Five Mistakes Every Marathoner Should Avoid

Tom Weaver
Posted May 1st, 2000

Those words belong to Emil Zatopek, who won the gold medal in the 1952 Olympic Marathon, just one of his many long-distance running achievements. Marathoning, that “other life” we experience on race day, is often an exercise in making mistakes, going back and trying again, making some more mistakes, and so forth. For example, Zatopek’s revolutionary training techniques included running while carrying his wife, an Olympic javelin thrower, upon his back. Suffice it to say that Emil, like the rest of us mortals, probably made a few mistakes in his training and racing along the way.
I’ve run some marathons; I’ve made some mistakes. That’s a tempting song lyric, but it’s also a way into this story—one man’s marathoning mistakes. You’re welcome to heed this advice and equally welcome to make your own mistakes.
1Failing to respect the
distance, a.k.a. going out too fast.
Like most marathon lessons, this one is always learned the hard way. My personal tale of woe was at the Chicago Marathon in 1984. On a cool, drizzly day, perfect for running, I got a little carried away. Memories of the race are a bit blurry, but I recall passing a clock at ten miles, reading the time and having a vague sense of “uh-oh.” The only thing that saved me was wearing a Bruce Springsteen shirt at the height of “Born in the USA” mania. Cheers of “Bruuuuuce” kept me going as I struggled in.
2Paying too much respect
to the distance, a.k.a. getting psyched out.
I’ve been here as well. True, the marathon is a long way to go, but letting respect turn into fear is going to set you up for bad things. If you’re thinking that you will hit the wall, there is a decent chance that you will. Break the race into bite-size-pieces for your mind, grasshopper. Run Battery Street hill when you’re on the Battery Street hill, not when you’re on the Connector.
3Leaving your race on a
training run.
A few years ago I ran with a bunch of friends on long runs. Invariably someone would pick the pace up, then someone else (ok, often me) would start to nudge a step ahead. The runs were a lot of fun, some of my fondest running memories, and got me in good shape. Unfortunately, the fast long runs also left me sore all of the time and and brought me to race day pretty beaten up, which brings us to the next point.
4Denying you are injured.
Sometimes the marathon goal can cloud your common sense. Among endurance athletes, there’s a lot of talk about “listening to your body,” but often precious little listening going on. The year I mentioned above, I was hobbling two weeks before the Vermont City Marathon when I spoke with a massage therapist at a race. I told her about my aching knee. She gave me a bottle of baby oil with some wintergreen mixed in — her Quebecois grandfather’s secret balm. The degree of faith I placed in that bottle to heal me is some measure of how much I should have just laid off and run my marathon another year.
5Believing that one mistake
will destroy your race.
Marathoning mistakes are inevitable, the challenge is in handling them gracefully and recognizing that one mistake or many mistakes don’t necessarily spell the end of a positive race-day experience. Like this other life we live when we aren’t marathoning, they are all a part of the big game.
Tom Weaver is a Burlington, Vermont runner who hopes there will be many more marathons and not quite so many mistakes in his future. A writer and editor at the University of Vermont, he also co-teaches a UVM physical education class on marathon training.“If you want to run a race, run one hundred meters. If you want to experience another life, run a marathon.”