Tips for first-time marathon runners
If you’ve got your first marathon coming up, here are some tips from someone who’s now done five. They’re not really running or training tips, more logistical things I’ve learned along the way.
Plan your race-day travel
For most big-city marathons, much of the city will come grinding to a halt on the morning of the race, so planning your transport to the start-line is really important. The last thing you want is to be stressed and running late. The details vary from race to race; some will run additional train or metro services or special buses (or even boats in the case of New York), and these are well worth taking advantage of if you can as they are specifically designed to get you there on time and will be full of other runners (I’ve had some really nice chats with other runners on the way to races. We’re a friendly bunch). Going by car might seem like a good idea but very rarely is as roads will be closed around the whole course, you won’t be able to get anywhere near the start-line, and there’s unlikely to be parking. Of course, if you can get a hotel near the start line, that will probably take a lot of the pressure off, and is well worth it.
However, don’t forget about transport the other side. You’re unlikely to want or be able to walk far and it may be hard to get taxis due to road closures and the sheer number of people there. To be honest, given the choice between a hotel near the start and a hotel near the finish, I’d go for the latter. At the start you’ll be getting up early anyway and will be hyped up and can live with a fairly long bus journey or whatever it ends up being. At the end, all you will want is not to ever have to take another step, and to get food and bed as soon as humanly possible.
The easiest races of course are those where the start and finish are fairly close together, such as San Francisco, and you can get a hotel close to both. That is worth its weight in gold.
Make detailed arrangements with spectators
For a busy marathon, don’t underestimate how crowded it will be and how hard it will be to spot your supporters, and potentially for them to spot you. For much of the time they will be looking at a constant stream of people that could be ten or more people deep, and picking you out of the crowd is near-impossible. You picking them out of the hordes of people on either side of the road is equally hard, especially as you’ll be focused on your race. If you want to see your supporters, and it is undeniably nice to be able to do so, it’s worth planning a very specific point at which they will stand. The only race where I’ve successfully seen my supporter(s) was New York when we arranged the exact junction and side of the road my brother would wait. Being able to quickly run up to him and give him a hug was a really nice moment in a generally fantastic race. It was also quite convenient to be able to hand him some warm kit I no longer needed…
Plan your pre-race nutrition
Pre-race nutrition can be really tough when you’ve travelled for a marathon. If you’ve never tried to get a bowl of plain pasta in a restaurant in Paris, you may not appreciate how hard it is. By the same token, the breakfast provided at a lot of hotels may not be what you’re used to, which could cause issues. Or, more likely, breakfast won’t even be available at the ridiculously early time you have to leave. Either way, you may want to have some cereal and long-life milk or something in your room for the morning.
All in all, being away from home and trying to eat exactly what you normally eat is not straightforward, so it’s worth planning ahead. Apartment-style hotels with mini-kitchens can be better than normal hotels, so you can at least make some pasta in the evening and porridge in the morning, but if that’s not an option you can always take something instant that can be made with just hot water from a kettle. Worst case, maybe rice cakes and bananas will do the trick for that last-minute carb boost. It’s all down to personal choice, but the point is to think about it in advance and not be caught out. It’s genuinely incredibly frustrating to be unable to eat the way you want to eat to make you feel comfortable about the race, and it makes me feel more comfortable knowing I have some rice cakes and cereal bars if I want some extra carbs before I go to bed.
Plan your race nutrition, and don’t be like a kid in a candy shop
The same principle comes to race day, but here it can be a question of restraint more than anything. The problem is that, if you have any sense, you’ve worked out what gels and sweets and energy drinks you like while you were training. Then suddenly you get to a race situation where, especially if it’s a big and well-organised race, they’ll be chucking all sorts of food and drinks at you: bananas, pretzels, obscure gels, Gatorade, powerade, lucazade or, worst of all, coca cola (do not drink coca cola at a race unless all else has failed, and once you start drinking it, keep drinking it regularly for the rest of the race or you’ll crash and burn).
Some of this might be great – I love bananas when running and it’s only at races, where there are supporters handing them out, that I’m really able to get them. However, it’s easy to go a bit crazy and eat and drink everything you’re offered in the mistaken belief that it must be there for a reason and it will make you go faster. Well, sometimes the reason it’s there is because it’s sponsoring the race, and sometimes the reason it’s there is because it’s cheap and cheerful and a lot of people like it, but it’s never there specifically because it is definitely exactly the right thing for you to be eating right now.
If you can find out in advance what nutrition will be on offer, and at what mile markers (most well-organised marathons publish this in the race information somewhere) and build it into your nutrition plan so you don’t have to carry as much then great. However, if you’re just going to run along and eat everything you are given, you may well end up in trouble.
Don’t go off too fast
No matter how much you have prepared and how precisely you have mapped out your run, and your exact pace for each mile, and so forth, it is incredibly easy to get swept up in the excitement of the race, the roar of the crowds, the thrill of running in a pack, and the fact you really need the loo after being held in the start enclosure for an hour quaffing water like there’s no tomorrow. All of these things can make you run a lot faster than you really intended to, and it’s easy to justify this to yourself on the basis that you ‘might as well run a bit faster while you feel good and then you’ll slow down later’. Well, it doesn’t usually work like that. The amount you will slow down later will be far more than the amount you will gain early on. The best thing you can do to improve your overall performance is to consciously slow down to your planned pace for the first few miles no matter if it seems ridiculously slow at the moment. Ignore the crowds, ignore the other runners, and run your plan.
Don’t go off too fast
Seriously guys this is really important.
Plan your race-day kit carefully
Figuring out what kit to take along for an organised marathon is quite a different beast to just going for a long run where you will start from and end at your home. It’s not so much the actual running kit, which is much the same as usual, it’s what to wear on the way there. At a marathon you may be first travelling for an hour or more, then waiting around for a couple of hours, then running, then waiting to get out of the finish area, and then travelling home. Most events will let you drop off a bag of kit and pick it up at the end, so you can travel with money, phone, warm clothes etc and then ditch them before the start. However, even then, you’re likely to end up doing your bag drop at least an hour before the race start, so you will need something warm to wear in the start enclosure. New York has a good system whereby any clothes discarded along the start line or in the first few hundred metres are donated to charity, so I stocked up the day before with some very cheap tracksuits and a wooly hat, and happily discarded them either before or very soon after the start as I warmed up.
At many other races you will see people wearing bin bags at the start line, which is just enough to keep the cold at bay, but obviously disposable. Paris Marathon even gave out a branded disposable ‘bin bag’ style top in the pre-race goody bag. Something like that is really worthwhile taking along, and if it was going to be a really cold morning I’d probably be tempted to take a ‘disposable’ jumper even if there was no formal clothing donation system.
It’s also well worth considering if you really have to do bag drop. Sometimes it’s tempting to just do it because it’s offered, and it makes life slightly easier knowing you can travel to the race with more kit than you’ll run in. However you will be very glad afterwards if you don’t have to queue for your luggage and are able to get out to food, family and a soft chair as quickly as possible. After the hell of bag collection at London Marathon, I have taken to generally just running with a credit card and about £20 in local currency tucked into the pocket of my shorts, since at the end of the race that is usually adequate to get me fed and home. That’s fine for most races in the spring or summer though it mightn’t work so well on a very cold day when I’d need warm clothes afterwards. In that case you may have no choice but to do a bag drop, unless you have spectators who can assist you. In fact, New York actively encouraged people not to do bag drop, and the trade-off was a very nice fleecy hooded blanket thingy which was more than enough to keep me warm while I got home.
Enjoy the whole experience
The great big-city Marathons aren’t just about the race itself (though that is usually amazing), it’s about the whole experience. I used to think that having to trek to an expo the day before was a real pain in the neck but now I thoroughly enjoy it, particularly when I’ve travelled somewhere like Paris, New York or San Francisco and it gives me an excuse to go and explore a bit in the day or two before the race. The Expos are big, exciting affairs full of enthusiastic like-minded people, lots of lovely goodies to buy, and often stands advertising all sorts of other races. At San Francisco Marathon there was even the chance to go for a gentle jog with Dean Karnazes the day before.
Likewise, after the event there is often some kind of event, whether it’s music and beers, or a pop-up shop with finishers gear. The New York marathon opens a shop in central park the following day where you can buy all sorts of finishers gear and it’s fun going back, hobbling along slowly, seeing all the people wearing their medals the following day (I don’t go in for that personally, but each to their own) and letting the buzz of being a marathon finisher extend for an extra day. Especially if it’s your first event, you should enjoy every minute of it, both before and after the racing.
Put your name on your shirt, unless for some reason you don’t want a hundred thousand people cheering you on by name
At any well-attended marathon people will cheer you on by name if you have your name on your shirt. It’s a fantastic feeling having total strangers shouting encouragement to you – I honestly can’t express how heart-warming it is, and a big part of my enjoyment of London and New York marathons in particular came from the incredibly warm support from the crowds of people who took time out of their day to come and cheer on people they had never met. Any runner will tell you that is one of the great things about marathons and, if you don’t wear your name on your t shirt you’ll still get cheered on of course but it won’t feel quite so personal. So, yes, do it. Unless you really really don’t want people cheering you on by name, in which case don’t.