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26.2 lessons I learned from my first marathon
South Park Blue Suit
Finished my first marathon yesterday - the moderately challenging, and hilly Pittsburgh course with a time I didn't think I'd ever be able to achieve. Although I'm in no way a running guru/expert/elite coach/etc.. I figure I'd share some lessons I learned in the process of training for it and running it that made it an awesome experience. Many were gleaned from friends who had infinitely more experience than me, articles & talks from online gurus, and some were just self-discoveries that I'm sure won't be universally applicable. Regardless (in perceived order of importance)...

  1. Find a buddy you can connect (and talk) with throughout the race (and your training). The first 18 miles flew by when running and occasionally chatting with a friend. If you are super-lucky, you may have an experienced elite/fast marathoner friend who didn't feel like they trained enough, or needs a long run training run, and is willing to pace/coach-you during the race (huge thank-you to Charlie!).

  2. To run faster, (for the most part) don't run fast, run more

  3. Training plans seemed to work well when I stuck with them, but made an occasional change or two when my body & the weather didn't cooperate (in my case, I completed the Hal Higdon's Novice 2 half, then switched over to the Hal Higdon Novice 1 full plan - occasionally altering days of week, or skipping 1-2 runs overall)

  4. Run for a reason/as a fundraiser, it provides emotional support, helps you reconnect with friends, and provides in-race motivation. As an aside, a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to ALS for my race in honor of Loose Jim. Running through Jim's old neighborhood at mile 20, with a poker chip he gave me in my pocket definitely helped me power through the last 6 miles.

  5. Running is a great way to lose weight. For me, 1lb/week came off during my 25 weeks of half/full prep - getting my BMI under 30, and down to an OK (but still heavy) weight that didn't make my knees too sore.

  6. HR monitor/GPS combos are uber-awesome - not only will they keep you motivated in your run, but you'll get objective feedback that your training is letting you run faster with less effort. Social tools like garmin connect & map-my-run work really well when fed with GPS watches or at least smartphones (if you can find the right armband).

  7. HR pacing works - it'll let you stay on the brink of anaerobic mode for long periods and not over-exert due to adrenaline/runners' highs. With solid training, I ran the race at 87% of my HR max/81% of my HR range, starting about 5BPM below it, and finishing 5BPM above it, while maintaining a super-narrow pace through all 26.2 (only slowing by 2% for my last 10k).

  8. From your training, if you are monitoring your heart rates, paces, weight, weather, and anaerobic threshold, you can probably deduce what speed/pace your body will let you run the race at. (via a wide assortment of online calculators and tools). Picking a faster/challenge target that ignores all of your recent training run history is a sure recipe for starting fast, and fading at the end. One guru mentioned that every 10 seconds of over-pacing at the start translates to 30 seconds of slower running in the 2nd half.

  9. If you feed off crowd energy, pick a bigger race with lots of bands and crowd support (Pittsburgh was awesome with about 70 on the course).

  10. Too much gatorade makes you nauseous, using water + other carb/sodium sources is better. For my 26.2, 1200 calories of goo, gatorade gels, and caffeinated jelly belly beans were the right mix for me, as only 2 of my 13 water stops involved gatorade

  11. For fluids, don't consume much more than 2-4oz per mile and dunk yourself with extra water to cool yourself off

  12. When running, don't eat too fast, or think about talking while eating harder foods. My only related race injury was a badly bitten tongue due to a caffeinated jelly bean mishap at mile 19. I'll switch to 100% gels and gu next time.

  13. Pace groups are awesome, custom pace buddies can work even better - just do your homework on what you can realistically handle before picking one, and don't be afraid to drop back if you don't think you can keep up with your original target.

  14. As you are approaching the end of your marathon, pick a target person up ahead, and reel them in, then find another target. Just avoid run-walkers as they make bad targets.

  15. If you haven't done much road running (vs. sidewalks/trails), stick to the center of the road, as the slopes can do a number on your ankles (or at least alternate sides of the road if you feel one ankle is getting sore)

  16. Running is almost like a video game, where pacing mistakes kill your energy bar too fast, while high fives and awesome band songs are like power-ups

  17. Although hill training is not a typical novice activity, do some hill training if your course has big ones (as mine had a big drop at mile 20) - your legs will thank you during and after the race

  18. Be sure to test food & gear you plan on using well before the race, and on shorter runs if wearing/eating for the first time. In my case, my 20 mile run was not the best time to test out short-shorts (but on the plus side, the resulting research on chafing pointed me to the wonders of body-glide).

  19. If you are running in cooler weather, but the corrals are tightly packed, you may not need to bring extra clothes to discard at the start if you can get to the corrals quickly (as the body heat from fellow runners can be pretty substantial)

  20. If you are lucky enough to run at a speed that is at the slower end of your race corral group (and you are running in a bigger race), just hang out at the back and walk slowly to the start as most runners will start out too fast, and you won't be knocked around as they pass you. You'll have plenty of time between your corral's gun and the start of the next corral wave, giving you plenty of space early on.

  21. It took me about a year and a half of training & proper diet to adequately progress from a 5k to a marathon. My specific progression was couch-to-5k, 10 mile race training plan, half marathon training plan, then training for and racing the full. I think that was just about right, if not a bit short.

  22. Racers not only feed off of crowd energy, but they can feed off of energy from other racers... don't hesitate to share some of your extra energy (via high fives, air high-fives, words of encouragement, occasional whoops, etc..)

  23. The finish line is not the right place to ask fellow runners/friends to commit to run the same race again next year, wait at least a week or two before suggesting another marathon.

  24. If you decide to run/walk, do so along the side of the course, or make your way to the side before switching modes early in a race. There is nothing worse than having a run/walker decide to instantly switch into walk mode when they are 2 feet in front of you.

  25. Don't worry about passing in tight spaces. With 26 miles of course to separate runners, it is ok to conserve a touch of energy by waiting for the right opening, and using the energy later in the race vs. wasting it on big lateral moves or surges to get through openings.

  26. The last 6 miles will hurt like a mofo, but running those last 6 miles with a pace buddy/group (even friends you made during the race), and staying connected by saying a word or two of encouragement to each other during those brutal brutal miles helps time pass much faster. In fact, if you are looking to cheer a race, you will be most appreciated along miles 23-25 (as everyone likes to see the finish).

And for the last .2 - two very important words (requiring no explanation): Nip guards.

Some of the sources I can recall:
8/10/11/20/24 - J. Galloway's pre race talk at the expo (I don't run-walk, but figure I'd check it out)
2 - M. Crawford
10 - C. Garrod
17 - Gleaned from Hal Higdon's Boston plan, and a stern warning not to train in flat Florida for the Pittsburgh marathon by my Ex-Girlfriend