From Couch to… 100KM (62 miles)?! How I Found Out I Can Run A Marathon

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run a marathon

So You Think You Can’t Run A Marathon?

Deciding to run a marathon… How does that even happen? Admittedly, I am one of those annoying people with inspiring but also slightly unrealistic bucket list items I like to boast about ticking off. My bucket list items are only slightly unrealistic because, to be honest, I’d like to be able to tick them off. So I have to keep them kind of realistic with still a challenge aspect, right?

That’s why to run a marathon was never an official bucket list item.

Because I never thought it was realistic enough…

Turns out I now can run a marathon as a hobby. And I think you probably can, too.

PS: I know you’ll have a counter-argument for that – but hear me out. I hope to convince you otherwise, or at least make you consider things a little differently. Which is why I wanted to get this written down in the first place.

My Journey To Run A Marathon

It’s only recently that I have accepted the label “runner”. Before 2020, I’d been on a few jogs in my life. You know, the Monday morning “OK. I’m going to start jogging.” And Tuesday morning you wake up all sore and you don’t go again until after Christmas the following year and the pounds have piled on once again.

I was also not terribly sporty. I hadn’t really done any sports since high school – although I am generally quite an active person who does love to be outdoors doing stuff.

But the previous few years I’d spent in university and my first couple of years in Beijing definitely drinking too much, partying too much, and breathing not-so-clean air.

So I certainly wasn’t at my fittest at the start of 2020. Nevertheless, 2020 was going to be the year that I picked up running – and (as of now, at least) never looked back.

Most people look at me and say that to run a marathon is an incredible thing; an impossible task they could simply never consider being able to do in their lives. Well – I was in that position too. And it’s hard for me to look back and remember how exactly I got to be able to run 100km…

So, let’s break it down into bitesize, achievable chunks.

run a marathon

First 5km

It all started when I ended up stranded in Tonga. New story for you? Well then make sure to read all about it on my other posts, or skip to the ending here!

So I ended up on this tiny island in the middle of the south pacific ocean. I didn’t know anyone. I had no friends. No family. Had lost most of my full-time job. And the world was all going a bit mental. (Remember, March 2020?). So… I picked up some shoes and thought that spending some time trying to keep up jogging for more than a week would be a great idea.

Turns out, running in Tonga was initially terrifying – the dogs there are pretty territorial. But the first few runs went OK. Helped largely by the beautiful coconut trees and cute piglets you pass by on the way.

In the beginning, I was largely just trying to run for 30 minutes – regardless of the distance. But I suppose it was about 5km. I never know because I never really checked. I just know that as the weeks went on, my cheap corner shop shoes got gradually more and more worn down but the distances I could run in 30 minutes got finally longer and longer.

To the lamppost… The road sign… To the church… Further and further. Each week I’d try to add another kilometer.

First 10km

After I made it to about 7-8 kilometers I decided OK. I can add another two, right?

I remember heading out of the house to do my first 10km that day, without really having any plan in mind. Beforehand, I hadn’t really looked up anything online on how to run 10km. I just presumed everything would be… fine?

Ill-prepared but sufficiently hydrated, I ran 5km away from my house before I turned back. I ddi this deliberately so that I wouldn’t be tempted to just give up after 7 or 8 kilometers. Actually, I always had it in my head that I could give up and walk back for the rest of the distance if I really needed to stop.

Turns out, it went absolutely fine. I was tired, for sure. And I was very ill-prepared and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have any running techniques and also wasn’t really using much to analyze my performance. But hey – I did it. 10 kilometers!

It took me about 1 month to get there.

Then things kind of took off…

tonga marathon

First 15 KM

I’d done 10 kilometers. And running 5 was my minimum distance now. It was an easy, chill distance that I had become accustomed to and felt very approachable. So if I could run 10km… I might be able to do another 5km after that? It’s only another 5km, right?

And so I started to build up from 10 kilometers. I did 11km. Then 12km. 12.5km.

Then I decided if I can do 12.5km, I can definitely add 2.5km onto that. And if not, I can walk the rest.

First 10 Miles

As I was walking back from completing my first ever 15-kilometer run (yay!), I decided I needed a new goal already. This running thing was getting addictive. And I was feeling very good from it (more on that below).

So I looked up online what 10 miles were in kilometers – and found out it wasn’t all too much more than 15 kilometers. If I could do 15, maybe I could add on another 3km? It was only another 3…

And so for the next few weeks, I did a lot of short runs, a couple of longer runs, a couple more 10 kilometer runs, and then I set out for a 10-mile run.

By this point, I was getting a running technique down. I was making sure to drink plenty of water, and I’d even set up a running playlist on Spotify as well as getting some new shorts and running top (before this I was running in swimming shorts!).

tonga paradise

First 21km

After I did 10 miles, believe it or not – I did the same thing again.

I needed a new goal. A new thing to work towards.

I’d heard of marathons and how massive a thing it is to be able to run one… But I had no idea how long they were. Of course, to run a marathon was an entirely ridiculous idea. But… half marathons exist, don’t they? So on my walk home, I looked up how long a half-marathon is.

To my horror, I discovered that a half-marathon is only a couple more kilometers than 10 miles. Why to my horror, you ask? Well, I distinctly remember ending that 10 miles run with tons of energy to spare. I was really enjoying that run and was very pumped. The training of the past few weeks had certainly paid off! And I was so annoyed that I hadn’t carried on running…

It’s a good thing, though. It gave me the confidence to do it again next time.

But still at the back of my mind was this voice telling me how difficult a half marathon is… Half-marathon?! 21km?! You have to do so much training, I thought. Surely it’s not possible for me? Surely at 20km, I’ll just break down and my legs will turn to jelly because I have entirely no idea what I’m doing and I’m training myself on Google. Right?!

Well, wrong.

My first 21 kilometers was a lot of fun. It was entirely unplanned and I did something crazy – I didn’t run 10 kilometers from my house and turn back, but instead, I ran to the city center. A convenient 21 kilometers away from my home. I’d left my car at a friend’s house the night before to pick it up when I ran there the next morning. So basically, I had to finish the whole 21 kilometers in order to get to my car and to get home again. If that’s not motivation… I don’t know what is!

It was probably an entirely stupid thing to do. Not in the least because I was running on a main road for the whole time – without any paths. And with lots of dogs. And in shoes that cost me $2.

I went hard on this run. But I did everything wrong, too. Everything I’d looked up on the internet and thought I’d learned – I kind of just ignored. And so afterward I felt absolutely tired and I didn’t achieve the time I wanted…

BUT.

I did it.

I ran 21 kilometers and BECAUSE I didn’t achieve the time I wanted, I knew I had to do it again.

But for that, I’d need new shoes. Because on this run, I literally burnt a Hoel right through the sole of each shoe.

First 30km

This is where things got more serious.

It’s bizarre how this all unfolded (and I talk below about why I kept up running) but in the end, I decided I’d train to run a marathon.

If I’ve done 21km, I can do 42km after all, right???

In training for the full marathon, I wanted to do one long run. That was this 30km run. And this is where it all went wrong,

It had been about 5 months since I had first arrived in Tonga and had started running. I had gone from 0 to 21km at this point and all without any injury at all. And each time I was only improving, going further, faster, getting better, and getting stronger.

So when I injured myself after 30 kilometers, I made so many mistakes to make it worse.

I finished the 30km absolutely fine. But perhaps I wasn’t ready. Perhaps I wasn’t strong enough. Definitely, I had gotten ahead of myself. And after I injured myself on my right leg, I kept running and training – against all the advice on the internet – because I had already told everyone I was going to do a marathon.

And I stick to my word.

run a marathon

First Time To Run A Marathon

I had to postpone this. But not cancel it.

After I got injured, I took a couple of weeks off. And then… Kind of lost the inspiration to run. I was either in pain or making sure I wouldn’t cause any more pain or injury. And now I was running because I HAD to, not because I WANTED to. I had organized a marathon run… So that was what I wanted and had to do.

After that 30km run, I only did another few runs or so before the actual marathon event about 2 months later…

Some might call that “tapering” (a term used to mean running less before a big race to allow for full recovery and best condition). But tapering is usually for a couple of weeks… not months…

So to say I was pretty unconfident before the marathon run is a massive understatement. I had NO idea if I could actually complete the marathon run or not. I’d only ever run one 30km run before, one half-marathon, and I hadn’t been training at all for the past couple of months.

But I said I would, so I did.

What could go wrong?

Well, surprisingly – nothing went wrong. It surprised me and it surprised everyone around me too, I think. I won’t go on about the Tonga Marathon here (as I mention it more below) but 6 months after I started running and I had completed a marathon.

I was pretty proud and do you want to know a massive secret?

If you can do 5km, you can probably do 10km. And if you can do 10km, you can probably do 21km. If you can do 21km, you can probably do 30km.

And if you can do 30km, you can probably do 42km.

First 50km

And if you can do 42km, you can probably do 50km.

Probably.

So first of all, why run 50km? Well, that’s a long story. There are many levels to it but basically because I wanted to train to run 100km. (And why I wanted to do that is even longer, and I touch on it below – so stick around).

My 50km run was a really bizarre one. And something that I look back on and think how mental I was. And how unprepared.

Don’t get me wrong – I had been training for this 50km for a couple of months and I thought I was ready for it. I had done another couple of half marathon runs and felt like it was all going OK. I also got myself used to doing some 25km runs. (Doing 50% of something always makes me feel like I can do the remaining 50%).

The funny thing about doing 50km was that it was way more chilled than my first marathon run. For that, there was so much apprehension, so much fear, and I prepared so much in terms of my diet, etc beforehand. This 50km was never my goal; I was training for something much bigger. So suddenly 42km felt quite short compared to 50km, which didn’t even feel that long compared to my 100km goal.

I set out on the morning of the 50km having eaten a lot of pasta the night before. Set my alarm for 4:30 am and had an awful sleep. I woke up in an awful mood and entirely not mentally prepared for a 50km run. So I decided I’d just go and see how long I can do. 10 kilometers in and it started to pour down. I hate running in the rain. It’s one of the few things I refuse to do – because of the blisters. So I pretty much knew I wouldn’t do the whole 50km in the end. I actually had a catch-up call with my friend for an hour or so and jogged along slowly, not taking the run seriously at all.

And then the rain stopped and I realized I had run about 25 kilometers already so… I may as well do the last 25km?

And so that’s pretty much how I did it…

It sounds like I mean it was simple and easy. No. It was awful. I ached afterward. Everything burnt and felt like it was on fire. To be fair, the last 2 hours were blazing hot sun so I did get a bit burnt in the end.

The last 5 kilometers of that run were the hardest I’d ever endured but – I endured them.

100km; How Did That Happen?!

Well, I think by now you know where this is going.

Now I had done 50km, I could do 100km.

Right?

Right!

(Turns out I was right – although I wasn’t so convinced at the time).

I ran (/walked/hobbled/cried) my way 100km around the circumference of the tiny island of Tonga, when it was only one year ago I started running properly.

And this run deserves a whole blog in itself (let me know if you want one!) – obviously, it was very long and lasted for a while… (under 24hrs, though!). I hated 99% of it, and believe it or not – it wasn’t my biggest achievement.

Why, you ask?

Well, my achievement was all the above. Everything leading up to it.

Running 100km is all very well and good… But training yourself for a whole year to be able to run 100km? Now, that’s impressive (if I do say so myself).

Running For Health

So, why am I trying to convince you to go out there and try out running? (If you clocked onto the fact that I might be trying to convince you to do something).

Well, firstly, let it be known that anyone can run. Don’t give me those excuses. If you can walk, you can move those legs a little faster into a jog or a run.

No matter how long you do it for – 20 minutes or 20 seconds – it’s always that first step that’s the hardest, and there will be nothing but major improvements to follow.

My running journey went on for about 18 months – the whole time I was in Tonga. And it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. There are certainly more fit people out there than me – but there are also less fit people out there than I am. The thing to remember is to go at your own pace, but also to not let yourself be defeated.

Running/jogging is incredibly good for your health. It gets you outside, gets you moving, gets your heart pumping and your legs working. It is an exercise involving your whole body – and you WILL feel better after that run. (Even if you don’t for the first few… I promise you will start to have a love-hate relationship with running…)

BUT I also appreciate running/jogging isn’t for everyone. If so – how about going on a few more walks every week?

Either way, if you think that you’d like to start running but don’t think you’d be any good… I can totally empathize with you. And you can take my word for it that you’ll do absolutely fine. One step at a time, one kilometer at a time, one mile at a time!

Running For Mental Health

So now for the main reason I started running…

Funnily enough, I didn’t actually start running to keep healthy, lose weight or get fit.

I started running to;

  1. Stop me from being bored
  2. To give me a reason to leave the house
  3. Give me a structure
  4. To force me out of bed
  5. Give me something to do
  6. Give me a goal to work towards
  7. To see how far I could go…

And trust me, it did all of that. My time in Tonga was tough. And I don’t know I would’ve been able to get through it without having found running, in which I focused a lot of my energy.

I got up early every morning to go for a run because by 10am it is too hot. If I wanted to go for a long run, I had to leave at 5:30 am. I had no friends in Tonga at first, so no reason to leave the house apart from shopping… and then running. I had lost my full time job and so organized all my own time… I needed some structure to work from, some plan, some organization… Training plans and running goals helped facilitate this.

And it’s always fun to see how far you can push yourself…

How far do you think you can go?!

What’s Now? Run A Marathon Again?

So hopefully before 30 I hope to complete some running goals such as running a sub-4 hr marathon – despite injuring myself as I attempted this a few weeks ago. I also hope to run another 100km – and who knows, maybe 100 miles next?

The main takeaway I hope you get from this is a bit of inspiration, motivation, and to never say never.

Sounds cheesy but… If you really want something, nothing is impossible. But you do really have to want it.

In Tonga, I had hours every day to train. I had a goal, and I worked towards it. It took a lot of time and effort, mental and physical. But I did it. And if you really truly put your mind to something, and you give it the time and effort it needs, then you’ll surely achieve it.

And if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, at least you know you tried!

Zoe Stephens
Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time traveling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more about her life stuck on Tonga on Instagram @tongadiaries.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Zoe,
    Congratulations on your fitness and thanks for the inspiration!
    I recently heard about the Red Bull 400 Ski Hill Climb Challenge in Michigan U.P.
    Check it out.

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