The 20-Mile Run: Prepping for the Boston Marathon

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This guest post is written by Greg Weintraub, Team Joslin captain

Each year, something phenomenal happens during the last weekend of March. Many of the local runners training for the Boston Marathon come together in Hopkinton, and set out to run 20 miles together.

This 20 mile long run is the longest run of many training plans. The 20-mile long run is a source of anxiety for many runners. It is all too easy to ruminate on problems – inadequate training, injuries, small cramps or nagging issues – in the days leading up to the long run. But the anxiety and worrying that plagues many runners before the 20-mile run often goes well beyond physical issues. Many runners, including myself and my training partners, face emotional challenges leading up to the 20-mile run. Can we push ourselves through 20 miles? Will we be able to keep running when we feel tired and sore, with many miles still to go?

Unexpected Circumstances

I drove to Hopkinton with my dad on the morning of the longest long run. We drove on the course, and I saw several of my training partners and friends as my dad and I approached the starting line of the Boston Marathon. All of a sudden, I started to worry. Were we arriving too late? Would I be able to catch up to my training partners or my friends? Would I find other runners to run with?

These moments were the first set of unexpected circumstances on this cold Saturday morning. I hadn’t expected to see people I know as we drove to the starting line, and I hadn’t expected to think about finding people to run with on that morning.

And yet, I thought back to previous long runs in the final moments before I set out for my longest long run. I thought back to recent long runs, where I experienced high blood sugars and low blood sugars. I thought back to recent long runs, where I ran despite sub-zero temperatures and winds of over 20 miles per hour. I thought back to previous experiences running the Boston Marathon, too, where the weather soared above 75 degrees or provided pouring rain that kept me cold for several days after.

And I thought back to the first time I ever went for a run. On that night, many years ago, I decided to go running just minutes before I set out the door and ran my first mile. As I thought back to all of these moments, I realized that my experiences as a runner have been defined by unexpected moments, unexpected challenges, and unexpected triumphs.

Staying Calm

I rarely talk about running, while I am actually running. I talk about the weather, my favorite types of food, and whatever else may come up in conversation. But I very rarely talk about running, while I’m out for a run.

Yet, this couldn’t be any more important. My best long runs happen when I’m completely focused on the moment, thinking only about putting one foot in front of the other. My best long runs happen when I’m not worried about how far I’ve already ran, or how much further I have to run. My best long runs happen when I’m completely calm and focused on everything around me.

I started my 20-mile long run at my own pace. I did everything in my power to not worry about all of the details that had worried me just minutes earlier.

I quickly found someone to ‘track’ – my term for when I run behind someone, and keep their pace. He was running at a comfortable pace, and I felt calm and composed as I started my run depending on his pacing. Although I stayed with him for several miles, neither one of us acknowledged or said hello to one another. We just ran. We just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

I pulled ahead of him after two miles. It was at that moment I experienced another unexpected challenge. There was no one ahead of me.

Many of my best long runs happen when I run with a group. Groups motivate me to work harder than I can work when running alone. All of a sudden, those worries and concerns about completing 20 miles stared to resurface. Would anyone catch up with me? Would I catch up with anyone?

I hadn’t expected to encounter these concerns so early in my long run. Usually, I have to work very hard to manage my emotions during the final miles of a long run. I expect those tough situations. But I rarely have to work very hard to manage my emotions so early in a run.

However, I soon found myself focusing only on the task at hand. And much to my surprise, I kept this very calm state of mind until I reached mile 17. Nothing truly phased me between those early moments at mile 2 and another unexpected situation at mile 17.

I test my blood sugar every 5 – 6 miles while running. Testing my blood sugar at this frequency helps to keep my blood sugar at a safe level while running long distances. On the morning of this 20-mile long run, I tested my blood sugar at mile 6 and mile 12. My dad met me both  times to help me test my blood sugar. My blood sugar was at a decent level at both mile 6 and mile 12.

Several miles later, I slowed down to test my blood sugar as I arrived at mile 17. I placed a test strip into my glucometer. Nothing happened. The meter promptly returned a message, providing a customer service telephone number to call. I removed the test strip, and placed a different test strip into my glucometer. I received the same message.

My dad and I both knew that the glucometer wasn’t going to work, due to unforeseen circumstances. I wasn’t wearing a continuous glucose monitor, and we didn’t have a backup glucometer with us that morning, either. The bottom line is we had no way to generate a blood glucose reading.

We had a choice. I could either cut my long run short, at 17 miles instead of 20 miles, or finish running the remaining three miles without generating a blood glucose reading. This unexpected moment put us at a crossroads, and we had to make a decision.

I decided to eat several energy gels. My blood sugar had been dropping at a consistent rate throughout my run on that morning. I ate enough energy gels to maintain my blood sugar for the remaining three miles, assuming that my blood sugar would continue to drop at the same rate it had been dropping over the previous 17 miles.

Finishing Your Race

I continued onwards, determined to finish my longest long run. I continued onwards, determined to prevent my diabetes from stopping me.

I finished my 20 mile run at the Heartbreak Hill Running Company, where I have started so many long runs before. I looked ahead, at the many runners who had already finished their run. And I looked behind me, only to see more and more runners on the verge of finishing their run.

I successfully managed numerous unexpected circumstances throughout the longest long run. I’ve successfully managed countless unexpected circumstances throughout my preparation for the 2017 Boston Marathon. And as I stood near the Heartbreak Hill Running Company, cold and tired after a 20-mile training run, I thought back on the countless unexpected circumstances I have navigated as I approach the starting line of my 5th marathon.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many folks with Type 1 Diabetes who are interested in running long distances – and want to learn more about how I manage my diabetes during a long run or a marathon. The advice I always give reflects the experience I had during this longest long run. The advice I always give to people with Type 1 Diabetes, interested in running long distances, is to just try.

You will never know everything before you start your own race. But I promise that as you meet your own unexpected circumstances, you’ll learn how to navigate the terrain. You’ll learn how to speed up the hills, and coast on the downhills. You will successfully navigate your unexpected circumstances. You just have to put one foot in front of the other.

One Response to The 20-Mile Run: Prepping for the Boston Marathon

  1. lyndsey says:

    love this story!it is so inspirational.i am a type 1 diabetic and a runner as well and i use too get frustrated with low blood sugars and felt it was holding me back.but as you said..you cant give up “you just have to try”which could not be more accurate.thank.you for your dedication and inspiration!

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