There will never be enough advice in the world to prepare you for what is coming. Running your first marathon is an adventure in the truest sense of the word. It is both exhilarating and exhausting beyond your wildest imagination. Lots of people will have tons of advice, but I would like to focus mine around one basic idea:
Do all of your experimenting in training.
There should be exactly one thing that is different on marathon day: the distance. Beyond that, every little thing you do during your first marathon should be something that you have done many times before. Anything that you do, wear, eat, or drink for the first time on marathon day can ruin your race and possibly hurt you. 26.2 miles is a very long way. I know that you are aware of this, but you need to think about what that means. If you make a mistake, you may have to live with while running for the next 3 to 7 hours!
Now that I have scared you enough, let’s begin our talk about experimenting! If you do all of your experimenting ahead of time, then you have little to worry about. On marathon day, you can simply go out and do what you did in practice. No big deal, just a little farther than usual.
You do not need to run a marathon in order to train for one. It is smart, however, to run 20 miles at least two different times during your training. It will take many weeks of training to build up to that distance slowly and carefully. The last 20 mile run should be about 3 weeks before the race. That will give your legs plenty of time to recover. Thankfully, at the end of that three weeks the rest of your body will still remember your 20 mile runs and the lessons about efficiency that it learned during them.
Clothing & Shoes
What works for a 5K or even a 10K may not work in a marathon. Make sure that as you are gradually building up mileage, that you are paying attention to what you are wearing. You are not just training, you are road-testing different outfits and shoes to see which are the best for the really long runs. Clothes that give you mild chaffing on a 13 mile run will cause bleeding on a 20. Lots of marathoners cross their first finish line with blood stained shirts and/or shoes.
In addition to good clothing, it is smart to get some extra help against chaffing. Body Glide and other products exist to protect parts that seem to chafe no matter what you do. There are other things like nipple guards, although a band-aid often works just as well. With all of these clothing-related issues, practice and routine is the key. If you find what works in your longest training runs, you are much more likely to avoid this dilemma during the marathon.
Food & Drink
Most of us have no interest in going 3-7 hours without a snack and something to drink. Now figure in the calories burned running and liquid lost sweating. Thankfully, you do not need to consume as many calories as you burn. You do, however, need to prepare to consume anywhere from 400 to 1,000 calories on the run. It varies by your weight, conditioning, and how much time you will take. Here again, you must experiment on your long runs. Most runners consume packets of energy gel or some gummy equivalent. Go to a running store and ask what choices they have. Try several early in your training program. Make sure you find the one that best suits you before your 20-milers. You will want to practice that one source of fuel for all of your long runs in the last 6 to 8 weeks of your training program.
Always start fueling early in the race, specifically before you have gone two miles! If you don’t start by then, you are very likely to have low blood sugar late in the race.
Drinks are even more critical! Dehydration can be a huge problem with rookie marathoners. The current wisdom being shared by running experts is “drink to thirst.” That means drink when you are thirsty and not when you are not. Personally, I have to drink a little more than that to be okay. Guess how I found that out? Through experimenting, of course.
On the marathon course, plenty of water and sports drinks will be available. On your training runs, however, you will need to think carefully about how to get your drinks! Will you carry enough drink to last you 20 miles? Not me. I carry enough for ten miles and make sure my running route circles back so I can get refills for the next 10 miles.
Electrolytes are the minerals that keep your nervous system and your muscles running. You lose electrolytes through sweat. You sweat a lot in a marathon. I know that I have run out of electrolytes when my muscle start threatening to twitch. The next stage is full cramping. It often starts in the hamstrings, but can begin anywhere.
While sports drinks offer some electrolytes, many runners find that they run out of electrolytes on a long run. There are electrolytes in some energy gels, but I have to supplement beyond that. I live in Knoxville, and I have to take electrolyte supplements throughout the sweating season (April through October). It IS possible to get too many electrolytes, so find a source and use them sparingly. Figure out how much you need through experimenting.
Routine, Routine, Routine
Routine is important. Warm up for a marathon like you warm up for anything else. Do your stretches and any other part of your running routine the same on marathon day as any other day. Drink what & how you drank in training. Wear what you wore in training.
On marathon day, you will still be human. Plan your potty break before the race, but also be prepared to go during the race. No body should have to go four, five, or even eight hours without a bathroom break. There are bathrooms along the route, I promise.
Going the Distance
You may need to walk. You may have gone out too fast, you may just be legitimately tired. It is okay to walk part of the way. Walking will not exclude you from the rank of marathoner. In fact, there is at least one major marathon expert that touts walking as an important part of his marathon racing strategy. Personally, I walk through the aid stations. The Powerade goes down much more smoothly. :)
The first twenty miles should be just like in practice. The last 6.2 miles are tough, but you can do this. If you have taken care of all of the above details, then you can do this last 6.2 miles. There is no question about it. You will be pushing longer, but you have been replenishing your supplies of energy, liquid, and electrolytes. It works the same as the previous 20 miles. Just put one foot in front of the other. Do not think about how far you have to go or how far you have gone. Instead, remember your training runs. Remember how you pushed yourself to go just a little farther each week. You know what it is like to challenge yourself and succeed. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and the finish line will find you.
You can do this. Experiment, practice, and follow your routine all the way to the finish line.
“Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!” — P. Mark Taylor
Check out these books by P. Mark Taylor for more advice on running:
The Gift of Running: A Book for Runners & Future Runners
Wise Running: Thoughts on Running and Life