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What to expect at your first marathon

Marathon running around the world is at an all-time high, with seemingly everyone signing up for, or thinking about signing up for, this iconic distance wherever you turn. This means more people than ever are looking to find out about what a marathon is really like to run. So, this one’s for all you first time or budding marathon runners.

The term ‘marathon’ comes from ancient Greece, 500 BC to be precise, and the story of a herald named Pheidippides who ran from a battle at city of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a victory over Persian invaders. This tale inspired the founders of the modern Olympic Games to invent a running race the distance of  Pheidippides’ journey: the marathon. So, in a way, you have him to blame for what you’ve agreed to do.


42 kilometers. 26.2 miles. It’s a long way. So to help give you some real insights and clarity about what to expect with this whole “marathon journey” everyone talks about, here are 8 real runner tips to prepare you for your first marathon.


Tip 1: It takes over your life

Marathons are short compared to the amount of time you’ll spend preparing for them. From fueling up on the right foods for the training, to the training itself, to feeling tired from said training to having to answer “So, are you ready for the marathon?” over and over, to the training again, to finding the right gear for it all to, ah yes, the training; the countdown to race day is one like no other. Expect it to take up a lot of your non-work hours and a lot of your conversations. Spouses, friends and relatives should be warned well in advance that they won’t be seeing much of your for a few months. Oh, and did we mention there’s also a fair bit of training involved?


Tip 2: No preparation is ever enough

Training is about more than the running. It’s about finding the right mix of food, water, gear, running form, and even with a plan in place and guide to follow, you still need to figure it all out for yourself and test it in practice. You’ll find yourself googling strange terms like “what kind of lubricant is best for chafing” or “how big should my stride be for a 4:40 kilometer average” or “what gait is best for long distance”. Basically, once you sign up for a marathon you become a runner, and that comes with a whole new dictionary of fun terms to learn.


One such term you’ll hear (likely) for the first time in your life when training for a marathon is “tapering,” which is reducing the amount of training you’re doing the closer you get to race day, and a term you’ll look forward to as it means less training. Research shows for best results at the event, you should do your longest, pre-marathon run around 3-4 weeks out from the race. After that, tapering training down in terms of distance may seem counter intuitive, but it leaves you with the legs to be able to hit the ground running when it counts at the marathon itself, and follow through all the way to the end.


One last word on preparation is to make sure you do it in all kinds of weather, not just when the weather is great. You can hope and pray but on the day, the weather will be what it will be and pulling out of the marathon because of a bit (or a lot) of rain just isn’t an option. Better to have some practice in bad weather, after all, that’s part of the whole marathon “experience” as well. Just out of interest, researchers have found the ideal running temperature for a marathon for amateurs to run their best results is just 6.5 degrees Celsius (43.5 Fahrenheit), with colder weather helping keep you cool on the run.



Tip 3: The start of the race is weird/exciting/awkward

Right from the morning of race day (and likely the day before and one before that), it’s all marathon. It’s common when at home before the race to question everything you were so sure about: from what you’re wearing on the run to what you’re eating that morning to if you need a second shoelace on your person “just in case”. The trick here is to do as you have been doing all throughout your training. Have the same meals. Wear the clothes you had planned to wear and have worn before. Change nothing. To help, write yourself a list a few days out from race day of what you’ll take with you to the course, what you’ll wear and what you’ll eat. When the day arrives, stick to your list, grab your gear and go; you’re as ready as you can be at this point.


Most people arrive at the marathon far too early and likely you will too. With the nerves dancing inside of you, the thought of hanging around anywhere else just doesn’t seem right, so likely you’ll peruse the marathon stands, grab an isotonic and just hang out with the thousands of other runners and spectators there doing the same thing.


With an hour to go, it all starts getting serious, and people begin stretching, taping every part of themselves, gel-pack-strapping (it’s a thing) and all these other activities you wonder if you should be doing too. Don’t worry. Do what you did in training, stick to your plan and when ready (and it’s time) head to the start line. The fun’s about to begin.


When the start gun goes it’s for the fastest runners, and likely (if this is your first marathon) you’ll be a little further back in the pack. Gradually the sea of runners you’ll be packed in with will roll out and it will feel somewhat anti-climatic as you cross the start line (where’s your starter’s pistol?). That feeling of being slightly underwhelmed will quickly be forgotten as it all sinks in: you’re here, running the marathon. You’ve made it.


Tip 4: The crowd is amazing

The first few kilometers will fly by in a haze of other runners, you trying to remember all your training (what was your goal pace again - why are you running so fast - slow down, seriously) and the sound of the crowd. The crowd. The people who were just strangers moments before become fans: your fans. Most first-time marathon runners are blown away by the cheering crowds and often attribute the crowd to running their best on the day. Research further backs this theory that when you feel you’re being observed and encouraged, you perform better. Get your hands ready for random hi-fives, thumbs up to people calling out your name (confusing how they know it the first few times but then you’ll remember it’s written on your bib), and weak smiles from you in reply to their fevered clapping the closer to the end you get. The crowd is what you will remember long after the marathon has ended. The crowd is why you’ll come back to another marathon without doubt.


Tip 5: It’s not a race

Not like you expect it to be, anyway. Sure, there are other runners there but you’ll quickly see they’re running their race and you’ll be running yours. In most cases, as the kilometers roll on, you all form a unique bond with each other. Comradery and encouragement are common in the later stages of the run, and don’t be surprised if you’re slowing down to receive pats on the back and words of inspiration given to you as runners pass you by.


"It's very hard at the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually, you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit." - George Sheehan, runner and author


But this “race” is really only with yourself. Sure, there’s a time on the clock but that’s just for you. With around 50,000 competitors running in the New York marathon you can be certain of two things: some of those runners will be faster, some will be slower. Go your pace and run your race.


Tip 6: Your body is your best friend

It’s not your enemy, “letting you down” as it tires during its first marathon. It’s telling you things. When you feel thirsty, drink. When you’re hungry, eat. If it’s kilometer 5 or 35, listen to what your body wants even if it’s not what your marathon plan had penciled in. Your body knows, so trust it.


Tip 7: Keep going

The race is run with your head, not your legs. Legs are definitely involved mind you, but with such a huge distance, the mental aspect of the marathon is really what comes in to play, especially around kilometer 30 and onwards. You’re over half way, you’re feeling tired and likely around this point fatigue will hit in. The Wall. The stich. The “This isn’t going to work” thinking. The “I wish I had trained more” cursing.  You may fight inside your mind for a few km’s like this. But keep fighting through. Count down until the next aid station, break the running up in to sizeable distances, find someone to pace yourself with, think about what you’ll eat (and drink) after the race – get through The Wall and find your Runner’s High. Push on, runner. You can do it.


Tip 8: It ends and it’ll feel like it’s too soon

And just like that, the end is in sight. You’ll find your second (third? fourth?) wind when you know the end is just there and the energy you thought you didn’t have suddenly courses through you. You’ll be a bit embarrassed coming in to the home stretch as the crowd is so loud and cheering for you - and damn right they should: you’ve run a marathon. Lap it up! You cross the line and you stop running. For a few minutes, you’re lost and people hanging out at the end of a marathon tend to mill around like children, waiting for their friends or partners to scoop them up from the finisher’s area. You’ll be given a medal and a drink, and hopefully even a snack, and your marathon experience is over for today.


We won’t be so bold as to predict what will happen during the crazy after-the-run-has-been-run time, when you reflect on all you’ve done. That’s just for you. But you’ll smile to yourself at some point - and know you’ll never forget what just happened.


A word of warning though: often those around you at this crucial moment just after the race will start talking about how you should all do it again, or how there’s another marathon in X months which sounds like fun, and that you should all sign up right now…


Our tip? Do it.


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