This fall, hundreds of thousands of runners will converge on streets around the globe for marathon season. Big-city races include the Chicago Marathon, the Baltimore Running Festival and D.C.’s Marine Corps Marathon, all in October, followed by the New York City Marathon in November.
“I was terrified of the distance,” said Amby Burfoot, who made his debut at the Boston Marathon in 1965. He won the race three years later.
A runner’s first marathon won’t always go according to plan. But even the most successful have come away with lessons for the rest of us.
The Washington Post reached out to experienced runners, including an Olympic medalist, and asked them: “What do you wish you knew before you ran your first marathon?” Here are their responses.
It’s supposed to be hard
“There isn’t a single marathon that I haven’t wanted to drop out,” said Teal Burrell, an elite runner who competed at both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and has run 18 marathons. Burrell ran her first marathon in college in about four hours, and now has a personal best of 2:39:11.
“Everybody is struggling with the same mental battle of, ‘This is really hard. I’m not gonna get through this,’ ” said Burrell, a 37-year-old mother of two living in Richmond. “I wish I had known that. It’s just like a universal truth of marathoning.”
Julie Sapper, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach, agrees, and it’s something she wished she had known before running the 2000 Marine Corps Marathon.
“I think during the race, I was surprised by the pain, and I never experienced so much discomfort in my life through an athletic pursuit,” Sapper said. “And it really scared me for a little bit. Whereas now I understand that that’s part of the experience, that you feel discomfort.”
Be prepared for the crowd’s energy
Annie Frisbie, 25, wouldn’t change much about her first marathon. She finished the New York City Marathon last year as the seventh overall woman in 2:26:18.
But looking back, Frisbie, an elite runner who competes for Minnesota Distance Elite, realized that she was unprepared for how loud the spectators would be. At times, the crowd noise spurred her to pick up her pace, and it knocked her out of her zone.
“I wish I knew just how much energy the crowds would give you,” Frisbie said. “I definitely did get a little bit too much adrenaline at certain parts of the race. What I learned from that is just don’t get too excited when there’s really loud parts on the course, and really try to save that energy because you’re going to need it those last six miles.”
Stay patient until Mile 20
After failing to reach his goal of running a 2:12 marathon (by just 35 seconds), Olympian Meb Keflezighi told people he never wanted to run the marathon again. In retrospect, the 47-year-old said, he understands he was just impatient and did not conserve his energy correctly or evenly. Instead of remaining patient at Mile 16 as his coach had instructed, Keflezighi went for the win.
“Be patient. Mile 16, you still got 10 miles to go,” said Keflezighi, who won a silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics. By the time you reach Mile 20, you can take more risks, he said. “Make it a blazing” last 10K, he added.
Have your mantras ready
Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champion and former executive editor of Runner’s World, did not believe in the power of mental preparation for the marathon in his younger years.
Now, at age 76 and retired, Burfoot has finished approximately 80 marathons and is an advocate for using mantras. Research has shown that motivational self-talk during exercise can improve endurance performance.
“The race is so much of a mental challenge, as well as a physical challenge,” Burfoot said. “So I tell people to have their mantras figured out in advance and have them rehearsed and ready to go when you need them.”
The quote “Pain is temporary, pride is forever” has kept Burfoot going during marathons. “I’m sure there have been many, many other runners who have used thoughts like that to keep themselves going,” he said.
Use the 20 degrees rule to decide what to wear
Tony Reed wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt, gloves and a hat to the start line of the 1982 Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth. It was around 40 degrees that morning, Reed recalled. But two miles into the race, Reed started shedding his clothes.
Now Reed, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach, subscribes to what he calls the “20 degree rule,” something that he did not know about in 1982.
“If you look at what the temperature is going to be when you finish the marathon and add 20 degrees to it, that is the way you’re supposed to dress,” said Reed, the co-founder and executive director of the National Black Marathoners Association. He added that the rule may vary depending on the speed of the runner.
Plan for crowded and messy hydration stations
Betsy Balgooyen Keller learned during the 2000 Chicago Marathon just how busy and crowded the hydration stations can get. Runners crowd together to grab a cup of water or sports drink. Discarded liquid and cups are scattered across the road.
Nowadays, Balgooyen Keller, a site coordinator for the Chicago Area Runners Association, brings a disposable bottle of water with her for the first few miles before discarding it.
“You can avoid the chaos of those aid stations and use your water,” she said.
Balgooyen Keller also cautions that the area around hydration stations can be very slick, especially for runners in the middle or back of the pack who arrive at water stops well after the front of the pack has made a mess. “You have to really take your time,” she said.
For Gene Demby, the co-host of NPR’s Code Switch and an avid runner, the excitement of his first marathon at the NYC Marathon in 2010, meant that he skipped the first few hydration stations. It contradicted his training, which included regular hydration. “There was no reason to start freestyling that day,” Demby said. “I should have stuck to the plan.”
Celebrate the journey
Runners only get to finish their first marathon once. Embrace the moment and celebrate the training it required to get to the start line. Whether you’re an elite marathoner hoping to stand on the podium or a first-time marathoner who just wants to finish, everyone starts and ends up at the same place.
“Your first marathon is very special because you don’t have expectations,” Sapper said. “So for folks who are getting out there to do their first marathon, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not just because it’s your first, but because you get to go into something you’ve never done before with no expectations other than to do your best. There’s something really lovely about that.”
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