I Walked During My First Marathon — but Hey, Olympian Shalane Flanagan Said I Could!

When heat, humidity and cramps hit during the Chicago Marathon, I thought back to what Shalane Flanagan, one of the most decorated marathoners in the world, had said: It's okay to walk

running a marathon
Julie Mazziotta. Photo: Stefania Curto

On Oct. 10 at the Chicago Marathon — nearly seven years after I was supposed to run my first — I finally crossed a 26.2 finish line and could call myself a marathoner. The day didn't go as planned (I walked portions of it, in part thanks to advice from Shalane Flanagan — more on that later) but that's the thing about running: As much as we love to make schedules and pace goals, there's no guarantee that it will all come together.

My first goal for the Chicago Marathon was to get to the starting line injury-free ­— I sprained my ankle two weeks before I was supposed to run the New York City Marathon back in 2014 — but my real target was to run it in under four hours. It was a reach for my first-ever marathon, but it seemed doable based on how I had been running in training and on Chicago's famously flat and fast course. I uncharacteristically shared that goal with most people I talked to, including friends, family and random dates — I even put it in a People.com story! — so I was committed to making it happen.

As marathon day crept closer, I, along with likely every other Chicago runner, started obsessively checking the weather — and it certainly wasn't ideal. Instead of the 50-degree fall temps we were all hoping for, it was going to be hot and humid. Still, you have to adapt, so with the help of my wonderful Nike coach Jes Woods, I decided to start at a slower pace that I could later bring down to come in under four hours.

running a marathon
Me and coach Jes Woods. Stefania Curto

And for the first 7 miles, I hit that pace exactly — and then it all came crashing down. The heat, humidity and some nausea set in, but the real issue was my own mindset. I panicked that I couldn't slow down, because I had told so many people about my four-hour goal. I panicked that I wouldn't finish the race at all, because I'd never run 26.2 miles before (while forgetting that I HAD run 20 and 22 miles before and wasn't that far off!). I panicked that I would disappoint my three best friends and my parents who had flown all the way out to Chicago to see me run.

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But with my heart rate going out of control and my stomach wanting to rebel, I did the only thing I could think of, what I didn't want to do at all during this marathon: I walked. I had gotten the opportunity to run Chicago thanks to Nike, and two days before the race I was lucky enough to be seated at a dinner next to none other than Shalane Flanagan, a three-time Olympian, winner of the 2017 New York City Marathon and one of the most decorated American distance runners. She retired in 2019, but decided to take on a unique mission this fall — with almost all of the six World Marathon Majors happening in a two-month span thanks to the pandemic, she's running all of them.

Tatyana McFadden and Shalane Flanagan
Tatyana McFadden and Shalane Flanagan giving us all marathoning advice. Zach Hetrick

About a week before I ate dinner next to Shalane, she had run the London Marathon and went out faster than she intended, writing on Instagram that "for the first time ever, I had to stop and walk in a marathon." And at dinner that Friday, she emphasized to us how much it helped her, that it was perfectly fine to do and something that could pay off later in the race. Shalane told our group of runners that you can walk, take in water and fuel, breathe and that you'll "thank yourself" for it down the line.

So just after the halfway mark, as my panic hit its high, I decided to walk a full mile of the race. One foot in front of the other, I focused on my breathing, drank plenty of water, ate a gel and gave my mind a reset. Sub-four hours wasn't going to happen and that was fine — I was going to finish this race any way I could, at any pace I could, with as much walking as I wanted.

running a marathon
Julie Mazziotta. Stefania Curto

And after that mile, my mindset made a 180. I actually enjoyed that second half of the marathon, waving at the people who called out my name on my shirt, looking for funny signs and taking in the crowds. My friends had seen me at mile 12 when I was mid-breakdown, and when I found them again at miles 21 and 25 they said I looked like a different runner as I laughed and breezed by them.

The rest of the race was still extremely hard — I would've loved to at least be closer to 4:30 than the 4:45 I finished in, and crossing the finish line was a relief — but I was so glad that I listened to Shalane, walked, and gave myself a chance to enjoy my first marathon.

And I'm excited to learn from the experience and use it to map out my next marathon, because I'm already signed up for the 2022 New York City Marathon. I'm going to run it and enjoy it and maybe even get a PR, but no pressure if I don't — I'm putting that in writing now.

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