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What a 20 Mile Run Looks Like: 26 Strong

Kelly, post-run. All smiles, which wasn't the case 20 miles prior.
Kelly, post-run. All smiles, which wasn't the case 20 miles prior.

The email came into my inbox on Friday morning. Kelly Pollock, my Saucony 26 Strong cadet—read: first-time marathoner—was gearing up for her longest run yet. 20 miles on Saturday morning.

"I'm psyching myself out about it," she wrote, "I already feel like it is not going to go well, which I am sure is not a helpful outlook!"

I read it on my phone as I was headed into volunteer in a third-grade classroom, so I didn't respond right away, but my gut roiled a bit as I thought about what to write back. As with any marathon training cycle, Kelly has had some high highs (a half-marathon PR) and some low lows (a 19+ miler where she was barfing, walking, cursing Ma Nature, and hating life). I knew we could perservere in the Philadelphia Marathon no matter what, but I also knew it would be much more helpful, both physically and mentally, if she could nail this 20-miler.

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Earlier that week, I gave her specifics—considering the weather, planning for nutrition, having a plan—that I think are important for any long run:

On this 20-miler, we're going to use the lessons you've learned over the past couple weeks. Head out as early as possible so it's cool. (High on Saturday is 70...not humid 85, but still not super cool if the sun is shining.) If you can, start around 6 or 6:30 a.m. The Philly Marathon starts at 7 a.m., so it would be ideal if you start no later than 7.

Eat well on Friday...or Saturday (I'm assuming you're running Saturday a.m., like normal.)

Here's an article I wrote about for Runner's World carbo loading. You don't have to be this intense for your 20 miler, but your plates on Friday should be at least 75% carbs. The article should also help you guide your food choices during the few days leading up to Philly.

Eat a breakfast before your run similar to a breakfast you anticipate eating in Philly.

On your run, please have at least 3 Uncrustables at your disposal. (Note: Kelly has a delicate stomach, and found that these sandwiches, which come in a little over 200 calories each, work best.) You don't have to carry them all--you can stash one somewhere (home, car, on the route), but have access to them. Ideally, you eat one uncrustable every 6-7 miles. Really try to do this, unless your stomach is rebelling again; it'll help you mentally get through it, and also help your recovery on Sunday.

Then, finally, of course: run/walk intervals from the very first step. Whatever you think will work best in Philly: 6/1, 7/1, whatever you want. Again, this is our last—and most important—dress rehearsal, so let's make it as effective as possible.

When I got the panicky email on Friday, I repeated all the above instructions, and added these two to help with her head:
Ok, so every time you think, this is going to suck or I'm going to fail, turn it mentally into a positive: this is going to get me SO ready for Philly. I am SO going to nail this. No energy or effort goes towards negative thoughts...not worth it at all. 

Mentally, I break a run up like this into many parts: first 2 x 10 miles. Then each ten miles is 5 x 2 miles. And if need be, each 2 miles is 4 x .5. Using 10 as your benchmark means you can turn your progress easily into percentages and fractions and the like...I like doing that

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And then Saturday morning came. And I contemplated texting her to see how it was going, but I didn't want to jinx it...or dwell on it if it wasn't going well. (Yes, training can be hard on us coaches as well!) So I sent her good vibes as I did my own workout, and hoped she was clicking off the miles with a smile on her face.

Around 10:45 a.m., I got a call from her. I have never received a call from Kelly unless we set up before, so I braced myself. Good or bad? Waiting around for Ben's basketball game, I picked it up. I could tell by the way she said "hello" that she had nailed it.I was so happy, so proud, and so flattered that she called to tell me.

She recapped what she did well—pace, most importantly; eating well; going conservative with her run/walk intervals (5/1). But I'll let her tell you what she did well in her own words; these entries are taken from her blog, where she's faithfully recorded her 26 Strong journey weekly, complete with relevant song lyrics:

 She took it as a dress rehearsal: I laid all my clothes out, like I always do the night before an early morning run. Dimity suggested using the run as a true dry run for Philly. I chose the capris, shoes and warm weather option shirt I plan to wear at the race.

She started—and stayed—slow. Jen (one of her running buddies) and I agreed to run this last really long run at an easy pace. We have trouble pacing ourselves and you have to pace yourself when you are running 20 miles. The half marathon ladies from Team Indiana Jones—part of her Fleet Feet training group—had to run their 13 miles before the taper so we knew we’d have lots of company for at least 13 miles. We made sure to stay behind the half marathoners for the first 13 miles to insure we maintained an appropriate pace. It saved us in the end.

Jen, Kelly, and Sara, who joined the run for the last six miles and kept them going, which included singing the theme song from Rocky.
Jen, Kelly, and Sara, who joined the run for the last six miles and kept them going, which included singing the theme song from Rocky.

She kept her mind positive—or at least ran with people who did. I have to give major credit to Jen for her positive attitude during this run. She framed everything in a positive way – instead of “we have to run 20 miles”, it was “we get to run 20 miles." (Hey Kelly: I'll be happy to remind you on race morning that you "get" to run 26.2!)

And she learned a few valuable lessons from the experience.
The first lesson is that I CAN do hard things.  I now know that, while it will be hard, I can and will finish a marathon.

I learned that you really do have to eat a lot of food the day before a very long run. The idea of not eating and torching massive amounts of calories is not realistic (thank you, Eating Disorder I Developed in College, for continuing to warp my eating habits)

I also learned that I still have not perfectly nailed my nutrition challenges out on the run. I did much better this time but I got a little headachy and light headed at about mile 18, and had to take a few more walk breaks.

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She celebrated her success appropriately. With a shopping spree at Fleet Feet of course. I love her sense of humor in how she described their choices: I love Jen’s new top and I envy her height and long torso because I covet that running tunic!  I, of course, opted for yet another article of running apparel in black because I will stop wearing black when they invent a darker color.

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A couple times on the phone—and in her post—she mentioned having to run for one more hour on race day. With the upcoming taper and 20 strong miles under your Saucony Rides, you've so got this. City of motherly love: hope you're ready, because KP and I are coming for you. Better have your uncrustables ready.

What tips have helped you get ready for—and through—a long run?

19 responses to “What a 20 Mile Run Looks Like: 26 Strong

  1. Love these stories! Really keeps me motivated to run even though I’m not training for anything at the moment (my longest race has been a 5K and I’m getting very tempted to try for a half marathon).

  2. Way to go! I have issues with fuel on the long runs/races. It probably has more to do with my pre-race eating. This weekend at the MCM, I ended up taking in more fuel than I anticipated (11 Gu total!), but it kept me from the nausea I experienced in my marathons last fall. Fueling is so individual, and I find that so frustrating some times. Experimenting is vital, but still a bit intimidating once you are 15 miles in and find out that something isn’t working. You will rock the full!

  3. Way to go Kelly!! Your one of my favorite cousins and I have begun running as well. I am starting by running at my local schools playground with my five year old son while he plays on the playground. So proud of you!!

  4. I so needed to see this today!! My 20-miler for the WDW marathon training (my first) is next weekend. I have already started the psych-out. These tips have been majorly helpful! Thank you, and way to go!!

  5. This is so exciting! I ran the Philly Marathon for my first (well, only so far) marathon and I LOVED it!!The crowds and entertainment along the way really help make the miles fly by. When I hit the 20 mile mark instead of thinking “I still have to run an hour” I truly was thinking, “Only 6 more miles” which seems like a small distance after the miles you’ve covered.

    When I do my long runs I try to count down the miles versus adding up how many I have to do. It works for me.

    Have a blast in Philly and congratulations on all of your accomplishments!

  6. “KP” I love it ~ You are no longer just Kelly… You are Kelly Possible! (just like Kim Possible, get it? “KP here, what’s the sitch?”) Okay, so maybe I watched too much Disney Channel when my son was little and yeah, that was like 10 years ago so I’m totally showing my age. Anyway, great job on your long run KP!! Good Luck in Philly!! I’ll be cheering for you, Dimity, SBS and her cadet all the way from Florida that morning.

  7. Stacy – I do eat them instead of GUs. I cannot stand the texture of the gels and the sugar upsets my stomach. I tolerate the sport chews only slightly better than the gels and after seeing them, again, several times on long runs, I like them even less. I was complaining to a friend of mine who is a serious triathlete and endurance runner and he suggested “real” food on the run. I think a normal PB&J would work fine but I like the Uncrustables by Smuckers because they are pre-made (I’m a little lazy sometimes), they are frozen so they keep well and they are sealed up on the edges, in plastic wrap, so the filling does not squish out. I run with a hydration pack so they fit nicely in the back. I highly recommend them!

  8. Way to rock it with a smile Kelly! You GOT this. Embrace the taper. Don’t let it drive you nutty. Take that time to catch up on the stuff you have left in the dust while you been out busting your butt running. Use this time to write up your list of what you want to take on your trip. Trust me don’t wait until last min. to think of this stuff. Do it eary, set it all aside and free your mind. Zoom, Zoom and have a great time with Dimity! Can’t wait to hear all about it at the end.

  9. I don’t like the traditional gu’s/gels either, but love the Vega Sport endurance gel. It’s made with dates and electrolytes, and is kind of salty/sweet, and goes down easy. The Vega Sport bars are good too. I’m currently on my taper weeks for my first marathon, and they have worked well for my long training runs.

  10. Way to go Kelly!
    I am interested in the crustables! Are you eating those instead of gu’s or some other kind of fuel or are you doing both?
    I’m half way through marathon training and the gu feels like it gets stuck in my throat, even with drinking water, and then it makes my heart feel heavy, like heartburn. Still testing the waters…

  11. Great job, Kelly! And thanks for the tips, Dimity- Philadelphia will be my first full and I have my last super-long run this Saturday. 🙂

  12. Great job! I brought my own PBJ for my race a week ago. I wasn’t taking any chances and brought my own coffee as well. Good Luck!

  13. Great job Kelly! I break up my runs into smaller segments, too if the distance seems daunting – and sometimes even “short” distances seem daunting! Instead of distance I try to break it up by landmarks or familiar intersections from previous runs. “oh, x more miles is just like running to the corner of Dale and back. I can totally do that.” Because for some reason the number of miles or length of time always seems bigger to me than a familiar landmark or cross street.
    You’ll be awesome, Kelly, at Philly! Have a blast!

  14. I so needed to read this today as I venture into marathon mode in one week. I did a last minute half marathon (like two days prior I decided to go)…I pushed too hard, pushed the pace and ran totally different intervals. I finished that 13.1 feeling awful and defeated, but with a PR for the course. It really messed with my head. It took a solid week to remind myself that I had killed the course, but had no business running that pace when I have the marathon coming.

    This post has helped my mental positivity…thanks!

  15. This made me a little teary-eyed! Way to go, Kelly! You conquered this last long run! Just like you’re going to kill Philly!

    And Dimity, I love the part where you break your runs into smaller sets. I use my mad math skills during every long run. Addition/subtraction, percentages, fractions, and conversions. It keeps my mind sharp and focused, instead of thinking about the pain.

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