Nearly 30 (!) years ago, I ran my first marathon in New York City; when I run it again on November 4, it’ll be my 53rd-ish.
26.2 miles is a long way to run; 26.2 tips is a lot to read. So let's cut right to the chase!
Not exactly in order, 26 tips, truths, and thoughts about the marathon.
*1 Is this your first?
Coaches and other experts will tell you not to focus on a particular finish time. Just ENJOY the experience. You might well ask, Wait, does anyone really ENJOY running 26.2 miles? And I might say, NO! I mean, yes yes yes yes YES!
*2 Do you have a time goal?
Actually, it’s good to have three! Acceptable (just finish), good, and deliriously fast (or personal record). Whatever you do, start slow, 15-30 seconds per mile slower than your target is not unreasonable. Your Best Race Ever is running the first half slower than the second half, a k a “negative splits.”
*3 How’s the weather?
If the weather gods have blessed you with that rare ideal overcast day of 45 degrees, low humidity and no wind, say your thanks and get ready to run the best race that your training, fitness and health have prepared you for. <<< You see what I did there? A perfect weather day can’t save you if you didn’t get in your long runs or you’ve been up every night for the past week dealing with your 3-year-old’s nasty stomach flu. Be glorious, yes, but also realistic.
*4 Is it warm?
For marathoners, anything above 45 degrees is “warm.” Temps above 55 will slow your pace per mile, and every degree above that slows you more. This is not just anecdotal, there’s science behind it. Sorry. If you’re running the Marine Corps Marathon, the last 10K-ish is in full-on sun, no shade.
“But I have traiiiinnnned really hardddddd,” you might wail before a marathon predicted to be in, oh, the 80s. “I’m just going to stick with my planned pace as long as I can!”
A dear friend who stuck to her guns (refused to listen to me) and went out at the pace for her planned 3:30 finish on a sunny day that saw the high 80s threw up on the course and finished in 5:10.
I still love her anyway.
*5 Is it cool at the start?
45 degrees may be perfect for running, but it is COLD for waiting around before the race. Wear “throwaway” clothes to the start—old pajama bottoms, a sweatshirt, a robe (genius because you don’t have to pull it over your head or feet).
Every big marathon collects, cleans, and donates throwaway clothes. At a smaller race, you can probably tuck the clothes behind a bush near the start and pick them up after the race. (I’ve done that.) Or even hand them off to your family. (Nice!)
*6 Is it cool on the course?
Pro tip: Wear layers that you can peel off when you warm up and then PUT BACK ON when sweat makes you cold again or after you cross the finish line and start shivering: gloves (pro tip courtesy of legendary Kathrine Switzer) and/or knit cap (tuck into waistband when not wearing; it’s a super good look) (not); arm warmers you can push down or pull up; a super lightweight jacket you can tie around your waist (another fine look).
*7 What’s your pre-marathon dinner?
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, skinny runners in short-shorts ate big bowls of spaghetti the night before the race, called it “carbo-loading” and ran sub 3-hour marathons. Today, we are none of those things. You want a normal sized dinner that includes, yes, some carbs, but also protein and healthy fats, and afterward you don’t want to feel like you have a bowling ball in your belly. I like chicken, rice and salad. You know what sits well with you.
Pro tip for travelers: Go online NOW to research a restaurant that serves what you want for your pre-race dinner, check the menu and make a reservation. And make it on the early side: like around 5 or 5:30. Better to eat early than stress out, sitting around waiting for a table.
*8 What’s your pre-race breakfast?
The New York City marathon has “wave” starts, and mine is 10:40, which is when I am usually DONE with long runs (like many mother runners). What I choke down before a 6:30 a.m. long run— a handful of animal crackers, a spoonful of peanut butter and coffee—isn’t nearly enough to sustain me until 3:00 or later, which is about when I’ll finish NYCM. So I will eat a bagel, animal crackers and a packet (maybe two) of Justin peanut butter and honey. I know this works for me (see 53-ish marathons); what works for you?
*9 My favorite marathon
New York City is my favorite. (Don’t tell the other kids.)
*10 The marathon legend
Legend has it that Greek soldier Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory in battle, cried “Rejoice, we conquer!” and promptly keeled over dead. And he didn’t even run a full marathon! Just 40 kilometers, or 24.85 miles! And he wasn’t even taking care of small children!
*11 The first “modern” Olympic marathon
Was in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Spyridon Louis won the 40K course in 2:58:50, a time that would’ve put him just in the top 1,000 of the 2017 NYC Marathon.
*12 First WOMEN’s Olympic marathon
Wasn’t until 1984! Women weren’t allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics because, you know, (male) doctors were afraid our uteruses were going to fall out. It took legendary rabble rouser Kathrine Switzer, who famously crashed the 1967 men-only Boston marathon, more than a decade to help get women into the Olympic marathon. Joan Benoit Samuelson won that inaugural race, in 1984 in Los Angeles, waving a painter cap and two weeks after knee surgery with a time of 2:24:52. Now 60, she ran the Chicago marathon a couple of weeks ago with her daughter in 3:12. She’s the OG cool.
*13 The marathon distance
For the 1908 Olympics in London, the marathon was lengthened from Pheidippides’s 40K, or 24.85 miles, to 26 miles and 385 yards so that the runners could pass by Windsor Castle and wave to the Royal Family, who presumably called out, “Looking good!” and “Almost there!” 26.2 miles has been the standard distance ever since.
*14 Running in the (female) family
In 1971, Cheryl Bridges became the first woman to break 2:50 in a marathon, her first 26.2. Ten years later, she had a daughter, Shalane Flanagan, who won the 2017 New York City marathon in 2:26:53, the first American woman to win it since 1977. Wowza. (Shalane is scheduled to run NYC again this year.)
*15 Finishing IS a BIG deal
Every year, the cumulative total of U.S. marathon finishes is around 450,000. Some of those numbers represent repeat marathoners (e.g., people who ran more than one 26.2 in a year). The U.S. population is 325.7 million. That puts you in the top .1% of the country, no matter what your finish time. Seriously, that is cool.
*16 Expect low moments
The 20-mile mark is when people warn you’ll hit the famous “Wall”—when your body runs low on its supply of glucose and your brain starts shouting like an exhausted and stressed mother STOP. THIS. INSTANT.
But the truth is, you can (and likely will) have low moments as early as the 16-mile mark, when there’s still a long way to go. Don’t despair (yet): In marathons as in life, low moments pass. Have a snack.
*17 Speaking of snacks …
Amby Burfoot, one of my favorite former co-workers, WON the 1968 Boston marathon consuming nothing along the way but a few sips of water. He is 6 feet tall and weighed less than 135 pounds and finished in 2:22:11. You and I are none of those things. Our bodies (and brains!) need fuel, especially those of us out there more than 4, 5 and 6+ hours. There’s not a one-size-fits-all rule for what and how much to take in. I hope you’ve learned in training what works for you, whether that’s gels, sports drink, pretzels or gummy bears.
*18 Did you see the blue line?
You might see a blue line painted on your marathon course.
Daughter Nina and I were on a “homeland tour” of China in 2012, four years after the Olympics were held in Beijing. In a city park, our tour facilitator pointed to a blue line painted on the ground and asked, “Who knows what this is?”
Me! Me! Me! “The blue line is painted on the marathon course so the runners following it can run the shortest distance between two points, also known as the cutting the tangents!”
“WRONG!” shouted the tour guide. “It’s for the Olympic marathon!”
The New York City marathon has a blue line. It also has more than 50,000 runners. Unless you’re Shalane Flanagan, it’s probably not worth spending energy trying to find it, or even trying to cut the tangents. Which is also why your Garmin might report that your marathon was actually 26.83 miles.
*19 Not to be confused with the Marine Corps Marathon's “Blue Mile”
The famous “Blue Mile” at mile 12 of the Marine Corps Marathon honors the service and sacrifice of members of the American military, lined by Faces of the Fallen posters and military family members holding flags. Yes, you’ll cry.
*20 Now, what about that Wall?
When your body runs low on glycogen, it’s actually your protective brain—not your mindless muscles—that screams at you to STOP. Feed your brain. There is science that says just swishing (not even swallowing) sports drink reassures your brain that you’re not about to die, allowing you to proceed (if slowly). M&Ms work too.
*21 What if you get a cramp?
I have stutter-stepped through the last miles of many a marathon wondering if my calf muscles were going to go into full gasping Charley horse spasm. Piercing side stitches have bent me sideways. Mindful-meditators will tell you to “acknowledge the pain and let it float away.” Uh-huh. Stretch the calf, breathe into the side stitch. Like a low moment, it’ll pass (and may come back!). Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.
*22 Can you just take a subway/taxi/uber to the finish?
It’s tempting, isn’t it? In 1980—in the dark era before chip times and social media—Rosie Ruiz famously allegedly hopped the T and crossed the finish line of the Boston marathon for the “win.” Actual Boston marathon champ Billy Rodgers looked at her askance—she wasn’t the whippet you’d expect from someone who could run 2:31:56, nor was she sweaty—but it took nearly a week to uncover the deception.
Of course, we’re not cheating anyone but ourselves if we cut the course, nor would it be possible to claim Shalane Flanagan’s win (can you imagine?). But late in a marathon, you might understand the temptation, even just a little.
PRO TIP: With a little joint-effort pre-race planning, family members watching you in the Marine Corps or New York City marathons can see you in several locations via public transportation and a little legwork. There are so many runners and spectators in each race that it’s smart to arrange super-specific sightings, e.g., Family will be on the northwest corner of First Avenue and 83rd Street.
*23 Marathon Mania
If you are counting down the days to your Big 26.2, do not be surprised if you find yourself unusually snappish, irritable, tired, impatient, distracted. It’s perfectly normal (if unpleasant to be around). I am not sure why, but I can tell you that I still get marathon-mania crazy, even after 53-ish marathons. Warn your (hopefully understanding) significant others—including small children and even the dogs, who may be the only ones who still like you. Do something really nice for them to express your gratitude AFTER the race. (Sorry, Rick! Sorry, Nina!)
*24 Run the mile you’re in —Deena Kastor
Stay focused on the present moment—whether internally (hello, knee, I hear you creaking but suck it up for now, okay?) or externally (hello, Brooklyn!). Try not to regret the past miles or project the future ones. See how neatly marathons mirror life? Why we keep coming back for more.
*25 Thank your body
With each passing day, week, month, year, I am mindful of how lucky I am—we are—to have legs, lungs, body, mind and the wherewithal to run even one mile, let alone 26.2. It’s a really cool thing we get to do. Thank you, body. Thank you, family and friends for joining me in this madness. I am grateful.
It’s a long journey from the FINISH line of the NYC marathon back home to a shower in NJ. Rick, Nina and I will (hopefully) join my dear pal who is also running, Fast Teacher Friend, and her family at our local pub for burgers, fries, wine, beer, and the relieved laughter of people who’ve survived running 26.2 and living with marathon maniacs! Cheers to all of us!