The untrained marathon, in one runner’s experience

I’m here to tell you what the mainstream running media doesn’t want you to hear, like a cool older sibling, buying alcohol for your high school party — equally ill advised, but less illegal: of course you can run a marathon without training, the question is really should you do it?

I don’t know your unique situation. Maybe you came across this article Googling the exact title. You are staring down the barrel of a start gun thinking oops or perhaps describing your state with the expletive often auto-corrected to ducked. The medical field doesn’t evaluate patients’ risk profiles in the same way a financial advisor might. They’re assuming you don’t want to gamble with your knees, but are they calculating for how you’d like to gamble with your clout even less? If you’ve tweeted that you’ll do something, you are now social-contractually obligated to do it.

In theory you planned for this. In practice you were out at brunch with your friends every time your Google Calendar “Run 20 Miles” reminder hit. Honestly? You’ll be fine, subject to the parameters of your definition of fine. Conventional wisdom says you should train, but what kind of wise person signs up for a marathon and doesn’t prepare? The unconventional kind. 

When I found out I got a spot in the 2018 New York City Marathon, it was August and I was on vacation in Greece. My back-door entry into the race came through a corporate sponsorship space and instead of running, I was basking in the glory of completing my first 55-kilometer trail run under my target time in mid-July. I had adopted the two part fitness regimen of a retired NFL player and passed my time by eating (olives and pasta) and drinking (Aperol spritzes). I was ready for another race like Robert Baratheon was ready for an uprising in season one of Game of Thrones (spoiler alert: he was not). 

I’ve totally got this, I thought when the email came through. I had even packed my running kit, which until such time lay neglected beneath a layer of bikinis and sand. “Do you want to run five miles to a yoga class with me?” I asked my travel companion. “Uh, pass,” the measured Ned Stark to my Robert said. 

So I set off in the early morning on the trail across Santorini alone. Yes, I made an enthusiastic insta-story about it. How could I not? The long history of marathons begins in Greece, and the equally long history of not training for marathons. Soldier Pheidippides didn’t train for the first marathon and now, all across the world people of all athletic levels with elite level determination blog about the best plastic sneakers and packets of edible goo that will allow them to maximize their performance as they follow in his footsteps.


The path between Oia and Fira runs along the perimeter of the caldera, the blown out crater in the popped zit of the once-volcanic island. It’s difficult to convey the majesty of the trail, and acne metaphors don’t help, but it’s the kind of space that makes you want to run in your heart, even if the gravel incline makes you want to walk in your thighs while shirtless ultra-bros pass you in gazelle like leaps. I was one of you once, I wanted to tell them, as I down-shifted to walk gear for the steepest sections. 

Back in New York, the landscape makes you want to book a flight back to Greece, and so it was to this environment I returned for the first and final phase of my training. I didn’t feel like adhering to my marathon plan. I felt like going to upstate to hang out and doing yoga, mostly the former. According to my Strava account, I logged  71 miles in the months between my return and the fateful day. That’s a total, not a weekly average. I led a yoga retreat. Then I selected my race outfit and instructed my family as to which bar we were to rendezvous at afterward.  

Pheidippides didn’t make it to a bar after his untrained marathon: he collapsed and died. But I didn’t consider that outcome as I approached the armada of buses ferrying runners to the start. Heading toward the start line I didn’t Google will I make it? The true advantage of training is the unshakable belief that you can do it, so in a sense I was born trained. 

Should you run a marathon without training? What you shouldn’t do is look to the internet for answers you already know. You can run, collapse and live. You’ve got what Pheidippides didn’t have: fancy plastic sneakers, supporters handing out packets of chocolate energy goo every five feet and the knowledge that no critical battle intelligence will be lost if you quit and duck out to the bar halfway through. You should try it!


Kara Panzer, a Millerton native, is a marketing analyst and yoga teacher based in New York City. She instagrams as @yunggrassh0ppr.