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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What to Expect When Running Your First Marathon

 We're just under a week away from the Boston Marathon, arguably the most prized endurance race in the country.  This year, over 20,000 people will be running from Hopkinton to Copley, which tends to spur people to want to run a marathon themselves.  About half of those inspired by the BM will actually go on to run a full 26.2m course.

So what can you expect?  With the Boston Marathon, everyone running it (legitimately, there are those who will "bandit" run it) has ran at least one marathon course with a "Boston Qualifying" time (the times are different for men and women of different age groups).  The Boston Marathon is the only United States Track&Field-sanctioned event that requires its entrances to "qualify" at least 9 months before the start of the race.

So the bottom line here is, if you want to run "Boston" you have to run someplace else first, and run it fast.

So what can you expect from running a marathon?  I ran my first marathon last Fall after getting a wild hair up my ass.  Previously, I had done a short triathlon "sprint" and the occassional road race (5k, 10k) in high school/college.  I had never dreamed of running a full marathon.  These are my experiences:

Before the race:

-You will lose a toenail, or two, or three.  You're going to be doing a lot of running to train your body up to be able to run consistently for over 26 miles.  In the course of this, your feet are going to take a crap-load of punishment, including the all-too-well-known-by-runners black toenails.  This is what happens when blood pools under the nail, due to frequent trauma.  Eventually, over time the nail will go dead and just fall off.  It's pretty fucking gross actually.

To combat this, get properly-fitted running shoes and socks.  Not only will this help prevent the dreaded toenails of death, but also nasty blisters and other foot injuries.  You can also treat a black toenail by trying to drain it.  A doctor's office visit can get this accomplished, or you can try to do it yourself, but just be aware of possible site infections.

-You will burn out a pair of decent running shoes.  With all the miles you're going to (hopefully) log while training, your current pair of runners will be toast before the race.  You should go out and get a new pair of shoes a few weeks before your race date and start to gradually break them in, while still running in your old shoes.  As the race gets closer, swap out the old shoes for the new shoes.  Your new shoes should have at least 50 miles on them before taking them out on race day.

-You are going to ache.  Part of training for a marathon is self-sacrifice.  Whether it's getting up extra early to get in those precious miles before (and then again after) work, or the punishment on the body, you are going to be sore in the last few weeks up to race.  Listen to your body, treat any pain or soreness seriously.  Don't feel like you have to "train thru the pain" because that's just bluddy stupid.  Knees, feet, hips... anything that takes full impact from road running are going to be sore.  Try to ice and heat problem areas and keep off your feet whenever possible (say, at night when the day is done).

-You will get stared at.  With all the mileage you're logging, expect people to be impressed with not only your appearance but your attitude.  The constant release of endorphins is going to make you a pleasant person to be around, and once you tell people what this new attitude is attributed to, you will be fawned over like a god.  And quite possibly, secretly feared.

During the race:

-You will carb-load like crazy.  The night before and the morning of, you will stuff so much bread in your mouth, you'll likely burst.  Depending on your level of fitness, how fast you run, etc, you can expect to expend about 2500-3500 calories during the race.  Taking in some protein wouldn't be a bad idea either.

-You will be thrown into a carnival-like atmosphere.  Races now-a-days, particularly marathons, are becoming more and more like roving block parties than races, as more people of different ability levels are joining in on the festivities.  You will see people dressed in costumes, vendors selling shit (outside of the expo) throngs of people laughing it up.  Hopefully this relieves some of the pre-race jitters you might feel, but it could add to them too.  It just depends on who you are, mentally.

-You will be passed.  As the race starts, you will be passed by people left and right.  Just let them go.  In turn, you will be passing people, left and right.  The point is, you're only out there racing against one person, and that's you.  As the field of runners spreads out along the course, you'll start seeing less and less people, and soon you'll feel like you're just out on another training run.

-Don't feel like you have to take water at every station.  There are going to be "comfort stations" all along the route, usually at every 5K.  They will offer everything from water and Gatorade, to bananas and bathrooms.  Taking water (I never take the Gatorade or Cytomax because whatever you take will inevitably end up on your face, and who wants to be covered in sticky shit on a long distance run?) will be a relief, but it will also make you heavy and want to pee.  Personally, I only took water at every third station, and even then it was just a sip or two before heaving my cup at the nearest waste can.  If offered water and you don't want it, just politely decline or just keep running by.  The volunteers understand.

-You will see humanity at its worst.  I'm not saying you'll witness war crimes or anything.  But you will see people pissing, puking, shitting every where.  You will (hopefully) leap over puddles of throw up, run thru a cloud of farts, and maybe even see someone collapse from fatigue.  Just try to ignore it and keep running.

-You will want to give up.  Everyone hits a wall at some point, but what's important is not giving in.  Once you stop, your race is over.  You will never regain the same stride or speed or strength.  You just have to fight thru it.  For me, my wall was at the 15th mile.  I was really considering calling it quits when I was running over a series of hills out in the middle of no where by myself.  I just had to dig in and think of something else.  I thought: I don't have 11 miles to go - I've run 15, don't quit now.  And it was enough to get me over that hump.

-You will run to the sounds of your own breath and foot falls.  A lot of UST&F-sanctioned events don't allow iPods (check with race organizers for specific rules, some do, some don't.  But most don't.).  So get used to running without the aid of your "power playlist."  Yes, you will see some racers skirting around this rule, and good for them, but when you run a marathon with just the soundtrack of nature and your fellow runners around, there's something magical about that.  Give it a try.

-In the last miles, some perky idiot in a costume will sprint past you.  But don't be alarmed, he or she is in one of the many relays your race is conducting concurrent to the marathon itself.  A lot of marathons will have these smaller events going on around the actual "big race."  Most marathons will host a half marathon, 10K, 5K and various relays.  Personally, I fucking hate these relay assholes.  Five guys dressed up like characters from the Wizard of Oz (true story) will be running along side you the entire time, only to pass to the last guy on the last series of mileage (usually a 10K a-piece) and sprint towards the end, when you're completely depleted of life and energy? That sucks.  Just ignore them, and think to yourself: I'm running 5 times greater a distance than that (literal) pack of assholes.


This is the look found on most finisher's faces.
-You will be disgusting.  Congratulations, you just ran your first marathon!  As a reward for your endurance and strength, you get the pleasure of looking, smelling and feeling like roadkill!  Expect to be utterly gross when you cross the line.  You'll have spit (and maybe some puke) all over your face, salt-crusted clothes, and smell like death.  I remember coming up to the finish line and seeing a green and gray haze over everything, no lie.  You'll need a solid hour-long shower, trust me.

-Treat your feet.  Yeah, you just ran a marathon, so give props to the guys who got you from point A to point B, and soak them in some epsom salt when you get home.  Relax, rub them down, try to stay off them for the next 24 hours if possible.

-The soreness will catch up to you.  You'll be flying so high off the endorphins that you won't realize how much pain your body is in for probably a day or two.  Sure, you'll be stiff and achy, but the pain won't hit til probably two days later.  Just pop some Tylenol and drink lots of water over the next week to help minimize the muscle tension.

-Your body will do some funky shit.  Running your first marathon will have adverse affects on your body that you might not be aware of right away.  Just keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary and if it lasts longer than a week or two, consult a doctor.  For me, I had trouble holding my pee (TMI, I know).  It wasn't that I was pissing myself, I just didn't get that usual, gradual urgency that I needed to go take a leak over a period of time.  Instead, I would be hit with a sudden urge and needed to find a toilet real quick.  Your body might react a similar way.

-You will want to get back out and go run ASAP.  Don't.  You need to give your body some recovery time, even if you feel "fine."  Take a week off, you earned it (along with a really calorie-high meal, greasy burger and french fries?  With a beer or nine?).  When you do start up again, take it slow and don't do any crazy mileage for your first month.  Keep an eye open for smaller, local races like 5Ks and use those to keep your edge sharp.

-Sign up for your next race.  You're now a marathoner!  After some time has passed, sign up for another race and see if you can't (if you didn't already) qualify for the holy of holies, Boston.  Check out their website for age and gender-specific qualifying times.  If you did, in fact, qualify on your first go (it's not impossible) you should be receiving something in the mail from the Boston Athletic Association within a few weeks.

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