How to Choose Your First Marathon with Dr. Ken Fattman

Q: You’re pretty famous in our community for the sheer number of miles you race each year.  How many marathons did you actually run last year? What drives you to race so much?

A: I’ve run at least 52 marathons a year the last 6 years. In 2017, I completed 65 of them. I ran fewer in 2018 but more miles and races overall because I did 52 half and 52 full marathons in 52 weeks. (Technically, it was only 50 marathons because 2 were ultras: a 50K and 100 miler.)

I think the reason I keep running at least 52 every year is because it’s my version of a “streak.” Some runners decide to run every day then, after a while, don’t want to break their streak. It’s the same dynamic for me: once I’d run that many races one year, I wanted to see if I could do it a second time. Then a third, because that would qualify for the Marathon Maniac Hall of Fame. 300 marathons would secure inclusion in the Mega Marathon List. And so it goes. You get through life the same way you do a marathon: one goal, and mile marker, at a time. 

That begs the question, though, of what possessed me to try it in the first place. Belonging to Marathon Maniacs gave me the idea. When I first heard of the club and saw the different criteria, I thought they were joking about the higher levels. They didn’t seem humanly possible. It was all I could do to manage a few a year. Then in September 2012, I unexpectedly had a chance to pace for the first time (my 14th marathon ever), just 2 weeks after my last marathon. To my surprise, it went fine. So I picked another race the following weekend. Then my son wanted to run a half out of state the weekend after that and I decided as long as we were flying, I should find a marathon while we were there. Then I couldn’t choose between the Kansas City marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis one weekend so ran both, my first “double.” Then I did my second the following weekend. Suddenly, I had done 9 marathons in 2 months. Titanium (52 in 52 weeks) didn’t seem unobtainable any more. 

What I found was that it was much easier to STAY in marathon shape than to get there. Before, I took it so easy after a race that I had to start all over again with a 16 week training schedule. It just didn’t make sense to keep reinventing the wheel. It was much easier to run 20-25 miles during the week then use races as training runs on the weekend. 

Q: What’s your day job?

A: I’m a psychiatrist at the Burrell Center. 

Q: You do a lot of pacing. What do you love about it?

A: I just paced my 162nd marathon and it never gets old. The altruistic part of me loves getting to meet and help runners of all different levels meet their goals. I almost always have first timers in my group but once was honored to have Jim Simpson, the American with the second most lifetime marathons (over 1,800) let me lead him. 

But I also enjoy the mental challenge. It’s like Babe Ruth not just hitting a home run but pointing out in advance where the ball is going. To commit before the gun goes off what your finish time will be give or take 30 seconds (out of the 18,000 seconds in a 5 hour race) keeps you on your toes the entire 26.2 miles. 

Q: How many pairs of shoes do you go through in a year?

A: 8, on average. I ran 3,200 miles last year and get about 400 miles/pair. I always have 2 pairs in current use: one on its way to retirement and another being broken in. When I run two races the same weekend, I use a different pair each day. 

Q: What is your secret to durability?  Many of us break down quickly just training for one marathon.

A: I honestly don’t know. I’d assume genetics plays a role but no one in my family of origin runs. I think it’s that I gradually built a solid base then just maintained it. It’s hard to develop overuse injuries when your “new normal” is 60 or more miles/week. If anything, I have more pain and soreness if I don’t run. 

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that I don’t extend maximal effort week in and week out. Just like most of us wouldn’t try to run all 26 miles in a marathon as hard as we would a single mile at a track event, I don’t try to PR 52 weeks a year. 

Q: What factors should a prospective marathoner take into account in selecting the right first marathon?

A: I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer because different runners have different preferences. I noticed that early on when I’d read race reviews on sites like marathonguide. Sometimes I’d think I was reading about two totally different races because the ratings were so far apart. 
Most prospective marathoners have had some experience with shorter races. I’d suggest taking a personal inventory about what they liked and didn’t like about them. Do they prefer small, medium, or large races? Road or trail? Hilly or flat? Point-to-point, out and back, loop, or multi-loop?0 Saturday or Sunday? Fall or spring (milder weather is probably better for a first marathon, plus there are so many more to choose from than in winter or summer)?
One choice (close to home vs travel to a “destination” race) in most cases should come down in favor of the former. Exciting as it is to do a race in Hawaii or Disneyworld, there are distinct advantages to running your first 26.2 miler nearby. Travel itself, whether flying or driving, zaps your energy. Even more so if you go sightseeing. It’s hard enough to sleep the night before your first marathon without spending it in a bed you’re not used to. Local food, water, air, allergens, climate, altitude, time zone, and a host of other variables can differ enough from home conditions to cause GI, respiratory, and other problems. Plus you can’t forget to pack something if you’re still at home and it’s harder to get lost race morning if you’re familiar with the area. 
Finally, some logistical minutia you often find buried in the FAQ can be decisive. Is there a time limit? Are pace groups offered? What do the aid stations have, and how far apart are they? Can you pick up your bib race morning? If not, can a friend get it at the expo for you? Are headphones, dogs, or strollers allowed? Can you drop to a shorter distance? What are your options if you can’t come after all? Can you show up at the start minutes beforehand or do you have to catch a bus at zero dark thirty?

Q: What is your favorite marathon of all time and why?

A: Probably pacing 6:00 at Big Sur. The course itself is the most spectacularly scenic I’ve ever run but it is also famously challenging with a strict time limit. Runners have to make it past a specific point (mile 21.2) 5 hours and 5 minutes into the race or be forced to board a bus ominously waiting there to drive them the 5 remaining miles to a medalless finish. I have paced people to a BQ who were less ecstatic than the ones who could enjoy the last hour knowing the bus was behind them. 

Q: What are the top 3 marathons in the midwest, but outside of SW Missouri, that you recommend?

A: Prairie Fire (Wichita, KS in mid-October), Wabash Trace (Shenandoah, IA in early September), and either Carmel (late March) or Monumental (early November), both in Indianapolis, IN.

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