Tips For Running a Marathon – The Sporting Event Where Everyone is an Elite Athlete
The first Sunday in November is a special day in New York. Runners of all shapes and sizes come from around the globe to New York City to share a special human experience as they pack together while running 26.2 miles through the five boroughs. This could turn out to be one of the greatest achievements of their lives.
To me, the best thing about running a marathon is that anyone who puts in the training and completes the course can experience the feeling of competing in a world-class athletic event at an elite level. Very few know what it’s like to play a professional sport or perform in any way in front of a rabidly cheering crowd. And even though all marathons are a shade over twenty-six miles, every marathon provides a completely different experience, and each one taught me valuable lessons. I ran two of my three marathons in New York City and wanted to share my insights to those considering tackling this unique challenge and reaping the life-affirming rewards this experience brings to all who participate.
The importance of focus. Training for a marathon and running the race demand the integration of the body, mind, and spirit. No matter what kind of shape you’re in, at some point during your training and the relentless twenty-six-point two-mile course you will be challenged. It could be a cramp, exhaustion, bad weather, or even an upset stomach. It doesn’t matter which, but you will find yourself faced with unexpected circumstances that require your attention. Even if you’ve trained diligently and logged in the recommended long runs, a marathon requires an elevated level of mental toughness and spirit. Be prepared.
Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Marathoners come in all shapes and sizes and speak many languages. During my first race I was surprised at how many runners who did not look in great shape passed me. At first my ego got the best of me when waves of older and chunkier runners zipped by. My first thoughts were to get down on myself and question my training. Then I recalled that everyone’s body processes oxygen differently. And, I had no clue as the kind of training regimen other people went through or how many marathons they’d already run. When I realized this, I got over myself and kept running.
Stick to your plan. After a few miles of feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of that first marathon and the presence of so many runners running elbow-to-elbow, I dug down and refocused on my strategy going into the race. I decided beforehand that I was only competing with myself, so I chugged along at a reasonably slow ten or eleven minute per mile pace and did not waver until reaching mile twenty. I figured that if I felt I had enough fuel in my tank I could speed up heading into those last six miles. Fortunately, I did not hit the dreaded “wall” that many runners experience at mile twenty. Supposedly that’s a point where the human body has hit its limit. And although I did hit the wall at this juncture during my next two marathons, this was not the case for me in my first race. My body, mind and spirit all felt in sync and due to the adrenalin rush I was feeling, I cruised through those final six miles. It seemed like at this point I was passing everyone else and sprinted up the hill across the finish line both hands held high. Let me tell you; it felt great, and I attribute it to my adherence to consistent training and more importantly, following my strategy throughout the race.
Hydrate and eat throughout the race. Running non-stop for four-plus hours requires lots of fuel. In each marathon I slowed my pace and took advantage of almost every water stop while also being careful to drink the water as opposed to not slowing down and throwing the cups of water towards my mouth. I also grabbed snacks the race provided and even sampled a few food items people watching the race were handing out. This kept my hydration and energy levels high throughout the long run.
Congratulate yourself – Marathoners can be tough on themselves. Instead of celebrating this amazing feat, many runners carp about what they did wrong and areas that need improvement next time. After the first race I questioned parts of my performance, but I also give myself credit for putting in all those hours and the hard work and training required to run a race of this distance. Now that my marathon running days are over, I can look back fondly on realize of these accomplishments. I’m proud of a job well done.
Practice makes perfect. Train like a champ. We all need to prepare for the big opportunities that come along in life. Whether it’s writing a screenplay, making a presentation at a national sales meeting, or running a marathon you need to invest time and psychic energy into the undertaking if you want to enjoy the experience and savor your victory—however you define it. Looking back, making sure I followed the classic marathon training protocol including those long, lonely twenty-mile training runs were critical to my fitness and state of mind on race day. I figured if I could run twenty miles in September without the cheering crowds, I’d be in good shape to tack on another six miles by November. And I was prepared for each marathon and my dedication to training came in handy both physically and mentally.
In some ways running a marathon is a metaphor for life where we experience pleasure, pain, and joy. When running a marathon, we run a gamut of human emotions over the course of a few brief hours on a majestic Sunday morning. My advice is if you get the urge to run a marathon and you are in good health, do it. And when you do, make sure you fully immerse yourself in the experience—from each day of training until you cross the finish line. You’ll be happy for doing your job well.
Running a marathon means running and completing the 26.2 miles. Too many runners do not train properly and as a result must drop out or look like death if they make it to the finish line. Having completed three marathons, I’m no expert, but I do have real experience to share that will hopefully make your special day one of real achievement, personal satisfaction and injury-free. There are numerous books, online resources and clubs like the New York Road Runners or New York Flyers that can help you train for success. Consider this a topping of marzipan on your training cake, Guy’s Guy style.
Get Started in Advance – I was listening to the New York Marathon broadcast on WFAN a year before running my first marathon. I was on a five-mile run and decided that I would train for a year and find a way into the race. It turned out the training was easier than getting a number. But it was pre-9/11, and a female friend gave me her number. I carefully made my way past the security checks and got on the bus, into the marathon compound, and up to the starting line at the Verrazano Bridge without a hitch. Don’t do this. It was nerve-racking. Technically anyone can run a marathon. The key is putting in consistent training, staying healthy and managing minor injuries, and really wanting it. Runners need a foundation. That means logging lots of miles as a base prior to adding necessary mileage needed to be able to run a marathon. Beginning your training early will keep you healthy and focused. I highly recommend allotting a minimum of four months for training, even if many plans call for three months.
Proper Diet – Face it. We are what we eat, and what we’re offered by the big food companies these days is not so good. If you are serious, you’ll buy a juicer and use it on organic veggies and fruits as part of your daily regime. If not, at least cut out the junk, booze, and fast food. You’ll recover from your long runs a lot faster and it will keep your energy up. During the race I ate constantly (fruit, pieces of bagels, energy bars and gels) and slowed down at many of the water stops to grab a cup so I would stay hydrated.
Manage Your Injuries – When you are logging in so many training miles—including a minimum of two twenty-mile training runs where no one is cheering you on— you learn a lot about your body and its capacity for pain. I suspect you will experience some discomfort or minor injury. Don’t ignore injuries, no matter how small. They can get serious quickly. You might need to take a day or two off to heal. Even more reason to begin your training months in advance. A marathon is a long haul, not a sprint. Treat your training the same way. Long and slow. If you want to ramp up your strength and endurance, work in speed intervals, but regardless of your approach, pay attention to your body and your mental state. You will need to keep both in top shape.
Don’t Over-train – Your body needs rest so a few days off after a twenty-mile practice run is a good thing. One reason is that you’ll do another twenty-miler in a few weeks and before the marathon. Get to bed at a reasonable hour and take advantage of naps whenever you can afford the time. Stress is your body’s archenemy, so do your best to keep your mind relaxed. I mentally mapped out the plot and necessary revisions for two novels while running. Let those endorphins be your ally.
Enjoy the Race – When marathon day arrives, make it a time of celebration. If you’ve put in the proper amount of training, you should have a great time soaking in a once in a lifetime experience of competing at the level of an elite, world-class athlete. It is a real accomplishment. Here is my number one tip for the race— go slow. You are embarking on a twenty-six-mile journey. It’s long and you are only competing with yourself. Focus on enjoying the day, the experience, the spectacle, and the people. If you are full of pep with less than ten miles to go, you can pick up your pace. I assure you that while you are making up time, others will hit that wall and bonk out after mile twenty.
My first marathon was my favorite. I ran with a good friend, took my time, had lots of energy after we entered Manhattan, and sprinted through Central Park and across the finish line. That evening I went out with friends, devoured a plate of Mexican food, and pounded a few celebratory tequila shots. Yeah, I was sore as hell the next few days, but I felt great. I ran my race exactly as I planned it. I completed another two marathons, but the feeling wasn’t the same. I pushed myself too hard, became overly concerned with my time, and both times struggled in the last third of the race. My advice is to take it slow and enjoy a life-affirming experience. For most marathoners, we are only competing with ourselves. So, train well, enjoy the race, and make sure to give yourself a hearty pat on the back for this special accomplishment. Congratulations! You are an elite athlete!!