It Takes a Village to Build a Marathoner

IMG_0153Jon Lepley of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, knew he wanted to be a runner and started out creating a training plan in which he would run three or four days a week, with progressively longer runs.

But he soon developed bad habits — running every training run as hard as possible — and developed running injuries. “I was never fully following a structured training plan, instead just generally trying to increase distance on a weekend long run, and recover in the days in between,” he recalls.

Lepley set a goal for himself: completing a marathon. And he needed help, so in stepped Marathon Training Academy.

It takes a village to build a marathoner

But before he learned about MTA, Lepley was inspired to start his running journey when his wife began hers.

“In 2013, my wife began running,” he says. “I was working and away from home quite a bit, and so I didn’t have a grasp of the distances involved or her running goals. I thought she was doing a couch to 5K program. I was somewhat shocked when she told me she was signed up for the Hershey Half Marathon that fall.”

His first introduction to long-distance races was a mix of emotions.

“13.1 miles seemed like a tremendously long distance to cover on two feet,” he says about his wife’s first half marathon. “That was such an amazing accomplishment. I remember when she finished that race, she seemed to have this intriguing mix of exhaustion and elation. I wanted to know what that felt like.”

Early Mistakes
Fast forward to April 2014, that’s when Lepley committed to running and his first half marathon.

“I wasn’t very knowledgeable about running at the time,” he admits. “I made all of the typical early mistakes. I ran too hard in training, thinking every run should be faster than the last. I didn’t do any research in to running shoes. I didn’t follow a training plan, I just tried to run as far as I could on the weekend, and would run on a treadmill about two days during the week.”

Lepley pushed through but had to stop every few weeks to recover from some minor injury. He did enough to get himself prepared for his first half marathon, the Harrisburg Half Marathon in September 2014.

“What I remember most about that race was how exciting the start of the race felt. I had never been around that many people running the same distance at the same time,” he says. “I also remember seeing my wife and daughter around mile 5 or 6, and how that gave me a big boost to keep going. Crossing the finish was nice, but the excitement of starting the race is what stands out in my memory. I did feel a lot of pride for days afterward, and signed up for a second half marathon in October 2014. I ran my third half marathon in April 2015.”

Focusing on today’s plan

Up until early 2015, the half marathon distance seemed really far to Lepley.

“I was never fully confident that I’d be able to make it to the finish prior to starting any given race,” he says. “I think the notion of attempting a challenge that seemed just a bit beyond my ability, and with an uncertain outcome, is what initially drew me to running.”

Running with the Amish
In April of that year, Lepley ran the Garden Spot Village Half Marathon, located in Lancaster County. “That quickly became my favorite race,” he says, adding that is when he decided to try a full at the Harrisburg Marathon. “I gained an appreciation for some amazing scenery that is around me here in Lancaster every day, but I previously failed to notice.”

He also appreciated the support of the local Amish community. “There’s something about the quiet enthusiasm in which they support the runners that I really identified with,” Lepley recalls. “There are no funny and colorful signs or loud cheering, just a quiet acknowledgement that the runners are doing something very difficult, and they come out and support in their own way.”

Lepley says the “why” of running is hard to articulate. “For me, these distances … 13.1 miles, then 26.2 miles … felt really far to me and unattainable in the early going,” he says. “For the marathon training, I really liked the process of gradually getting to that level of fitness one day at a time, by just focusing on what’s on the plan today.”

Marathon doubts creep in

As Lepley began marathon training, he needed help but he didn’t realize it yet.

“My desire to run a marathon at age 40 had nothing to do with a symbolic mid-life achievement associated with entering the fifth decade of life,” he says. “I felt like my body was breaking down, and I only had limited time if I was going to achieve completing a marathon. I tried increasing my mileage in May and June 2015, and I found myself struggling every day. I can look back now and see that I was overtraining for weeks at a time, followed by weeks of complete inactivity to recover. And we’re only talking about maybe attempting 20 miles a week in May and June, but my body simply could not do it.”

His low point occurred on June 28, 2015, when he ran his slowest half marathon. “It was an absolutely dreadful experience, and soon after I began to think maybe running is not a sustainable activity for me,” he says. “I had previously signed up for the November Harrisburg Marathon in May, and I had decided that completing that distance in several months just was not going to happen.”

Then a six-hour road trip changed everything.

“In mid-July of 2015, my wife and daughter made or annual trip to Erie to visit my wife’s parents for a week,” he says. “I had stopped running altogether at that point. On the drive back, the day before my birthday, I searched for ‘marathon’ on iTunes, and found the MTA podcast.”

On the trip home from Erie, Lepley listened and learned. The mistakes in his training became obvious.

“I would say that there is definitely something very genuine about Trevor and Angie (Spencer) that really affected me,” he says. “I think I sensed that Angie is a private person, and probably just doing a podcast was a feat in and of itself for her, especially in the beginning. Trevor seemed like he was not historically a runner, but he came to embrace the activity for similar reasons to myself … reaching for a goal that seemed out of reach … and it seemed to have changed his life.

“I’m likely just projecting those characteristics on to them, and don’t know them very well or if that’s accurate. But they seemed to be highly relatable and sincere people and so I came to believe their message: that I had what it took to complete a marathon that November.”

There are tons of podcasts about running mechanics and so forth, Lepley says. “Trevor and Angie seemed like the real deal,” he summarized. “There’s a certain alchemy to the MTA Podcast, wherein Trevor and Angie’s journey comes across to the listener, but without them making the content of the podcast about themselves.”

With renewed inspiration, Lepley decided to not defer on the November marathon after listening to the MTA podcasts. He joined the Academy sometime around the last week of July 2015.

Locking in the training

“My marathon training was very structured,” he says. “I never missed a day on that plan unless it was intentional because I needed the rest. If a run was on the plan that day, it was always the first thing I did when I woke up. No matter if I slept well or slept poorly, doing the running each morning was an inevitability in my mind. I was really locked in, mentally.”

Lepley gets more out of MTA than just the training. “The MTA Facebook page and interacting with other members has been a great experience,” he says. “I am generally a very introverted person, and so being involved in a social network of people has been a new and fun experience. I definitely needed that support to get through my marathon training in August through November that year.”

Like many first-time marathoners, Lepley was fueled by “fear and excitement” during training.

“I think reaching for a very lofty goal brings with it real possibility, and even inevitability, of failure,” he says. “I was giving it my all, yet there were times when I could not complete what I set out to achieve for a workout in the morning. Sometimes the plan called for 8 miles, and I had to stop at 7 and walk it in the rest of the way. It’s humbling to try your best, and still fail.

“There were many times when I contemplated the likelihood that I would start, but would not be able to finish, the upcoming marathon. So I was definitely afraid of trying my hardest and failing despite the effort. I needed to constantly remind myself that I am strong enough of a person to try and fail, and that failing at a goal does not define me as failure as a person.”

Race morning at Harrisburg

Harrisburg, PA.  photo credit: Axel Drainville

Harrisburg, PA. photo credit: Axel Drainville

Lepley opted for the 6:30 a.m. early start time to give him the best odds of beating the 6-hour cutoff.

Pre-race Jitters
“The night before the race, I felt a genuinely unpleasant fear of what might come,” he says. “My parents and my sister where coming to watch me finish, and suddenly my attempt to run a marathon felt like a larger thing than I expected. I was also feeling very overtrained and struggling with a lot of little aches and pains associated with running. I can remember a moment when I lied awake at night, unable to sleep, and the fear I was feeling reminded me of fear I used to feel during some difficult and self destructive times in my life many years prior. I asked myself, as I did many times back then, ‘Why did I put myself in this uncomfortable position in life?’ I was afraid of feeling physical pain, and I was afraid of starting, but not finishing, the race and feeling like I worked so hard and still failed.”

With only a couple of hours of sleep the night before, Lepley relied on adrenaline and MTA encouragement. “I walked a little in Harrisburg before sunrise. I lived in Harrisburg from age 20 to 24, and it was a fairly difficult time in my life. It was nice to walk through the city a bit that morning in anticipation of attempting something positive in life.”

He was literally the first person at the start line, and was eventually joined by dozens of others for the early start.

Marathoner, meet wall

IMG_0154Lepley saw his wife and daughter around mile 10, and stopped for a quick high five and hello. Things were going well 14-15 miles into the race then some cramping occupied his leg and controlled his brain. A few miles later, his legs were really hurting. “I was not injured, just very very fatigued and at my limit of what seemed possible that morning,” he remembers. “The prospect of completing eight or nine more miles seemed crushing.”

Just keep moving forward
This was also about when runners from the main pack of the standard start time caught up. “I was literally walking on the side of the road as hundreds and hundreds of runners passed me by, seemingly having a much easier time of things,” he says. “I spent a little too much time thinking about what I should have done differently. I spent a little too much time comparing myself to all the runners passing me. It seemed like today might not be my day. So I began to picture myself telling friends, family, and MTA community the story of when I started the Harrisburg Marathon, and made it 18 miles and left it all out there. I decided that I was a strong enough person to be able to do that.”

Then a total stranger uplifted Lepley’s spirits. “Spectators are somewhat sparse in Harrisburg, but there were spectators,” he recalls. “These total strangers were cheering for me. There was one person in particular who was calling out my number, and clapping his hands enthusiastically, and yelling to me how he understands it’s very hard but if I just keep moving forward I can do it. I don’t know who he was, but that person really inspired me.”

He persevered and when his Garmin buzzed at 26 miles, he was “somewhat disappointed that I could not see the finish. I remember feeling more disappointment when my Garmin indicated 26.2, and I still could not see the finish. But then I rounded a corner on Second Street, and there it was. I remember I pointed at it, because I was just elated at the site of it. All of my pain melted away, and I ran as hard as I could to the finish.”

That’s when it hit Lepley. 13700114_10209772412176476_999743324218097136_n“All of my memories of waking up early and pushing myself so hard in the prior months flooded through my mind,” he says. “And here I was, finally at the finish. Even now, just thinking about that feeling makes me very happy. Other really great moments in life, like getting married, having a child, etc. are always also colored by anxiety and other complexities. This was a moment of pure happiness of achieving something that felt impossible to me. I was genuinely proud of myself, and that’s something I haven’t always often felt about myself.”

MTA made all the difference

Even though he didn’t start as a client with Angie until after his first marathon, Lepley credits Marathon Training Academy with helping him complete it.

“Angie and Trevor both helped inspire me to get through the marathon, just by the way they put together the podcast every 10 days or so. I definitely do not think I would have thought it possible that I could complete a marathon without discovering the podcast. The various training tips definitely helped me figure out how to train more effectively.”

The MTA social media component also helped.

“The MTA Facebook community was also very valuable during my training, both to answer questions and just to have a community to share the ups and downs,” he says. “I know some of the strategies that I utilized to push through the fears and difficulties during the race … having the courage to try even if I might fail, being grateful for what I could do instead of focusing on what I couldn’t … were definitely influenced by various posts and other runner’s stories on the Facebook page.”

Working with a coach

Understanding that he needed help in the post-marathon recovery, Lepley started personalized coaching with Angie afterward. “My body really felt battered by the whole process,” he says. “I wanted to keep running and I felt I needed some guidance to train smarter and stay healthy. Running has gradually become a whole different experience for me with the personalized coaching. I now train at a sustainable intensity, and I almost never doubt my ability to achieve what is on the plan. My current goals, which include a second marathon soon this September, feel very much within reach.”

Future Marathons
Lepley has a challenging marathon schedule: this fall, he is signed up for the Lehigh Valley Via Marathon in September, and then the Harrisburg Marathon in November. He also is thinking of the Garden Spot Village full marathon in the spring of 2017.

While he sees an ultra marathon as a couple of years away, he wants to focus on the 26.2s and the social aspects.

“It would be fun to one day run a race wherein I can meet many others in the MTA community in person,” he says. “I am looking forward to meeting people at Lehigh valley in September. I do want to be more social in my running.”

Advice to first-timers

For people who find themselves where Lepley was not so so ago — wanting to finish a marathon — he recommends they focus on the positive. “Most of us are probably capable of more than we realize, and there is no shame in trying and failing,” he says. “My race day was an amazing experience, but the day to day process of working up to the race was the more life changing experience. Even if I fell short that one day in November, my entire perspective of how much can be achieved in life one day at a time had already changed dramatically after three months of training.”

And, of course, MTA would be beneficial for first-timers.

“I would also tell them to be involved with a community of other runners, whether online or local running club, to help them through the experience,” he says. “If one has the resources for coaching with Coach Angie, then of course that is ideal. For me, it has taken away all of the stress of laying out a plan to meet my race goals. I am way healthier since adopting a personalized training plan, one that is modified based on how I am performing and feeling.

“I especially want to thank Trevor and Angie for everything they do and everyone who’s part of the MTA community and helped me through training for that first marathon. Age 40 was an amazing year, and absolutely changed my life.”


Speed drill

Name: Jon Lepley
Hometown: I currently live in Lancaster, Pa. I am originally from Mount Carmel, Pa.
Number of years running: 2 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 25
Point of pride: Completing the Harrisburg Marathon
Favorite race distance: I’ve achieved a level of fitness wherein I can reasonably complete a half marathon on any given weekend without a lot of straining or need to recover for days afterward. So for now, I’ll say 13.1 miles is my favorite distance.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I always drink two cups of strong black coffee and eat a banana.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t have a favorite song. I tend to listen to movie soundtracks when I run, whether I saw the movie or not. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian contained some instrumental tracks that I really liked and often listened to on some long runs for my marathon training. When I actually watch those movies, hearing the music is distracting, because I associate it with running. Right now, the music from Creed is a favorite that I need a boost during a run.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Train, don’t strain.”
I think that is a quote originally attributed to Arthur Lydiard. I’ve found a lot of enjoyment and sustainability in running by dialing back the training intensity.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: The MTA Facebook group is the only place where I make regular online presence. I am on Strava and Garmin Connect but only just figuring out how to find other runners on those sites.
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