How To Run Your First Marathon
Whether you’re in training or just contemplating, here’s what you need to know before “ready, set, go”.
You may have noticed at this time of year how many runners there are on the roads. Hardy characters in unforgiving Lycra, putting in the miles, perhaps occasionally trapping you in the office kitchenette for an unprompted conversation about split times, carb loading and tapering. Maybe you are one of them. The reason? Marathon season is upon us with LA (19 March), Boston (17 April) and London (23 April) all coming up.
Marathons are a bit like novels: everyone thinks they’ve got one in them. They can be daunting for the uninitiated, even more so for the experienced – they know what to expect. So how should you prepare for this 26.2-mile rite of passage? Barely a year ago, I ran the Brighton Marathon in four hours 15 minutes. Here’s a running commentary about what I learnt.
01. Training is the hardest part
The day itself should be the highlight of your marathon mission – the pay-off. The real work comes in the months before the race when you are logging the miles, training alone and sticking to your schedule. There will be times when you question why you are doing this and how you will get through it. If you’re flagging, try switching up your regime – find new routes, train at a different time of day and vary what you’re listening to. Music can lead to you measuring your route in three-minute increments, and even your favourite tracks can become repetitive. Try podcasts or listen to audio books, such as Mr Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans, Mr Ed Caesar’s Two Hours and Mr Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
02. Override the fatigue
Beware the “central governor theory”. This is the mental mechanism that is believed to shut your body down during exertion when the brain thinks there is an imminent risk of injury. You need to prepare physically in order to minimise the possibility of breaking down. Training is about more than just plodding through very long runs. For example, if you know the course has hills, make yourself do hill training. (I didn’t, and paid the price with a stabbing case of illotibial band syndrome – aka runner’s knee – at the 13-mile mark.) Build in speed work, interval training and at least one heavy weights session a week. Icepack your legs after running, and don’t get blasé about stretching. Accept that you’ll have little opportunity for socialising until the race is out of the way.
03. Road test your running gear
Invest in the best specialist gear you can, especially running shoes and seamless, sweat-wicking apparel. Having run for five years now in various iterations of Nike Pegasus sneakers, Asics shorts and Nike jackets, I can vouch for their ability to withstand rain, sweat, Vaseline and leaking energy gels. Don’t run the race in anything you haven’t worn before – that way lies foot blisters and chafing issues such as jogger’s nipples. To avoid blisters, slather your feet and in between your toes with Vaseline and wear specialist running socks, some of which are two-ply to reduce friction. Find gloves with a built-in key pocket. Trust me when I say that you don’t want to retrace a 15km training route to find where your house keys flew out of your shorts pocket.
04. Store up energy
Cut out alcohol completely one month before you race. You will sleep amazingly well during the training phase, but make sure you rest as much as possible in the immediate lead-up to race day. Your calorific consumption will go through the roof, but the night before long training runs, load up on carbs for energy. Don’t eat or drink anything on the day (or the day before) that you haven’t tried before. During the race, choose between energy gels and sports drinks, but not both. Your body can’t metabolise them simultaneously. On a related note, there aren’t ever enough Portaloos on the course, so don’t wait until you’re bursting or you may get caught short.
05. Let the mob move you
The crowds that line the marathon route are a great help, but you can make it easier for them to cheer you on. Screen-print your name on your running shirt and the lift you get from complete strangers shouting your name will reaffirm your faith in humanity. Running for a charity gives you enough external pressure to make sure you complete the race. You’ll also benefit from the encouragement and inspiration of fellow runners en route. My own personal motivator was the man I saw at the hardest point of my race pushing his profoundly disabled son uphill in a flatbed wheelchair. Suddenly my stitch didn’t seem such a big deal.
06. It won't be your last
Runner’s high – that sense of palpable, neuro-chemical elation you feel after a long jog – is a real thing (there’s a reason why so many ex-ravers are now serious runners). Prepare for this buzz to hit you in a way you’ve never known after completing your marathon. Even a year later, simply looking at a photograph of myself in the closing stages of the race brings back that sensation. Not everyone enjoys the race, however. Some people draw an analogy between marathons and childbirth. The immediate experience can be so traumatic that people swear off it for good, but as the event recedes, the benefits it brings become more apparent and your brain starts to reframe the experience. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe you could handle it better if you did it again. Maybe you’ve got one more race in you. It’s probably a more realistic goal than that novel you’ve been talking about for 10 years.
Which marathon is for you?
For people who can’t stand the cold: New York (5 November 2017)
The NYC marathon course isn’t fast – 26 corners, 800ft of ascent and crosswinds on the bridges – but it’s a gift in terms of preparation because its November date means you’ll be training in great weather and the race-day temperature averages a near perfect 9°C. Plus there is no better time to run through Central Park than in autumn.
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For people with a sense of history: Athens Classic (12 November 2017)
Record numbers flock to Greece each year to retrace the route run by Pheidippides, the courier sent from Marathon to Athens to deliver new of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians in 490BC. It is regarded as one of the hardest of the major marathons, with much of it uphill. No wonder Pheidippides keeled over and carked it upon delivering his message.
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For endurance obsessives: Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (29 May 2017)
Mount Everest is more commonly associated with climbing, but the Tenzing Hillary Marathon offers a lung-bursting challenge for serious endurance runners. You’ll need to get through a pre-race trek to Base Camp, where the race starts, and have spent three weeks in Nepal acclimatising to the altitude. This is the world’s highest trail run and, while it is largely downhill, there are two brutal hills to negotiate, with a high likelihood of ice and snow at the upper reaches of the course.
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For serious outdoors people: Big Five (24 June 2017)
A safari marathon around Entabeni Game Reserve in northeastern South Africa. Runners traverse dirt roads, sandy tracks and hills and contend with altitude changes and steep downhill slopes on a route that takes you right through the living quarters of zebras, giraffes, antelopes, elephants and lions.
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Illustrations by Mr Pete Gamlen