Many first-time marathoners have no idea what they're getting themselves into. I know that was true in my case, but at the time, I didn't think it would matter. I only expected to run one marathon, and, hey, the less I knew, the less I had to worry about, right? Well today—five marathons later (including the Boston Marathon)—I can definitely look back on that first race and see some coulda's and shoulda's that woulda made the race a better experience for me. Maybe they'll help you have a better run on your first time out.
One thing I did get right early on: I followed an organized training regimen. I went with an 18-week plan for beginners created by running guru Hal Higdon. He offered straightforward advice, and a checklist of items that I've since found essential in any good training plan:
- A progression of training runs from short distances to long distances over 16 to 20 weeks
- A long run each week, usually starting at 6 miles in week 1 and ending with at least one 20-miler (and possibly several) somewhere between weeks 14 and 18.
- Some (but not too much) speed training and pace workouts
- Cross-training options
- Plenty of rest days
Marathon Horror Stories Are Rare
Once people knew I was training to run a marathon, they seemed to go out of their way to share the most horrifying stories involving marathoners: heart attacks, heat stroke, hospitalization from dehydration, gastrointestinal disasters and more. I spent most of my time leading up to race day quaking in fear about taking on this 26.2-mile beast. In dreams, I saw my ravaged body struggling to crawl across the finish line.
When race day finally came, I ran with my mind acutely tuned in to every hiccup, ache or muscle twitch in my body, just waiting for the moment when disaster would strike and I would go down. It never happened. I crossed the finish line and didn't need a gurney. In fact, I was smiling at the finish. Try and visualize that—feeling happy at the race's end—in the weeks leading up to the race. If you train your best and respect (but not fear) the marathon, it just might happen.
Study the Route
If it's a race in your hometown, run parts of the course during your training. Take note of the terrain—especially the hills—and prepare yourself for what's ahead. My first marathon was the inaugural race, so I really didn't know what I was getting into on the course. As it turned out, the last six miles were on an elevated highway surrounded by barriers of concrete that reflected heat off the asphalt like a convection oven. At that point, the only words going through my head were "how…much…farther?" Not exactly the type of positive self-talk that you want during a long-distance run. Had I scouted the course better and known what was coming, I could've turned that mantra into something like, "you're getting warmer, you are nearing the finish."
The Role of Pace and Split Times
When I ran my first marathon, I was passed by runners with a series of what seemed like numerical secret code inscribed on their forearms. I found out later that they were split times. Split times are a runner's goal times for each mile marker along the way. If you have a finish time goal, you can use pace to determine what your time should be at the 10K mark, half-marathon mark, 20K mark, etc. That allows you to vary your pace along the course to deal with terrain changes, perhaps by taking it easier on upward slopes and pushing the pace a little on the downhills. It also helps both physically and psychologically to be able to break the course into parts, so you feel like you've achieved something every 5K rather than having the sensation that you're chipping away at a mountain.
Get the Right Gear
Test your running apparel on long runs. Because I trained through the winter for a spring race, I shed layers over the course of my preparation. When race day came, the temperatures were in the 70s and I decided to wear shorts that I'd never worn during a long run. I also didn't look closely enough at the fabric content. Bad idea. The partial-cotton makeup of the shorts didn't wick well, and I suffered from some serious chafing during (and for quite a while after) the race. If you find yourself wondering why some volunteers are handing out Vaseline on the course, this is why. When you see them, if you're feeling even the slightest hint of irritation, don't be shy.
Water—Get Plenty of It (but Not Too Much)
During my first marathon, I was obsessed with electrolytes and drank only sports drinks at water stops. By the halfway point, I was so sick of that sugary taste, my stomach was beginning to rebel. I've since learned how to stay hydrated and energized without getting nauseous, and for me the trick is alternating between water and electrolyte-laden drinks at each stop (most major races have both). I also find out what drinks are going to be served on the course, and use the information during training runs. That way, if I find that a beverage doesn't agree with me, I can either carry my own or stick to water and electrolyte-infused gels or chews on race day.
How to Bounce Back
I was so focused on crossing that first finish line that I failed to think about what happens afterward. Translation: I didn't really have a plan for alleviating my soreness, blisters and battered feet. I've learned that having a post-marathon plan may be as important as pre-marathon training. Acupuncture and massage are essentials for relieving built up lactic acid and soreness in muscles. Other than that, just rest. Rest days after a marathon are the key to staying injury free. The best advice I ever received about when to start running again post-race was to first take a full week off, then do your taper week in reverse. But really, when you do start running again, you should just go as far as is enjoyable, and no further. When you rediscover the joy in your post-marathon runs and you can run pain free, you're ready to start training for something new.
This Is Just the Beginning
When I finished my first marathon, I was relieved that it was over and I was surprised that I wasn't the depleted mess I had imagined I would be. I was hurting, but I was also thrilled—and that was even before my sister, an experienced runner, told me that my time qualified me for the Boston Marathon. But no matter what your finishing time is, you will run a PR during that first marathon. That's always an achievement worth celebrating. And just as I found myself running in the granddaddy of all marathons 10 months after completing the only marathon I thought I'd ever run, when the soreness fades and the sense of accomplishment truly sets in, you might just want to set your sights on another 26.2.
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