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?

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.

My Critical Running Gear

Most runners will tell you that their most important running gear is their running shoes.  Runners can get crazy when it comes to their shoes.  A Road Runner Sports sales clerk once told me when a shoe model is being retired by a shoe manufacturer, people who love that shoe will buy every pair in their size that they can find.  It is not unheard of for a customer to buy the last 10 pairs of their favorite shoe if it is being discontinued.  Seems a bit obsessive compulsive to me.  I think the most pairs of shoes that I ever stockpiled was 2 pairs.

My yellow scarf

My yellow scarf

Besides my shoes, the most critical piece of running gear for me is a yellow scarf.   I got the scarf from my friend Marnie.  In 2007 I ran my first marathon with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Team in Training to show support for Marnie when she was going through chemo for lymphoma.  I asked her to give me something of hers to carry with me during the race.  I was running for her and I wanted to have her along for the ride.  Marnie gave me one of the bandanas that she wore during her chemo.  She wore her “do-rags” instead of a wig.  I tied it to my fuel belt and carried it the whole race.  Since then, that scarf has gone with me on most training runs and to the start line of every race I’ve run except one (I forgot to pack it).  It makes me think of her and why I started running in the first place.

When I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis in 2011, I knew I had to control my core body temperature when I ran in the heat.  Heat makes my TM symptoms flare up.  For runs in hot weather I wrap ice cubes in the scarf and put it in the freezer the night before.  The scarf is nice and cold when I head out – perfect for keeping me cool.

A couple years ago I completed the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.  I ran a lot of trails during my training.  During one of my trail runs, I realized I had dropped my scarf.  I panicked.  I turned back to go find it.  That scarf had become very important to me.  I couldn’t imagine running in the heat of the Grand Canyon without it.  I was relieved when two miles back I saw a yellow spot on the trail.  My scarf.  I was so happy to be reunited with it.

I had my scarf with me in Berlin for the marathon.  I filled it with ice and popped it into a ziplock bag before I left the hotel.  It was crazy in the runners village and gear check areas – huge crowds and lots of noise.  When I found the drop off for my gear bag, I was juggling a bunch of things – my hat, my fuel belt, my gear bag, the ziplock with my scarf, my sunglasses.   I still debating whether to wear a singlet in the race or change into the short sleeve shirt I had in my bag.  I finally settled on the singlet.   It was chilly so I was wearing a plastic trash bag as a long skirt to keep my legs warm.  At the bag check, I took off my jacket, stuffed it into my bag then checked it.  I tossed my “plastic skirt” in a trash bin then headed off to my corral.

At the control point for the corral, I realized that I didn’t have the ziplock bag with my yellow scarf.  My heart sank.  I couldn’t believe that I’d have to run the race without my scarf.   Throughout the race, I hoped that the scarf had accidentally been dropped into my gear bag when I took off my jacket, that it would be waiting, a soggy mess, in the bottom of my gear bag.

When I reclaimed my bag, I tore it open, looking for my scarf.  But it was gone.  The first thing I told my husband when we met back at the hotel after the race was that I had lost my scarf.  He knew immediately what that scarf meant to me.  Losing it cast a shadow over my joy of a new PR.

I think that my yellow scarf had come to represent my confidence in running.  Maybe I had some sub-conscious idea that, without it, I couldn’t do well – like Samson without his hair.  It gave me strength.  It was a connection to Marnie and why I started running in the first place.   The scarf was something that helped Marnie through her chemo and it had become something important in keeping me running.  And running is keeping me healthy.

I am trying to decide what I will do now to keep cool when I run.  I can’t get another scarf from Marnie.  She got rid of her old “do-rags” when she moved last year.  Maybe I will keep using my homemade tube-sock arm warmers.  Whatever I come up with, it won’t have the same connection to Marnie.  That yellow scarf was special.

Birth of a Funatical Runner, Part 2 – My First Marathon

While the seeds of my running career may have been planted in 1984 after the Summer Olympics, it took 22 years for anything to start sprouting from them. During that time, I occasionally would watch a marathon on television. I remember seeing Grete Waitz, the phenomenal women’s marathoner from Norway, win the New York City Marathon in the mid-80s. She made running look so effortless.

Despite the inspiration of Grete and Joan Benoit, I never jumped into the running craze. Then my friend, Marnie, told me she was diagnosed with an incurable form of lymphoma. I watched her life change from what she expected to something very different. I wanted to help her but there was little I could do. In 2006 I received a flyer in the mail from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society about their Team in Training (TNT) program. I knew this was the best way to show support for the battle that Marnie was fighting. When I told Marnie that I was going to run a marathon for her, she was flattered but insisted that it would be sufficient if I just gave them some money and left the running part out. It would have been much easier to write a check and stop there but I knew so many people who loved Marnie like I did and would be willing to contribute.

I remember going to the recruitment meeting and listening to the coaches talk about the TNT program. I still wasn’t sure that I could run 26.2 miles – walk maybe, but running? I was all set to be a walker then I talked to Rebecca, one of the running mentors. Rebecca guaranteed me that I could do this. She explained that I could use the run/walk method – where you run for so many minutes and then walk for one. Something about her convinced me to run. I figured if it got too bad, I could always switch to the walk team. I signed up to run the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, TN.

Our kick off was in November but our first group training run was not scheduled until mid-December. I decided to get a head start on training and started running on Thanksgiving Day. My goal that day was only two miles. I started out running two minutes and walking for one. My husband came along with me on his bike, coaching me just like Burgess Meredith, Sylvester Stallone’s trainer in the movie “Rocky” minus the cigar. I was stunned by how difficult running was. I couldn’t even run for one minute! As I struggled up a hill, my husband kept yelling “You can do it, Rocky!” I was out of breath and barely completed my first two mile run. This was a real eye opener on how out of shape I was and how much training I had ahead of me. Because I did not want to end up dead like the first marathon runner, I got serious about my training.

I ran up and down the street in front of our house. I wanted to be close to home if I got injured, had to go to the bathroom, or got too tired to finish. One of the neighbors had watched me and asked if I got bored going back and forth on the same quarter mile stretch of road (no, I didn’t). I remember running with my eyes closed. I am not sure why I did that. Perhaps I went so slow that closing my eyes prevented me from seeing how little distance I had covered (or maybe I was multitasking and taking a nap). Fortunately for me, the street is straight with no parked cars to run into.

On New Year’s Eve, I entered a 5K with my friend, Steph, a natural athlete who had been running for years. She gave me great advice – double knot my shoe laces so they didn’t come untied as I ran. My husband came to cheer me on. He took a photo of Steph and me as we crossed the finish line. Steph had a big smile on her face and looked like she could run for hours; me, I looked like I had been beaten up and left for dead.

I found a video of the race course on the Country Music Marathon race web site. I watched it several times. Instead of calming my fears, it made me more apprehensive. I decided that the best way to prepare for the marathon was to treat the course like it was my enemy. I needed to know everything about my enemy to beat it. I printed off the course map and after each long run, I would highlight the distance that we had covered. I could see that I was going to be able to run this race. I finished each training run visualizing crossing the finish line.

Race weekend was full of new experiences and sights. At the start area, they had more port-a-potties than I had ever seen in my life. John Bingham, the speaker at the pasta dinner the night before the race, had told us to get in line for the port-a-potties as soon as we got off the bus, and when we were finished, get back in line. Great advice for nervous runners!

There were lots of first time marathoners in my corral at the start. We all had the same look on our faces – what have we gotten ourselves into? When the race started, it reminded me of the scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy is in the house up in the tornado, watching all the different characters go by. I was in the middle of this cyclone of runners of all shapes and sizes, including a woman wearing a running blade prosthesis and others in costumes. It was almost surreal.

Since this was my first race, I didn’t know how races worked. I was surprised by the number of runners littering – cups at water stops, wrappers from nutrition bars, etc. I had a wrapper from my Sport Beans that I had been carrying for a couple miles. I didn’t want to throw it down on the ground as other runners were doing. Instead I handed it to a spectator who called out my name (it was on my shirt). They probably dropped it on the ground after I went by. I saw runners (mostly guys) heading off into the bushes whether there were port-a-potties or not. Nobody seemed alarmed by this.

My worst mistake was that I went out way too fast. In training, I typically ran about a 12-minute per mile pace. Well, the first half of the marathon, I got caught up in the excitement and ran about 8 minutes per mile. I paid for it the second half when I bonked; I ran the second half about 18 minutes per mile.

The last three miles of the race were particularly tough but I finished. I remember how everything from my waist down hurt but I was happier than I had ever been. I was no longer a spectator; I was part of the action. I was a runner.

All the finishers received a medal, no matter how long it took them to finish the race. I complained to my husband that they did not give me a laurel wreath to wear like Grete at the end of the NYC Marathon. He fixed that – he met me at the airport with my own laurel wreath!

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

Completing the marathon convinced me to sign up to run a half marathon four months later. I enjoyed the half marathon as much as the full marathon, although I was not in nearly as much pain afterwards.

A couple weeks after I completed the half marathon, I told my husband I wanted to run five full marathons and 10 half marathons before I turned 55, a little over five years away. He knew when I set a goal for myself, I would put all my effort into it. There was plenty of time to do them. It would be a piece of cake. Or so I thought.