Saturday, February 19, 2011

A letter to first time marathoners...

It's raining today but I managed a 10 mile run without getting too wet. I don't often have to run long in the rain and when I did today I was reminded of something I wanted to share: some thoughts on first time marathons.


Dear marathon virgin,

Once upon a time on the rainy night of March 1st, 2009, I was trying to sleep before my first marathon from Callistoga to Napa, California. 

I was worried about the blustery winds and intermittent pounding rain I could hear outside my hotel window.

As it turned out the threat of bad weather was a lucky thing. The rain was light by the morning and the winds were not as bad as during the middle of the night. 

But what the crappy weather did do is scare me and cause me to blow off my aggressive pacing fantasies ideas and run a conservative (for me) 10m/m pace (Hal's advice: 5x my then 10k pace).

don't have a bad race
I had a wonderful race that day finishing in 4:25 with fairly even splits. That bit of bad weather steered me to Hal's advice  and served me well. Thank you Hal Higdon!

How can you maximize your enjoyment of your race day? Here are some of my thoughts..

  1. Don't train for a marathon until you lose as much excess weight as possible. You'll avoid injury and have a much better chance of enjoying your race. And you'll feel like a million bucks to boot!
  2. Perhaps try this simple experiment: Borrow a weight belt from a scuba diver friend or fill up a backpack with gallon jugs of water (8.3 lbs each) and add as much weight as you think you need to lose. Walk some hills with it for a while.Then take it off and trot will be tired but feel really LIGHT. Now, realize that you STILL HAVE that amount again to shuck, so imagine taking off another pack like the one you just did!...when you diet try to remember how dropping that loaded pack felt.
  3. One good thing about being heavy: your tendons/ligaments/connective tissue are already somewhat toughened up from lugging around too much weight. As you lose the weight you can pick up the pace and not break.
  4. Run/walk for at least one year consistently, ideally ending up at 15-25 miles/week. This running can be used for the weight loss. Your heart, lungs and muscles will improve rapidly but it takes a full year to strengthen the connective tissues. Don't be in a hurry to go fast and don't be in a hurry to run a marathon..they are TOUGH.
  5. Do shorter races first. Try some 5 and10ks to start, then make very sure you try a half marathon or better yet two. Going from zero to marathon is not a good idea....did I mention that marathons are TOUGH? Think 4X harder than a half marathon, 10X harder than a 10k.
  6. If you have problems with cramping during long or fast runs you are asking too much from your muscles. If you are very overweight you need to see #1, else you need to do some intervals/hills/strength training to build extra muscle, or both.
Pacing: some thoughts...
  1. If you haven't tasted the "wall", you can't imagine what it feels like. Continuing to run will be the most difficult thing you've ever done in your life. Pacing errors at shorter distances just cause you to slow the marathon they make you hurt...a lot.
  2. Even experienced (50-100 marathons) runners say they are never completely sure what is going to happen. From my puny experience (7 races so far) I still have a lot to learn. 
  3. Think of mile 20 (32km) as the halfway point. (In terms of perceived effort, I assure you it is.) So, if you're all proud of yourself for running those 20 mile long runs fast and hard, realize that you still haven't explored terra incognita.  You may be immune to fading/bonking/"The Wall"/cramps/nausea/??? ..or you may not. You don't get to know for sure. I've seen plenty of strapping young 20-30 somethings walking/limping/ralfing in the last 10k of the marathon. Running fast increases the likelihood you will discover a weakness...everything gets exponentially worse with speed.
  4. If your 20 mile long runs are always difficult at the end you are running them too fast. The most common beginner mistake is running long runs too fast at the beginning of training.
  5. At the end of your training you should be able to run 10 miles at your target pace the day before your last 20 miler, and then you should be able to run your 20 miler at your MP + 20-30 sec/mile. If you can't do those back to back runs the danger of hitting the wall at that pace is very high.
  6. Find some online marathon race results that show mid-race splits (even better some 20 mile splits). Look up your age group/sex and scroll through and see how many runners screwed up their pacing. For example you may see somebody that cruised through the half marathon point in 1:50 and then finished in 4:20. A properly paced 1:50 half should result in a ~3:45 finish. Something very very bad happened to add on so much extra time..and it probably meant there was a lot of walking in a not-fun state of mind.
  7. On race day, you will be fully tapered and feel REALLY'll say "today is my day!". You will also probably be swept along with the pack..and the pack always starts too damn fast. RESIST THE URGE TO RUN SOMEBODY ELSE's pace. Keep to your previously worked out (cautious) can always speed up later! I recommend a gradual opening of the throttle after the half (even better after 16 miles) if you feel really great at that point (you probably won't).
  8. To put the pacing conundrum yet another way: to shave 10 minutes off your time, you risk potential slowdowns of 20, 30 minutes or more. And during these minutes you will be hurting. A lot.
  9. The Jeff Galloway race/walk method is a great way to do marathons. (Virtually all ultra marathoners use a running/walking mix). But, you still need a realistic pace or you will be reduced to lot of tough walking at the end.
  10. Some fade is normal (due to loss of running economy).  Depending on the runner you might accrue 3-6 minutes extra in the last ~6 miles. More than that and you are not running a smart race and losing too much time (and suffering for no damn good reason other than your own sillyness).
  11. If you've had any muscle pulls or tears in your training, make sure they are at least 3-4 weeks in the past. Any partially healed tissue will probably fail during the stress of race...especially if you go out too fast. Marathons will find your problems and magnify them.
  12. Don't forget that GPS watches have noise.. the pace on your watch will be faster than what you are really running. Also, if you don't run the course tangents, you will be running farther than 26.2. In a recent trail marathon my Garmin said I ran 27 miles. So your training paces will translate into a slower actual (pace-band) pace. 
  13. Why am I harping on pacing? Because people DON'T SEEM TO LISTEN and I hate seeing people having a bad time!
  14. When you run your second marathon you'll be much the wiser, you'll train better, pace better, hydrate and fuel better and can crack open the throttle more and get yourself a big solid shiny new PR. So, don't be in such a rush to go your fastest in your very first race! ITS JUST STUPID.
  15. [added] Oh, and one more thing. Many beginners say "I'm not training for a pace, I just want to finish". This is mostly rubbish. You and I know darn well you have a pace in are just keeping it a secret. You *have* to have a pace in mind because you go out and run those 20 mile runs at some pace. So be up front that you have a target pace and see #5 before you think your 20mile pace is that pace.

you may not look this good after a marathon, but
we want you to feel this good!
To conclude: RUN A SMART RACE, pick a REALISTIC PACE, have a fun day, and race lots more marathons!



There. I've said it. I'll stop now. Was I clear?

So, marathoners, what did I leave out?  What are your observations?


  1. Good write - up, Paul! Will use it as a bible when I train for my 2nd Full Marathon. Will soon be training at my home base.

  2. Thanks for the post Paul. I've got the pre-requisites covered, even bombed in a marathon to know how not to do it. Practising No. 7 of the pacing to do my next one. Thanks for the reminders.

  3. Such great advice Paul. Pacing, pacing, pacing--can't be emphasized enough!

  4. Good advice!!! Pacing - my biggest problem. I have been slowly working my pace on my long run down to what it needs to be. Personally though, I think #1 needs to be have fun(from someone that has yet to run his first) I need my mind in the fun stage. I to have a time in mind but thinking today, I think my time should be slower than I was originally thinking. I ran a fast half(1:45:55) in a very hilly race but feel that my 4 hour target is too fast of pace target so I'm going to put that back to 4:25 and just hope for the best.

  5. @arthur: Glad your going to be back soon!

    @staci: re:#7..just keep telling yourself you'll see all the folks that run past you at the start mile 23! (or at least a bunch of them).

    @misszippy1: Thanks. There's actually not any really good stuff about this on the least nothing as strongly worded as my posting 8)


    Having fun is what it's all about..yup!

    That's a good fast half!

    Eventually you should be able to do a very very sub-4 time...but
    I'm happy you are being conservative to start. (Plus you get to have more PRs this way 8)
    4:25 should be a walk in the park..if it shapes up that way you can do negative splits which have
    a certain panache to them.

    "Oh yes, I felt so good at mile 16 that I sped up and did negative splits on my first marathon"...

    Way more fun 8)

  6. I like Hal HIgdon too! Yes cold today was much better than hot would have been!

  7. Thanks Paul! This is fantastic stuff!!

    I do actually have a kind of pace idea now after running some half marathons.

    I'm going to start the marathon running with the 6:00 or 6:10 pace group (kilometres remember) as I can run a half at 5:40ish pace. Then if (and only if) I am feeling ok I will begin slowly to speed up after the first 30k.
    Is that a good plan?

    I like the idea of starting much slower than I'm used to and then overtaking people later on :-)

  8. @lynne:

    Ok, lets see. You are adding 30s per km for your MP from your HMP. That would be adding about 48 sec per mile.

    (Sorry, we are still 'inching' toward the metric system here ;)

    I ran a half at 8:30 m/m, but my marathon pace was still about 9:43 m/m at that time. My best is 9:24 m/m. So even after 4 marathons I've not gotten the spread as close as you are shooting for

    The race calculators say I should be able to run a marathon in 3:50-3:55 based on my half time.....the marathon is very different from all shorter races.

    So, no, I still think your pace is too fast. You are younger which does help but..... as I mentioned I've seen lots of young zombies out there too....eeerk.

    I would use rule #5 as your guide. If you can really do those two runs at the paces you are talking about, then go for guarantees but you have a shot.

    If you can't make those back to back runs happen ....your still too fast.

  9. And there was I thinking 6:10 was slow!!

    Have to go even slooowwer....Maybe I should just start with the last pace group and take it from there :-)

  10. There are plenty of people that go slower than a 4:20 marathon!

    Look at Yolanda Holder..she does 6:30 marathons (she walks them....she did 106 in one year!)

    But, you don't have to slow down...see how well you can do the back to back 16km/32km runs.
    If you finish the 32km one and feel like you could go another 10k but it might be tough... You are probably ok (the taper and race day excitement will pull you though as long as you stick to this pace carefully!)

    Another confidence builder: if you can run 32km, running the first 12k @ 6:10, next 10k @ 6:00, last 10k @ 5:50, that is also a good sign.


Feel free to leave a comment!