Marathon Lessons – You only forget once!

Sunday 11.30am…Ahhh that was great.  Recovery from illness finally, although the remnants of the cough seem determined to join me across my winter training schedule, allowed me to revel in the sheer joy that is the Sunday long training run.

Loved it…

Cold, crisp, weather better than the doom laden forecast suggesting that the scenario in the Day After Tomorrow maybe about to come true, all combined for me to really enjoy the run Sunday including the unscheduled detour along the Regents Canal.

Now one of the key challenges of writing this blog is finding stuff to write about that readers will find interesting and useful enough to come back to, but also material that may change what readers might do for themselves around their own training/physical activity (at least I hope that happens).  Again this blog all came from a post-run chat, which is one of the best aspects of being able to do these long runs with others because you always have an immediate shared experience to talk about.  And, let’s face it training for your race can be lonely and difficult to articulate about all the challenges it throws up if there isn’t something common to talk about.

So, I’m going to delve into my memory banks and pull out some of the key lessons I learnt from my very first marathon experience – Brighton 2010, the very first Brighton Marathon.

I’d planned this to be a blog closer to those events we’re training for, but following the conversation on Sunday I realised they are potentially much more useful now if you can incorporate them into the training schedule now so you can try out the tips before the big day.  Also you may find them useful for other parts of life as my great sister tweeted about my last blog – ‘there’s stuff in there that applies beyond marathon training’.  I hope so because it’s strangely addictive seeing the stats change for the blog as each entry is added.  So thank you for reading this, and spread the word please.

I’ve got a whole load of things to go through as it is amazing to look back and see just a few of the things I learnt from that very first marathon experience.  These will be in no particular order, and demonstrate my thought process at Upper Crust at Newport station in Wales rather than any priority to the lessons, advice, or views I’m seeking to offer.  These include:

Supporters are important, use them wisely – you cannot underestimate the boost you get from having your name shouted out by a voice you recognise.  Lovely as it is to have cheers etc from strangers, there’s nothing like hearing your name from a familiar voice to drag you out of your head just at the point you’re really starting to struggle.  However, it is important to try to agree where you might see your supporter/s.  Not precisely – eg at the 23 mile marker – because at the busy races there’s always a chance that place might be occupied by someone else’s supporters.  A rough area – around 23 miles – is enough because it is equally devastating if you as the runner pass an assigned point and think you haven’t seen/heard your supporters and the opportunity has gone.  If you are lucky enough to have a number there, try to spread them out along the route rather than having them all in one place.  Also it’s important to appreciate that it is a long day for them too.  So, if after you’ve run your race they are observing that they are really tired and their feet are hurting, be sympathetic and let them get a cab – please note irony was temporarily suspended there.

Plans are important, don’t waste your efforts in putting it together – training is as much about identifying the pace you need to run at and learning how your body and mind react to the circumstances around them as the distance increases.  In my first marathon, I had a ridiculously complicated plan that involved me writing almost all my mile splits on the back of my hand – ahh get sweaty and they disappear.  Yet the excitement and adrenaline got the better of me and I went off much too fast – why are you runners all starting so slowly when you can clearly weave in and out of the pack to get moving that much quicker – meant that any chance of a sub-4hr time disappeared between miles 16-18 and took a further four miles to 22 to recover a reasonable pace.  The best advice here is to identify the pace you need to run at to achieve your target time, use your training runs to understand what that pace feels like, and then stick to it irrespective of what other runners are doing around you.  In the larger races, you’ll often find pacers running with placards showing the target time they are running to who you can run with or follow.  This worked for me in my 3rd Brighton Marathon as I had tried to keep the 3hr 45min in sight and finding I had succeeded at 22 miles went ahead of him to finish in a truly remarkable 3hr 42mins.

Stick to your usual breakfast, but make sure you have something – I have porridge before all long runs without it I will conk out after about an hour.  On race day it is an important meal to try and get down you as it will stand you in great stead at later stages in the race.  Not used to having it, then use the training runs to see what works for you.

Keeping fluids / gels / blocks topped up – I find that if I start really wanting fluid / gels / blocks then it is probably too late for them to really provide a true benefit.  I like to keep topped up scheduling blocks (Clif, since you ask) at around every 45 mins.  Scheduling helps break up some of the more challenging race sections.  Most of the bigger races now have a mix of water and sports drinks and even shot blocks available at regular intervals around the course.  Plan these into your race schedule, but also take your own and save your experimentation for the training runs as some gels/blocks can upset an unprepared stomach.  Also the use of a Camelbak (rucksack with a bag for water) has revolutionised my long run experience and helps me to stay topped up with fluids.  With this also read the nutritional advice most of the major races provide as too much fluid can be as bad, or worse, than too little.

Expect a real tough bit or bits – in all my marathons there has been a section of the race where the challenge seems to be insurmountable.  You’ll want to stop, give up, every part of your body could be hurting, you’ll be telling yourself it’s all too much.  As I’ve said in previous blogs this is something you’ll experience on the ‘bad’ training run, but in actual fact it’s a ‘good’ experience because it gets you through these inevitable events.  Chanting a mantra or running to the next lamppost, mile marker, kilometre  marker, drinks station can all help.  However, expecting it to occur will also help you be prepared for it and get through it.  You’ve done your training and that is preparing you for getting through these times.

Enjoy the pre-race atmosphere – although I have been nervous beyond belief arriving at your race should also be a celebration.  You’ve worked hard to get here and now the day is finally here.  The anticipation exuded by you and your fellow runners is often palpable, soak up the atmosphere.  Enjoy it, this could be the last time you see this particular starting setting.

Think hard about kit requirements – as we enjoy training runs in our Christmas present new running tights, running hat and gloves set, or new Camelbak, think forward to what you may need to wear on race day.  However, recognise that the weather forecast the night before will only give you a rough indication of what to wear.  Spring marathons, particularly in April are notorious for the fickle nature of the weather at that time of year.  Brighton in 2010 and 2011 were races that eventually took place in 20 degree heat and my selection of running tights for the 2010 race probably made a significant contribution to my difficulties at 16-18 miles.  There are three sets of clothing to think about.  Pre-race you should focus on keeping warm as you hang around prior to entering the start lanes, and also whilst you’re in them.  The first items can be deposited in the kit bag that will be transported to the finish.  The clothing from the start lanes is a little harder as once you have entered the lanes that’s it you’ll need to dump it on the floor or hand to one of your supporters who will then have to lug it around for the rest of the race.  A useful alternative I have found is to wear a bin liner with arm holes cut out to stay warm and dry prior to the start which you can then tear off Hulk like as the race begins.  This can also be supplemented with a charity purchased warmer top and/or hat which you can discard at the side once the race is almost ready to begin.  At most larger races they usually have agreed arrangements for charities to collect the discarded items so these will get taken on to another home.

The third set of clothing is post-race.  Plenty of layers will help keep you warm as the inevitable cooling of your body occurs post-race.  You’ll want to put dry clothing on to help with this too.  Footwear is also important because your feet will swell post-race – you’ve put them through a lot so they will protest (but remember your supporters’ feet will also be a bit achy too).  It’s up to you if you change your footwear post-race, but take something that you know will be the most comfortable because those feet will need some TLC post-race.

Sleep is a great pre-race preparation technique – Your sleep the night before the race will be rubbish.  Excitement, nerves, worry, hopeless optimism will all mean that that night’s sleep will be ruined.  However, early nights 2-3 days before the race will help prepare you for the big day.

My final tips are more practical and are based on previous harsh experience – I won’t say when.

Do not underestimate the challenge of chafing – without proper protection and/or lubrication some part of your body, indeed parts of your body you didn’t know you had will chafe at some point during a long race.  The bottom line (don’t go there) is that your own supply of Vaseline / petroleum jelly is very important.  This is because it saves you from having to accept a large blob from the outstretched hand of a St John’s Ambulance volunteer on race day, and also you can apply it in private prior to the race rather than in front of the many spectators cheering you along as you smear.  For male runners (I’ve only ever seen men with this problem) the application of Vaseline and plasters to the nipples is a key mechanism to protect you from the 18+ mile blood streaks on your running top and the post-race scabby nipples that will inevitably result.  The challenge of chafing is only ever not addressed once, you have been warned!

Race organisers do not always know the best snack to provide in the post-race goody bag – run 26.2 miles.  Main snack available at end?  Super crunchy, dry,  granola bar, the reward!

I’ve run 26.2 miles I have an immediate need for soft food!  Put this in your kit bag.

Everyone in the world will be queuing to use the pre-race toilets – there are not enough chemical toilets in the world to meet this most basic of needs pre-race.  Make sure you plan it into your pre-race arrival plans, or forget your modesty and find a tree or quiet corner.

Get your name printed on your running vest, as big as will fit – yes that’s you the crowd you’re running past is shouting for.  Give them something easy to shout out and revel in the great feeling it gives you.  All those strangers are shouting for you, enjoy it you’ll probably never see them again.

So there you have it a few tips, things to bear in mind from what I’ve learnt.  Get these right and you can really enjoy the event and remember chafing is a lesson you learn once, why not avoid the lesson altogether.

Thanks for reading….


About Simon Tanner

Eight time marathon runner, having run Brighton x6 and London x2, finally got a London ballot place after 7 consecutive attempts. I try to write about things I'm going through / have gone through in training to help others attain their running goals, whatever the distance.
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6 Responses to Marathon Lessons – You only forget once!

  1. Karen Rawlings-Anderson says:

    Great blog and great tips Simon – thanks. Had a really ‘bad’ run on Sunday, but never really thought that it was still good training for the ‘bad’ sections in the marathon!

    • Simon Tanner says:


      It is there is always something to learn from every session particularly the ‘bad’ ones. What was it that made it ‘bad’ and look into that because there could be something further to work on – fluid intake, shot blocks, prep before etc etc.

      Glad it’s useful though.


  2. Jo Sennitt says:

    I really enjoyed your latest blog – I’m not training for a long race at the moment, but it brought back so many memories – I especially loved the care for supporters. I wasn’t sympathetic enough to the aching muscles of my supporters after my last marathon!

  3. Denise says:

    Great blog post Simon, one I will come back to a few times in the lead up to race day. Much appreciated. With regards to having your name printed on your t shirt Danielle at the club mentioned to me that it should be on the FRONT of your top, so people can all your name as you approach them rather than to your back. See you Sunday.

  4. Pingback: Belief will get you there #11 | Where's the long run going?

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