7 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Marathon

Seven lessons you won't want to learn the hard way

In 2002, I crossed the finish line of my first race ever, the Rock N Roll Nashville half marathon. As I watched the elites cross the full marathon finish line in nearly the same amount of time, I realized I would need to run for over four hours to ever cover 26.2 miles.

In that moment, I vowed never to run a marathon. I’ve since uttered those words a few other times, but have completed seven and will resume training for another this summer. Over the years I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way, here are seven that I wish I’d known before my first marathon. 

Running Shoes
Do: Get fitted for good running shoes. The one’s you bought from the department store may have worked fine in the past, but they aren’t suited for the increased mileage you’ll be covering.

Don’t: Let the shoe store talk you in to a shoe that isn’t comfortable just because of a 30 second treadmill analysis of your gait.

Do: Get real about the fact that during training and the race you will feel like quitting. While you should be fired up for your first marathon, a bit of realism (not fear) makes this moment something you can move through.

Don’t: Give yourself a reason to quit (like not putting in the proper amount of training). Get focused on all of the reasons why you want to cross that finish line and how it will feel to say “I am a marathon finisher”.  

Weight Gain
Do: Recognize that marathon training requires appropriate fueling. Like many runners, I started running to lose weight. I assumed that marathon training would be a great way to speed up the process. It isn’t; marathon training leads to increased hunger and feelings of food entitlement.

Don’t: Allow your training to lead to food entitlement. Running 16 miles is pretty amazing, but it doesn’t mean you can overeat on pizza, cookies, bagels and other high carb foods every day of the week.  High quality food keeps marathon hunger in check and provides energy for your runs.

Throw-away Clothes
Do: Swing by Salvation Army the week of the race. The idea of throw-away clothes sounded preposterous to me, but this makes the start line experience far more enjoyable. You may be outside in cool or wet temperatures for hours before the race begins, keeping your body warm preserves much needed energy.

Don’t: Tie things around your waist. If you are attempting the “I’ll just take off my jacket or shirt when I get warm” method, be warned: many people end up chucking their favorite piece of clothing along the race course. After 20 miles, everything feels raw and the last thing you want is something hitting the back of your tired, achy legs.

Chaffing and Blisters Are Avoidable
Do: Put Body Glide on every conceivable inch of the body.  You may have found this great tool during training and used it in select spots like your thighs, but on race day get in between every toe, under every arm, and even around your waistband. It’s worth it.

Don’t: Wear a new shirt from the race expo. Long-time runners have an idea of what works for them and often break this rule, but during that first marathon it’s best not to leave anything to chance. Most have learned the hard way that new pretty shirt may have a seem that rubs you raw unexpectedly.

Rain Isn’t So Bad
Do: Watch the weather so you can plan your race day outfit and throw-away gear. For a destination race, pack options for any type of weather to ensure you aren’t scrambling come time of the race.

Don’t: Worry about the weather. Once you start running, most of the time the weather is an afterthought. You are there to cross a finish line and the weeks of determined training take over to keep you moving forward.

Do: Spend time learning about recovery. Compression pants, ice baths, sports nutrition, all of these things ensure that during training you can continue putting in the miles and after the race you can resume training without too many days of walking down stairs sideways.

Don’t: Rush the post-race recovery. Whether it was the best or worst experience of your life there is often a desire to get right back to training, but your body won’t be ready right away. Those who do jump back in often find themselves injured within a few months. A few extra easy weeks are worth avoiding months of frustration.

Finally, it’s important to know that every runner you meet will have an opinion about how you should train, what to wear, what to think; it’s great to listen to all of the advice, but after that you need to decide what fits your personality and then stick to a plan.

Related: Race Weekend Checklist