In-Your-Face Fitness: Humbled by Los Angeles Marathon training

Writer James S. Fell will run his first marathon in L.A. on Sunday.
(Riley Brandt)

For a recreational runner, there’s no rite of passage as masochistic as running a marathon. We ache for the battle scars: chafing, blisters and psychosis brought on by trying to figure out how to use the GPS watch that’s supposed to be a training aid.

I’ve run several 10Ks but never more than 10 miles in one outing. Just before Christmas, I decided to make the leap to get that marathon monkey off my back.

On Sunday, I’ll be one of the 23,000 people running from Dodger Stadium to the Santa Monica Pier in the Los Angeles Marathon.

Lessons learned running a first marathon


I fantasized about finishing in under four hours, which runners would consider respectable for a middle-aged guy like me. But since this was just for fun, I didn’t stress about the training. There are marathon coaches, running clubs and articles that provide detailed training schedules — for regular folks. As a certified fitness professional, I figured I was fully qualified to put one foot in front of the other. How hard could it be?

Plenty hard, it turns out.

My running schedule was based on two simple ideas: Add distance incrementally and push hard. The goal was to build up to 22 miles by early March, then ease off for the final two weeks before the race to give my body a chance to recover.

To augment the distance training, I planned to keep my conditioning up with a few comparatively short 9- to 12-mile runs each week. Weight training would change to boost endurance: lighter loads and higher reps.


But things didn’t go according to plan.

Here’s how my training actually progressed (then regressed):

Resources for marathon training

On the first day of winter, I ran my first half marathon in 1 hour, 41 minutes, 37 seconds and was neither tired nor sore. The rule of thumb for estimating your marathon time is to double your best — or, in my case, only — half-marathon time and add 10 minutes. That calculation predicted a 3:33 finish.


I felt invincible!

Three weeks later, I ran 16 miles at an 8-minute-per-mile pace. That would have been a 3:30 finish at marathon distance. My thighs were battered, but the invincible feeling remained.

Two weeks after that, I logged another 16 miles at the same pace. My right ankle turned stiff. An 11-mile run later in the week sealed the ankle’s fate: purple, swollen and definitely painful.

Experts at the running injury clinic at a local university did a full work-up, including a treadmill gait analysis. The verdict: Insufficient hip strength was causing my ankles to bend inward upon landing. It wasn’t the distances that had done me in, it was the speed, which causes a significantly higher impact. Speed kills.


Upcoming marathons in Southern California

So in February I traded in running for hip-strengthening exercises with a resistance band, plus a few hours on my road bike. I also got a little depressed, drank more beer than usual and put on a couple of pounds.

Training resumed this month, but a lackluster race performance is certain. Last week it took me 1:59:44 to go a half-marathon distance. I could have gone faster, but I also could have ended up on IV ibuprofen afterward.

I thought I was tough. But being in great physical condition is not enough. What matters is listening to your body when it’s warning you that you’re pushing yourself too hard. Don’t let arrogance mute that message.


See you at the finish. I hope.

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist who has a new appreciation for long-distance runners.