A year ago I could barely run for 20 minutes. Now I am enrolled in the 42 km Rome marathon on 26 March. I wanted to compete last April but a knee injury shattered my marathon hopes. I did the 5 km fun run instead, but secretly longed to be in the champions league with the others: it looked so professional and so fun. My heart was set; for the next year I would train for the 2006 race.
I immediately began getting my fitness up by walking for an hour every morning before work. Walking wasnt very glamorous but it was all my knee could manage. It was also a good way to build up strength from scratch seeing as I had no running experience.
From May, I started to run about three times a week. Slowly. What helped was having a running companion. Finding a partner who was a fitness trainer was a double bonus not because Jill could train me or give me advice, but because she managed to keep up a conversation while running so that I was distracted enough not to realise I was tired. Within a month I too could happily chat while running and by the end of the summer an hour was fairly easy to endure.
Distraction is the key. Running with someone makes things much easier and is also important for accountability. On your own its too easy to say to yourself that youll stay in bed for now and go for a double run tomorrow.
Between summer and Christmas Jill and I slacked off our training as the marathon seemed so far away and it also started to get cold. But at Christmas it was full steam ahead again as we got a sudden burst of enthusiasm from completing the registration. The real training began in the new year when my race number came through by email hurrah, I was to be number 2273. However, alongside a great surge of excitement came a small moment of panic: definitely time to get serious.
From mid-January, I tried to keep to more of a schedule, from running sporadically to getting out three times a week for an hour, come rain come shine. I threw away the pedometer as I had become too preoccupied with counting the kilometres and it was depressing to have run 6 km a good achievement by ordinary standards but to realise you still had 36 km to go.
Training varied between getting up at 06.30 for a run to nipping out at lunchtime, or going sluggishly after work in the dark. Keeping myself distracted definitely pushed me on especially when I trained on my own. A change of scenery was important as I got bored easily, and often used to turn around and go home. Going round and round Circo Massimo is a killer for example, as its dull and desert-like terrain makes you feel discouraged after one lap. Although crowded at times, I loved running down busy streets like Via de Coronari and Via del Corso as there are so many shop windows to look at as you go.
Getting comfortable with running an hour was the hardest thing. At the weekends I went for longer runs in Villa Borghese, Villa Doria Pamphilj and Parco degli Acquedotti. Longer runs are important as training doesnt always have to do with your level of fitness but with getting your body and, more importantly, your mind used to running for prolonged periods. The mental battle was a massive part of the training process for me as once I managed to hit the two-hour level, I just knew I could do it. My feet became light and my body started to feel that it could go on and on.
The next step for me was some sprint training. For Valentines Day I was given a stopwatch, so off Jill and I went to Villa Doria Pamphilj for a session of one-minute sprints, with 45-minute jogs in between. Apparently this is the fastest way both to burn fat and to improve your fitness. It is meant to increase your metabolism numerous times for the following 15 hours as well. I felt very professional after that and more confident about the race, which was in exactly eight weeks time.
By early March, I felt that I was reaping the benefits of all the hard work. I no longer felt exhausted and unable to do anything after a run, nor was it a struggle to get myself out of bed in the mornings to go jogging. On the contrary, when the sun came out, I longed to be outside running.
The marathon is only days away now. Training websites say that the goal isnt to survive but to finish in good physical condition. Rubbish: I will be happy to make it to the end in any state. At the time of writing, I can now manage an average of 7 km an hour and feel quite confident that I will finish in six hours.
I actually cant wait. I cant wait to get to the marathon village and get my backpack and race number; I cant wait to don my marathon gear and hear the ready steady go; I cant wait to have the people cheering me on at the side, to run in the swarm of 10,000 people, to grab a cup of water only to chuck it to the side; I cant wait to cross the finishing line with my hands in the air like in the films. and I cant wait to receive my medal in triumph!
If you have never run before, start with 10 minutes three times a week. Go very slowly, just a step up from walking. When you feel comfortable with this, up the time to 15 minutes, then to 20 and so on. Once you feel comfortable running 45 minutes three times a week, it would be a good idea to look into a training programme for half or full-length marathons, which you can find online. There are different schools of thought for training. At the beginning I think it is important just to be consistent and run regularly. Resting is just as important as running. You can wear out your muscles and bones quite quickly if you dont give them time to recover.
What to wear?
There is real state-of-the-art running gear but I think anything light-weight is fine. Training through the winter months makes layers a good option (rather than a heavy sweater), and a hat is essential as you lose 70 per cent of your body heat through your head. Change as soon as possible after running or you risk catching cold after you cool down. What is worth investing in is a good pair of running shoes to avoid sore knees. If you buy new shoes, train with them for a couple of months to break them in. Some people say that you shouldnt wear anything new on the race day... not even a pair of socks.
What to eat?
I dont think it is necessary to be too rigid about what you eat as the more you train, the more your body will crave the correct diet. When I first starting running, my appetite really rocketed. I came back from a run and ate fried rice and broccoli for breakfast. As I started running more regularly and for longer distances, my metabolism changed radically and my appetite surprisingly decreased. Moreover, from having a stomach of steel, my body could no longer handle fried or junk food, which made me feel nauseous. I craved only wholesome food: meat and vegetables cooked simply. Apparently this is normal. As a friend put it, if you have a car ready for the scrap heap and not worth very much, you wont care what kind of petrol you put into it; the cheapest kind will do. However, if you have a top model, you will want to treat it well and give it the highest quality petrol. You, Denise, are becoming a Ferrari, Jill said.
Note: updated on Tuesday 28 March.