A lot of you are getting closer to running your first marathon or half marathon this Fall, and taper time is near. Congratulations on making it this far!
My first marathon was nothing short of a disaster. When two college buddies and I lined up in the first corral of the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego marathon in 2002, we had no idea what we were doing. We hadn’t been runners before we started training; we didn’t even know any runners to go to for advice.
Fit and determined, yes; informed and respectful of the 26.2 miles in front of us, not at all.
Of the countless mistakes we made that day and the previous, the worst was our pacing. How bad was it? Let’s just say the last 8.2 miles took us the same amount of time as the first 18, and leave it at that. That day was the most physically painful of my life.
When I ran my second marathon—to this day I’m amazed THAT I ran a second marathon—I took an entire hour off of my previous time, and had a heck of a lot more fun. Not because I was in better shape, but because I knew what to expect. I knew what to do (like wearing actual running clothes instead of a cotton t-shirt), and perhaps more importantly, what not to do (taking a walking tour of the largest zoo in the United States the evening before the race).
It’s my hope that by sharing what I learned the hard way, I can save you a lot of stress, time, and pain, and help make sure your first marathon isn’t your last.
21 Ways to Make Your First Marathon a Success
- Don’t plan on running with a partner. It’s tempting to want to run with your training buddy, but it’s asking for trouble. You won’t both need water and Porta Pot stops at the same time. And what’s going to happen when one of you is going strong and the other starts to lag? Awkward!
- BYOTP. That’s “Bring Your Own Toilet Paper.” Thousands of runners + race-day jitters = bad news for the TP supply. Stash some in your bag or your shorts.
- Wear technical apparel. Shirt, shorts, socks, bra. Cotton is rotten! RaceReady makes shorts with lots of pockets for holding gels, keys, salt tablets, etc. Consider lubricants for chafing and blister powder for your feet as well.
- Don’t try out any new goodies. Especially if your marathon is a big one, you’ll get all kinds of free samples at the expo. Just don’t use them on race day; stick with the same gels, bars, and gummies that you’ve used throughout your training. I once tried some caffeine pills that I got at the Disney Marathon and broke out in a weird sweat, before the race even started.
- Count your safety pins. When you pickup your number, make sure they give you four safety pins for securing it to your shirt. Scrambling to find a safety pin on the morning of your race is the last thing you need to be doing.
- Get yourself a new pair of kicks. Good running shoes last 300-500 miles, but they lose 50% of their cushioning much sooner than that. Get some new ones and break them in during your tapering period. I ignored this in one marathon and got a nice stress fracture in my foot to remember it by.
- Skip the pasta party. Have a big meal at lunch the day before the race, but take it easy with dinner. This gives your body time to assimilate the nutrients, and having a huge meal so close to the race is risky if you’re at all worried about stomach issues. For more, see my post on what to eat before a race.
- Don’t do much the day before. Like I said, the San Diego Zoo was a terrible idea. Take it easy on your legs and mind, and give your body a chance to relax before the big day.
- Don’t stress over sleep. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the race, but chances are you won’t. But take heart, oh sleepless one: the amount of sleep you get before a race has little to do with how you’ll perform. As long as you’ve been sleeping well during the previous week, your body will have plenty of energy to draw from. Bonus: not stressing over this might even help you stop tossing and turning.
- Bring a garbage bag. A garbage bag with a few arm and leg holes is the marathoner’s Swiss army knife. Good for keeping dry if it’s raining, keeping warm before you start, and for a little privacy if the Porta Pot lines are too long.
- Pack a throwaway shirt and gloves if it’s cold. Lots of races start at the butt-crack of dawn, when it’s chilly. Once you start running and the sun comes up, your temperature will rise considerably. To accommodate this, wear a long-sleeve shirt, and maybe even gloves, that you don’t mind ditching a few miles into the race. Lots of races have charity bins where you can toss extra clothing, but don’t feel too bad about just throwing it to the side of the road if you don’t see them.
- Show up early. Traffic is always bad and there are always lines for the Porta Pots, so leave yourself extra time before the race to stretch, fuel up, and relax. And give yourself plenty of time to get from the runners’ village to the start line, sometimes they’re far apart.
- Arrange a meeting spot for after the race. The finish line will be crowded, so even if your friends and family do get a good spot to watch you finish, they won’t be able to get to you very quickly once you’re done. And you probably won’t want to carry a cell phone. Choose a spot ahead of time where you’ll meet, and stagger over there before you collapse in glory.
- Put your support team to work. Know roughly where your friends will be on the course; having that to look forward to can make all the difference. And load them up with all kinds of snacks. Bananas, oranges, gummy bears, salty snacks like pretzels, whatever you think there’s a chance you might crave when you’re 20 miles in and those last six are seeming like Mount Everest. Chances are you won’t eat most of it, but getting that one thing you want most will make it worth it.
- Take it easy on the fluids in the hour before the race. There’s a delicate balance between hydrating yourself properly and standing in the starting corral already having to go to the bathroom. For me, this has only been a problem at the beginning of the race, since once I’m running my body tends to use up whatever fluid I can take in. Err on the side of hydration, but be aware of this issue, especially if you have a time goal. That said…
- Don’t have a time goal. If you’re like me, this is impossible. But if you can, don’t make your goal for your first marathon any more than just to finish the race and enjoy the fact that you’re doing something incredible. Leave the extra stress of a time goal for your next one.
- Don’t let your adrenaline get the best of you. At the expo of my first marathon, a famous runner gave us this piece of advice. Of course, we didn’t listen. We tore out of the gate and ran our first mile in under seven minutes, and with adrenaline pumping, figured we might qualify for Boston that day. Wrong, by almost two hours. They say that every minute too fast that you run the first 13.1 miles, you’ll lose two minutes in the second 13.1. Don’t let your excitement get the best of you on race day.
- Watch out for hyponatremia. Everyone knows about the dangers of dehydration, but overhydration is a concern too. Hyponatremia occurs when you drink so much water that you dilute the sodium levels in your blood, and it can be life-threatening. Symptoms are very similar to those of dehydration, part of the reason it’s so dangerous. I try to pay attention to my ankles and fingers to make sure they aren’t swelling around my socks or ring. To avoid hyponatremia, be sure to take in adequate sodium with your fluids, in the form of sports drinks, gels, salty snacks, or even salt tablets.
- Consider an ice bath afterward. Especially if you haven’t done a lot of 20+ mile runs in your training, you might be in for a fun surprise when you get out of bed the day after your race. To help mitigate muscle soreness, consider taking an ice bath once you’ve finished the race. Yes, you read that correctly. 15-20 pounds of ice, some water, a bathtub, and 20 minutes of pure misery. But it works for me.
- Don’t make plans for after the race! After my first marathon, my friends and I went back to our hotel room at about noon, stretched out on the beds, and slept soundly through the entire day and night. If you follow the tips in this list, you’ll be much better off than we were. But still, you have no idea what you’ll be up for after you’ve run 26.2 miles. So keep the plans to a minimum, and play it by ear. I’ve run three Rock ‘n’ Roll races, and never once have I made it to the post-race concert.
- Enjoy every minute of it. This will be easy for most of the race. But trust me, those last few miles will hurt, and you’ll have to dig deeper than you ever have before. But you didn’t choose to do this because you thought it would feel good. Whatever your reason, it goes far deeper than the physical. You’re doing something incredible; relish in that fact and enjoy the moment.
If you found this post helpful, you’ll be interested in the No Meat Athlete Marathon Roadmap: The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First 26.2. Click here to learn more!