William Putnam

Running a marathon in Chiang Mai

Going through the pain barrier in North Thailand

It was around 3 am on February 14th, 2016 in northern Thailand, and I was set to begin running. I had wanted to run a marathon for years, so when the opportunity came to run one in Chiang Mai with a friend, I immediately signed up.

I really did not know what to expect. I had run several half marathons before, but a marathon was a different beast. I knew that nutrition was important for that long of a run and that I needed to build up to long distances during training. Unfortunately, I ignored this information.

Less than ideal prep

Busy with work in the month leading up to the race, I was unable to build up my mileage. I did run two "long" runs (>20 km), one around 25 km in length and another around 34 km. All I remember about the 34 km run is that I was hot and miserable. If one chooses to run long distances in Bangkok, I recommend finishing before 8 am. 11 am is not a fun time to be towards the end of a 20-mile run.

Flights to Chiang Mai normally go for 4-5000 baht round trip, but, since this was Valentine's Day weekend, they were going for that much each way. I chose to fly back on Sunday, but I took a bus up Friday night. This turned out to be bad idea.

There were no buses left when I arrived at the bus station, so I was stuck on a minivan with no room to stretch my legs. My legs were already in pain when I arrived in Chiang Mai. I took 800 mg of ibuprofen and hoped for the best. I spent the rest of the day meeting up with old friends, drinking coffee, and carbo-loading. Before I went to bed for my 1:45 am wake up time, I ordered a venti coffee from Starbucks and put it in my fridge.

It's race time

It was a relatively cool day at the start, and the first 30 km or so went off without a hitch. My friend and I easily kept pace with the 4-hour pacers, as we had planned to do. At kilometer 30 though, my friend got a cramp. I thought about going ahead, but it was my first marathon, and I was not really running for time. In addition, I had been feeling a strong pain in the side of my left knee for almost an hour.

I had been taking advantage of the nearly ubiquitous aid stations by putting numbing spray on my leg at each one. I knew I could keep up at the pace we were going, but I also knew that doing so could involve risking long-term injury. After going at a slow jog for 10 km or so, I went ahead for the last three kilometers in order to beat a 4:15 time. I ended up a couple minutes behind that, but I was okay with that time for a first attempt at the marathon. I hobbled away from the finish and waited for my friend, who finished 15 minutes later.

It turned out later that the pacers we were running with finished in 3:40. I was actually pleased with that piece of news since I knew I could have kept up that pace if I chose to do so. I am glad I didn't though, as running even at my slowed pace hurt my knee quite a bit, and I was unable to run properly for a month. If I had not slowed down, I might have been incapacitated for much longer (this is why people should train properly for marathons).

A great experience

Overall, running the marathon in Chiang Mai was a great experience. The running weather was much better than that in Bangkok, and I was able to see just how different a marathon was from a half-marathon.

In a 10k or half-marathon, often I will get out of breath from pushing my speed. In the marathon, even during the first 30 kilometers, my per kilometer pace never went faster than about 5 minutes and 30 seconds. This kept my heart rate at about 150-160 beats per minute, so I never felt out of breath and was able to continue conversation easily for the whole race.

However, my legs truly gave out. I never hit what is called "the wall" since I slowed down when my friend got a cramp in his leg. Yet, after 30 km, my legs did feel as if I had been standing in line for days, and, as I mentioned above, I only continued running through copious use of an analgesic spray.

Going through the pain barrier

The marathon is not so much about being in shape as about pushing oneself through pain. Training is necessary to reduce injury, and I should have done a lot more, but the race is more about pushing one's every muscle than one's circulatory system.

This is why one should only run a marathon every three months or so, as the millions of microscopic tears in one's muscles need time to heal. The pain can get pretty miserable. If anyone plans on running a race in a new city and then doing tourist activities, I recommend running a nice half marathon to see the city and then doing other activities in the afternoon. If you run a marathon in the morning, you will not be at all functional for around 36 hours, and certainly for 12. There goes your vacation.

I imagine these lessons will apply even more to the 50 kilometer ultra-marathon I am running in 10 days, where it is acceptable to walk up hills and, unlike in the marathon, no one cares about your time as long as you finish.


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