Warning: this post contains no references to politics, the media, celebrities, experts or any other subject of my usual snarking. It is what it says on the tin.
The reason is that I have indeed just run my first – and probably only – marathon, in my ‘middle age’, and in truth it was fine. I actually enjoyed it, and I was happy with under 5 hours. Lots of people gave me advice, some good, some less so, some only really relevant to the person doing it. So here, in no particular order, is my list of tips/advice:
- Everyone is different – in their running style (watch it on TV, some great runners look like they are about to fall over), their outfit, their shoes, their nutrition. If you train adequately you’ll soon learn what suits you. You do not need weird Mo Farah sleeves. In fact nobody does, including him.
- Definitely use a distance + route tracker, and the app/website that goes with it. I used a Garmin Forerunner 220 (which is actually fairly primitive these days) with a heart rate monitor. Totally reliable and Garmin have a great phone app. There are lots to choose from. eBay has some bargains.
- There are very funky secondary apps that give you aerial route views etc that you can share – if you’re so inclined. I liked Relive.
- Start training about 4 months before the event, if you’re not used to long distance. The longest I’d done before it was a half marathon, though I keep reasonable baseline fitness
- A lot of people like running partners or training in a group. I don’t, and I rarely play music either. Whatever suits, but Alan Sillitoe was onto something interesting with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, as was Haruki Murakami with What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
- If you go with that 4 month plan, spend the first month or thereabouts knocking off 5-6 milers so that you’re doing it comfortably and you’ve sussed out the best shoes for you. If you can only manage a mile at first, it doesn’t matter. You will rapidly improve.
- Spend another month at 10-12 miles but push it further if comfortable to 16-18. One big run a week, a smaller one midweek is enough
- It can be quite hard to get good routes for road running to ease the monotomy and test yourself. On runs greater than 10 miles I needed fluid, so I bought this excellent belt and built my runs around corner shops every 6-7 miles to fill with isotonic drinks. Makes a big difference. On marathon day they bring the drinks to you, of course. I often did a long loop to end up back at my starting point. A straight there and back, same route, was off putting for me. Getting dropped off or picked up with a long single direction run certainly breaks it up too, and you feel good at having ended up much farther from home than you thought you could.
- A month before the race you should be comfortable at 16-18 miles. However, a handy way to think about it is the duration of the run (and bear in mind very long runs can be boring, mental endurance is part of the deal). Estimate your hoped for marathon time – usually 4-5 hours if you’re in my bracket, and make sure you can run continually for 80% of that, however slow or fast.
- If you can, make your last 3 big runs 18, 20 and 22 miles, don’t worry about the time. On the last one you’ll probably get a useful taste of The Wall, which is a real phenomenon (I’ll come back to this). However, that last run should be at least a week before the day of the race
- A lot of people go on about diet. My take is that it’s all fuel if you’re exercising hard enough, though if you’re trying to really build muscle you obviously specifically need protein. I think it’s pretty overdone as a topic, but I did do without booze in the last week. The night before the race I made the ultimate sacrifice – I ate macaroni cheese for the carbs while everyone else guzzled burgers. A steak and three pints of Guinness would have been unwise though.
- Likewise sleep. Lots of sleep would be great, but most people’s sleep patterns are not that controllable, and sleeping well before the race can be difficult with all the anticipation. I suppose ‘don’t intentionally stay up late when doing long runs’ is the best one could say
- In the last week before the race or thereabouts, The Taper is also a real thing. Either don’t run, or just do an easy short one to assuage your guilt. Let the minor injuries heal. You will not lose fitness.
- If you’re really injured, don’t race. There will be a next time. You may make an injury worse, and even more depressing, you’ll have to drop out once you’ve started. As a medic with a lot of experience of the dubious specialty of Sports Medicine, I can tell you that the main treatment is always the same – R E S T.
- I wore Saucony trainers, with fairly thick heels. I very much doubt that many runners are real ‘pronators’ and need special shoes. Probably people with obvious flat feet, but nearly any brand is adequate, I suspect. The online reviews are often ridiculously nitpicky. I ended up buying second hand pairs on eBay with plenty of tread left for about £20 usually. They come ‘worn in’ often. You will probably need two pairs, don’t run the race in shoes with worn out heels. Double skin socks are very comfy and probably do reduce blistering.
- Before a big run, and obviously on race day, I took a couple of Ibuprofen tablets. I did take a further two at about 18 miles, more pre-emptively than anything else. Paracetamol works differently, so if you’re my age, wracked my musculoskeletal pain, you can take it as well as the Ibuprofen (or a similar nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory). Be prepared!
- Move your bowels before the run – so leave enough time – and have a light breakfast.
- Everyone advises this, but do not start like a rocket. It is wasted energy and counterproductive. I tend to keep a steady pace anyway, but if lots of people run past you at the beginning, just shrug your shoulders and nod in a friendly way when you trot past them at 15 miles.
- I found a half marathon the year before pretty straightforward, but back then I never thought I’d manage a full 26.2 miles – my ankles were too sore, the training would be too much etc. I was wrong. All my weight bearing joints and sore tendons felt better two days after the full race than they had done in ages. However, a full marathon is a lot more than twice the energy expenditure than a half, probably nearer 4 times as much. So have a source of rapid energy handy – jelly babies, glucose tablets, those weird sachets of gloopy stuff (very good actually). Which brings me to…
- The Wall. Described as that point where competitors “run out of carbohydrates stored in their body and have to suddenly shift to burning mostly fat to keep them going”. Usually after 20 miles, and it seems some people aren’t prone to it, some people claim to preload with carbohydrates in the preceding days, but basically, you’ve run out of fuel and you suddenly feel terrible and your judgement becomes a little flaky. My solution: DO NOT WALK, guzzle as many of those sachets/alternative energy sources as you can, maintain a steady pace and focus on completing. A lot of it is mental discipline. Think of David Goggins.
- If you walk at this point you’ll struggle to run again for any distance. In my last 5km I was overtaken by 24 people, but I overtook 471, most of whom were walking but younger than me. It is a tortoise and hare phenomenon.
- I’ve mentioned trainers and the running belt (handy for phone, painkillers, money, don’t bother with your own drinks), but my advice is don’t skimp on essentials. I had a great pair of running shorts with a deep lycra layer and lots of pockets for any gels etc, but they cost more than £40. It’s worth it. Likewise, when you’re sweating and chafing, a lightweight wicking fabric running top is way better than a clinging cotton T shirt.
- Don’t overdo it! My friend who in his 50’s just did the Paris Marathon in under 4 hours (in 28 degree heat) tells me that runners, probably after their Personal Best were collapsing in front of him at 24 miles, needing medical input and not finishing. As Clint Eastwood rightly observed “a man’s got to know his limitations”. Slow down if you have to, but DON’T WALK.
- When you get to the end, don’t expect to feel great. Take your time, drink that electrolyte solution, and if you feel faint, sit down again. It’ll pass. Be prepared for runners’ bowel reperfusion syndrome (ie. where is there a toilet one hour from now?)
See, it’s not that bad. Go for it.