Wednesday, November 19, 2014

#becausemarathon (tips for first-timers)

A few of my friends will be running their first full marathon soon; one is doing it this weekend. I promised to write up a “what to expect.” This is that blog. These are things I found out about running a marathon. Some people told me, but the biggest effect of all, absolutely no one prepped me for (the one about hormones after the race). I have run exactly one marathon. I am not an expert, but I am fresh enough to remember these things—and to know that other people who maybe don’t know them could benefit from there. There’s a ton of great advice on good websites about running, but not as much where someone runs one and tells you what to expect, so this is that. One person’s view from one day. But what a good day it was.I hope this helps you guys a bit.

Also, my blog account of my marathon is here, if you want a play-by-play.

Before the race

Clothes-Lay all your clothes out the night before. You probably won’t sleep well, and certainly not long enough. Don’t let that psych you out. Study after study shows that does not decrease performance, and that the night before the night before is the one that matters most. If you have a Sunday marathon, Friday night, sleep as long as you can.

Carbs- For a marathon, carb loading is important (it’s not so much for 5Ks or 10Ks, for example). But it’s not just the night before. You should be eating good carbs all week. The night before, have a carb dinner like pasta or rice. Hold the sauces. A bit of olive oil and some seasonings are good, bread on the side. Marinara or Alfredo could cause you to relive the taste for 26.2 miles. A banana and bagel or half a bagel, for breakfast is good. Some don’t like to eat. If you can’t eat much, go with the banana (a good source of energy). Avoid dairy before. Eat your dinner early (like 5) so that you can digest it and get rid of it before the race!

Yes, you have to go- Use the porta-potties as close to start time as you can. Of course they’re gross. Guess what? They are way grosser at mile 18 when lots of people have used them.

New is not cool- Don't try anything new on marathon day. Don’t wear new socks, or anything that touches your skin (a sweatshirt to throw off later because it's cool is okay, but not the bra and shirt underneath). And especially do not try new foods. This is not the time to eat that awesome dessert you always wanted to try. Eat it for a post-race victory celebration. Also, it should go without saying, but don’t drink the night before.

Aquaphor is your BFF- Before you put your socks on, rub all of your feet with Aquaphor, which is even better than Vaseline. Try this before race day (nothing new). It feels weird for a few minutes, but it will help prevent some blisters. Also use it where your bra rubs, if you're female; if you have chafed a lot in the past, use it wherever that chafing has been. While I'm at it, if you have had any issues in long runs (I had a sore knee and  knew it wasn't an injury but the strain), don't be afraid to wear a compression brace (that you have tried before). I only had pain on long runs, so I didn't think to wear mine. I regretted that.

The expo- Don't walk around too much at the expo. You need that energy in your legs. Starting a marathon with tired muscles is bad. If you travel to race, don’t do sightseeing until after the race. The walking will take its toll. 

Water and nutrition

Nutrition during the race-
Consider carrying your own water and gels. Also, consider carrying a little packet of Advil. You shouldn't take it right at the start, but it will help you with your recovery if you take it about an hour before you get to the finish line; it will kick in around when you finish, and the long walk back to the car will be a bit better.

Take gels and other energy sources before you feel the need for them. I was amazed when I watched the Boston Marathon one year, and I saw all the elite runners take their first nutrition at the 10K mark and then every 5K after that for the race duration. You know they didn't feel like they needed it, but they wanted to keep their body running strong. Of course they run much faster than us mere mortals, but it's not a bad rule of thumb to follow. If your stomach is used to gels, taking one every hour or so is a good idea. If you’re offered a banana at a stop, take it. The marathon will most likely not have a gel or food for you every hour; most have two gel spots, or even one. You don't want to lose precious time if the gel line is crowded or the water line is crowded. This is very typical in large marathons. You either have to stop, or go without.

I generally carry a very light and easy collapsible water bottle in distance races (though a hydration belt can work) and when I can reach the water stops where I can get water without losing time, I pour the water directly into the bottle to replenish it; it’s much easier to drink from than those mini cups, too. The bottle clips onto my running belt whenever I want to empty it, so I clip it at the end, so I can still run through with my hands in the air :-)

More nutrition during the race- Whatever nutrition you think you need, bring it along. If you do handle gels well (which you should have figured out before your marathon), they are the simplest way to get a pretty fast burst of carbohydrates and caffeine. (There are caffeine-free ones if that bothers you, but caffeine has been shown to improve performance—legally!). They take about 15 minutes to really work, which is why you have to take them before you start feeling like you're crashing. (I like the "Just Plain" GUs because there is no sweet flavor that might make me feel I am inhaling sugar. I just take the gel and wash it down with water, no weird after tastes or flavors.)

Why nutrition will make or break you- The human body is only designed to go about 20 miles. That's why the marathon is such an important event than only .05% of Americans have completed. My coach had told me before mine that in the past decades, the reason so many runners hit the wall at mile 20 is because we didn't know then what we know now about nutrition. We burn about 100 calories a mile, and our bodies store about 2000 calories at a time. Therefore, your glycogen stores run out at mile 20, if you don't fill them up as you go—before they run out—you will “hit the wall.” It's basic physiology, and unless you're an elite marathoner or one who knows all of your limits for 26.2, follow science. It works. Marathon day is not the time to experiment with such a crucial thing.

During the race

Take a few pictures (or more)- It’s worth it. Carry your phone in a bag where you can get to it. I wear an Amphipod belt (you can buy one at the expo if you end up without  a belt, but run a bit in it to be sure it's adjusted right. I can clip Fuel Belt water bottles on it, and stick gels and Advil (and even a caffeine pill) in it. And my phone fits nicely. So it’s a matter of pulling it out and shooting a picture. I am rather picture happy and so I did what I do for most half marathons or long races. Every mile I took a picture of the mile marker and then a selfie. It’s dorky but cool. A couple pictures, my selfies were with Brian and Melissa or Eldon (my other friend—who was already my friend before the race).  Take some. But that leads me to the battery question. For mine, I bought a battery extender (it’s for sale for an iPhone 5 or 5s, by the way! It doesn’t fit my 6.) They are pricey, but I bought one that had some discount. It wasn’t the best on the market, but it was a wireless charger, and it worked. I finished the marathon with power left. My Garmin died before my phone.  (They retail around $100 or more, but I got mine for about half that. Ask around in your cell phone store; they can often give you a discount too). Totally worth it. It’s one memory, one day. You can’t ever have a first marathon again. Take advantage of every moment.

Don’t go out too fast- The excitement overtakes you in these moments. You start running, you think “Wow, I feel good!” You pass the half mark and think you feel better than you did when you ran all your half marathons, so you pick it up. And then at mile 18, you find yourself walking where you didn’t plan to. Part of the challenge of a marathon is being able to carry your endurance the whole way. If you have a Garmin or other GPS device, watch your pace. It shouldn’t be much faster than you expect. You should know your expected finish time. If you get to mile 20 and can push more, great. If you are taking in food and drink well enough, you should have energy to make it. It is better to push less and finish than too push too hard and have to sit down because you feel sick.

Enjoy the process- Don't get hung up in how hard it is, or how bad you feel. It is hard, and it will be uncomfortable. Keep the determination in your mind, trust your training, and every once in a while tell yourself, “I'm running a marathon. I'm really running a marathon!” One of the most surprising parts of my marathon was when we got to mile 20, where people are known to hit the wall and think they can’t make it, I got a second wind and a runner’s high because I knew I was at that pivotal mark in the marathon, and I was still going. Do not think about how far you have to go. It's easy at mile 20, for example, to think, “oh my gosh! I have to run a full 10K more and I’m so tired, and my back hurts, and there’s a hill ahead.” You’ll think of 10Ks you've run in the past and how long they were. Don't do that! Focus, instead, on thinking “Oh my gosh! I’ve run 20 miles! I’m still going!” If you showed up to the starting line of a marathon, you most likely have done the training. Your body is ready, and the saying is actually true, it's your mind you have to work on.

About the pain and difficulty- Listen, it may be very painful, or it may not. My back hurt some as I got into the 15-16 mile range, and my knee was definitely hurting because I hadn't braced it, but I didn't feel any incredible pains anywhere. I never had to stop. You feet will probably hurt. Think about it, if you walk around shopping for a few hours, your feet and back probably hurt some. The constant repetition on your feet will hurt. You will adjust your footfall to try to get relief. It may even make you want to stop and walk. The thing is, every time I thought that, I realized that would extend the time on my feet. No.

Some people say you shouldn't walk down the stairs because you feel like you're dying, that going up is easier, but avoid stairs altogether. That didn't happen to me at all. I got up the next day and ran a mile. My body ached some, but not horribly. I never went through any horrible pains or strains. For a couple days I felt it, but honestly, I hurt more after my first half marathon than my marathon. Of course, your results may vary, but don't imagine the worst because it might not happen. Plan for it, plan to pamper yourself if you need it, but don’t imagine that it’s the worst and you will be in pain for a week. Some people say the marathon is the hardest thing they have ever done. I can’t say that. It was not easy, by any means. I could not go out and do one today, but I have done harder things. This was less hard because it was so joyful. But honestly, if you are trained, your body is ready for it. Barring injury mid-race, expect the best. The worst for me it was definitely the emotional ups and downs from the messed up hormones and cells.

Focus on the finish- Imagine the moment that you're going to cross the finish line, and even at the beginning, you're only hours away from that moment. Another common saying with the marathon is that you've already done the work and the 26.2 miles is the celebration of that. This is true, too.

In your first marathon, time does not matter. Finishing matters. Don't focus on the time or you might over-pace yourself and run out of energy.

I only had one person at my marathon cheering me on because I went out of state. But that person (Joyce, amazing Joyce) mapped out a route where she could drive to various points, and she managed to appear out of the blue at least four times and still get to the finish line to see me cross.  She would jump out with a new sign when I didn't know she would be there, and my face lit up. That helps so much. You need people there. And if there's any way they can appear at various points and map out what roads are opened and closed to be able to drive to the next one, plan that out. You need people before you get to the finish line to help you get to the finish line. If you don't have people, and you are running a large marathon, the fans will be the most incredible thing you've ever seen and will help. They'll randomly call out your name if it's on your bib, cheer you on, scream for you and act like you're the greatest celebrity in the world. They're amazing.

Other runners- Inevitably you will see some of the same runners over and over because you are at about the same pace. I met my friends Brian and Melissa that way. We ran 26.2 miles together—and much of it was together. We talked a lot. Talk to people. 4-6 hours or so is a very long time to be alone doing something hard. You will miss out on some of the joy of the race if you don’t talk to people—whether it’s the same people like I did, or just a few different people you see. Ask them stuff: What do they do? Is this their first marathon? Where do they live? Have a conversation. A few miles of my race were blurs because I was walking and running. Remember, you’re not trying to break speed records in a marathon if you are not competitive. For most, a marathon pace is also one where you can talk easily. Do it.
After the race

Expect your hormones to go wacky- I don't know that it happens to everyone, but I do know it’s common, especially for first-time marathoners. I was stunned at what my body and mind were doing afterwards. A Facebook friend of mine who is an ultra-marathoner or told me that it was normal and that your cells and hormones go out of whack in a marathon because of the stress on the body, that you cause trauma to the body. For a first marathon, it would be better to expect this to happen and just be thankful if it doesn't. It really messed with me.  For three solid days after I got home, I was nauseated and as emotional as pregnant women say they are. I would be amazingly high one moment that I had done this awesome thing, and then suddenly I would start crying. It was insane. I felt a bit insane. It tapered off after three days and was only here and there. By the end of the week that part was back to normal.

Until you feel normal again, do not make any major decisions, or put yourself in a place where you might have to be part of something major. Three days later you might feel differently. Let yourself stabilize first.

To help your body settle, have Gatorade type drinks on hand at home And start drinking it after the race as well) to help neutralize and re-balance your system. Coconut water will help, if you prefer that. So will ginger ale. Also, you should probably take some extra doses of vitamin C and vitamin D--even before the race. I got a cold almost immediately after coming home, and I expect that part of it came from my physical weaknesses.

Sleep- I am a chronic insomniac, and I could not stay awake past 10 or so the many days after (again, cellular trauma need recovery). Plan out time to sleep, and possibly even expect to be in bed reading and--bam!--the next thing you know it's morning! I liked this side effect because I do have trouble sleeping, but was also was odd and threw me.

Buy the pictures- I don’t care how expensive they are. Buy them. Relive your moments. Frame some, put them on Facebook. You worked months for this moment. You just became part of an incredibly small group called “marathoners.” It’s a big deal.

Other people- Lots of people think every race is a marathon. They don’t get what you have been doing, how many runs you did in bad weather, or feeling yucky, how many Saturday mornings you missed lounging around, all so you could beat your body into the right training to endure one of the ultimate tests of endurance. Remind yourself that non-runners don’t usually get it. Don’t let yourself be hurt (so in those first three days or so while you are all emotional, if someone says, “oh, cool, but is it really that hard?” then bite your tongue and respond to them Friday. And tell me! I absolutely love hearing people’s race stories. I care about all those little details that even your family doesn’t get. If you are not a part of the Facebook group called Runner’s Corner, join it. It’s so positive and encouraging. That group celebrated my many pictures, race recap, etc. I had something pretty rotten happen after my race, and that FB group kept me going with joy over it the race. It’s vitally important to surround yourself with those types of people, even online. (Plus I have made some actual real life friends from that group when I have met them at races.)

Sign up for a race- When you get back, sign up for another race right away (though the race won’t be right away), even if it’s a 5K (give yourself 2-4 weeks before you race again, and most would say 3-4, but of course I did a race the next week because I’m a dork! I was slower than normal but won first in my age group!) If you don’t have a race to work on, even slowly, you can easily get caught up in recovery, having our time back, and getting out of the running groove.

About recovery time- There is a lot of information online. Read it, but listen to your body. It actually helps your recovery if you run a slow mile or two the next day. I know some people who don’t run at all for two weeks. If your body says that, then listen. But if you feel great three days later and want to run, then run. If the run starts hurting or feeling too strained, then walk. No two people are alike; therefore, no one can tell you exactly how long you need to recover. You must listen to your body.

Buy it- That 26.2 sticker or magnet. You earned it if you finished. It’s an unwritten rule of running that you never put those on your car if you didn’t do it. It is like a secret handshake. When I see one, it makes me smile at the car (even f it cut me off!) and smile at the memories of mine.

Finally- I voice dictated a lot of this as I was driving just so I would have my thoughts to edit later, and I still get teary-eyed as I'm saying it. When I think of some of the things like crossing the finish line or the surprise euphoria at mile 20, or seeing Joyce  jump out of the blue, I really don't remember the pain or where it hurt or any of that. I only remember the victory. I have never had a child, but it does sound the way the people describe childbirth, although I'm quite sure that the pain of childbirth is much worse.

Also, wear your finisher shirt a lot because you will feel like a rock star. #becausemarathon

Savor the moments of the marathon so you can savor the memory