0 to 26.2 – Tips for New Marathoners

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

I learned a lot of lessons while training for my first marathon

When I participated on the running bloggers panel at the Route 66 Marathon Expo, one of the questions we were asked was what advice we had for first time marathoners and half marathoners.  It is a good question, one that I would break into two parts – training tips and race day tips.  It occurred to me many people have probably set the goal of running their first endurance event this year.  Now that they have set their goal, they may be thinking about how to achieve their goal of running a marathon or half marathon.  Where do you start?  In this post, I will share my training tips.  I’ll write about race day tips later.

I am not going to bother to go over training plans.  I am not an expert in how to train.  In fact I still rely on a running coach to get me ready for a marathon.  Some running stores offer training programs to prepare for races.  There are plenty of training plans available on the Internet from running experts like Jeff Galloway, Hal Higdon, and Jenny Hadfield.  You can also train with charity programs such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT).  In exchange for fundraising, the charity provides a training plan, supported weekly long runs, and entry into a specific event.  I have run 11 races for charities. It is rewarding to cross the finish line knowing that I have helped someone else while participating in an event.  This spring I will be running the Boston Marathon for a charity.  Whatever training plan you use, I recommend that you follow it to the letter.  There is a reason why they tell you to cross train or stretch.  I have always done better when I don’t ignore the portions of a training plan that I don’t like.

Okay, now to the advice that you probably will only hear from me.

Know the Course – My first marathon was the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.  I watched the video of the course that was posted on the race web site.  By the end of the video, I was terrified.  What had I signed myself up for? I was convinced I would never be able to finish the race.

I decided to approach the course like it was an enemy I needed to conquer. To beat it I needed to know the course very well.  I printed out the course map, which included the elevation map (or as I call it, the EKG line), and studied it.  I knew every turn and hill along the course.   Each time I ran, I visualized myself running the race.  At the end of every training run, I saw myself crossing the finish line.  After each of my long runs, I would highlight that distance along the course map.  For example, when I finished my 16 mile training run, I highlighted the course map up to the 16 mile marker.  It was a visual reminder of the distance that I had already run.  If I could run it in a training run, I could run it on race day.

By knowing the course inside and out, I didn’t have any surprises on race day.  I knew exactly where I was all the time and what was coming up ahead.  I beat the course that had once terrified me.

Treat every training run as a dress rehearsal for race day – During your training runs, you should be doing everything exactly as you plan to do on race day.  That includes having the same breakfast you plan on having on race day; wearing the same running clothes and shoes; using the same hydration and nutrition you will have during the race.  By trying things out before race day, you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t.  If you travel to a race like I frequently do, confirm how you will get your preferred breakfast on the road.  Will you be able to get oatmeal at 4:30 AM in your hotel?  If not, then you might want to try other breakfast options while you are training.

Find out what sports drink they will have along the course and try it during a training run.  If you can’t handle the sports drink the race will have, then you will need to come up with an alternative hydration strategy.  You might want to carry your own fluids, which means getting use to wearing a hydration belt.

When I ran the Tokyo Marathon, runners were not allowed to carry any fluids.  We had to rely solely on the water stops.  I always carry my own hydration so I was concerned.  I needed to figure out how I would handle this on race day.   My strategy for training for this restriction was to practice only taking fluids during my training runs at the corresponding miles where the water stops would be on the course.  On race day, I was prepared and everything went smoothly.

I remember training for the Wine and Dine Half Marathon at Disney World.  Back then the race started at 10 PM at night.  I wasn’t sure how I would handle a race that started when I normally would be asleep.  To prepare for the race, I ran a couple of training runs at night.  I learned that I needed to adjust my pre-race meals plus take a nap in the afternoon.  I was prepared and it ended up being one of my all time favorite races.

I used a similar strategy when I trained for the Disney World Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half and full marathon over 4 consecutive days). I practiced running increasingly long distances over 4 days.  My Dopey dress rehearsal helped me understand how tired my legs would be each day.   I adjusted my post-race recovery plan to ensure I would be ready for the next day’s race.

Actors use dress rehearsals to ensure they deliver the best performance on opening night.  Runners can ensure they have the best race possible by using the dress rehearsal strategy too.

Run in all kinds of weather – While many runners love running in the rain, I hate it.  (I wrote about being a fair weather runner in an older post, Embrace the Weather.)  Given a choice, if the weather forecast is for rain or snow, I reschedule my run to another day or run on my treadmill (or as I call it, my dreadmill).

But who knows what the weather will be on your race day.  It isn’t like the race directors will move a race indoors if the weather is bad.  Not every town has indoor tracks.  Where would they get thousands of treadmills on a moment’s notice anyway?  I recall when the Mississippi Blues Marathon was canceled two weeks ago, someone on Facebook asked why they just couldn’t move the race indoors.  It just isn’t one of the contingency plans for a race.  Except for ice or thunderstorms, you need to be prepared to run in whatever weather greets you on race day.

Do you have any tips you would offer to new marathon runners?  What helped you get through your first race?  What did you learn the hard way?

Why We Run

I remember when I first started running many people questioned why I wanted to do something they thought was a waste of time.  From their perspective a marathoner runs for hours and hours and the only reward they receive at the end is a piece of medal on some ribbon, a banana or bagel, and very sore muscles.  I guess when you put it in that context, running seems a bit silly.  As someone pointed out to me, that is why they invented fossil fuels – so we didn’t have to run everywhere.

I was reading the obituaries one day and one caught my eye.  It was for Wendy Bailey, a woman who passed away from breast cancer at the young age of 47.  In her photo she had a beautiful smile, the kind that would welcome anyone she would meet.  As I read about her life, I realized she was the kind of warm friendly person you would love to know.  There was a quote in her obituary that struck a chord with me.  “When you constantly challenge yourself, you discover a lot about who you are.”  Marathon runners understand how true that is.
screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-11-41-pmI can tell you from my own experience there is something that happens to you when you finish your first marathon.  You are not the same person who started the race.  Crossing the finish line transforms you like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.  Before my first marathon, I was intimidated by many things.   I was not an athlete and the thought of running a marathon was frightening.   But after I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, I was never afraid of anything again.  Along with my medal came a big dose of self-confidence.  Hey, if I can run 26.2 miles and not die, I must be much stronger than I thought.

There are plenty of reasons why people decide to take on the marathon.   They may be running to raise awareness and funds for a cause that holds deep meaning for them.   People run to fund research to find cures for diseases like breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, or neuroblastoma, or for social causes like clean water in Africa.  I ran my first marathon in honor of a friend who was battling an incurable form of lymphoma, fundraising in the process.

Other people may be striking back at something that has taken away their own ability to move such as wounded warriors.  They prove to themselves the strength they still have.  In some cases, people are striking back at abilities that they never had.  A good example is Tatyana McFadden who was born with spina bifida and has not known anything other than a wheelchair.  Tatyana has won 11 marathons.  I have watched Tatyana compete and she is an amazing young athlete.

As for me, I was healthy when I started running until Transverse Myelitis changed my life five years ago.  While I started running to show support for my friend, now I run for myself.  I don’t know what the future holds for me.  If the music is going to stop some day, I want to make sure I cram in everything I want to do while I can do it.  I won’t let TM run my life.

Kathrine Switzer said once “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”  Running a marathon takes courage, determination and strength (both mental and physical).  When you watch a marathon, you will see all kinds of people.  They all have one thing in common – they had the courage to show up at the start line and challenge themselves.  And at the finish line, as Wendy said, they will have discovered much more about who they are.

Don’t Count Me Out

I was looking at my racing statistics recently on athlinks.com and was amazed at what I have achieved.  I have raced over 1,100 miles in nearly 100 races (5Ks and up to marathon distances) – all since I started running just 9 years ago, in November, 2006.  I remember back then it seem inconceivable that I would be able to complete a marathon.  Look at me now – I have done 11 of them!

Running my first marathon

Running my first marathon

When I first started running, I am embarrassed to admit that I did minimal training.  My first Team in Training coach had developed a training program that included 3 days where I ran and 2 days of cross training.  True confessions: I did the bare minimum in terms of training.  I ran 3 days a week but I never once did any cross training.  I finished my first marathon in a respectable time of 5:19.  I didn’t beat Oprah’s time in the Marine Corps Marathon but who cares.  I was happy.  I kept running and somewhere along the way decided that I wanted to run faster.  If I had completed a marathon with minimal training, how fast could I go if I really put some effort into it?

About 5 years ago I had the opportunity to meet a well-known runner/running spokesperson.  While talking about PRs and aging, this person stated that I had already run the fastest marathon that I could run.  Older athletes just get slower, this person said.  According to this person, in the trajectory of my running life, I had already passed the apex and was heading straight down.  I recall getting very angry about this proclamation regarding my running future.  No, I wasn’t ready to say my best running days were behind me.

Before I go further, to be fair I should note that this is not just this person’s belief but one that is widely held by many running experts – as we age, we slow down.  I came across one article that stated age 35 is the last age at which most people are able to set a personal record (PR).  After that, we get a bit slower until we hit 60 when our running speed really tanks.  My personal challenge was to prove this notion wrong.  Last year I decided was the year I would do it.

I never bought one of these but it sure was tempting.

I never bought one of these but it sure was tempting.

In 2015 I hired a running coach who gave me a training plan.  I had to report in every day on what I had done.  I didn’t skip the cross training days but I certainly didn’t push myself as hard as I could have.  I didn’t make any changes to my nutrition, although she did bring that up a couple times.  On days when I was depressed about my dogs dying, I would stop at Walgreens and buy a bag of Red Vines licorice, my go-to comfort food.  I’d eat the entire bag before I made it back home.  I put on a few pounds, which didn’t do much to help my speed.  By shear determination, I was able to pull off that sub-5 hour marathon at age 57.  So there, running know-it-alls. I can still get a PR!

Last month I got to thinking about my marathon PR and decided that maybe there was still more that I could do.  I called up my running coach and said I wanted to finish a half marathon in under 2 hours.  We met to talk about where I was, where I wanted to go, and how we were going to get me there.  One thing that she needed me to invest in was a heart rate monitor.  The data from that will enable her to see how efficiently I am training. We also talked about nutrition and strength training.  Those were going to be as important as getting out to run.

In the month before my running coach kicked off my training program, I bought a Garmin Forerunner 235, a nifty watch with a built-in heart rate monitor.  I started using it to get use to the new technology and to start collecting data for her to review when planning my training.  Heart rate monitor: Check!

Nutrition has always been a sore spot with me.  I was raised by parents who treated sugar as if it was one of the basic food groups.  I realized that I couldn’t keep making detours to Walgreens for Red Vines.  I found a nutritionist to help me improve my diet.  She noted that I needed more muscle (my upper body muscles had atrophied from my broken arm) and I needed to change my diet to help create that muscle.  More protein, less sugar, more veggies and fruit.  I haven’t seen the pounds melt away yet but I feel better – not so fatigued.  Nutrition: Check!

My running coach has been creating cross training routines that are a bit more demanding.  I am honestly working harder to make sure that I do them properly.  Then I got a gift.  One of my friends won a 50% off membership at her gym for semi-personal training and she gave it to me.  This gym has done wonderful things for her.  I could only imagine what they could do for me.

This week I met with Justin, the gym’s owner, to go over my physical challenges (right arm that I can’t fully lift, twisted ankle that hasn’t healed, Transverse Myelitis complications) and what I wanted to achieve, specifically strength training to regain functionality in my arm and strength to improve my running.  I thought he might roll his eyes at me but he didn’t.  Justin listened and watched me go through a series of moves to determine my level of fitness.  His assessment matched the things that I already had figured out with my massage therapist and physical therapist.  He defined a program for me to gain the flexibility in my arm as well as in other areas like the hips that tend to be tight in long distance runners.  Better flexibility in those tight areas will also mean less potential for injury.  Justin also is adding in strength training to build up my atrophied muscles.  Strength Training: Double Check!

Despite what all the experts say, I am not ready to throw in the towel.  I can’t accept that I have already seen the best days of my running life.  To be a faster runner I have to do more than just run.  I have to focus on nutrition as well as strength training.  I am committed and I know I have a team of experts in place to help me do it: my running coach, my nutritionist, my strength coach, and my massage therapist. I am going to prove there is more kick left in these legs.

I found this interesting article about aging and running performance.  Check it out.

First Time Marathoners

I have been reading various articles about research done by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor, on the pursuit of happiness.  These articles caught my attention because, after nearly 20 years of research, Dr. Gilovich has come to the same conclusion that I have.  If you want to be happy, buy experiences, not stuff.

Dr. Gilovich has found that we are initially happy when we first buy some material possession but over time, the novelty wears off (or as he puts it, “we adapt” to it).   For example, you certainly are happy when you buy a new car – the fancy features like satellite radio and USB ports for your electronics, and of course, the new car smell.  But then a newer model comes out with better features, the new car smell fades and along with it the happiness from that new car.  It becomes just something you own, convenience to get you where you need to go.

Experiences on the other hand become part of who we are.  Dr. Gilovich explains experiences are a bigger part of who we are than the things we own.   You can recall a funny story about your first trip to Europe or the fear you felt when flying over Glacier National Park in a helicopter.  Our experiences – both good and bad – are what define us.

So what does all this have to do with running?  Well, during my 2015 spring racing season, I met many people who were running their first marathon or half marathon.  They all had the same apprehensive look on their face the night before the race.  They were not sure that they could finish the race.  I told them all the same thing.  Relax and focus on enjoying the moment.  Regardless of how you do in that first race, you will always remember it.  And the feeling that you have when you finish is something that you can’t buy in a store.  You won’t have that same feeling ever again.  It is special and something that you will want to savor.   It is an experience that will shape who you are.

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 9.24.48 PMMy first marathon was the 2007 Country Music Marathon but I remember it as if it was last weekend.  I had no clue what to expect.  I was astonished to see so many runners.  There were over 30,000 people running the race.  At Mile 10, my coach saw me and yelled at me for going out too fast.  I had been running 4 minutes per mile faster than my normal pace.  The race strategy that he had given me the night before went out the window when the starting gun went off.  I had gotten caught up in the excitement of the race – the cheering spectators along the course, the bands playing at each mile, and runners dressed in costumes – and run way too fast.

I paid dearly for failing to follow my race strategy.  In the second half of the course I ran over 6 minutes slower than my normal pace.  My coach saw me again at Mile 25.  He ran with me for the next mile before stopping at Mile 26 to give me a hug and send me off to the finish line.  When I finished, I was in pain but I was extremely happy.  It was a huge accomplishment.  I had become a runner.  Even today I can still see every turn, every water stop, and landmark along the course of my first marathon.  I can’t say that for all the races that I have done since then.

There is something else that is special about my first race.  It is a comment that I have heard other runners make about their first marathon as well.  When I finished my first race, I stopped being afraid to do things.  I had run a marathon – something that I thought was impossible for me to do but I had done it.  There wasn’t anything that could be thrown at me that I couldn’t handle.  I wasn’t invincible but I wasn’t afraid.

So next time you think you need some fancy new gizmo, stop and reconsider whether it will really make you happy.  Take a trip, visit a museum, or better yet sign up to train for a marathon.  You will be creating experiences that will last a lifetime.

Interested in reading more about Dr. Gilovich’s research?  Here is a link to a paper he published with Leaf Van Boven “To Do or To Have? That is the Question”