How to (Un)train for a Marathon When Your Main Title Is “Mom”

This article was originally published by Runnerclick on 5 March 2018. 


A quick glance at my running logs of the past three years or so and you would guess that I am a regular half-marathoner. Solely considering the mileage I put in most weeks, some would say halfs would be the wiser choice. But instead, I sign up for trail marathons and ultras that involve anything from 2000 m altitude gain. I hear you ask “but… why”?

Why don’t I follow life-consuming marathon training programs or enter shorter, easier races? Well, because life is so much sweeter if you can have your cake and eat it!

African Trail Run. Photo credit: Alfred Lor.

Running as a Lifestyle

Running is my drug of choice. I look forward to a run a the end of the day like someone else would to kicking off a pair of heels or cracking a beer. As a mom, my runs are my time to meditate, to recoup, to strategize, to mourn, to celebrate and to dream. It is my time to rest mind and soul and to not have to be responsive to anyone else’s needs.

When Hubby thinks I’m in need of some special pampering (read: a sanity reset)? He treats  me to the ultimate, all-inclusive, soul-indulging, mind-relaxing mom-cation: An entry to a mind-blowingly beautiful trail race. And since he knows that Mommy needs loads of time to really recharge, nothing shorter than a technical 42.2 with a time allowance in excess of 7 hrs will do. A half-marathon? It barely gets you beyond the city limits. And by the time you get back everyone is just about ready for the breakfast you’ll be preparing.

But as much as I enjoy and need running, I love hanging out with my family more. And while our kiddos are this young I wouldn’t trade the time I get to spend with them for anything. Not even running.

 Biting Off More Than You Can Chew?

The other day one of my Strava friends remarked that he hoped I trained “more” (harder? longer?) for an upcoming marathon than I did for the one before. To his standards my training was clearly not up to par. But then again, our running goals and circumstances are worlds apart.

My Strava friend trains and runs for a podium finish. He wisely follow  training programs that build up over six months. Then,  afterwards, he takes time off from running to rest mind and body. I, on the other hand, have maintained a virtually consistent running routine for the past several years. I never over-train (on the contrary!) so I don’t need time off from running. I would barely call my preparation for a race “training”. We just do life with a little bit extra towards race day.

Do I get the medal after a race? Usually, yes! Do I finish on the podium? Of course not. Do I enjoy my races? Every single one of them. But have I had to make peace with lots of walk-breaks and hanging with the crowd at the back? You bet. In this way my race photos will usually include a few heavily bandaged runners, severely hung-over runners, a great number of novices and many DNF-fers. In fact, half of my pack usually don’t make the cut-off. And sure enough I have been there too. But no less than a day or two later and I’ll be scouring the web in search of the next beautiful killer.

2015 Zermatt marathon finish.

Time Constraints and Challenges

Being a homeschooling mom of two young boys and wife to a fellow runner that travels extensively for work, my training time is limited.  Even with my husband home, our chock-full schedules only allows for 30 to 40 minutes of running on alternating week days and one long run. So, much like most people with busy schedules, I have had to become pretty creative to feed my running needs.

With Hubby away on business trips and the kids alone in my care, I have learned that any run is better than no run. So over the years I have earned the black belt in running repetitive, short laps.  Laps around our neighborhood while our littles were sleeping, baby monitor in hand. Even laps of our 80 m driveway. Anything for the fix! And I was grateful for every single one I could complete.

Lately, since moving to the countryside, I have been lucky to have 300 m long, steepish hill right at my back door. And since this is the ultimate all-rounder, one-size-fits-all running workout, I gladly embrace a few weeks of consecutive hill-repeat workouts when I’m on solo kid-duty and can’t head out too far for a longer run.

A few screen shots from a recent two -week solo-parenting hill-training-only stint.

The How’s

Adventure racer and Otter African Trail Run director, John Collins, holds a personal best of 04:56:43 on the Otter, which won him a fourth place overall in 2010. Around that time he was sharing child-care duties of a one- and three year-old with his wife, who also happens to love running. For the past few years I have found Collins’  training  tips very useful and would recommend it to runners with similar time constraints.

A Solid Base

Collins shares our opinion that marathon-training is hard work while running-for-exercise is fun. He limits focused marathon-training to the four weeks preceding a race, and views his running-for-exercise as preparation for this training. This preparation is, of course, base-building. Without which, a runner would be making himself vulnerable to injury.

Not that base-building should be a bunch of watered-down junk miles . On the contrary. The best and most solid of bases are built by frequently incorporating a few key running workouts. During base-building, Collins incorporates one 30 minute hill session a week and one “longish” run, never longer than 21 km, in addition to a few “normal” exercise runs. In his training tips he doesn’t make mention of pace, hill incline or the duration or distance of a “normal” run, which leaves plenty of scope for adaptation to personal goals and constraints. This is, of course, where the difference between finishing in the top ten (Collins) and or back-of-the-pack (me) comes in.

Focused Training

The Otter African Trail Run is a standard marathon distance race but with a trail factor of 2. This means that the technicality of the course is as such that it will take twice the time to run the Otter than it would to run the same distance on a conventional road running course. The race comprises an altitude gain in excess of 2500 m spread over 11 significant climbs and includes four river crossings. So it’s not your average morning jog!

With a solid base, Collins limits his focused Otter training to these four weeks preceding a race:
Week one (four weeks out from the race), the Buildup Week, will include two “longish” runs, two hill sessions and one “normal” exercise run.
Week two, the Long Distance week, include three “longish” runs, one hill session and one normal exercise run.
Week three, the Hill Week, includes three to four hills session and one “longish” run.
Week four (last week before the race), the Race Prep week, will include one to two hill session and one to two easy exercise sessions.

Suffer Quotient

My race photos are usually devoid of Master and Grand Master runners. Not because they don’t participate in these races. Au contraire. But because they often do very well in these races. Michael Brewis, a 70 year old South African, ran his 5th consecutive Otter in 2017. He finished in 08:52:00, more than three hours to cut-off and beating almost half the field in doing so . His friend, John Brimble who is also 70+, finished the race an hour later and still beat a third of the field. And this phenomenon is not unique.

Just like IQ is a measure of intelligence and EQ of emotional dexterity, distance runners can attest to the Suffer Quotient. The SQ relates to pain tolerance and the historical amount of time spent in the realms of pain and exhaustion. A sort of suffer memory, comparable to muscle memory. The more exposure to it, the easier it gets. Not to say that as we become more experienced, older runners we don’t have to train as hard. Of course not. But the more seasoned runners probably don’t shy away from pain and exhaustion as easily as their younger counterparts. Through time and experience these runners have probably gotten to befriend pain and found ways to to cope with it.

In a Nutshell

As we all have different lifestyles, we run for different reasons and approach our training differently. What works for some may be totally wrong for others. But a few trips around the proverbial block may have hardened you well enough to know what you are capable of or not. To know what will (may?) work and what not. But there is no replacement for a good and solid base. And also none for just keeping it real.


  1. John CollinsTraining Advice For Otter African Trail Run.Online PublicationAug 05, 2011
  2. Michael BrewisPrinted MagazineJan 01, 2018

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