Just a few weeks ago I ran my very first marathon in Eugene, Oregon, crossing off one item on my list to becoming part of the top 1% of the world.
It was an uncomfortable decision to make. I’d never ran more than 10 miles in my entire life and I’d only ever done that once.
To make matters worse, all the pros said I needed to train at least 16 weeks for my first marathon in order to be successful, but by the time I decided to do it, I only had 8.
The cards were stacked against me and I have to admit, I was a little nervous. But I finished.
Not only did I complete it, but I finished in under 4 hours, something most people (myself included) never expected.
A human is not supposed to run 26.2 miles – more than 50,000 steps – at one time. But that’s exactly why I decided to do it. I just love to do things I’m not supposed to.
I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, running a marathon has very little to do with the enjoyment of running and everything to do with becoming the master of my own body and mind.
Learning to take full control of your body and your mind is a really important skill to develop no matter what risk you’re taking in life. I think anyone that wants to learn this should probably run a marathon as soon as possible.
To help you out, I’ve taken my first-timer experience and turned it into a 26.2 step guide to running your first marathon. I hope it helps you in your own quest to master your body and mind.
26.2 Steps to Running 26.2 Miles
1. Commit to running a marathon.
The words are easy to say, but it’s not nearly as easy to live up to. It’s important to have a very good reason for doing this or else it’s an easy commitment to break.
Many people that register for a marathon never even show up to the starting line. Internalize your commitment.
2. Decide how much training time you need.
The experts say you should train for at least 4 months before running your first marathon. You can stick to this plan if you want, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
There are plenty of people who train for as little as a month and some that don’t train at all and simply show up the day of the race. I trained for just 2 months and I’m nobody special. Decide for yourself how long you need.
3. Get clear on why you’re doing this.
You need a good reason why you’re running a marathon if you’re going to stick to your training plan. I did it in order to gain greater control over my mind and my body.
That was a great reason for me, but there are plenty of other good ones, too. Maybe you want to get in shape. Maybe you want a physical challenge. This should be personal. “Because my friends are doing it” probably won’t get you very far.
4. Pick a marathon and register.
I started with a marathon that was relatively close to my home in Portland, Oregon, but there’s no reason you have to. In fact, it could be a lot of fun to make a vacation out of the event.
Just keep in mind that it’ll be pretty hard to walk for a few days after the race.
5. Reserve your accommodations.
Along with the race registration, I recommend you make any hotel reservations or other accommodations you need before you even start training. This adds some extra motivation to the mix.
I stayed on a friend’s floor who lives in town. I don’t really recommend this as it’s important to get a good night’s sleep before the race, but when you’re on a budget you do what you have to do.
6. Build a training schedule.
There are all kinds of resources out there to help you determine how you should be training. Most suggest running 4 times a week with 1 long run every week that gets progressively longer. Here’s the schedule that I used.
Of course, I modified it to fit my own needs by changing it to only 8 weeks and running only 3 times a week. Don’t be scared to change the schedule if you know it will ultimately benefit you.
7. Find an accountability partner.
Having a friend or family member train and race with you is ideal for maintaining motivation as the training gets more and more difficult. Of course, this isn’t always possible.
I trained by myself but had several people that knew my schedule and gently reminded me to keep it up when I started complaining too much.
8. Eat and sleep well before long training runs.
Once you get up to your 16, 18, and 20 mile runs, you’re going to need a lot of energy to complete them. Lots of carbs and sleep the night before will help in this department.
I would not recommend any kind of carbonated energy drink before your run. Unpleasant.
9. Build flexibility into your schedule.
No matter how hard you try to stick to your training schedule, life is going to figure out how to get in the way, and probably more than once.
Missing a training day isn’t the end of the world, but it makes it a lot easier to miss another… and then another… until the dream is all but gone. Reschedule, don’t cancel.
I planned on running on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, but often had to simply suck it up and switch days around when something important got in the way.
10. Don’t race during your training runs.
It’s a good idea to keep track of how long it takes you to complete each run, but I wouldn’t worry about trying to race yourself while training for your first marathon.
Your training runs are going to get increasingly difficult. Better to focus on finishing first and then worry about improving your time.
11. Set a secondary goal.
Once you’ve completed all your training runs, look at your times and decide on one that you’d like to beat.
This is your secondary goal and you’re going to pursue it as soon as you know that your primary goal (actually finishing) is going to be accomplished.
12. Get to town a day early.
If you’re traveling to run your marathon, do not try to get there the morning of the event.
Marathons start very early and staying up all night driving just to get out of the car and start running is not the best strategy. You’ll be tired and out of it.
Get a hotel room, book a hostel, sleep in your car if you have to, but get there a day early. You’ll probably be required to in order to pick up your race packet.
13. Give up any vices before the race.
I quit drinking alcohol for a full month before I ran my first marathon. I quit eating candy and other sweets a full 2 weeks before.
I’m not going to pretend like this is an absolute requirement for everyone. I know there are plenty of people that can party the night before and run a marathon while chain smoking cigarettes, but my body felt really good and totally prepared for the race by purging that stuff early on.
14. Eat a hearty meal the night before.
The night before the marathon can bring up a lot of nerves that kill an appetite, but trust me, you want to shove as many carbohydrates and proteins down your throat as possible without getting sick.
My friends and I had banana pancakes with peanut butter. Delicious. Highly recommended.
15. Don’t get too much sleep.
It’s normal to think that for such a big event you’d want to get as much sleep as possible, but that’s not entirely true.
Don’t change your sleeping pattern. Whatever worked for you during your training will work now, too. Too much sleep can make you groggy and that’s the last thing you want on race day.
16. Buy new shoes.
I can’t stress how important this is. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on the Cadillac of running shoes, but you should definitely buy a new pair before you even start training.
Your old, worn out sneakers might work for the occasional run around the park, but they’re not going to cut it for this kind of challenge. I bought my shoes from a local running store where I could test them out and return them if I had any issues with blisters or discomfort.
17. Practice getting up early.
Marathons usually start at 7:00 am on a Sunday and you’ll need to be there earlier than that if you want a good spot in the starting line.
I’m a morning person, so 7:00 is no problem for me, but if you struggle with waking up early, especially on a weekend, I suggest some practice before hand.
18. Eat the right breakfast for you.
At the Eugene Marathon, they offered a big pancake breakfast the morning of the race. It sounded tempting, but I knew from experience that eating a meal before running would lead to a whole lot of unpleasant vomiting for the first 5 miles of the race.
Know what your stomach can handle and don’t try to eat too much the morning of. That’s what the big dinner last night was for.
19. Empty your bowels well in advance.
It’s not the most pleasant thing to think about, but that big dinner from last night will probably take a few tries to uhh… fully exit.
Start early and show up at the race in time to use the bathroom again before the gun goes off. Marathon porta-potties are absolutely disgusting, but it’s better than desperately searching for a bush to hide behind while you’re running and the clock is ticking.
20. Hold back for the first half of the race.
It seems counterintuitve, but this is a long race and the first few miles will be filled with adrenaline. If you race off too fast in the beginning, you’re going to risk not making it to the end.
21. Find a good pace.
Try to recall the pace you ran during your training and stay just a little ahead of it.
Almost all marathons have runners assigned to run the whole course at a specific pace. Find one that’s a good fit for you and hang just a little behind them until you know you’re in a good position to pull away and finish the marathon.
I say hang behind the pace setter because if you try to run in front, you’ll be constantly looking back to make sure you’re not getting too far ahead.
22. Don’t eat or drink too much during the race.
You’re going to find that there is a station with water, gatorade, or some type of energy food every other mile at the beginning of the marathon and nearly every half-mile towards the end. I made a big mistake of trying to stop at all of them.
It’s really tempting towards the end of the race to suck down every once of fluid you can get your hands on, but it’s hard to run with a gallon of water sloshing around in your stomach. Take what you need only when you need it and nothing more. Trust me on this one.
23. Disconnect your body from your mind.
This is what the marathon is all about for me. In order to finish, you have to gain incredible control over your mind and its ability to tell your body to keep going.
Some people do that with music. Some use meditation. I’ve found that I can literally have a conversation with myself while I’m running and I like to use it to work out ideas I’ve been thinking about.
This article is a direct result of a long conversation I had with myself between miles 11 and 15.
24. Blast through the wall.
Every single marathon runner experiences what’s called “the wall.” It’s the point when your body up and says, “Okay, I’m done.”
It’s almost always at least a few miles before you finish and usually sets in around the distance of your longest training run. There isn’t a lot of advice I can give here except “don’t stop.”
Not really helpful, I know, but that last tip about disconnecting your mind from your body is absolutely vital to being able to tell yourself to keep going.
25. Take any encouragement you can get.
Invite all your friends and family to come cheer you on. If they can’t make it, just pretend that they’re there.
All along the course, there will be people on the sidelines watching and cheering for the runners as they pass by. It was really helpful to pretend like they were cheering especially for me. It gave me a huge boost when I really need it it towards the end.
At one point in my delirium, I actually started saying “thank you.”
26. Dig deep and finish strong.
I don’t know what it is, but no matter how tired you are, something about the excitement and anticipation of finishing really adds some rocket boosters to your shoes in the last mile. Take advantage of this.
I really wanted to finish under 4 hours, but fell behind at mile 24. If I hadn’t taken advantage of that boost in the last mile and given it all I was worth, I never would have been able to catch back up and meet my time goal.
26.1 Rehydrate slowly.
Like I said earlier, it’s really tempting to chug every bit of fluid you can fit in your stomach as soon as you’re done. Unless you want to do it again after you puke it all up the first time, take it easy and rehydrate slowly.
Fill yourself up, but leave plenty of time to do it. That gatorade isn’t going anywhere.
26.2 Party like a rock star.
You did it! You just mastered your mind and your body and finished your first marathon. That’s a huge accomplishment, and now its time to go nuts.
Your body is going to be begging you to lay down and go to sleep pretty soon, but try to ignore it until you’ve had a chance to celebrate the fact that you just got one step closer to joining the top 1% of the world.
I’d make sure the next day’s schedule is pretty clear.
There you have it. That’s 26.2 tips for running 26.2 miles. If it’s a little overwhelming, don’t worry too much about it. Just take what you can and leave the rest.
It’s more important to get started working towards it than to get everything exactly right.
Now over to you: Have you considered running a marathon? What motivates you to take on a challenge like that?