Tough road to travel

Michele (Suszek) Yates remembers her first marathon experience quite well.

As an 18-year-old, Yates made a bet with her older brother Nick and the pair decided to run the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon in May 2001.

“I kicked his butt but paid the price. I was throwing up all the way back to Alpena afterwards, but as awful as my body felt, I still accomplished a major goal and I was very happy about that,” Yates said.

For many local runners, completing a marathon is an amazing accomplishment, but it’s one that comes as a result of strenuous training, hurdling mental obstacles and lots and lots of running.

Joe Gentry, head of the Dork Bros. racing team, who has helped many local runners like ACC cross country coach Mark Jacobs prepare for marathons, often cites a quote from legendary New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard: “You get better running, by running.”

Whether you’re a first-time or long-time marathoner, runners often prepare two to three months in advance and running is the most important aspect of training.

Distance runs or long runs, for runners like Jacobs, involve establishing a base- a fixed distance such as 10 or 12 miles and slowly increasing that distance over time before the marathon. Most runners generally try to reach a goal of around 18 miles by the time they run the marathon.

“There are a lot of strategies, but the basic plan is to make sure you get time on your feet,” Gentry said. “A long run shouldn’t deplete you, it should build you up.”

This method of training works perfectly for some marathoners like Jacobs, who sticks solely to running in preparation for races.

In preparation for the Indiana Trail Race he ran in April, Jacobs spent some days running for as many as 10 hours. Ryan Knight, who’s preparing to do a 100-mile race in September, only gets to train a few times a month, but when he does it often involves running up to 50 miles at a time.

Long runs are essential for establishing a base, but runners will diversify their training with tempo runs and uphill runs as they reach new training goals.

Tempo runs are done at a faster pace than the pace of a marathon, but they’re also done over a shorter distance, usually between five and 10 miles.

Uphill or downhill runs are good for exposing runners to different types of terrain they might face during a marathon and many local runners use the 23-mile loop in Hubbard Lake as a good training ground because of its hilly terrain.

“There are some people who will try the same thing over and over again,” Jacobs said. “You have to mix it up. You do tempo running, you do speed work, you do a lot of distance.”

While training for a marathon requires rigorous physical training, it also may require good eating habits and the diet for many runners varies on what works for an individual. Jacobs is a vegetarian. Knight tends to stick with organic food. Yates’ diet consists mainly of produce, fish and nuts.

It also may require altering a workout routine from marathon to marathon, depending on the conditions, terrain or how much more or less physical training is needed to prepare.

In preparation for her first marathon, Yates said she trained the “American” way: long weekend runs with a mix of speed workouts, but mainly keeping the focus on increasing volume to cover the distance.

Now as an ultra-marathoner who has won three national titles and run as part of several national teams, Yates’ training regimen has evolved over time and with experience.

Whereas her routine for her first marathon emphasized more distance runs, Yates focuses on quality over quantity. This includes a tempo run almost every day and speed workouts three times a week. Yates mixes in distance runs as well and also focuses on strength training three times a week.

“With experience, one learns a lot about themselves and what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes things happen completely out of our control though, but that is why it is best to be as prepared as possible,” Yates said.

When he ran the Chicago Marathon 20 years ago, Knight had a training schedule that included swimming and biking to complement a strong running base. Now with more time devoted to family, Knight trains less, but makes the most of the time he does train.

A marathon takes quite the physical toll, but local marathoners say most of the battle during a race is all in their heads.

“I think it’s more mental than it is physical. It’s getting over the hump and saying, ‘I can do this,'” Knight said.

Running that great of a distance is daunting for even the most experienced runners and they can expect to hit a wall several times during a race. For a lot of runners, the wall or one of several walls usually comes halfway through the race.

The key is having the mental toughness to push through the physical pain and continue on even when they want to stop and questions are turning over in their mind: ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Why am I doing this?’

In Yates’ first marathon, the beginning of the race went by easily as her brother controlled the pace and she was able to meet her goal of 8 1/2 minutes per mile. Midway through the race however, she decided to pick up the pace a little and ended up hitting a wall at the 22-mile mark. Yates’ glycogen stores-stores of energy in the body-were depleted and she found herself struggling through the last few miles of the race. Still, she was able to bear down mentally and finish the race.

“My philosophy is simple: educate yourself as much as possible with training techniques, nutrition, etc., and then set the mind frame that you will finish no matter what happens,” Yates said. “In reality, a lot can happen, go wrong or be a challenge during a marathon or any distance longer, so just get it done no matter what.”

When the wall hits, it’s up to the individual runner to push themselves to keep going and that’s where months of training comes in handy.

“You rely on the fact you put in weeks of training and you’ll get through it,” Gentry said.

Even in training runs, runners can have good days and bad days and on the bad days, it’s important for runners to keep going and keep pushing themselves.

“We call those soul runs. It’s so mental, even in the training. It’s almost good to have soul runs and get the bad ones out of the way,” Jacobs said.

Training for and completing a marathon can be a taxing physical and mental experience, but those who are able to finish often speak of the satisfaction they feel when it’s over. For many runners it makes them want to do it again.

Jacobs remembers the sense of accomplishment he felt after completing his first marathon, the Bayshore Marathon in 1994. Since then he has gone on to run 23 more marathons.

“It was brutal. Someone told me you should feel better in the second half after doing the first half and I was dying at the first half. It was a nice accomplishment,” Jacobs said. “Then I got hooked.”

James Andersen can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.