Every few weeks I meet up with a group of girls training for the Marine Corps Marathon to do one of my long runs for the New York Marathon. We meet in Mission Bay and run a loop, adding on a bit each time to get to the desired mileage. Although I previously only knew one of the girls (my good friend Brooke), I’ve come to know several of them over the course of a lot of miles.
No matter how we start, Crystal and I end up finishing together. We’re both around the same place fitness wise and we stick together. Sometimes we’re pretty quiet in those final miles, but we’ve had plenty of time to get to know each other and our running background. This will be Crystal’s first marathon and over the course of many miles I’ve been able to share my experiences running marathons and give her some tips (I always tell her, don’t listen to me if you don’t want!). The tips are things that I’ve learned along the way training for six marathons that I take for granted – not everyone starts with this knowledge. I thought I’d share some of those tips on the blog today!
Tips for First Time Marathoners
- Plan and practice your race nutrition during long runs. This one may seem obvious to experienced marathoners, but sometimes we forget that Gu is a foreign word to most people. During one of our 18 or 19 milers, I asked Crystal what her nutrition plan for the race was after noticing she didn’t seem to be taking any gels. She didn’t really have one and didn’t know where to start. I told her that I take a Gu every 40 minutes during the race, as well as a gel 15 minutes before the start. I recommended that she practice with various gels (or chomps) during her long runs and decide which one she would want to use on race day (and how often – I once tried taking a Gu every 30 minutes and my body didn’t like it). You probably don’t need a Gu every 40 minutes during a long run energy-wise, but it’s really smart to practice to makes sure your stomach can handle it on race day when you really do need it. If you have a hot race, I recommend taking some sort of electrolyte. My favorite is to take salt pills – I don’t like sweet drinks while I run and swallowing pills doesn’t bother me. No matter what you decide, practicing your nutrition during long runs is key!
- Carbo-load but don’t veer too far from your normal diet. Before my first marathon I took carbo-loading to the extreme. I read some ridiculous article that basically said that someone my weight needed to eat 3,000 calories of carbohydrate every day in the three days leading up to the race and I made it a mission to heed this advice. I literally ate three bagels the Friday before my Sunday marathon and when a coworker brought in cookies to the office to support me in my race, I ate too many to count (they were bite sized – the easiest type of cookie to overeat!). However, since I tend to eat whole grains and carbs like quinoa, lentils and fruit, I was putting a lot of food in my body that it wasn’t used to eating, especially in the quantities I was doing so. By race day, I was lethargic and bloated. Don’t do as I do! Up your intake of carbohydrates in the days leading up to the race but don’t go too crazy!
- Don’t stop during the race. I’m not talking about walking – you can walk, although I recommend challenging yourself not to outside of aid stations because honestly, walking in those final miles of a marathon is as hard as running. I’m talking about actually stopping, even to stretch. Once you stop and your muscles get used to it, it’ll be WAY harder to get started again. Trust me, if you can, don’t stop!
- Raise your arms and shout and cheer at the crowd (even if it’s full of strangers) when you’re starting to feel bad. This tip was given to me a few years ago before one of my BQ attempts by my good friend Brooke. Brooke is one of those incredibly positive and infectiously happy people and this happy little tip has been HUGE for me. I’ve used it in every race since and it makes such a big difference. No matter how far you are into the race – mile 1, mile 10 or mile 26.1, if you are feeling bad, look into the crowd, raise your arms up and get excited. Shout if you can! Pretend your best friend, mom, child or husband is out in the crowd cheering for you. Finishing a marathon is more mental than it is physical, especially in those final miles, and any mental boost you can get is worth it! Trust me, this is an easy one, and probably my favorite tip of all.
- Know that how you feel in this mile doesn’t predict how you’ll feel in future miles. Live within each mile. It’s easier said than done, but try not to think about the miles you have to go. I’ve felt pretty bad in the early miles of some of my BEST races – often it takes several miles to warm-up and feel good. Don’t give up just because you aren’t feeling fantastic at mile 3 or mile 13. Personally, crossing the half marathon mark has been a tough place for me mentally because I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to be crossing that half marathon mark under a certain time AND feeling good. But feeling bad at mile 13 doesn’t mean you’ll feel bad at mile 15. This is a lesson I’m still learning myself, but probably one of the most valuable lessons I can pass on to anyone else.
The thing that keeps me coming back to the marathon is that no matter how you prepare, you will encounter challenges on race day and half the fun is figuring out how to solve each problem as it comes. Not all marathons go as planned and unfortunately not all marathon times reflect the effort you put into training. The marathon is truly a torrid love affair – one day it’s hot and heavy, the next day you’re alone in the cold wondering what happened. You’ll never know what the marathon has in store for you that day, but you do know that it will test your limits. And to me, truly living is about testing my limits and seeing what I’m made of. First time marathoners, you’re in for a treat – I hope that the marathon steals your heart just like it has mine.
What tips would you give to first time marathons? Do you agree or disagree with any of my tips? Why?