There are two types of marathon runners: people who run marathons and people who have run a marathon or two. The former subscribe to Runner’s World magazine and look like they walked off the cover. They frequent Whole Foods and farmer’s markets and come in couples born from running club romance.
The latter (um, me) occasionally page through Runner’s World, but get sidetracked by US Weekly. We go to Whole Foods for its beer selection and date people who only walk through the farmer’s market if it’s on the way to the bar to watch football.
Yes, I’ve run two marathons—one in Copenhagen and one in DC—but I’m in no position to give you expert advice on marathoning. What I can give you is a first-timer’s perspective. In honor of today’s Marine Corps Marathon (which, in full non-expert form, I’m not running because it’s my birthday and Halloweekend), I’m here to dish some tips for prospective first-time marathoners. Because not so long ago, I was in your shoes.
1. Never Say Never
Almost all of my many friends who have completed a marathon at one point said that they could never do it. In fact, I bet most people on that road are shocking their former selves. That’s often why they do it—to prove that they can. People with prosthetic legs do it, and heck, Oprah did it. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s definitely not. But don’t dismiss the possibility just because you’ve never considered yourself a marathoner, or even a runner. If you want to do it, you can—one mile at a time.
2. If the Shoe Fits…
One of the reasons I love running is because you can do it anywhere. All you need is a pair of shoes. But because shoes are really the only piece of equipment the sport requires, it’s extra important that they fit perfectly. All it takes is one small (and often unnoticeable) support or sizing glitch to lead to one slight (and often subconscious) shift in your stride to lead to one giant (and usually obvious and sometimes debilitating) injury.
Even if you think you know the shoe for you, go to a running store and get fitted by a guru who measures your foot and observes your stride. I’ll never understand all the different arch types, foot shapes, and named gaits, but I do know that the shoe I buy works—and it’s the same shoe I’ve been buying since the first time I was fitted. Just this once, buy the shoe for its function, not its flair.
3. Dress to Impress
I learned the hard way that while your shoes should be functional, your wardrobe should be functional and fun. My first marathon, I wore a solid blue shirt with my number pinned on top. If any stranger cheered for me, I didn’t know it—all they could say was “five-thousand-fifteen!” In Danish. My second marathon, I wore a solid pink shirt and found myself running alongside a hot dog (it was Halloween). After hearing one too many jokes about buns, ketchup, and mustard, I seriously regretted not wearing something more inspiring.
Marathon spectators are one of the best parts of a marathon. These are people who give you energy when you have none and who get up early and for the sole purpose of cheering you on, whether they know you or not. But if they don’t know you, the only thing they can say is what they see. So, wear something that sets you apart—whether it’s your name on your t-shirt, your alumni group, or even a tiara—and you’ll be sure to have a crowd full of fans.
4. It’s Not All Mental
My second marathon should have been perfect—it was a beautiful day, my family and friends were spread out along the course, and I was physically and mentally well-prepared. Unfortunately, my bowels were not. They might say it’s all mental, but there’s no motivational mantra that can counteract the desperate and frequent need for a pit stop.
Besides being uncomfortable (at best), the stop-and-starts stiffen your legs and add significant time to the clock. So don’t just use your training to build your muscles and endurance—use it to test out different food and drink combinations before, during, and after the race. Oh, and don’t forget to BYOTP.
5. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Pacing yourself is critical—not just during the marathon, but leading up to it as well. So when you’re training, think about what motivates you: If it’s accountability, look for training groups or virtual guides on the marathon website after you register. If you want or need more flexibility, map out a skeletal plan with at least one long run each weekend, building up just a mile or two at a time. Be sure to give yourself a couple of months to prepare for the big day, making your longest run about one month before the race.
Also remember that the marathon is just the final hurrah in a much bigger commitment, so think about what you want to get out of the whole process. For me, the prospect of staying in shape, touring a beautiful country on foot, and getting a party invite or two was enough to join a Danish running club. Actually completing my first marathon? That was the icing on the cake.
So don’t run the marathon just to get it over with, and don’t go on training runs just as an excuse to binge on brunch (though it is a nice perk). Use the time to explore new places—emotionally, physically, and geographically. As with anything, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out—and the more likely you’ll be to do it again.