By Erin Glabets
Twenty six point two. Almost four years to the day since my first half marathon, I am finally stepping up to tackle the full distance. Only in the last year have I felt like I truly wanted to go after this feat, and after months of hard training, it’s here.
Now that I’m about 72 hours away from the starting line, I thought it made sense to share my thoughts with anyone else contemplating a marathon. I consider these tips for the beginner and the mere mortal (meaning you can’t turn training into a full-time job).
Make a plan, but be flexible and realistic
I signed up for one of the tougher half marathon plans because my PR half marathon pace suggested that time was in the realm of possibilities. Truthfully, I knew that I would not be able to follow any plan 100%, so I preferred to be doing 80% of a harder plan rather than 80% of an easier one. I’m happy I went that route.
My training schedule this summer also required a fair bit of planning, because I knew I’d have a ton of mandatory travel for weddings in other states. I looked ahead and made sure to move the 20 mile run scheduled for the weekend I was in Seattle to a weekend where I would actually be home. Running 20 miles is already daunting, and I knew running it in a strange city the weekend of a friend’s wedding would be entirely unreasonable. In fact, even though a long run may only take three hours (only—ha!), you have to think of it as a whole day because you will be anxious leading up to it and tired after.
If I was traveling for a whole weekend, I did my very best to get in a good speed work run and long run before leaving, and considered it a bonus if I could sneak in the easy runs on top of that.
Also, remember four months is a long time and many things will come up that you can’t control. I got sick three different occasions in that time span (a head cold so bad I couldn’t leave my bed for two days, a stomach bug where I could eat nothing but white rice and bananas for a week, and a cough that lingered for three weeks). If you aren’t willing to rest and accept those things are out of your control, you will go nuts and also probably hurt yourself (see the next section).
Don’t beat yourself up when you mess up
I also built in a few extra weeks as slacker weeks, because as my friend Phil says, some weeks you just won’t want to run. One week last month was just that. I came back from Seattle jet lagged and exhausted, and wanted to spend time with my husband when it felt like I hadn’t seen him in weeks. At the end of the week, I realized I hadn’t run once and mentally beat myself up a ton. I hated that I destroyed my precious high weekly mileage tally and I was convinced I was losing more fitness by the minute.
After spending too much time on this, I let up on myself. I focused on the conventional wisdom that rest can be good, and no one one run (or week of runs) will have that huge of an impact on your fitness. I looked at the big picture, and the fact that I have basically been training for long distances since January, with the exception of a few weeks’ break after my half marathon in May.
I also acknowledged that rest is a much better alternative to over training. This may sound like a cop out, but I haven’t gotten hurt once in training, and runners who are doing a high load every single week might not be able to say the same thing. That’s just my perspective.
Set the right goals
Many people say you shouldn’t set a time goal for your first marathon, but that just doesn’t fit with my personality. I’ve been running for four years and I’ve seen my times increase as I’ve put more work in the last year, so I wanted to have something to strive for other than finishing.
That being said, I think having modest goals and being flexible is key. That’s why I love Jeff Gaudette’s advice of setting a good, great, and awesome goal. The good one is one you can reach no matter what, like committing to starting slower. The great one is a modest time goal, and the awesome one is a time goal that would occur if all factors came together perfectly.
I have set all of my good, great, and awesome goals, and I plan to celebrate no matter which one I hit.
Run YOUR race
Marathoners talk about taper madness, and I thought I’d be so excited to be done with the high mileage that I’d love the taper.
But during my taper madness, I started doing WAY too much research about what running a marathon would actually FEEL like. Bad idea. The wall, fatigue cramps, and other post-20-mile nightmares were the only things I could focus on when I read those articles.
Also, when people hear you are running a marathon, everyone wants to tell you about their must have pre-race meal, recovery strategy, race fuel—you name it. That’s great, but you need to truly test out what works for you, and that’s what those four months of training were for. Tune out the rest because it will psyche you up too much.
You know what finally helped me get out of that state of awful self doubt? Reflecting on MY running history. In the past year, I’ve gotten faster. I’ve refined my ability to start slow and finish hard. I looked at my splits for my PR half marathon, and saw that my last two miles of the race were my fastest. I understand what an my goal pace feels like without even having to listen to RunKeeper audio cues. All of that is way more important than the fact that some of my friends have felt all sorts of pain in those last 6 miles and that most people want to die then. No amount of negative thinking on my part is going to help me avoid race pain, in fact, it will probably get me there sooner. I’d rather focus my mind around my positive running history than all of the worst possible outcomes.
These may not be the most conventional tips or marathon racing perspective, but they are mine—for someone who couldn’t turn marathon training into a part time job, who still wanted to see friends and family and go to social outings, who was OK with resting more when the going got tough. I’ll be a far cry from the most elite finishers, but I’m proud of the hard work I put in and am excited for whatever awaits me at that finish line.