It's easy to assemble tips on running marathons. The books and the gurus tell you the same thing: You should drink lots of water. Carbo-load. Taper your training. Sometimes, though, plans go awry. Problems blow through, tossing well-laid plans into the wind. Fingers get cold, stomachs get upset, bladders get full. And then what?
A range of marathoners -- from serious to elite -- were asked to forget positive advice and delve into the pain. They were asked not about doing things properly, but rather about screwing up. Their stories of misfortune have been assembled here. They offer less experienced marathoners a chance to learn the hard way the easy way -- vicariously.
Read on for our advice on what not to do:
Don't stop taking in fluids, no matter what the circumstances.
It was U.S. marathoner Rod DeHaven's first marathon. Perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he drank too much water at the start. In any event, shortly into the race, he developed a strong urge to urinate. The problem grew more and more distressing, he said. He chose not to stop at any of the portable toilets along the course because he was among the leaders. "I had a reasonable shot of winning at that point," he said.
Instead, he stopped drinking. He skipped all of the water stops. By the time he reached Mile 22, dehydration had replaced a full bladder as his most debilitating problem. The muscles in his legs began seizing and cramping. Over the last four miles, DeHaven, 33, fell out of the group of leaders. Running at what felt to DeHaven like a crawling pace, he managed to finish fifth overall, below his high expectations.
"Certainly, I could have pulled over into the bushes somewhere, but I feared I would lose too much time and tighten up," said DeHaven, a computer programmer seeking to make the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.
He added wistfully: "I haven't mastered the art of urinating on the run. If I could urinate on the run, I would be devastating."
Don't run a marathon if you haven't trained for a marathon.
Rick Nealis, director of the Marine Corps Marathon, traveled to the Los Angeles Marathon last March intending to jog only the first 13 miles with another race director, observing the race's operation.
Nealis's day got off to a poor start when he failed to find the other race director in the crowd at the start. So off Nealis went, running by himself. By the first or second mile, he said, he felt out of stride and pain in his knees. He also felt unprepared. Because he had not planned to run competitively, he failed to eat or drink sufficiently before the race.
By Mile 9, he stopped at an aid station. Volunteers determined that his knee was inflamed. They gave him aspirin and a liquid spray that warmed the kneecap and reduced the pain. Nealis appreciated the product until he turned to leave the aid station. A child grabbed the liquid heat, and squirted Nealis in the back with it. "He got the front and back of my legs, up near my buttocks," Nealis said. "[Everything] was inflamed at this point."
Nealis actually felt better by Mile 13, because he had begun to consume bagels and orange quarters. He felt so much better, in fact, he decided he would finish the marathon, rather than stopping. It was at the halfway point, however, that the agonizing ascent into Hollywood began. By Mile 16, Nealis was alternately walking and running. By Mile 23, Nealis was bleeding from his nipples because of chafing. A sympathetic spectator offered him a bottle of water, saying: "Man, you look bad, really bad." By the end of the marathon, Nealis had consumed seven bagels and three oranges.
"You're the only one out here," a fellow racer told Nealis at one of the food stops, "who has put on weight during this race."
Nealis, running in his fifth marathon, finished in just under five hours. "The moral of the story," Nealis said, "is train properly."
Don't assume comfortable clothing will still be comfortable at Mile 20.
Nealis isn't the only marathoner to suffer from chafing. Runners say that, over the course of 26 miles, they face not only the irritation of clothes or shoes that rub against their bodies, but also the jagged edges of the salt crystals formed by extensive sweating. Those crystals aggravate what otherwise might have been minor chafing. A simple remedy is putting petroleum jelly products everywhere -- under the arms, between the legs, all over toes. For added protection, male runners often put adhesive bandages over their nipples. It's also important not to wear new clothes for a race.
"You will chafe in places you didn't think in your wildest dreams you would ever chafe," said U.S. Olympian Keith Brantly, who finished 28th at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
In one race, Brantly said, "My butt cheeks got chafed, an amazing thing for a skinny runner with no butt. The inside of my thighs have gotten so chafed I thought they were going to catch on fire.
"It's not just aggravating, it's very painful. It's like sliding down a board full of razor blades into a pool of alcohol."
Don't start too fast.
During his first marathon as a cocky 27-year-old in 1989, Brantly went out at a lightning pace. By the halfway mark of the race in Honolulu, he was on course for a 2-hour 10-minute finish. At that point, Brantly was having a ball. He could not get over how easy and painless that first marathon seemed.
At about the 20-mile mark, however, a wave of fatigue seemed to smack him in the face. He fell back from the leaders and was passed over the last couple of miles by a few runners.
"All of a sudden, boom! You cease to be a runner and you're a walker," Brantly said. "It was as if you drained all of the blood out of my legs, and injected cement.
"I could see the clock, but I couldn't run any faster. You could have held a million dollars in front of me, and there was no way I could have run any harder."
The winner of the 1986 New York City Marathon, Gianni Poli, passed Brantly, who finished in seventh place in 2:20.35, near the finish. Poli later told Brantly that he ran by quickly because, "You looked like a ghost. I didn't want to catch what you had."
Jenny Spangler, the winner of the 1996 women's Olympic marathon trials, said she made the same mistake at the 1994 Chicago Marathon. She took off running 5:20 miles -- much faster than she planned. By the time she hit Mile 19, she was totally spent.
Said Spangler: "I actually a few times just sat down on the course and said: `I'm not doing this.'"
With other runners urging her on, she reluctantly got up and returned to the race, taking nine minutes to run the last mile and finishing in 2:43.02. "It got to a point they were shouting out the times every mile, and I didn't even want to know."
Linda Somers-Smith went out too fast at her first marathon in Sacramento in 1989. She finished second in 2:33, but in considerable pain after hitting the wall at about the 20th mile. "The whole thing is so incredibly painful," she said. "It's a weird feeling to be an athlete and have nothing. If a tiger came up behind you, you would lay down and say: Go ahead."
Don't change your routine on race day.
Top U.S. marathoner Christine McNamara was among the leaders of the Chicago Marathon in 1997 when she began suffering from bad stomach pains and cramps at about Mile 10. She immediately realized her decision to vary from her normal routine -- eating breakfast (plain yogurt, toast and tea) two hours instead of 4 hours before the race -- was coming back to haunt her.
The problems intensified as McNamara reached the midway point. She began suffering from diarrhea. She was, however, determined not to stop. "I had built up for this for four or five months," she said. "I was really geared up to win it." Soon the marathon became more of a survival test than a race. McNamara said her distress was evident. She was embarrassed by her obvious difficulties.
"I was like in a different world," she said. "I remember being really miserable. I didn't feel mentally strong, I was just hoping to make the next mile. I was hoping nobody would see me. I just wanted to get to the finish line and hide. It was really humiliating."
McNamara finished in fourth place with a time of 2:33.08. She had been passed in the last mile. She crossed the finish line, she said, and began sobbing. A photographer joked that, not to worry, he wouldn't put her picture in the newspaper. The experience, McNamara said, "was torture. It was not fun at all. I had never had an experience like that."
Don't underestimate the power of the weather.
It took McNamara a while before she cared to undertake another marathon. When she finally entered a marathon in Columbus, Ohio, in November 1995, the weather was bitterly cold. The wind chill dropped temperatures into the low teens. McNamara said she wore thick tights, a headband, good gloves and a long-sleeve shirt in order to stay warm.
She didn't, however, take into account the effects of spilled water in below-freezing temperatures. By the eighth or 10th mile, McNamara said, her gloves were coated in solid ice. Her fingers were so cold they ached. To her relief, she spotted her boyfriend along the course.
"Give me your gloves! Give me your gloves!" she shouted at him. "I'm not going to be able to finish if you don't!"
McNamara's boyfriend complied, and McNamara managed to qualify for the 1996 Olympic trials with her time.
"When you do well, it's all right," McNamara said. "When you do poorly after training so much, because of something you ate or drank or something really stupid, you just feel ridiculous."
Don't experiment with unfamiliar foods on race day.
Bob Kempainen started feeling queasy at the 22nd mile of the 1996 Olympic marathon trials in Charlotte. The culprit, apparently, was a sports energy drink that upset his stomach. Under other circumstances, Kempainen might have slowed or stopped to let the queasiness pass. But he was leading the race and there was much at stake. The winner took home $100,000 and the top three finishers qualified for the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
So Kempainen kept going. At the 24-mile mark, with competitors Mark Coogan and Brantly just 20 yards behind, Kempainen vomited twice. He barely decelerated, however, and actually picked up speed as the race continued.
Kempainen's stomach problems weren't quite over. He threw up four more times before crossing the finish line, pale, drained, exhausted -- and in first place.
His competitors were aware of his sports-drink-induced distress -- but still couldn't catch him. Coogan and Brantly won the other two qualifying slots.
"I thought, `This guy is the toughest human being on the face of the earth,'" Brantly told reporters then. "I would have started crying and stopped."
Don't enter the Antarctica Marathon unless you are prepared to dodge dive-bombing predators.
Arlington runner Tammy Huck traveled to the 1999 Antarctica Marathon hoping the course would present a unique opportunity to see penguins, seals and other creatures of the South Pole. She paid $4,000 for the 10-day excursion, which included a flight through Buenos Aires to the southern tip of South America, where the competitors boarded a research vessel for the two-day boat ride to the race site at King George's Island. The terrain on the 26.2-mile course was as difficult as she expected. It required, among other things, climbing a glacier and slogging through muddy paths.
Runners also had been warned about hostile skuas -- large brown and white predatory birds found near cold waters. But they hadn't heard much about the terns, somewhat smaller shorebirds with straight bills and forked tails.
"They would dive-bomb toward you and make this tick-tick-tick noise that really freaked you out," Huck said. "We were all spread out, so I figured we were fair game. There were solitary ones, and they would go after certain people."
While ducking the diving terns, Huck said she was able to avoid the skuas, which instead -- to the runners' horror -- attacked sickly penguins. "They're huge and ugly," she said about the skuas. "They have these giant hooked beaks. They would be a great Halloween costume."
Huck finished the race with a better look at nature than she ever imagined. Her time (5:20), however, fell 2:05 below her personal best.
Don't forget any necessary disguises.
Back in 1967, Kathrine Switzer obtained a race number for the Boston Marathon by using the name K.V. Switzer, because that marathon -- as well as all others of that day -- was considered a male-only event. Much to the shock of Switzer, a 20-year-old medical student, she was literally attacked at Mile 4 by race director Jock Semple, who leaped off the official truck when he spotted her. Semple tried to tear the number off her shirt and drag her off the course. Switzer was running alongside her burly boyfriend -- a hammer thrower. The boyfriend threw himself at Semple and knocked him out of the way. Switzer then took off, powering to a 4-hour 20-minute finish.
Lesson Learned: Don't try to beat the heat.
Joan Benoit of Maine stole the show during the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, winning the first Olympic marathon for women despite temperatures in the high eighties. But it was the struggle of Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland, that left the most indelible image of that race. Andersen-Schiess, suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration, staggered and weaved to the finish, requiring more than two minutes to cover the final 200 meters. At the finish, she collapsed into the arms of medical personnel.
Don't wear new shoes.
Kenyan John Kagwe did nothing for the sales of the Nike Air Vengeance shoe during the 1997 New York City Marathon. Kagwe won that marathon, but only after stopping twice to tie his new Nike shoes and, after they came unlaced a third time, running the last three miles with right laces flying. Kagwe finished in 2 hours 8 minutes 12 seconds, the second-fastest time run in New York. "I could have broken the record if my shoe hadn't bothered me," Kagwe said.
Don't take advantage of public transportation.
Cuban Rosie Ruiz gained fame when she allegedly jumped on the subway rather than running the full 26.2 miles to gain first place in the 1980 Boston Marathon. Her competitors were suspicious of her time -- 25 minutes faster than she had ever run before -- and the fact that no one remembered seeing her on the course.
Two Harvard law students reported seeing her jump into the race less than a mile from the finish. About a week after the race, Ruiz was disqualified and banned from future races. She has said she would like to run Boston again, and has never admitted to not completing the entire course.