Six months ago, I had the crazy idea I was going to run a marathon. 26.2 miles is an absurd distance for any human, but for a guy who'd never run more than six consecutive miles in his life, it was extra outlandish. But what made it terrifying also made it attractive—I wanted to test myself with a guaranteed-to-be-grueling physical challenge.
After successfully completing the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon this past weekend, I have a whole new respect for marathoners. As I write this article days later, the devilish soreness that's permeated every muscle, tendon and ligament from my navel down is slowly easing its grasp. Despite the supreme suffering I experienced during the race, I was actually able to clock a time I'm pretty proud of. But that time might've been even better had I done some things differently. With that, here are the seven biggest mistakes I made running my first marathon—plus the things I got right that helped me overcome them.
1. I Didn't Do a Long Run Over 13 Miles
I'm a pretty active guy. Prior to beginning my marathon training, my routine already included CrossFit classes, yoga, bouldering and cycling. Instead of significantly gearing down those activities and replacing them with more running, I more or less just added a couple runs each week on top of them. I'd usually do a shorter run (4-6 miles) on Wednesday then a longer run (10-12 miles) on Saturday or Sunday.
I planned to extend the length of my long runs up to the 17- or 18-mile range, but eventually, all the training volume caught up with me and I found running was becoming more painful. At that point, I decided against trying to gut out a few extra miles on my long runs at the risk of injury and just kept them in the 10-12 range. Had I adjusted my training volume more wisely from the get-go and parred down other activities once I started running more, I likely would've been able to train longer miles. Instead, I maxed out at a 13-mile training run, which is less than half of the 26.2 needed to complete a marathon. And as I soon learned, calling 13 miles about "half" of a marathon might be numerically accurate, but in terms of the toll on your body and mind, it most certainly is not. Which leads me to my next point…
2. I Thought it Was Going to Be Like Two Half Marathons
I've never run an official half marathon, but I regularly logged runs in that range during my training for the marathon. I knew the second 13 were going to be harder than the first 13 on race day, but in my mind, I still sort of thought of it as two half marathons. I could not have been more wrong.
Some say a marathon doesn't truly begin until mile 20. For me, it was more like mile 17. At that point, time slowed down exponentially, and the mile markers seemed to stretch nightmarishly far apart. This feeling only intensified until I mercifully crossed the finish line. A marathon is nothing like two half marathons—at least not for me. The second half was so much more difficult than the first that it's simply not an apples-to-apples comparison. Plan for that, expect that, and, unlike I did, train for that.
3. I Didn't Test Different Fuels Prior to Race Day
No matter how well you "carbo-load" prior to a marathon, your body cannot possibly store enough carbohydrates to power you through the entire race. Most marathoners will have depleted their pre-race reserves with many miles left to go. That means consuming carbohydrates mid-race is non-negotiable.
But here's the thing—you don't know how your stomach is going to handle different fuels on the go. Gastrointestinal distress is the last thing you need during a marathon. I was coming off a stomach bug for my race, so I knew I was likely going to have some problems. But I also didn't practice fueling with different products during my training runs, so I was basically spinning a giant roulette wheel anytime I took something down.
For example, it took me until about mile 10 to realize a certain type of sports drinks frequently offered along the course wasn't sitting quite right with my stomach. I eventually stumbled on a mix of fuels that worked well for me, which I'll get into more later, but I could've saved myself a lot of time and trouble had I tested different fuels during my training. You can of course bring your own fuel, but it may also be worth it to research what options will be offered throughout the course by the race volunteers ahead of time.
4. I Didn't Acclimate to the Climate
Temperature can have a gigantic impact on your marathon performance. A day in the low-to-mid 40s seems to be ideal conditions for the average marathoner. An analysis of more than 4.7 million finishing times from nearly 900 different marathons found that warmer conditions led to slower times. From the New York Times:
The relationship between temperature and finishing times is actually nonlinear—meaning that the effects of temperature strengthen as it gets warmer. Temperatures in the 50s increase the typical finishing time by only about five minutes, relative to a day in the 40s. On the other hand, days in the 70s would cause finishing times to be slower by 19 minutes; in the 80s, times would be 33 minutes slower.
I'm a life-long resident of Cleveland, so it admittedly sounds odds that I wasn't acclimated to the climate for the Cleveland Marathon. However, Cleveland weather is famously unpredictable, and it was a rather cold spring. I did almost all of my training runs in 30- to 40-degree weather, often braving rain or snow. But I knew the timing of the Cleveland Marathon meant it could be freezing, sweltering, or anywhere in-between on race day.
The temperature soared into the low-to-mid 80s on the morning of the marathon—the hottest day of 2019 in Cleveland to date. My body was not prepared for it, as that was twice as warm as the weather in which I conducted the bulk of my training. But we did have some warmer days crop up in the months leading up to the race. Had I really been smart about things, I would've taken advantage of those days by getting in some miles and at least getting myself a tad more acclimated to running in warmer conditions—but I didn't.
5. I Ran the Same Route for all My Training Runs
I like to run through Cleveland's Edgewater Park. It's right on Lake Erie, and it makes for some great views while pounding pavement. Almost all of my training runs followed an identical path that routed through the location.
With a little more effort, I easily could've mixed up my terrain, and even done some more running on the actual streets that constituted the course. But I did not, and it left me feeling ill-prepared for some of the steeper parts of the course.
6. I Got too Caught up in a Burst of Energy
Due to being screwed by technology, I ended up running the marathon with just 63 minutes of audio on my Apple Watch—57 minutes of a podcast, plus two songs. One of them was "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X.
After making my way through the podcast by mile 7 or 8, I logged a few miles in silence. Then, around mile 11, I dropped the figurative needle on Old Town Road. Music has long been known to be an ergogenic aid to exercise, as certain tracks can help reduce perceived exertion levels. Basically, running feels easier when you're listening to your favorite songs. Do I like Old Town Road? Of course. But for 117 glorious seconds, I LOVED Old Town Road. The throbbing pain plaguing my knees suddenly vanished, and I found myself charging forward and passing huge swaths of people. Then, the song ended. And I didn't feel so invincible anymore. I tried to play it again to tap back into those superpowers, but it wasn't the same.
It helped me log my fastest mile split of the day—by far—but it also undoubtedly made me more fatigued for the second half of the race. Randomly sprinting 400 meters in the middle of a marathon, as it turns out, is not a good idea.
7. I Saved My Walking for the End
In my wildest dreams, I would've ran the entire race, but the heat and exhaustion finally broke me. I ended up alternating jogging and walking for much of miles 21-25. Truth be told, I probably would've been better off had I started doing that a whole lot sooner.
Jeff Galloway has evangelized a Run-Walk-Run method for years. By taking short, pre-determined walk breaks throughout a race (the exact length of which depend on your typical mile split), many runners actually end up with faster times than they would otherwise. A survey of veteran marathoners who integrated regular walk breaks into a marathon saw an average decrease of 13 minutes compared with running continuously under the same conditions. Had I integrated brief walks into my marathon earlier, perhaps I wouldn't have needed to walk as much at the end, which could've helped me finish stronger and clock a faster time.
So yeah, I ran far from a perfect race. But again, I was pretty happy with my time. I clocked a 4:27, which ranked above average for my age group (again, keep in mind the heat slowed down the average time significantly). Considering my lingering stomach bug forced me into the bathroom twice along the way, and that I also committed the seven errors outlined above, I can't be upset with that. Because quite honestly, it could've been a lot worse.
What I Got Right
First off, I got a good night's sleep two nights before the marathon. Most people will be anxious and have an early alarm set for the next morning the night before the race, so odds are it's going to be a largely restless night. Therefore, getting some quality shut-eye two nights before the race is key (and ideally the entire week before) is useful. Don't go out partying that night and think "I'll get all the sleep I need the night before the marathon," because it just isn't realistic. I also let myself taper and took it relatively easy during the two week run-up to race day.
Next, I made a deliberate attempt to start slow. My body's adrenaline might've been telling me to turn it on and burn some chumps, but I stuck to my plan and came out slow and steady. Had I started like I was running a 5k or 10k instead of a marathon, the second half of my race would've been truly disastrous. Bonus: starting slow actually allowed me to enjoy being in a marathon and soak in the experience before things got extremely painful!
I also didn't wear anything new. I chose a well-worn running outfit I'd already logged many miles in, ensuring my attire wouldn't surprise me with issues like chafing or itching. I did buy a new pair of running shoes about six weeks out from the marathon, but that was plenty enough time to break them in and identify where they could cause blisters. I simply put a couple band-aids over these "hotspots" before my run, and those areas held up remarkably well. When you go to the marathon expo prior to the race, you'll be greeted by every type of speciality running accessory you can imagine. But if you didn't train with it, don't race with it.
I also didn't skip a water station. This advice came from my dad, a multi-time marathoner. Even when I didn't feel thirsty, I downed two cups of water at each station. When it got really scorching, that routine turned into two cups of water drunk and one cup dumped on top of my own head. But water alone ain't gonna cut it during a marathon. A couple stations offered Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews along the course, and I found those to sit really well in my stomach. I kept a stash in my pocket and downed a few every mile or so during the entire back half of the race. Mind you, I wasn't the least bit hungry at that time, but I knew I had to fuel with something. I also occasionally swigged some Pedialyte to help fend off dehydration, which was a major concern with the heat.
I relieved myself as needed, which I think helped. Having a family member's house along the course certainly helped out with this. Running a marathon is hard enough. There's no shame in taking a bathroom break, and for most marathoners, the relief will probably more than make up for the couple minutes you're in the loo.
When a familiar pain flared up behind my left knee around mile 15, I could've found a way to compensate and maintain my speed. But for how long? And at what cost? Instead, I simply allowed myself to slow down a bit, and the pain eventually subsided (or at least blurred into the general fog of agony that enveloped my entire body by mile 20). First-time marathoners are absolutely going to have to push through some discomfort, but you can still be smart about it.
Finally, I wasn't too proud to ask for help. My parents both have far more experience in endurance sports than I do, so when they offered to station themselves at select points along the course with extra fuel, blister pads, etc., I didn't shoo them off. I was really glad I didn't, as they were able to help me adapt some of my strategies on the fly. If you can find someone to station themselves along the course or to even follow the race on bike and provide the support, it can be a big help. Your first marathon is no time to be arrogant!
Photo Credit: ZamoraA/iStock
- The One Strength Exercise Every Runner Should Try
- The Best Way To Foam Roll Your Tight Calf Muscles
- Why Endurance Athletes Need to Lift Heavy Weights