm warmers. By mile 5, I've stuffed the gloves and arm warmers in my cycling jersey pocket. Occasionally, I stab at the iPod center button and a robotic female voice tells me my current pace. I'm aiming for the voice to tell me 8-something min/mile pace. I don't care what the "something" is. That's my bracket. As long as it doesn't tell me I'm at 9-something I'm happy.

Mile 8. We're already on Oracle Rd. I celebrate equalling my longest run ever. Cesaria Evora is beginning her album again. I'm skipping the aid stations at this point, which are positioned just after each even mile marker, preferring instead to sip at my 70/30 Gatorade/water mix from my Camelbak hose.

Mile 10. I'm celebrating every mile marker now. Every marker means a new longest run record. There is a small headwind but I see no signs of significant slowing.

Mile 13.1 I presume. The iPod lady proudly announces my marathon is half over. Yes, I've got it in marathon mode. It will count down from this point on. It's an hour and forty-something minutes. Only problem is, it's being a tiny bit optimistic (by about half a mile I reckon). I got new running shoes on Thursday and didn't have a chance to calibrate the sensor for the shoe.

A bit later, I pass a sensor pad. I reckon this is the true halfway mark.

Mile 15. I'm having to slow a bit now and then because my shoulder is really hurting. As a cyclist I'm not used to swinging my arms back and forth for hours on end. The headwind is very strong now. We're going generally downhill. Since hot air rises, and there is a large temperature differential between night and day in the desert, we get a roaring headwind. (I'm used to it when cycling.) The iPod says I'm still in the 8-something bracket, so I'm still fine.

Mile 16. My Camelbak is out. All gone. 24 oz is not enough. Empty pack is dead weight now. Too expensive to discard it. Have to use the aid stations now. My pace will take a hit. I lack the necessary skill of drinking from a cup and running at the same time. So at each station from now on, I implement a different protocol. I simply slow to a walk, grab one cup water and one cup sports drink, drink both while walking, After the station, I reboot my run. So far, I'm able to reboot each time but I think this is costing me valuable minutes.

Mile 18. I'm waiting for the wheels to fall off but it's not happening. I'm hydrated. I'm taking Gu. Apart from my shoulder, which still bothers me, my legs are a bit tired but I'm still in my iPod bracket.

Mile 20. Or is it mile 22? (I can't remember.) Pee break. Damn, this is going to not help my split at all. But off I go into the bushes in search of relief.

Restarting is a bitch. My toes are also beginning to hurt and affect my stride. I think due to the downhill nature of the course, my big toe has slowly migrated to the front of the shoe and has been banging on the toe box. Still, I see walkers, so I'm happy I'm still moving.

Mile 22. Woman in front of me drops her cellphone out her back pocket. She stops and bends over. I clatter into the back of her. No harm done. Apologies all around. Actually, just a mile or two back, I saw a woman running and having a conversation on her cellphone. Go figure.

Mile 24. Finally we're on the flat part of the course. It actually feels easier than the downhill.

Mile 25. I think my speed has dropped a bit. So I pick up the pace. My big toes which have been rammed against the front of the shoe about sixty-thousand times are really hurting now. My calf muscles are also beginning to tighten and affect my stride. Too late. I'm almost done.

The iPod helpfully congratulates me on completing the marathon and advises me to push the menu button to stop. An eternal optimist.

Mile 25.5. Steep uphill. That is a nasty and brutish thing to put there. I'm told it's new for this year.

Aha, here is the sign I've been looking for all morning. Beautiful. Shame it's at the top of the climb.

Left turn at the light into the Hilton access road. A few hundred yards to go. The announcer yells my name. I hit the sensor pad at the finish line and throw my hands up in the air. Man, I'm happy.

3:51:47. Yes. I'm a runner.

Efficiently, I'm handed a bottle of water, then a generic finisher's medal (see right).

Final act. They cut the chip sensor off my shoe. I'm done.


What can we conclude from this experiment? Well, I said at the outset a sample size of one is statistically irrelevant. So not much actually. I can only give facts and numbers:

Next question: