Becoming a Marathoner: Boston and Beyond

Becoming a Marathoner: Boston and Beyond

Authored by Michael Brandt • 
April 26, 2019
 • 17 min read
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One week ago, I ran the Boston Marathon, the 123rd running of one of the most prestigious and storied races in all of marathoning. I finished in 2 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds (6:24/mile).

Earlier today, I went for my first jog since the race. In my tired legs I could still feel the rhythm of those 26.2 miles in Boston, the hardest run of my life.

Boston was my second marathon. In that sense, I am still very new to marathoning. Yet in these two short years I have given my fullest toward mastery of the sport, building a daily ritual around running, chewing through untold pairs of running shoes, becoming a student of books and blogs and any seasoned runner who’s offering advice, and running mile after mile after mile.

The Warm-Up

“The marathon demands respect.” - Advanced Marathoning (Pfitzinger and Douglas).

The first time my mom told me about the marathon, one of her co-workers was running one. We marveled not only at how a person could cover 26.2 miles at once — but why?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a seed was planted.

Most of my childhood and into college, I played sports: soccer, ultimate frisbee, tennis, swimming, and half a season of track & field. Thanks to good parenting, I built a habit of being active.

Post-college and into adult life, my workout routine has been ordinary: run or go to the gym a few times a week, with a yoga session and pickup soccer game sprinkled in here and there. On weekends when I could fit it into my schedule, I’d go for a six mile run through Golden Gate Park.

When I was 24, my friend Elissa talked me into running my first half marathon. I couldn’t think of a reason to say “no,” so I signed up. The race was the following weekend. I crossed the finish line in Golden Gate Park completely gassed, with the clock a little over 1hr 45 minutes, close to the middle of the pack for my age group.

I didn’t think much of it, and went back to my normal routine.

Half Marathon, Full Effort

Fast forward four years.

Geoff and I were in full swing running HVMN. As founders, we always shared unbounded curiosity for the human body as a platform. How could we modify our inputs to optimize for certain outputs? For several years we’d done nonstop research, interviews, and self-experimentation: fasting for seven days straight, implanting continuous glucose monitors, tracking various biomarkers, and so on. That gave me an idea: “biohack” my way into becoming an endurance athlete.

In 2017, we were getting ready to launch HVMN Ketone, which among other things, is a superfuel for endurance athletes. Business was moving quickly. We were working with a number of Tour de France cycling teams, we tapped Joe Montana as an investor, and we were having conversations with elite athletes from tennis to football to ultra-marathoning. Brianna had joined the team, having retired from a world-champion rowing career, and pushed several of us to sign up & train for the SF Half Marathon.

As a reference point, I immediately thought about Boston. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a life goal for many runners, an acknowledgement that they have entered the elite upper decile of the sport. For an 18 - 34 year old male, that qualifying time is 3hrs (6:52/mile). For my first half marathon, I chopped the “Boston Qualifying” time in half, and set a goal of finishing in 1hr30min.

Running 13.1 miles at sub seven-minute pace sounded serious, it felt fast. I knew had work to do.

Six weeks ahead of the half marathon, I started training. I ran twice each week, for 6 - 8 miles. Every Sunday, I would run 13 miles to see how I was progressing. I could feel my legs turning into runner’s legs. My breathing relaxed as my cardio improved. A seasoned runner friend of mine gave sage advice, “to run well, you must first become a runner.” It was the hardest I’d ever trained for anything.

Race day came and I pulled off 1:29:34, about half a minute ahead of my goal. It took every ounce of stamina I had—an all-out effort. I was exhausted, I was proud, but knew I had unfinished business. Could I one day extend the performance to a full marathon?

Marathon 1: San Francisco

There are two roles you must embody to run a successful marathon: mechanic and pilot.

First you build the machine. This is the time spent training, going for long runs, speed work, weights, stretching, recovery, repeat. You track speed, heart rate, cadence. You obsess over running shoes, you become a student of the technique, you become a better runner.

Then, you race the machine. You show up on race day with whatever level of fitness you’ve built. As you jump in the cockpit on race day, you take an honest assessment of your fitness level. And when the gun goes off, you let ‘er rip.

The Work

After the SF Half Marathon, I took some time before committing to a full marathon. I turned to triathlon. Triathlon training added variety to my weeks, and meant I could train regularly without overdoing it on the running. As long as I kept active on most days, I kept getting better.

As the year went on, and the next year’s SF Marathon came up on the horizon, I decided to run the full marathon. It was important to me to train hard and have a successful debut, and I set a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

I poured through books like Advanced Marathoning, Endure, Shoe Dog, and Born to Run to get a feel not just for the training, but the culture, the grit, the obsession. In Advanced Marathoning, I chose the 55 miles-per-week plan. I was curious what it would feel like to train that much, to feel my body becoming that of a marathoner.

Photo of 5 books: Chi Running, Shoe Dog, Advanced Marathoning, Endure, Born to Run

I learned an important part of the puzzle: to conquer a marathon, you run so many miles in training that the marathon itself becomes small. I learned that in order to run fast and strong you also need to be patient and calm.

I started running four, five, six days a week. Every day my alarm would go off at 6am. I would make coffee, get my blood flowing, prepare for the work day, and get ready to run. By 7am I was out the door, back in time to shower, have a breakfast of eggs and steel-cut oatmeal, and get going. I’d eat HVMN Kado as a source of omega-3s, make a protein drink for later, then head into work.

In order to balance training with the increasing velocity of work at HVMN, I lived a simple life. Most days I’d work until it was time to head home, sleep, and do it all again. My life revolved around building HVMN, running, and quality time with friends when possible. No Netflix, no happy hours, no concerts, no spontaneous weekend trips, no distractions. I have no doubt that the reason I was able to focus to this degree was because the process itself was deeply satisfying. The work was the reward.

I ran in silence, almost always alone. When I run I take catalog of what is on my mind. Some days running is mediative, and epiphanies can strike. Other days, nothing happens. I calm the voices in my head that are stressed, or bored, or counterproductive. I relax everything that’s not moving me forward. I do not listen to music.

I studied the form, the biomechanics, the rhythm. Doing more with less. Controlling any energy that is not moving you forward. Activating your glutes, generating power with your core, learning forward, recruiting your entire body into a running machine. Running is simple on the surface, yet one can spend a lifetime mastering the form, like a sushi chef wielding a knife with perfect dexterity.

I got a GPS watch. I tracked my splits for every mile. I monitored my heart rate, keeping long runs under 150bpm, recovery runs under 120bpm. I obsessed over cadence, making sure to keep quick turnover and not stretch my stride out too far in front of my center of mass, a leading cause of running injury. Instead of trying to run faster, I focused on running easier and letting the speed come naturally.

I learned about consistency. I learned about the limits of what you can do in a day, or a week. I learned that if you want to increase your weekly mileage, especially when new to marathoning, you need to patiently add no more than 10% each week or risk injury. I learned to go easy on the easy days so I could go hard on the hard days. I learned that even for elite marathoners, 80% of their miles in training are below their marathon race pace. I learned to trust the process. I learned how to recover, I learned to stay within reach of a water bottle 24/7, I learned the dark art of the foam roller. I learned the joy of a well-timed yoga or sauna session.

I bumped up my weekly mileage to 70. I felt like I was going into orbit. I loved the feeling of being inside this body capable of flying over these long distances.

I was seeing a whole side of San Francisco I hadn’t known about. I had gone years without seeing the ocean, and now I was out along the water every morning. I was breathing new air.

The first few times I went for 15-mile runs before work, I’d tell everyone within earshot. After months it stopped being noteworthy, no more significant than having breakfast. It was just another normal day in the office. I liked the feeling of having sore legs.

Weekend long runs became like church. A staple of any distance runner, the weekend long run is the longest run of the week, and the run that most closely resembles the marathon itself. Friday nights I was in bed early, relaxed and well hydrated, ready to wake up and go for a cruise.

A photo of the Golden Gate Bridge
Photo Credit: Taylor Maniscalchi

I dialed in my nutrition and metabolic training. Some runs were fasted, stretching my body’s ability to run on low glycogen and metabolize fat. Some runs I were fully fueled, so that I could push my muscles 100%. On these runs I would have HVMN Ketone and a carb drink ahead of time, and bring more HVMN Ketone and energy gels with me in a special belt. Post-run nutrition was equally important, giving my body what it needed to be able to recover quickly and get on with the day.

Let’s not forget weight day. Deadlifts, pullups, core work—all in the service of injury prevention and better running form. Amidst a training plan where you’re going for efficiency rather than max speed, it’s important to remind your muscles and central nervous system what a maximum effort feels like. In heed of the principle “make easy days easy and hard days hard,” once a week I would follow a hard morning workout with a 90-minute weight session in the evening.

Pairs of running shoes piled up by my front door, driving my girlfriend Amy crazy. I bought different shoes for different days so my muscles wouldn’t be overfit to one type of shoe. I developed nuanced opinions about heel-toe drop and stack height and different foam technologies. I learned what works for me and why.

I figured out the secret: if you love what you’re doing, you will make time to do it every day. And if you do it every day, you’ll get good at it.

"Train Hard, Win Easy"

By the time race day came, I was ready.

I showed up for the SF Marathon, drank a bottle of HVMN Ketone and a carbohydrate drink, and set off. I came through the hillier first half two minutes ahead of pace. I came through the second half another three minutes ahead of pace. My finish time was 2hr 55min (6:38/mile). I was headed to Boston!

Marathon 2: Boston

Marathoners never run the full 26.2 miles at 100% intensity in training.

It takes too much out of you, physically and mentally, and it can take weeks to fully recover. Such an effort is counterproductive to training, where you want to stretch yourself a little bit each week, enough to improve but not so much you can’t bounce back and do it again the next week.

After the SF Marathon, I took some time away from running every day. I got on my bike, got in the pool, signed up for a triathlon. I stayed active but limited my running to 20 - 30 miles per week.

Last December, at home in Chicago for the holidays, I re-focused on running. Boston was four months out. I considered keeping my goal the same, simply hitting 3hrs again, but my curiosity got the best of me. I set a goal of 2hrs 45min (6:18/mile).

I took everything I learned from San Francisco and did it again, taking it to the next level. I ramped into a 70 - 85 miles per week training plan. My form was improving, and I was moving faster with less effort. “Rather than use your body as a tool for running, let running be a tool for your body” was sage advice for me. I drank in the miles.

All the miles in training made it feel like the race itself would be just a formality, a period at the end of the sentence. But nothing can fully prepare you for race day.

Touching Down in Boston

Why do 30,000 people fly to Boston every year to run the same 26.2 miles all together on the same day?

On the one hand, it’s like any other day: you lace up your shoes and go for a run. You may tell yourself this on race day morning to calm your nerves.

But you can’t escape the fact this run is special. Some 26.2 miles of city streets are closed to traffic, open to runners only. The entire city has the day off, a day locals simply refer to as “Marathon Monday.” An estimated one million spectators line the course, making it one of the world’s most widely-viewed in-person annual sporting events. You won’t remember every day of what it was like being 30 years old, but you’ll remember running the Boston Marathon. You’re there to build a memory.

In the days leading up to Boston, I felt a sense of indebtedness to my past self. I had run over 900 miles in three months. That’s over a marathon of marathons (26.2 x 26.2 = 686 miles). I had run rain or shine. I’d run on work trips. I’d run when I was fighting with my girlfriend. I’d run when the last thing I wanted to do was run. Now I needed to hold up the rest of the contract, to show up on race day and deliver.

I wondered if my goal pace was unrealistic; 6:18/mile sure sounded fast. Go out too fast, and you’re going to burn up early. Go out too slow, and you’re forfeiting your goal before even giving it a shot. I was curious how well I had really trained. I had doubts if I could manage the inevitable, grueling pain of race day.

My taper had been in full swing, meaning I had significantly reduced my mileage the past two weeks, to rest up and be fresh for the race. If you do it right, tapering makes you feel like a race horse chomping at the bit.

Photo of race day gear.
Race day gear: HVMN running cap, running shoes (Adidas Adizero 4), running socks (Swiftwick), race singlet, race number, race shorts, GPS watch (Garmin Fenix 5s), race pace bracelet, nipple guards, Chamois Butter athletic lube, seven shots of Gu energy shot, two race belts, two bottles of HVMN Ketone.

Throughout the past two years of training, I had toed the start line at a number of triathlons and local 5ks & 10ks. These helped me practice the process of racing, managing diet and reducing training load in the days before, and perfecting the race-morning ritual so you’re at the start line and all ready to perform when the gun goes off.

Two days before Boston I stopped eating vegetables. Minimizing fiber intake means less bulk in your GI system, which means less chance you’ll have a bowel movement mid-race. You put in untold hours into optimizing every second, every mile, of this race; what a shame it would be to spend any of it in a porta potty.

My diet in the days leading up to Boston became carb-heavy, opting for bagels and sandwiches and pasta. The day before, I drank water and ate salt tabs, which help your body hold onto the water. The night before, I had an early dinner of plain pasta. I pinned my race bib to my shirt, laid out my gear, and went to bed early.

The morning of the race I had a plain bagel and a cup of coffee—my first caffeine after refraining for a week hit hard, as planned.

I clipped on a belt that held a bottle of HVMN Ketone and six packs of carb energy gels. Once the gun goes off, you’re burning fuel faster than you can take it in. So you do your best to counteract. The plan was to have HVMN Ketone and a carb drink 30 minutes before the race, then an energy gel at the start line and every four miles until the finish. And grab a drink every time one is offered along the course.

The start line is painted on the ground in Newton, Massachusetts. Marathon Monday is an institution here. It’s omnipresent, part of the city’s identity.

Race day morning, I joined 30,000 other runners in “Athlete’s Village,” counting down the final minutes to our own personal rocket launch months and years in the making. I found my corral (based on qualifying time) and made my way to the start line.

Time to Go For a Run

I started out right on pace, resisting the urge to be overconfident, giving myself permission to slow down if necessary. I hit the first mile mark right on time, I hit the second mile mark right on time too.

Efficiency is the name of the game when marathoning. Go out ten or 20 seconds per mile too fast, and you’re going to fly too close to the sun and burn up. No matter who you are, if you push beyond what your present fitness level allows, your body becomes exponentially less efficient. You want to ride the line without going over it.

The question you ask yourself is always, “Do I run faster now, or slow down and save beans for later?”

Photo of the author, Michael Brandt running in the Boston Marathon
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. Accelerating down the final stretch of the 2019 Boston Marathon.

The miles kept ticking, and I was feeling the rhythm. I ate an energy gel at mile four, and mile eight, and again at mile 12. At mile 13, I unscrewed the bottle of HVMN Ketone I was carrying in my belt, and swigged it back. I showed up at the halfway mark in 1:22:18, slightly ahead of my goal pace of 6:18/mile.

You need to move quickly to cover a mile in 6:18. To run at that speed, even for a few miles consecutively, requires a degree of strength, stamina, and athleticism that only a fraction of people ever achieve. Your feet don’t spend much time on the ground. As each foot hits the ground, it’s already moving backward, transferring a small explosion of energy into the earth to propel you forward. Despite spending the better part of two years building up to this point, 6:18/mile still felt fast. Attempting to string 26.2 of these miles together was the most challenging athletic feat of my life.

By mile 18, at the infamous Newton Hills, I started to hurt. I looked around at everyone else riding the same bull, trying not to get thrown off. When racing a marathon, toughness is necessary but not sufficient. You need to know when to double down into the pain and when to back out. You hear voices. Your legs begin to yell that they’re on fire. Your lungs ask for more air, politely at first, and then they start to beg. Pride nags you to pick up the pace. None of these is one true voice: you listen to them all and decide what to do.

I lost ten seconds on mile 17. I lost another ten on mile 18. I pulled it together for an even split on mile 19. Then I lost another ten on mile 20.

I slammed my second-to-last energy gel.

In training, you not only strengthen your body so it doesn’t break, but you train physically and mentally for what to do when it does break.

It’s easy for losing a little to become losing a lot. When it rains, it pours. You get frustrated. You start to slow down. You try to force yourself to go faster, but it makes you even more tired and then backfires on the following mile. You tell yourself that if you’re off pace by 10 seconds, then what’s the big deal about 20? Or 40? You need to hold it together.

With four miles left, I could feel the screws coming off. I felt like there were ten miles between mile markers. My watch stopped working at some point. Time froze. Everything hurt. Only pain existed.

I gave myself a slap in the face, turned my hat around, and recalibrated. You can be mad at the mechanic, but that doesn’t make you any better of a pilot. I found my red line, the pace I could hold onto, just barely, and ran my race. There’s nothing to do but run.

Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The sidewalks were jammed packed with supporters, and all you can hear is an absolutely deafening roar. Complete sensory overload. The pain went numb. I glided down the most famous strip of concrete in all of marathoning. I passed the line in 2:47:39 (6:24/mile). Sweet release.

You eat a lot of pain in training, and doubly so when racing. I witnessed that the pain of the moment almost instantly ferments into rich memory. In the moment, the experience was ripping quads and exploding lungs. Hindsight glazed the experience into memory: the sights & sounds of an entire city rallying for Marathon Monday, gratitude for 26.2 miles of non-stop cheering and support, nameless faces sharing the joy of being alive and chasing a dream, the deep sense of accomplishment, pride in having persevered.

Thank You

My friends, including my girlfriend Amy, were there cheering me on near the finish line, dressed as giant bananas. They’d also been there at the start, mile 3, and mile 13, hopping into a car between each point and racing to the next rally point before I got there.

My friends were easy to spot on race day. Even amid the fanfare of Marathon Monday it’s hard to miss a bunch of giant bananas. But it was really the million invisible moments of support through the preceding months and years that made the day what it was.

Collage of 3 photos of Michael Brandt's friends, dressed in banana outfits.
The support crew. "Nice splits!"

Marathon training is difficult enough as is. There aren’t enough hours in the day, especially with a demanding job that doesn’t ease off just because you ran 11 miles with 5 x 1 mile intervals in the rain this morning. Living with Amy — who helps me find peace and happiness each day, who’s there to talk through the stresses and joys, who’s there to share the process and build memories with — has been one of the highlights of the journey.

I’m also thankful for my co-founder Geoff and the whole team at HVMN for creating a culture that supports unbounded ambition, and for friends and family near and far who’d join for training runs, send tips, or even just shoot a message of encouragement.

In running and in life, success depends on the team you build around you, over the years of supporting and being supported by one another.

Next Steps

I’m fortunate—I enjoy running more than most people. It’s an advantage, at anything in life, if you enjoy what you’re doing more than the next person over.

Some days were beautiful, with wind in the hair and runner’s high in full effect. But many days were tough. To achieve a certain level of ability as a runner, it becomes necessary to push your body past a point of discomfort on a regular basis.

On days where it was difficult to find joy in the process, I would dig deep for other reasons to run. Some days it was for pride. Some days it was hitting the cold hard pace numbers. Some days it felt like an addiction. Some days I was driven by curiosity. On a given day when I could barely muster the motivation, I focused on gratitude, thankful for the foundation of health, career, and relationships that even allowed for an attempt like this.

I need to recollect my motivation. I recognize I have a special flame for running, and it’s important not to choke the flame. For now, I’m going to take it easy. Not run when the weather is bad. Go on bike rides with friends, go rock climbing, go to yoga. Do nothing. Let myself miss running.

I look forward to running more in the future. I believe I have unfinished business with the Newton Hills. I want to run more marathons in more cities. What better way to see Berlin, or Tokyo, or London, than racing through the city for a full 26.2? Owning the roads in a way that even a lifelong resident cannot lay claim.

Running gives me confidence. If you take your god-given talents, and set an ambitious goal, a goal many others will never hit in their lives, and you accomplish it, it feels good. For me, this domain-specific confidence in running contributes to general confidence in all things. General confidence is the “lighter fluid” to getting going in any new domain. It’s the momentum that gets the flywheel going when you start from zero, that deep-down belief in yourself that you can do what you aim to do.

It powers the belief that even though your first steps may be clumsy, and the road ahead may be incomprehensibly long, one step at a time is indeed the only way forward.

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HVMN Co-founders Michael Brandt and Geoffrey Woo