A letter to first time marathoners...

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..

UPDATE: check out this posting on marathons and the long run


  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. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 down..in 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 13 26 marathons 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. Do at least 2 x 20 milers if you are strong enough and not too tired from your training. 3x20 is ever better.
  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 STRONG...you'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) pace..you 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. Hills. If there are a lot of hills in your first marathon respect them. Make sure you train on hills if you can to build leg strength. (if you can).
  10. 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.
  11. 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). 
  12. If you've had any muscle pulls or tears in your training, make sure they are at least 5-6 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.
  13. 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. 
  14. Why am I harping on pacing? Because people DON'T SEEM TO LISTEN and I hate seeing people having a bad time!
  15. 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.
  16. [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 mind..you 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?