It’s been over 10 years since I ran my first marathon, and it’s an experience I will never forget. Not just because of how great it was to cross that finish line for the first time, but also because it was probably the worst race I’ve ever run. I made so many mistakes. I sped up way too early, I threw up more than once, and I generally had no clue what I was doing.
There were a lot of rookie mistakes I read about and knew to avoid. I didn’t try anything new on race day. I increased my carbs for more than one day. I reviewed the course, trained consistently, and felt generally prepared. But there are some things runners rarely talk about, and some lessons that only running 26.2 miles will really teach you. While I can’t adequately describe how hard it is to run a full marathon or keep you from making first timer mistakes, I can tell you a few things I wish someone had told me.
10 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Marathon
- Don’t Rely On Spectators – Spectators are great. They can boost your mood and give you something to focus on. My first marathon, I was really blessed to have a small group of friends who took time out of their day to come cheer me on. My mistake here is that I relied on someone to carry some of my fuel and meet me at a specific spot on the course, and I didn’t have a backup. When plans changed, I ended up running 10 miles without any fuel, and I have never, ever made that mistake again. You have no idea if traffic, route changes, or miscommunications are going to happen, so always, always, always have a back up plan when it comes to fueling.
- Weathermen are Liars – This is especially important to know if you’re running a destination race, and have to pack your bags. Take clothing options for 15-20 degrees plus and minus the projected temps, and be prepared for rain, no matter what. My first marathon was, fortunately, in my hometown at the time. I was able to adjust what I planned to wear, but I was still slightly overdressed when the temps rose a lot faster than projected. In hindsight, I wish that I had a plan for warmer weather, because by mile 20 I was definitely overheating.
- Training Doesn’t Prevent Pain – As a novice marathon runner, I honestly thought that if I trained appropriately, my body would be able to handle running 26.2 miles with minimal discomfort. I expected it would be hard, but I thought my body would be prepared. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t. Until you run a full marathon, your body just doesn’t know what to expect. Is training important? Yes. Will it help you cross the finish line as put together as possible? Yes. Will you still feel like you were hit by a truck? Probably. You might be one of the lucky few who cross the first finish line feeling great. But don’t expect that solid training automatically means a mostly tolerable race day experience.
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- The Halfway Point Is NOT 13.1 – When I ran my first marathon, I’d completed several half-marathons. I knew how to pace that distance fairly well. I hit the halfway point feeling great, and I decided to start speeding up. Just a little. Because I felt SO GOOD. LOL. No one told me that a marathon is not two equal half-marathons. Truthfully, the halfway point for a marathon is around mile 20. It seems insane that the last 6 miles can feel equivalent to the first 20 in terms of the amount of energy required, but it’s a marathon truth.
- Start in the Back – My first marathon, I proudly packed into my starting corral and found the pacing group that was finishing at the time I anticipated finishing. What’s hilarious about this is that most first time marathoners have NO CLUE how long it will take them to finish. It’s just really difficult to predict. And pacers are generally going to run a steady pace throughout the entire race, which for me meant that I started faster than I should. If I had one piece of advice to give a first time marathoner, it is to start in the back of the pack. Your excitement and endorphins are likely to encourage you to start faster than you should, and if everyone around you is running fast, it doesn’t help. If you start at the back of the pack, you have a much better shot starting as slowly as you should.
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- Anxiety Peeing – In my early 20’s, I was familiar with anxiety head aches and stomach issues. I was not, however, familiar with the concept of anxiety peeing. So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the starting area, got in line to use the port-a-potties, and then felt like I immediately needed to pee again. Thankfully, a friend of mine clued me in on the fact that I probably didn’t actually need to pee, but was just having an “anxious bladder.” I also found out that many runners give themselves enough time at the start to stand in line and go to the bathroom, not once but twice. It wasn’t the most life changing information I’ve ever received, but it certainly wasn’t something I was prepared for.
- The Finish Isn’t at 26.2 Miles – Like most first time marathoners, once I hit mile 20, I diligently looked at my Garmin every 5 minutes or so to see how much closer I was to the finish line. I saw my watch slowly get closer and closer to 26 miles. And then something terrible happened. My watch beeped that I’d hit mile 26 a good .30 miles before I saw the final mile marker. I prayed that someone put the marker in the wrong spot, and watched in horror as I hit 26.2 on my watch but didn’t even have the finishing mat in site. It felt like an eternity before I finally saw any sign of the finish, and when I crossed, I read 26.5 something on my watch. It may not seem like a huge difference, but after running that far, two more steps feels an impossible feat. Courses are measured using the absolute shortest route a person could possibly take, hugging every turn. Unfortunately, you just don’t run like that during the race. So don’t make the mistake of counting down those final steps based on your watch reading, unless you enjoy being incredibly disappointed.
- Aid Stations are for Walking – Running through the aid stations, trying to drink water while moving at a decent pace is a fools errand. You probably won’t get as much water into your mouth and down your throat as you need, you might end up choking, and the 2 seconds you “save” isn’t going to make a difference. Plus, it makes the whole race a lot more bearable if you give yourself a few seconds to walk every mile or so. So, grab your cup, take a few steps, drink what you need, and THEN pick it back up.
- Throw Away Clothes are Genius – My first marathon, the temperatures started in the mid 40s, which is pretty perfect. But in typical Texas fashion, they had climbed well into the upper 60s within 90 minutes of the start. I had dressed appropriately for the 50s, and by the end of my race I was BAKING. It had jumped up to mid 70s with full sun by the time I was done (and wearing a light long sleeve shirt and shorts). What I saw other runners doing was start out the first few miles in long sleeve shirts that they peeled off and threw to the side of the street. But running clothes are expensive, and I was a broke college student, so the thought of leaving clothing behind was not something I could fathom. I found out later that a lot of runners grab a cheap shirt, hat, and gloves at thrift stores specifically with the intention of tossing them a few miles in. Having throw away clothes keeps runners comfortable in those few miles when it’s coldest, without having to commit to warm clothing for the entire race. It’s layering genius, and a practice I’ve readily adopted.
- Sweat Burns – Having trained for a marathon, I was familiar with the concept of chaffing. What I wasn’t fully prepared for was just how problematic sweating can become after several hours. Or how salty sweat can become in that same amount of time. For the last 6 miles, my eyes burned, I had raw spots where sweat had collected and then rubbed my skin mercilessly. Every subsequent race, I have made sure to pack at least one wet wipe, use tons of Squirrels Nut Butter, and to put chapstick on my eyebrows to help divert the sweat out of my eyeballs. May seem like a small adjustment, but makes a huge difference in comfort!