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How to run a marathon and still have time for sex

This article originally appeared in our September 2006 issue.


Photo by David Clifford

The marathon, it has been said, is a lesson in humility. The first marathoner, Phiddipides, dropped stone dead after running to Athens from the plain of Marathon to report the defeat of the Persian fleet.

Humiliation and/or death are not the results we are after here.

There is a proven method of training that will allow you to run a marathon comfortably, safely and enjoyably. And still leave you enough time and energy for job, family and, as promised, sex. How?

How did Jerry Rice prepare for a football game? He didn’t play golf. He ran pass pattern after pass pattern after pass pattern. He worked on what he hoped to do in a football game until it became so ingrained that he didn’t have to think about it during the game. It was simply a part of his physical arsenal: automatic, seemingly effortless, instant.

Conversely, too many people train for a marathon by running 10Ks. This is like Mr. Rice throwing the ball during practice: it’s still football, but it’s not the skill pertinent to the desired task and outcome.

Other wannabe marathoners err on the other extreme. They follow the same intensive training program that led Frank Shorter to Olympic gold. At that time in his life, running was Shorter’s job. I don’t know (or care to know) about Shorter’s sex life before the 1972 Munich games, but the fact remains that all world-class marathoners are monomaniacal runners with little time in their lives for anything except running, eating, physical therapy and sleeping. But, again, that’s not the goal here.


It’s very simple. How far can you comfortably run today? We are dealing with reality here. It doesn’t matter how far you could run in high school.

To illustrate, let’s say our Everyman Marathoner, Orson T. Plugger, is 30, athletic, involved in a relationship and gainfully employed. And he wants to run a marathon. He’s done a few 5K and 10K trail runs with his nephews and works out at the gym three days a week. How does Orson T. Plugger go from wannabe to marathoner with a minimum of pain and a maximum of enjoyment?

He puts on his running shoes and drives to a trail where the miles are marked off in increments. A circuit trail of three to five miles without extreme changes in elevation is ideal. Otherwise, use a marked out-and-back trail and run two miles out two miles back, etc.—you get the picture.

Orson T. does not warm up by stretching. (We’re not doing Hatha yoga, we’re taking baby steps toward a marathon.) Orson T. Plugger starts running. Slowly.

Plugger tests how far he can run comfortably. (Comfortable: adjective; the ability to run without getting so winded you can’t carry on a conversation.) He manages (on a three-mile circuit trail) almost three laps, or about 8.5 miles. Round down to eight miles, and that is our starting point.

In two weeks, Orson T. Plugger will do a 10-mile long, slow run, again on a marked trail. Two weeks after that, he’ll plug out 12 miles. Two weeks following, 14 miles. And so forth until our Plugger is able to run 28 to 30 miles comfortably.

These subsequent and increasing 20+ mile runs don’t necessarily have to be on a trail. Orson T. can, for his convenience (and safety in case or injury or fatigue) use his car to map out courses and distances, running past schools and gas stations for water stops and an occasional use of the facilities. Again, a series of out-and-backs on a six-to-eight mile trail, where the starting point has water and a bathroom, is ideal.

This is only half the program.


“Aha!” Says Orson T. “You sunovabitch! Now is when you tell me about the wind sprints and running stadium steps and squat thrusts and weight training and a carbo-loading diet!”

Nope. This is where I tell Mr. Plugger that the other half of this program consists of that nasty four-letter word: R-E-S-T.

Between each two-week, two-mile increase, Orson T. Plugger is not to run more than one six- to nine-miler, once a week. A little three-mile jog every other day is perfect. Some tennis or basketball or Orson T.’s thrice weekly gym gig is wonderful.

The body needs time and rest to adjust to the strain of long-distance running. If you don’t get this rest you will get:

• The flu.
• A large bill from an orthopedist.

The goal, remember, is a marathon without giving up a large chunk of your time. Not to mention your sex life.

If, unlike Orson T. Plugger, you started at four miles, it will simply take a little longer to incrementally increase to marathon distance. If you can run 12 miles at the outset, you’ll reach “Marathon Threshold” a month earlier than Orson T. Plugger. The program works no matter where you start.


Now it is time for Orson T. to choose a marathon. He gets a throwaway calendar from an auto-parts store. He picks up a copy of Trail Runner and turns to the Race Calendar. On his calendar, he writes an “8” on the day he ran eight miles (This is not a tricky program). Then he extrapolates forward, two miles per two weeks, until he reaches the month he’ll be doing a 28-mile run. He can pick any marathon he wants in the next six weeks and finish comfortably.

Orson T. Plugger should now do two things:

• Pick a marathon on a trail or area he’s always wanted to run.

• Go online for registration info. Fill it out, write a check and mail it in. Nothing in the American psyche becomes official until it’s paid for (except, of course, credit card bills or wars).

Take the plunge and write the check, Orson T. Plugger! It will make that 18-miler 10 weeks from now easier. Next, Plugger tells everyone he knows—girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, bank teller, mother, coworkers, pets—that he’s training to run the Rancho de Cumbres Grande Trail Marathon next September. Training for a vague and amorphous race is simply impossible.

Orson T. Plugger is on the program, he’s zeroed in on a specific event and paid for it. He’s approaching the 20-mile barrier, a real accomplishment. He’s lost a few pounds and feels good about his body. He’s thinking about dieting, losing another kilo and fitting into those 501s he wore in high school.

Another caveat: Don’t change your diet! In fact, Plugger should be indulging himself in some Ben & Jerry’s or a sixpack of his favorite microbrew, as long as he’s following the program. I know indulgence sounds contrary, but training for a marathon is a stressful activity. Don’t add to the body’s stress by going off the deep end with a carrot-and-beet-juice macrobiotic extravaganza. The guys who win marathons look like extras from Schindler’s List, but we’re not planning to be Arturo Barrios or Alberto Salazar here. A few extra calories and a pound or two won’t hurt.

Remember, the goal is to finish a marathon. If you try to race a marathon you will suffer. I’ve limped home or DNF’ed more times than I care to admit. When I backed off from trying to run a PR every time out, I started to enjoy the races. Instead of training being drudgery I began to relish my biweekly long slow run. I also, ironically, ran races faster than before.


Orson T. Plugger’s got his good shoes and the knowledge that he can run 28 miles.

Here’s a pre-race pep talk for him: Start Slow, Then Taper Off. Leave the GIVE 110 percent and the JUST WIN, BABY! bullshit to Dick Vitale and Al Davis.

If you’ve followed the program (which includes not dieting, not exercising every day, not running too much and not giving up sex, personal life or extracurricular activities) you can run a marathon.

My first marathon run in this style was the Avenue of the Giants marathon. The course winds through 26 miles of old-growth redwoods in Northern California. Sword ferns, vine maples and rhododendrons are the underbrush.

I had the opportunity to spend four hours running through one of the most beautiful places on earth. I did not speak to anyone.

I ran comfortably and confidently, and kind of felt sorry for the faster runners because they weren’t able spend as much time on the course, as much time savoring the experience.

That’s running a marathon.

After his race, people will ask Orson T. Plugger how he did, especially if he followed my advice and told everyone—including the guy behind him in the grocery-store line—that he was training for a marathon. Orson T. Plugger should tell everyone that he finished first in his division. That’s what I say, and exactly what I do. Of course, my “division” is 50-year-old Irish American males with gray hair, eight kids and one testicle.

But I am number one, baby.

The ultimate payoff of training for a marathon while still having time for sex is that, eventually, you get to run a marathon with one of your children. Rob and his daughter Danielle, 30, are training for the 2006 Silver State Marathon in Carson City, Nevada.

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