This month's half-marathon in Annapolis was well timed. With two marathons on the immediate schedule -- New York on Oct. 25 and the Marine Corps here Nov. 1 -- a fair number in the field of 2,000 (and one dog) was using the Annapolis event as a preliminary run before the final epic.
This was especially true for runners going into their first marathon. For them, the question, "Where am I in my training?" is the most perplexing mystery of distance running.
For first-timers, the question has no satisfactory answer. A first marathon necessarily is paved with questions as it should be: only new ground is about to be covered. Questions, hovering deep in the mind, are raised that have nothing to do with running.
Will I be able to sleep the night before the race? What should I eat the day before -- meat and potatoes, potatoes and potatoes, or only liquids, so as to "run light"? What if traffic is jammed on the road to the race -- 15,000 runners in New York, 10,000 at the Marine Corps -- and they start without me?
In New York, the answer is provided in the form of buses that haul the mob from Manhattan to the Verrazano Bridge beginning at 6 a.m., 4 1/2 hours before post time. It is one of the sport's high miseries to ride over the bridge in predawn darkness in a linament-reeking bus while everyone around and perhaps on top of you is gabbing merrily about their history of injuries. When this happens, you are hitting the wall in reverse: the glycogen is leaving your mind as it will leave your muscles hours later.
First-timers are hard to advise. Which is fine, because they don't need advice. They are in such a state of animated expectation that this modest high, in itself, is all that really matters. Not even counting the hundreds of hours of training runs for the race, this expectation is such a form of mental preparation that it will prove to be a major source of energy well into the race.
It will mean that psychologically, a first marathon is only a 20-miler. The first six miles are so playfully exhilarating -- the crush of the pack, the sense of confidence, the feeling that you are about to fulfill a worthy contract with yourself -- that the actual roadwork is not felt. The body writes off six miles like a discount, the full price being deferred until the second, third, or the 12th marathon, when the playfulness has worn off.
At this moment, with one and two weeks to go before the two marathons, it is too late to "get ready." Marathon readiness began either a year ago, perhaps two, or it hasn't begun at all. Distance running can't be faked. If anything, first-timers are overly conscientious. They tend to overtrain. If they miss a day, they act as though their legs will forget how to move. If they feel an ache in a joint, they either will try to "run through the pain" by doubling their mileage that day or go to a podiatrist who will just happen to have opened a new shipment of the latest orthotic device.
I have met few first-time marathoners who undertrain. If anything, they keep telling you about all the 20s they have been doing. The 10- and 15-mile runs are so short as to be not worth mentioning.
All that's necessary for the first marathon is to go into it with a decent base. Anywhere between 40 and 50 miles a week for at least a fair part of the last year provides it. The goal of the first marathon ought to be nothing more than a respectable run, which means that you won't collapse in the chutes past the finish line.
I remember the counsel David Gottlieb -- the former president of the D.C. Road Runners Club and now in the advertising trade in south Florida -- would offer to first-timers: be sure that you train hard enough so that the first marathon will be easy enough. It should be a pleasant experience, not an ordeal so traumatic that you will never run another.
At some point, there may be good reason for not running marathons: persistent injuries, a preference for shorter races, not enough time to train adequately. But that is a decision for later. If the first marathon is a success, this decision can be positive, not negative. You'll be able to keep running, without running away.