The day of my first marathon, it was 40 degrees and pouring rain. I injured my iliotibial band (connective tissue that runs from the hip to the lower leg), forcing me to walk the last two miles under excruciating pain that rivaled childbirth. But I wouldn’t trade that day in for the world, because when I hobbled across the finish line, although I added at least an extra 30 minutes to my time, I had achieved the goal I had worked toward for four months–to finish, under 5 hours. An that was an awesome feeling.
Although I love racing, I will not be running another 26.2 miles again, ever. Partly because of my injury, which has been the gift that keeps on giving, but also because I’m more of a medium-distance runner and I just wanted to do it once–to experience the exuberance of knowing I did it.
If you’re considering running your first marathon, take a look at my “do’s” and “don’ts”…
Prepare. Follow a training schedule to the best of your ability–A normal person cannot wing this race. You’ll need to commit a lot of time to your training. There are many training schedules out there, for novice, intermediate and advanced marathoners. I used one of Hal Higdon’s and loved it. One thing he stresses–Don’t miss your scheduled long runs.
Taper. During your training, your longest long run should be about a month before your marathon. (do NOT run a full 26 miles during your training!) From there your mileage should gradually decrease. All plans are different, but I only ran a few easy miles that last week.
Be Confident. As long as you’ve put the time in, you should be physically able to finish. It’s easy to freak out about the race in the days and hours leading up to it, but think of all the hard work you put in, and know that you’re ready.
Have a realistic goal. For first timers, your goal should be to finish. Beyond that, don’t add any unrealistic goals, especially if it happens to be unbearably hot that day. I added the goal of “under 5 hours” because I knew I could maintain a certain pace throughout the race.
Choose your marathon carefully. Pay attention to elevation, scenery, and season. Does it have a reputation for being well-operated? I ran through country roads with beautiful foliage and something new around every corner, which helped inspire me to keep going.
Have a plan for refueling. Will you use gels, gummies, beans, Gatorade, or all of the above? What brand(s)? How often? Will your brand(s) be offered there? If not, do you have a pocket/pouch to keep yours in? How often will you stop for water? Will you walk at all? I had a special pouch on my belt for gels and planned to walk only through the stations, which worked out well for me. I had a fuel belt with two small water bottles, and took small sips every 15 minutes.
Music. Many marathons don’t allow iPods, but mine did. I made up a 4.5 hour marathon playlist for my iPod. It allowed me to zone out and just run. It helped me, a lot.
Warm up a little. This, I didn’t do. Between my nerves and standing in the frigid rain for 20 minutes waiting for the race to start (It was delayed)…Add a course with a lot of downhills–and my muscles were beyond stiff. Did that contribute to my injury? Perhaps partly. I should have done some light dynamic stretching beforehand.
Be prepared with clothes/gear. Lay out everything ahead of time. This is not the time to wear any new gear. Wear clothes and sneakers you’ve trained in (Make sure your sneakers are not worn out, though). Be prepared for any weather. Dress in layers you don’t mind discarding if you have to. Don’t overdress–It’s good to be a little chilly in the beginning (not frozen to the bone like me though!) Don’t wear jewelry, and account for any chafing which may occur. Bring a blister kit and clothes to change into afterwords, as well as any pre and post-race food.
“Go” before you get there. Don’t do like I did and wait until right before the race–I had to wait in a mile-long line for the porta-potty and almost missed my shuttle bus to the starting line.
Get your sleep. Spread this out among the last few nights before the race, in case you toss and turn the night before.
Eat a 300-500 calorie breakfast earlier that morning, and sip a sports drink before the race. I ate oatmeal with fruit, but you could also have a bagel or breakfast sandwich. Make sure there’s a good mixture of protein and complex carbs.
Have a mantra. Say it over and over again to yourself those last six miles when you’re dying. It really does help.
Treat yourself well afterwards! Eat a lot. Take a nice bath. Consider a massage. You deserve it.
Count on walking down the stairs backwards the next day. You will be sore.
Skimp on flexibility and strength training. As my mileage increased, my other training suffered. I should have continued strength training until the end. I ended up with muscle imbalances and weak hip flexors, which I believe helped contribute to my injury. By the time my marathon arrived, my muscles were extremely tight. I stretched, but not enough. I could have benefited from some yoga during training.
Go to the Expo and walk around the whole day before. Save those legs–Do something relaxing.
Go crazy on a gargantuan carb-loaded meal the night before. Eat a nice, satisfying meal that includes carbs. Just don’t go crazy. If you’d like to carb load for the race, spread it out through the whole last week.
Ingest anything out of the ordinary the night before or the day of. This includes new foods, as well as new gels, sports drinks, etc. Avoid unnecessary gastointestinal distress.
Go too fast out of the gate. Pace yourself or you’ll tire out.
Litter. Empty out at the next trash can.
Take a ton of bathroom breaks. I believe I took too many, which added more to my time. Some people whip their pants down any old place and go in front of everyone. Not a pretty sight. Some people don’t mind waiting in line forever. If I did it again, I would hold it more.
Sit down immediately upon finishing…or you will not get back up. Move around a little. Get some food. Get warm. Get into some new clothes.
Forget to thank the volunteers. They do a lot.
Forget to take it easy in the following days and weeks. You just achieved an awesome feat–Now allow your body to repair itself!