A year ago at this time, I was preparing — nervously — for my first-ever half marathon. While I knew I’d stuck to my training program, I still had doubts that I could actually do it.
Flash forward, and here I sit, four days before my fourth half marathon with a full marathon under my belt, and I have a whole bunch of “feelings.” A lot — A LOT LOT — has happened in the last year. I’ve become a stronger, faster, more confident runner. I’ve made lots of runner friends. And, finally, I see myself as a Runner.
While I have offered some tips for runners in the past, a lot of it is about listening to your body and finding your own stride — literally and figuratively. And, clearly, I’m not a professional, a coach or an expert. But there is some advice I would offer to those of you embarking on your first long race this spring or summer.
First things first: Embrace the nerves. This IS an exciting thing you’re about to do. Heck, I still have nerves before every race, whether it’s a 5k or a half marathon. Nerves are OK; excitement is OK; fear is OK. All of these things help you to appreciate what you’re about to do. Running that far is a cool thing and a huge accomplishment. There’s a reason not everyone can or will do it, and it’s OK to be a little nervous.
And you should also be proud. Trust yourself and know that you’ve prepared for this race. Your body can do amazing things if you let it. So, get out of your own way, and let it.
People have asked me for all sorts of pre-race advice. Like I said, I’m not an expert or even a “seasoned” runner. But I do know what works for me.
Food and Water
I start increasing my carbs in the five days leading up to the race. My body can’t handle “carbo loading” in its traditional sense. Instead, I slowly up my carbs by adding additional whole grains, fruits, potatoes, rice and quinoa to my meals throughout the week. Toward the end of the week, I start cutting back a bit on the fiber for exactly the reason you imagine. The morning of the race, I eat oatmeal pancakes — they’ve become my pre-race tradition and haven’t failed me once. I top them with Greek yogurt, chia seed and a banana. If I’m feeling saucy, I add a drizzle of local honey. I try to eat about two hours before hitting the starting line so things can be moved as much through the system as possible.
Throughout the week, I also up my water intake a bit — though I’m already very good at keeping hydrated. I add in a few extra mugs of green tea and some coconut water with cherry juice, which also is my recovery drink of choice.
During the race, I’ve found that Gu, Sport Beans (or gummy bears) and coconut water are my best friends. I also try to grab some of the salty stuff they have out on the race course, like pretzels. I’ve also learned the hard way to avoid — at all costs — Gatorade on the race course water stations. Worst belly ache ever.
Taking it easy during race week is, for me, the very hardest part of the whole training program. My last long run is the Saturday before the race (so, a week and a day). This time I only had time to get in six miles due to wedding dress adventures, but I’d already gotten in three 10 milers and an 11 miler during training, so I’m confident I’m prepared. I try to get in a decent run early in the week. This week, I did four miles of speed drills just because that’s what the free bootcamp session was. Then, I’ll get in a couple two- to three-mile walks and, if my legs are itchin’, a two- or three-mile shake-out run mid-week.
This time, I shook things up a bit and had a hard workout with T2.5 Monday night, followed by Tuesday’s speed drills and a long, hilly bike ride with Anna and Kelly. My legs are still sore. So, I haven’t done my shake-out run yet. Instead, I opted for a nice, long stretching session this morning before work. I’m hoping the run will happen tonight.
Friday and Saturday, I’ll make sure I move and walk around, maybe even take a nice evening stroll Friday night. But there will be no planned runs.
Or, should I say: “SLEEP!” Coach Jim continually reminds me how important sleep is in the week leading up to your half or full marathon: “If you have to choose between sleep and one more run, always choose the sleep.” He goes on to say that, if you’ve trained properly, “there’s nothing you can do in the week before the race running-wise that will make a huge difference, but sleep will.”
This goes hand-in-hand with the cutting back on activity and bumping up my carb intake. All of these things are working — over the course of the week — to ensure my body and mind are fully prepared for the event. And, as I said, it’s worked for me for all of my races so far.
I want to close this section of the post by saying that I firmly believe that you should experiment with things on your training runs before the race so you know what works for you: fuel, hydration, music, shoes, clothes, Glide (I love that stuff) … and the list goes on.
Training isn’t just about getting in the miles. It’s about discovering yourself as a runner — and what your mind and body need to make it through those long miles on the course.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with my tips for your first long race. Nothing earth-shattering, but these are things I discovered make the experience much more enjoyable and memorable:
- Leave the earbuds at home — if you can. Try to run without them. A long race has a special heartbeat — a life — all its own. It is such an amazing experience to hear the cheering crowd, to listen to people yelling your name. Besides, it makes it easier to hear approaching (read: faster) runners coming up behind you.
- Take time for all the high-fives and hugs that are offered you. From your family and friends. And from strangers. After all the races I’ve done, I will always, always stop for a hug. A 5-second faster time isn’t worth missing out on the love.
- Stop for a potty break before you have to. I don’t know that this one needs any more explanation, does it?
- And drink before you need it.
- Thank the volunteers and public safety officers along the race course. They don’t have to be there, cheering you on and keeping you safe. But they are.
- Know the course. If you can run it before the race, do so. If you can’t, try to drive it. Know where you’re going to need extra support — at the top of a big hill, perhaps? And ask your friends to meet you there. Nothing like seeing a familiar, smiling face around a corner just as you’re about to give into the heaviness.
- Plan your outfit. Not just for cuteness, though clearly that’s important. Think about chafing and temperature and sweat. Don’t wear brand-new clothes on race day. Make sure you’ve run in them before. The same goes for shoes.
- Talk to your fellow racers. This is a community experience. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, there is no community like the running community. A stranger once helped me through the finish line on a very hot July race by looking at me about a half-mile before the finish line, tapping my shoulder and saying, “OK, let’s go.” And we finished it together. It was fantastic.
- Stop looking at your watch. Sure, check it now and again. But don’t be so focused on it that you lose track of the amazing things going on around you. And make sure you’re not staring at it when you cross the finish line. Cuz no one wants that picture. You should run for the finish line, not for the clock.
- My last piece of VERY important advice: Smile for the camera. Heck, smile as much as you can on the whole course. But, especially act a fool when you see the photographer! My race pictures always turned out really scary — like T-Rex scary — until I learned how to ham it up on the course. Blow kisses, give peace signs, make faces. It’s totally worth the silliness when you see your pictures come online.
You only have one first marathon (or half marathon or 25k …). Try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can. And, remember, have confidence and know that you’ve done the training, so you can finish this run.
Tell me, what are some of your top tips for people running their first long race?