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So, You Want to Run a Marathon…

November 12, 2013
Disclaimer: I am not a runner. The most I’ve ever run at one time is 6 miles.

A couple of weeks ago, I worked as a volunteer in the post finish medical tent at the ING NYC Marathon. This was my fifth year volunteering. Helping sweating, hurting, and occasionally vomiting runners isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I always have a blast.

The medical tents are full of volunteer physicians and practitioners of all different ranks and specialties. Attendings, Residents, Nurses, and Medical Students are all present, and specialties include Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine, Orthopedics, and Podiatry.  There are also Physical Therapists, Massage Therapists, and even Psychologists on hand.  With  tens of thousands running this race, Marathon Medical Director Stu Weiss reminds us often:  The medical team at the NYC Marathon prepares and performs the largest pre-planned on site triage in the world.

Every year, the volunteers exchange stories of what drives us to spend a November Sunday like this.  It’s never hard to find at least one or two first time volunteers (usually medical students) who are also in the contemplation stages of running in the marathon next year.  “Interesting!” I say, and make a mental note to follow-up with them later in the day.

As the runners start to fill the tent, I watch the faces of these particular volunteers slowly change.

Granted, not all marathoners need to stop in the medical tent after their finish. Some grab the next cab or subway train and head home for a hot bath.

But the runners that come to the medical tent are in a lot of pain, and need help walking and lowering themselves to the provided cots.  The runners in the medical tent move like every muscle and joint in their body is on fire, and those runners that still have energy will holler out in pain.  Their bodies shake, their teeth rattle, and they cry.  I’ve seen full body cramps that make the marathoner look like they need an Exorcist more than a doctor.


But after 20 minutes of getting worked on by the medical team, the majority of the runners look better and can talk.  (It’s miraculous what a little salt can do!)  However, almost all are still hobbling and wincing with every step they take. Some even have ice bags duct taped to their knees as they stagger towards the exit.

This is where I come in.  I’m usually in charge of collecting the health record of the visit, giving them their discharge instructions, and making sure the runner actually makes it out the door. I usually congratulate the marathoner for their finish and ask if they are ready to celebrate.

Sometimes I get an eye twinkle in return, as the runner realizes they aren’t going to die today…. and they have something to celebrate!

Others, however, give me an incredulous stare and maybe a vomit-scented grunt. At that moment, I see the runner weighing in their mind what was so important to them for the past year against the pain they are feeling now.  It seems they question if the damage done to their body was worth the glory of calling themselves a marathoner.

And then, at the end of our volunteer day, I love to go back to those medical students who earlier had mentioned dreams of being marathoners themselves.  Usually they aren’t so enthusiastic about the prospect as they once were. “I don’t know,” one said.  “Maybe I could be just as happy doing a 10k.”

Are you a non-athlete in the contemplation stage of running a marathon?

In addition to seeking out the advice of your doctor, here’s what I recommend mulling over:

one-does-not-simply marathon

What is your real mission?

Is it to stop being so sedentary? To lose weight? Get your cardio in? Prove you aren’t really the age your birthday says you are? Be social? To call yourself an athlete? To get the completion medal and a sense of accomplishment?  Is it to fulfill a lifelong dream?  Is it because being a runner expresses who you are the most?

Are there other ways you can accomplish your mission?

Can you be less sedentary by just walking more and sitting less?  (This article from the New York Times is an interesting read about how most marathoners in training still lead sedentary lifestyles.) Can you lose weight by changing your nutritional habits? Are there other ways to get the benefits of doing cardiovascular exercise without the extended workouts required for marathon training? (science says yes) Are there other projects like doing charity work that can give you a sense of accomplishment?

Are you ready for the pain and possible damage to your body?

Not everyone feels pain the same way, and not everyone needs to stop by the medical tent at the finish line. But if you take part in endurance sports, know that you are putting wear and tear on your body.  Lots of it.

And if you still want to run a marathon?

If you are passionate about running a marathon, go for it!  Ballet was hard on my body, but there was a time in my life I didn’t want to do anything else.  If you hear the call to run, then run!!!!! It’s awesome to feel passionate about something and have the privilege to do it.  Just make sure you do it as safely as possible.

And if you need me, I’ll be in the medical tent again next year, asking if you are ready to celebrate!


More tips for those considering a marathon:

Consider seeing a Restorative Exercise Specialist™ before you start training.  If you’ve been desk bound for most of your adult life, chances are you have some alignment issues making you more susceptible to running injuries. Restoring your body to a healthier alignment before you start intense training will better your chances of finishing the marathon and staying out of the medical tent!

Hire a coach who specializes in endurance running form. How you run is just as important as how far and how fast you run!

  1. So very well said, from someone literally on the front lines! I concur- as another former dancer, I doubt I would have given it up even if I’d known then what I know now. However, I’ve often thought that I’m (sort of) glad I *didn’t* know, back then, so I didn’t need to make that choice!

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