Okay, so while running marathons, I have a lot of time to think. The way I run, a LOT of time. And one of the things I always think is, “I should write down these things I’ve learned about running marathons.” There are two reasons I should do this: it seems like every time I run a marathon I have to re-learn all this because I have a short memory (which, btw, is why I keep running marathons). Also, I think folks preparing for their first marathon could benefit from my mistakes. Yes, there are many people out there who know waaaaaaaaay more than me about this, but a lot of them are trying to sell you something. Plus, I’m really slow, so maybe more of you can relate to me than to those elite runners who wear the tight clothes and look like models. (My two sons hardly do anything I’ve suggested here, and they do great: David runs marathons barefoot, and Stephen does 60 milers! Oh to be young.) Anyway here goes, from a veteran of about five marathons, some 15K hill climbs, a few 10-milers, and miscellaneous other brief ordeals. In no particular order:
- Don’t get all worked up about doing this. Sure, it’s a marathon, it’s 26 miles, it can be a great challenge. But here’s another way of looking at it. If you can walk, at a fairly good clip, for 7 hours, you can finish a marathon. So don’t be scared. Marathon courses can smell fear. Don’t get all worked up about it: you’ll do great. The worst thing that can happen is you stop short of the finish and try again next time. That’s not a defeat, it’s practice. No big. Try to keep a calm attitude about this. Have fun. Don’t stress. Do one, and you’ll be way more relaxed the second time around.
- Start your training really, really slow. I’ve encouraged others to take up running and always encourage them to start way slower than they think they should. Nonetheless, people get all excited and go out and overdo it. Don’t. If you hurt yourself, it can take months to heal and by then you’ll be all depressed and may not ever run again. So get a good plan in place to work up, very slowly, to your goal. There are lots of such plans, free, available on the internet.
- Start really, really slow. Did I already say this? It bears repeating. You want to have fun with this, right? Well, getting injured is no fun. So start slow. Just walk. Then walk a little more. Then a little more…
- Don’t spend a lot of money. One of the beauties of running, on top of the fact that you can do it almost anywhere, is that it can be such an economical sport. Really all you need are some comfortable clothes and good shoes (though with the rise in popularity of barefoot running, even those are becoming optional). There is tons of expensive gear and lots of gadgets out there, but I suggest you resist the temptation to spend a lot of dough, which you’ll need for the race registration (which is not cheap). You don’t have to have any of that stuff. Just some comfy clothes and some good shoes.
- Never do anything new the day of the race. You’ll go to the race expo and see all the aforementioned gadgets and gear and be tempted, but never ever try anything new the day of the race. Wear the same clothes and shoes you’ve been wearing, eat the same foods, get the same rest, and do everything just the way you’ve been doing it during your training.
- Remember that tiny issues get big over 26 miles. So little things can become very irritating. Paying attention to these tips (like #5: avoiding doing anything new or different) can prevent the exasperation that comes when little problems loom large by mile 18. Try to have everything taken care of.
- At your first race, I suggest you pay no attention to the time, whatsoever. Don’t even wear a watch and don’t look at the timers. Just go out there and have fun and don’t hurt yourself. Then, on your next race, if you want to race the clock, you’ll have an idea of what you can do and what you can reasonably shoot for. But, at your first race, there’s no need to create extra anxiety by creating possibly unrealistic expectations which can so easily be changed by the weather, your tummy, an irritated toe, whatever.
- A sensitive subject: I’ve had great luck with Vaseline to prevent chafing. As I’m dressing, I apply it liberally, especially to my underarms. It goes on sticky but soon you won’t know it’s there. They sell expensive stuff that goes on like a roll-on and I tried one but it stayed sticky and wasn’t near as helpful as simple, cheap Vaseline. At some races, they hand it out in mid-course on ice cream sticks for people who need it. But at one race I saw one guy grab one of those sticks and stick it in his mouth, thinking it was to eat.
- It’s embarrassing to admit this in public, but here goes: I tape my nipples. Even with a good poly shirt I once wound up with bloody nipples (just typing “bloody nipples” makes me cringe) and I don’t ever want that to happen again. I am careful to do this before applying the Vaseline so as to make sure the bandages stick the whole long race.
- Bring a checklist to the race. You’re not likely to sleep very good the night before the race since you’ll be concerned about waking up early and having everything ready to go. A good checklist can help alleviate some of this anxiety. I’ll add one to the end here just to get you started.
- Keep all your stuff in one special bag. If you’re traveling to a race, you’ll have your regular luggage but you don’t want your race stuff mingling with your street stuff. So dedicate one special bag just for your race stuff. If you’re not sure you will get it back, go to Goodwill and buy a cheap one so you won’t care if you leave it behind.
- Speaking of Goodwill, that’s a great place to buy a cheap jacket to wear in the early minutes or hours of cool morning races. Once you warm up you can toss it at an aid station. Most races donate these spent garments back to something like Goodwill.
- If you wind up with aches and pains in your feet or legs or hips or whatever during training, take a break. And get some help. I’ve made several visits to a physical therapist and to a specialty shoe store near my home and they have saved my feet with a couple of cheapo remedies. Why suffer? You can get answers without spending a lot of money. There is also a lot of advice for such problems on the internet, and much of it is very helpful.
- Pin your number to your jersey the night before. You don’t want to find out the morning of the race that you only have three pins, not four. Having that thing flapping around for 26 miles can be a big pain. Pin it where it will be out of your way but easily seen by race officials and the cameras that will take your picture as you run. Same thing with the chip, if your race is using one: attach it to your shoe the night before. You want to have as little to think about the morning of the race as possible.
- If you’re in a hotel the night before, bring an old-fashioned wind-up clock to make sure you’ll awaken in plenty of time to get to the start. Depending on electrical gadgets can create anxiety when you worry that the local generating plant may run out of coal hours before your big race, or whatever. Use a wind-up and you’ll probably sleep better.
- Because you’ve worked up to the race, you’ll already know what works as far as nutrition. Again, don’t experiment the day of the race. Me, I do great on three scrambled eggs and two slices of wheat toast at least 2 hours before the race begins, and then a couple of hard-boiled eggs during the race and a few shots of Gu or something similar. That recipe may be disaster for you. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes: I love the vanilla bean or orange gu, but anything chocolate makes me head to the restroom.
- Speaking of the bathroom, gotta take up this unpleasant subject. My suggestion is this: try to get your plumbing regulated in the weeks before the race (NOT two days before). Use prunes or coffee or whatever to teach your body to go an hour after you wake up. On race day, get up early enough to allow your body to go through this routine BEFORE the race. There is nothing more discouraging than watching chip time go by as you sit in a disgusting outhouse listening to everyone else clop by. I wouldn’t know: this has never happened to me, thankfully. Pretty good for an old guy, huh?
- I do tend to have to pee a lot, and that’s okay. But I’m a guy and we usually have a much easier time of it than you gals, since we can usually pee anywhere and on race day, actually do. Don’t know what to tell you women. But better that you have to pee , than not. I’m no sports physiologist, but if you’re peeing you’re probably getting enough fluids. See your doctor.
- I’ve never had an issue with blisters. At races I wear those socks that are doubled in on themselves, so the fabric is rubbing against itself instead of you. That’s the theory, anyway, and it’s worked for me, I guess. If you have problems with blisters you might try a pair of those. I got mine at Big 5 but I haven’t seen them there since. I’ll bet you can find them online.
- Pay attention to your toenails. Again, little problems grow large over 26 miles, so if you have one that is cutting into a neighboring toe this can lead to trouble. Keep them comfortably trimmed back so they won’t bother each other, and so that they won’t be slamming into the front of your shoes on the downhills. But don’t trim them the night before the race: do it three or four days out in case there are any problems. Don’t want any sensitivity from these little guys. The night before the race give them a light going-over with an emery board, but try to avoid any trimming.
- Figure out your lacing situation. Learn how you must tie your shoes to avoid any issues with them during the race. It’s a pain to have to stop and re-tie during the race, and by late in the race it becomes literally a pain. So get your laces sorted out before the race.
- If race rules allow an iPod, use it. I have found it so much better than just plodding along, hearing nothing but my now-pained feet turning over slowly. I listen to good sermons or inspiring music. Be sure to have all your issues squared away before race day: you don’t want to be fussing with headphones or iPod armbands and what-not at mile 17.
- Me, I’m not a fan of those hydration belts and backpacks. They’re expensive, they drive me crazy as they bang around back there, and there is usually plenty of liquid available on the course itself. If I felt the need to carry water, which I don’t, I would just use one of those hand-held bottles with the strap around your palm.
- Not all races are created equal. I’ve done the Portland (Oregon) Marathon three times, the Wine Country (Healdsburg, CA) Marathon and the Marine Corps (Washington, DC) Marathon. By far, my favorite was the Marine Corps Marathon. It was a perfect fall day, we were running around the nation’s best and most beautiful monuments, and the crowd participation and enthusiasm was high the ENTIRE route (did they pay all those people???). And, by its nature, the Marine Corps Marathon attracted a bunch of military and there is nothing so moving as running with veterans missing legs and arms and whole squads of gung-ho Marines carrying an American flag high for 26 miles. I did the Army 10-miler in DC too and that was awesome also. The Portland Marathon, if the weather isn’t miserable, offers a lot of really interesting stuff to see that you never would notice just driving by. The Wine Country Marathon was on a hot day and I preferred that to cold. So, if you can, try different races and enjoy each of them for what they uniquely offer.
- I’m a fan of hat-wearing. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to wear a hat. If it’s hot, you’ll appreciate the visor; if it’s raining, it will keep the rain off your face. I wear glasses, so a hat is necessary in the event of rain. If you think you may not like to wear a hat, get a cheapie so you can jettison it without guilt if you wish. They’re like 50 cents at Good will.
- Now a word about the spiritual dimension of running. I think running is a great pastime for Christians, for many reasons. In training, you have lots of time to pray or listen to good teaching; building physical endurance is good practice for building spiritual stamina; it’s something you usually do alone, so you don’t have to worry much about damaging, or boosting, your ego; and the physical benefits will make you more fit for service to the Lord, longer. Hopefully, that is: “Man knows not his time!” (Ecclesiastes 9:12.) But reduced weight and cardiovascular health may mean you get more time, and can be more productive with it.
Finally, here’s a short list of some stuff to be sure to bring to the race:
Shoes, socks, shorts, shirt, underpants, Vaseline, Jacket (cheap one, that can be left at roadside), bandages, extra laces, Emery boards, watch, race number & chip, pins, Ibuprofen, nutrition (Gu, energy bars, hard boiled eggs, etc!)