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Thursday
Apr032014

Surviving your first marathon

This came along quickly didn’t it? It only feels like yesterday that you signed up for this thing, you promised yourself you’ll run miles and miles of training, gym every day and otherwise turn yourself into a super awesome running machine.

How did that go?

If your answer is “not quite as planned” then don’t worry, you are in the overwhelming majority of runners who feel the same. Two bits of advice I have for the start line;

Don’t compare your insides with someone else’s outsides

And

Don’t Panic!!

Right now you may be looking around at your friends who are running the marathon or perhaps at the start line where everyone just looks in a state of bliss, no nerves or anxiety amongst any of them. Let me tell you something I have learned from speaking to 100s of marathon runners over the years, everyone is chewing up on the inside, everyone is a little bit scared and worried that they have not quite done enough to get to the finish line.  

So are you a bit scared? Good. You should be and so is everyone else. You are about to do something that is pretty amazing, probably harder than anything you have done before and these feelings of worry and fear will translate later into feelings of euphoria and achievement.

In my first marathon I was so nervous my node bled for the first 3 miles. I turned up at the start expecting there to be marathon bouncers who would look at you and decide that you are not fit to start. I thought they would just look at me and laugh me away, “Ha ha ha, you’re avin a laugh aren’t you”.

Here follows some practical advice for surviving your first marathon.

The night before the night before

You’ll have heard no doubt that sleep is important for many reasons, it allows us to rest, to switch off from the previous day and to regenerate our brains to tackle the next day. Without it we will be unproductive slow zombies.

Don’t panic about not getting much sleep the night before. You are nervous and perhaps paranoid about oversleeping or just can’t stop thinking about the race. I remember in my first marathon I woke up every 20 minutes paranoid that I didn’t have enough safety pins. It’s normal, don’t panic.

It is quite likely that you will not sleep well the night before, this is fine, don’t worry too much about it just try as best you can to relax. You are not an iPhone who will just cease to function when the battery runs out, your battery has much more life than you can ever imagine (those with young children will know this better than most).

For me sleep is a bonus if I can get it the night before but I don’t let it worry me if it doesn’t happen.

It is actually more important to get a good night sleep the night before the night before so try to create the conditions to allow this. Don’t force yourself up by an alarm or commit to too much activity in the morning.

If possible try to avoid any stress in the previous week. You don’t want demons floating around in your head the night before so if you can avoid moving house, getting divorced, dealing with idiots at work or supporting Tottenham in the week before the race that would help massively.

Check form

26 miles is a long way. You’ll probably hit the ground about 50 thousand times and it is hard to get all of these things perfect.  You are told that putting one foot in front of the other is easy; ask them to do it on running 21 miles. Sometimes getting the feet to lift of the ground is quite hard.

Use the mile markers as “form checks”. Whenever you see them ask yourself “Is my stride good, am I standing tall, how are my feet landing? Am I thirsty, do I need more energy? Am I running too fast? Or too slow?”

Use these to prompt a mental checklist that you will then act on every mile. It is easy to forget these simple things and then run into all sorts of trouble. If you think about them constantly though you might just go insane and miss out on lots of the atmosphere.

“When I was thirsty – I drank”

The best advice came from Forrest Gump when he said “When I was thirsty – I drank”. It really isn’t any more complicated that this.

Your body is a magnificent feat of biological engineering that has been perfected over millions of years to perform endurance exercise in fairly warm conditions. Your sweat processes and heat management is almost unique in the animal kingdom and is potentially a contributing factor to how we have had the time to grow these huge brains that have led to great leaps of science and culture such as quantumn physics, the Mona Lisa and Gogglebox.

It knows when it needs water, better than any textbook. Contrary to a lot of old textbooks if you are thirsty you are NOT “somewhat” dehydrated, you are just thirsty, simple as that.

The two biggest mistakes I have seen in marathons are;

Not drinking when thirsty early on as it is inconvenient to do so and drinking robotically to a schedule, ignoring your bodies opinion on the need for fluid.

People not drinking early when they are thristy and then trying to “catch up” later on by drinking like a fish. Have you ever downed a pint then had to run for the last train? The results will be similar, only with more people watching. And TV cameras.

Simply try to quench your thirst the day before and in the morning and if you are thirsty at mile 3 then don’t say “I’ll just crack out a few more miles before having a drink”, just have a drink then.

But don’t drink robotically to a schedule. Drinks manufacturers have made a lot of money telling us we should be drinking more than we need, ruining many a marathon and charging for the privelidge. Let your body decide. It’s not stupid.

OK maybe a bit... but for other reasons.

Also, drinking DOES NTO cool you down. pouring water on your skin does but if it is a hot day still only drink when thirsty, there is no mechanism whereby putting cold fluid in you cools you down.

Pasta Party like it’s 1999

Pause reading for a moment and answer the questions “What is carb loading?”

I bet 90% of you got it wrong. I bet 90% of the answers were something like “it’s where you scoff down 2 large bowls of pasta and a pizza the night before the race so that you have the energy required to get around a marathon”.

This is wrong. Carb loading is quite a bit more complicated than that, it is actually quite hard to do and it doesn’t always work. I suggest that in your three meals of the day before you just eat a bit more in each.

The day before the race is not the time to discover new foods. In fact it is not the time to deviate from what you normally eat. If you normally eat lots of bread and pasta then eat that the night before, if your diet is more fruit based or rice based then that is fine too. A mistake many people make is to deviate from their usual diet to one that contains lots of wheat and then struggle with stomach problems during the marathon. If you don’t typically eat pasta/bread etc then don’t do so before the race, eat what you usually eat.

Should you abstain from Alcohol? My answer to this is going to be psychological rather than nutritional. A couple of beers/wines will have no nutritional impact on your race so long as you are well hydrated. Ask yourself whether it will help you relax. I think the benefits to be gained by being relaxed far outweight any slight impact a beer might have on your body. Just don’t relax too much. 7 pints is too much relaxing.

Visualise your dream race

There is not much you can do to improve yourself physically now but a hell of a lot you can do mentally.

Olympic cyclists do it, war generals do it and you have probably done it in a presentation at work. You rehearse in your mind the perfect race, the perfect battle, the perfect pitch. You imagine the roar of approval from your colleagues or fans as you execute the perfect manouvers to achieve your goals.

Even just thinking about it gives you great confidence, it excites you, it motivates you. These are all great things and you should spend the few weeks before the marathon thinking in this way. It will get you buzzing on the start line.

But this thinking does something even more profound. Without wanting to scare you this kind of thinking increases your tolerance for suffering. I don’t  want to over state it but running a marathon for the first time you are going to suffer. However the more you have visualised succes the more you are willing to suffer to achieve this goal.

By visualing success you are investing more psychologically in the race and will be more likely to pull through the hard times, the more you feel you have to lose. It’s like watching the Matrix trilogy. You watched the first two, the third was absolute crap but there is no way you are going to not finish the job, you feel like the whole thing would be a waste of time if you didn’t.

The wall

The wall is both a mental and physical thing. There is little you can do to avoid it but lots you can do to get over it. I will try to explain what I believe the wall is. (Please note I am not a medical professional, a nutro-biologist or a physiopolist).

Your main source of energy for running is glucose. You have about enough to run 15-20 miles on this. When this source runs out your body turns more to fat burning to keep your legs moving. Your body can do this fine however the transition can be uncomfortable.

I’ve heard various descriptions as to what this transition is like. It’s like being hungover, or really angry, or drunk or giving up caffiene cold turkey or like having the flu or all of the above. These are all real feelings in response to a real change in your body but they won’t last long. However it can poison the mind, and then the wall can hurt you for much much longer.

The marathon is a fiendish distance. You are made to run until your sugar runs out, you then get hit by this wall thing and then told you have at least 10 miles left to run. It’s like been thrown into a room with One Direction and only been given three bullets.  When the wall hits and you first feel its effects it is easy to start exprapolating. Dammit if I feel this bad at mile 17 how on earth am I even going to make it to mile 20?

You then start of a downward emotional spiral where you start to doubt yourself, question the point of what you are doing and start to find excuses for why you didn’t finish. You look for a way out, you find it harder to justify carrying on. This is the melancholy you must defeat.

These negative thoughts then make it harder physically. You notice the pains in your legs more, your heart beats faster because you are a bit more stressed, you might breathe harder, your natural flow of running is disrupted and now you expend more energy to put one foot infront of the other. The wall has not done these things directly, it did them via your own brain.

Sneaky little bugger isn’t it?

My advice on this section is to be aware that it will come and then when it does remember that it does not last forever. This really is the time to just start surviving one mile at a time, not letting the fear ruin your race completely.

Relentless Forward Progress.

Comfort eating

Nutrition in the race is possibly the worstest done thing by people in a marathon. Probably runs pacing into second place. I think the first thing to recognise is that most people will at some point get this wrong and so you should not feel too bad for having doubts. The main thing to remember is that no one can authoratively tell you exactly what to eat and when as everyone is different.

Well that was helpful wasn’t it?

If I was to advise on one thing it would be to try and delay taking sugar until at least the second half of the race, sugar makes you high and makes you crash. You can to some extent avoid this crash with more sugar to get another high (sounds like substance abuse doesn’t it? It kind of is). Sugar can be a tricky game to play.

How do you know if you need food? Well you’ll probably be grumpy, that’s the cue. Hangry I believe is the correct term. If you start to feel like you want to punch the people who are cheering you on then look for a small child and take a jelly baby off them (assuming they are offering them, it would be mean just to steal from them no matter how grumpy you are).

Imagine the sugar gushing down into your legs and electrifying your muscles, pushing them on to finish the race. OK I don’t mean to sound like a homeopathic shrink but that visualisation works for me.

Pace yourself - somehow

I am going to take a wild guess here and say that you are not Mo Farah. If it is you Mo then hello and good luck in the marathon. Perhaps eat some meat this time so that you don’t fall over at the end.

I am assuming that you are not planning on winning the marathon.

Pacing is a contentious topic and when you start the race you will be so full of hormones that maybe you have never experienced before that you will set out like a bat out of hell. Humans do things like that when full of hormones, I think it’s a design fault.

I think the key things here to remember are not to set out too fast but also that everyone slows down a bit. This “bit” varies from doing the second half one minute slower than the first to doing the second half about 4 hours slower than the first.

Pick your “optimistic” time and head for half way in half of that. For example you may have a target of 4.00 but think optimistically you could get 3.50. Then head for halfway in 1.55, if you are right about your optimistic pace you should arrive there on time and if you are feeling good you should be able to continue at that pace.

If however you might have overstetched yourself at least you have not done so by much and you can afford to slow down a little and still achieve your original goal.

Enjoy being the star

My first marathon I think was my first public performance since a school production of “Rama and Sita” where I played a talking monkey who set fire to curtains with my arse. There are not that many parallels between the two performances (only one did I actually feel real burning in my rear end). However my first marathon was made better by the feeling that I was genuinely a star of some show.

And you will be, thousands of people will be lining the streets cheering you on with a genuine respect and bewilderment for what you are doing. Some of them may have run marathons before but most wont because it does not even occur to them to push themselves in this way.

Draw on their support and feel inspired by your own efforts just for being there. Look forward to the bragging rights afterwards, in the pub, at home, at work.

I have to say that I envy the position you are in right now. Your first marathon is a magical experience that will never be repeated. It’s like having kids I imagine, the first is brillant but then the subsequent ones are a bit rubbish. Only joking, I imagine having kids is way harder than running a marathon.

Every moment of the day will be a significant part of the rest of your life, whether you get your dream time or get carted off in an ambulance you’ll have stories to tell people after this race. Make them good.

PS I forgot all the usual advice. Don’t wear new shoes, only eat gels you’ve tried before, lube everywhere, remember to tie your laces, safety pins, don’t look directly at the sun with a telescope etc etc.

I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share.  And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themself (which is essentially what my book is about). 

 

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Reader Comments (3)

Excellent article...very funny and quite reassuring as my first time approaches faster than anticipated! Thank you...will check out your book!

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Nice one James ;)

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIan Shelley

Great advice, thanks :)

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSandy

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