Tips for a Fast First Marathon

CIM 2:17 Pack
CIM chase pack on 2:17 pace. Photo from Hayden Teachout


Having raced every distance from 100 meters to 100 miles, and I’d have to say 26.2 is probably my favorite event.  Elements of both speed and endurance are combined to create a race that is just long enough to get some serious chaffing, but not so long where the chaffing actually scabs and scars. Essentially 26.2 is long enough to destroy you, but just short enough to keep you coming back for more. Here are a few rules and thoughts to keep in mind if you are thinking of graduating to the marathon.

**This is written for anyone, but it is most applicable for competitive minded runners with a background in track and cross country, and who have trained consistently for a few years. Its not so much focused on specific training, rather just general principles. These have been important in my training, and I believe they are applicable in many training programs.

1. Don’t forget the track.  Its easy to focus on road running, long runs, tempo and threshold workouts and neglect the speed that is imperative for racing.  You don’t really need to be doing 200’s every week, but regular kilometer and mile repeats will undoubtedly help you keep the speed needed to run a competitive marathon.  Do them on grass or track or dirt.  You may struggle to run as fast as you normally do when training for cross country or track. That’s OK, focus on short recovery rather than blazing intervals.

2. Sundays not for Gossip.  College long runs are usually a social hour (or two), recapping the team drama or previous nights festivities.  This is great if you are training for a 5k. With your key race being over 2 hours, the long run needs to be a more focused effort.  This isn’t to say that talking isn’t allowed, but the long run should be a workout.  If I’m running hard enough I usually don’t want to talk.  Sunday long run shouldn’t leave you ruined for the upcoming week, but it probably should leave you wanting to spend the rest of the day on the couch.

3. Wear Pants: If it’s under 50 degrees (Fahrenheit), bundle up. The first glimmer of warmth or sunlight usually leads to every dude on the team pulling out the split shorts and running shirtless through campus. This is why so many people get injured during the winter. Wear tights, wear a long sleeve shirt.  You don’t have to be sweating profusely, but wearing tights will keep your muscles warm, relaxed, and less likely to get injured.  When the temps warm up instead of being stuck in the pool aqua jogging you will be able to run outside…in shorts.

4. Wake Up. Marathons typically start before 8am.  Waking up 3-4 hours before the race will make you feel and perform better. I know waking up at 4am sounds ridiculous on a night when you just want to get some sleep.  If you give yourself that extra time to really wake up, eat, and warm up you will feel fresh and ready when you finally get to that starting line.

5. Don’t be Stupid. Depending on your fitness and goals a training segment may be 8-14 weeks. During that time you are bound to get a cold, tweak a muscle, have a bad workout, or get stuck in a blizzard. These things aren’t the end of the world, (except possibly the blizzard…) If you respond properly to these blips in training they likely wont effect your race at all.                                                                                                         This fall I took a trip to Boulder, Colorado for a Nike Trail meeting.  When I left home it was 55 and sunny, when I landed in Denver it was 20 and snowing.  I had mile repeats scheduled for the next morning. When I woke up it was 15 and there was 4 inches of snow blanketing the town.  I jogged out of the hotel looking for a plowed road or track that might allow me to do the workout I had planned.  I quickly realized that running 4:40 pace in snow, ice and 15 degrees was likely going to result in injury. Instead I ran 10 miles easy and called it a day. The next day the conditions were worse and I was forced to do an easy 90 minutes on paved streets.  When I landed in Portland I eagerly got my gear together for a hard workout.  When I got to the track and finished my warm up my right Achilles tendon was painful and seemed swollen. I tried to do strides but every step was causing it to tighten up.  I realized that during my runs in Boulder I had worn long tights and tall socks, covering my entire Achilles and ankle, but the snow had still frozen to my socks and caused the area around my ankle to stay cold while I was running on it.  Needless to say I was frustrated.  I had missed two key workouts and now was tiptoeing around a potential injury.  I foam rolled, iced, pumped anti-inflammatory, got back to sunny Southern Oregon and restructured the training for the week. That Saturday I had the best workout of the segment. I was fresh, and was able to run faster and easier than I had expected.  The workout convinced me I could PR in every distance from 10k to the marathon and gave me a boost of confidence going into the last three weeks of the training block before the Cal International Marathon. Its a long story but I think proves a point.  Things are bound to go wrong, when they do use logic and reason to adjust your training.

6. Find a Road and Love it. Whether its a bike path or road, find somewhere with little traffic that you can use a couple days a week for your tempo, threshold, marathon pace, or long runs. Having consistency in your training venue will allow you to gauge your fitness throughout the segment.  It might be boring at first, but you will probably grow to love it. The Bear Creek Greenway has become my home away from home over the last 2 years.

7. Dial your nutrition. If you take time to figure out what gels work and which ones don’t, you might end up in a porta-toilet at mile 18. You still might end up there, but spending a few workouts deciding between GU, Roctane, Power-Gel, Hammer Gel or Clif Shots can save you precious moments. You’re gonna have to take in calories and fluid during the race. Be comfortable with it.

8. Run a Lot. Mileage isn’t the only indicator of solid training, but going from racing 10k’s to racing marathons will require an increase in something, and part of that something is probably weekly mileage. You don’t have to run 140 miles per week, but also don’t be scared of running more miles than you have before. The marathon is a long race and it takes a lot of training to be ready to race that last 10k. This is where the magic of the marathon happens. Having a massive base of miles in your legs can get you ready to crush yourself, and the last few miles.

9. Learn.  I’ve been learning how to run slower and how to run faster my entire life. The trick is doing the things that make you run faster instead of slower.  Your first marathon could be amazing, and it could be a total disaster.  Most likely it will be somewhere in between, leaving you to feel accomplished but unsatisfied.  Learn from your experience. You spent months preparing for this race. Spend a few hours writing down what went well and what didn’t. Use the things you learned to get better next time.  I really believe that with enough work anybody can be a good marathoner.  In 2 marathons and 19 months I took 5 minutes and 32 seconds off my marathon PR by simply learning from past mistakes and tweaking my training. The learning curve is big. For somebody with a lot of desire the marathon is a good place to race.  But, don’t take my word for it. Go do it.

Good Luck!

Finish of Cal International Marathon. Photo from Hayden Teachout
Finish of Cal International Marathon after getting my Olympic Trials qualifying time. Photo from Hayden Teachout




2 thoughts on “Tips for a Fast First Marathon

  1. I enjoy how your writing is brief, informative, and entertaining! I would definately endorse every point you made on this list. I am pretty sure for me 50+ degrees sounds like a heatwave and i would have to bust out the shorts! I still take my Sunday long run very easy…. That may be another difference… Just going for time on my feet, not aiming for any real pace on that day. You have fantastic pointers for marathoners on all levels!

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