Cheering as you smear – Marathon Lessons – Updated

I’ve revisited my marathon lessons again after my long run this week (35km) during which I got my refuelling wrong and suffered for the last 5km, wracked by low energy and tiredness.  As a result of this and recent experiences on the longer runs I’ve reviewed the lessons I wrote back in Jan 2013, revised them and added a few extra.  So it’s worth reading these through and they should prove useful for all those race days whether marathons, halfs, or 5/10k races.  These include tips from a couple of previous blogs plus some new ones learnt since.  The lessons you never stop learning…

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.  Indeed, as I wrote in a blog recently I’ve blubbed as a result of this just because of my emotional levels from seemingly missing out on spotting a relative at an assigned point.  It is also important to appreciate that it is a long day for your supporters 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!

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 (Brighton), I had a ridiculously complicated plan that involved me writing almost all my mile splits on the back of my hand – ahh hands get sweaty and those times then disappear.  Yet the excitement and adrenaline got the better of me and I went off much too fast this meant that any chance of a sub-4hr time disappeared between miles 16-18, and I took a further four miles to 22 to recover a reasonable pace.  This also coincided with the ‘infamous’ Shore’nam section incorporating the picturesque docks and power station route section where spectators are usually few and far between that made it especially hard to get myself back up to target 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 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 (for me) 3hr 42mins.  However, also remember that at those marathons with multiple starting points (London) you should be aware that you will need to be sure the pacer is running at a pace which coincides with a start time similar to yours otherwise you could be running with someone who crossed the start line up to 20-30mins after you had started and your chance of that target time may be blown away.

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, and makes sure you keep topped up.  It’s this I failed to do in my most recent run, and my energy levels were dramatically affected making the last 5km an endurance they need not have been.

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 – for Brighton I think it’s Gatorade and High 5 energy gels in 2014, for London its Lucozade (personally for me – yuck).  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.  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/s 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, listening to music (though lots of races warn now about doing this), 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.

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.

Try to stick to your usual warm up routine – this can be difficult because if you are used to an extensive programme of stretching and rolling this can be very difficult in a large park because your roller or other equipment may not be designed to work outside on wet/muddy surfaces.  Plus you have to carry the blooming things even if you plan to put them in the kitbag to be transported to the finish by the race organisers.  Best option is to engage in at least some warm up involving a little light slow jogging, squats, calf raises etc all to make sure you ‘feel the burn’ however cold it is.  This should act as ‘triggers’ for the race activity about to some so you can start as fresh as possible.

Think hard about kit requirements – as we enjoy training runs in our Christmas gifts – 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.  Brighton in 2010 and 2011 were races that eventually took place in 20 degree heat (London 2013 the same after training in snow and ice) 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 (and don’t forget one for your head!) 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.  This is all the more likely on very hot / rainy days as despite wicking heavier race clothing is all the more likely to be transformed into emery boards on parts of unlubricated skin.

The bottom line is that your own supply of Vaseline / petroleum jelly – there are even special products now (Chafe Away!) – 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.  This is eminently preferable to having to do it in front of the many spectators, cheering 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, and then rarely remembered without a wistful wince!

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!”  Work out what will work best for you and 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.

Fiddling around with your GPS watch/device just as you cross the start line is not ‘best practice’ – you can almost guarantee that your GPS device will be especially temperamental on race day.  Setting your device to find the GPS signal just as the starting gun fires is not likely to guarantee it will pick up the signal as you cross the start line, no matter how much frenzied pressing of buttons and expletive shouting you indulge in.  If seeking to pace yourself, this can raise stress levels and cause you to focus more on your ‘stupid watch’ than settling calmly into your required race pace or coping with the inevitably crowded early race route.  As an alternative, set your device to seek the GPS signal about 10 minutes before the race start.  When it has connected set the timer running until you are approaching the start line, then stop the timer, reset, and start as you cross the line.  No worries about GPS signal, and your watch and you can settle into your race, whilst also concentrating on negotiating safely those first few minutes of what will be a memorable race.

Plan you route carefully to the race start – Check arrangements for transport, how close you can get to the start if driving.  It’s common that roads near the start will be significantly restricted so it’s likely that some walking to the start will be needed and public transport can be unreliable so identify a range of options to get you to the start as easily as possible whatever happens.  It’ll make your race so much harder if you’re rushing to get there.

For all you Goths and Emo’s don’t forget to ditch the nail varnish on toes for the day, even a pedicure might be worth it – The varnish in question prevents your nails being as flexible as they are naturally and this can dramatically increase the chances of the loss of those nails post-race.  Also a nail trim can also help stop those nail edges digging into swollen toes during the race making post-race sock removal a horror story rather than a triumph tale.  So chaps, best to get the pedicure pre-race and nail art post-race.  Your finish time could even make an interesting option to tax the nail artistes at local salons.

Check your race kit at least a week before the race date –  Is there anything else you’ll need for racing in, but also pre and post-race to keep you warm and relaxed whatever the weather.  It’s worth checking the long range forecasts and forecast in the days leading up to the race so you can be as prepared as you need to be.  This makes sure you’re not worrying about getting too hot or cold whilst waiting for the race to start and you can invest all your thoughts in preparing and enjoying the atmosphere as it builds.

And although it is marked, check the route you are running.  Familiarise yourself with where the refreshment stops are, and make a plan for how you’ll make use of them.  And also make arrangements of where you’ll meet your spectators, official meeting areas can be very busy.  And of course their feet will be really tired…..


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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One Response to Cheering as you smear – Marathon Lessons – Updated

  1. Brilliant post, so many great tips! Can’t wait to get to that start line at Brighton next Sunday, my first marathon. Soooo excited and soooo frickin’ terrified it’s unreal!!

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