Having done about 30 marathons, I’ve learned what to expect my body to go through during the 26.2 grueling miles.
Your body will go through some challenges even before the event starts. Nervous energy will run rampant about 30 minutes before the event, especially before your first marathon.
Runners likely will question their training and rest, or think of any nagging injuries and nutrition needs and how to manage their pace. The final 30 minutes before the event are the first mental challenge of the day.
The key here is to relax and think positive and focus on a mantra for the day, such as, “I will do this,” or, “I want the medal.” Once you start running, all of that nervous energy dissipates, and you focus only on running.
For the first mile, the key is to not go out too fast. Adrenaline is your enemy at the start and your friend at the finish.
The rule of thumb is, for every mile you go out too fast for the first half of the marathon, you’ll have twice as many slower miles during the second half.
I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t “bank time” by running faster during the first few miles. It is always better to run a “negative split,” where the runner starts slower the first few miles, just slower than race pace, and by the midpoint (13.1) they are exactly on their goal time. The final 13.1 miles should focus on staying on goal pace or slightly faster in the final six miles.
So the first few miles typically will yield a few minor aches and pains or tight muscles, and it is OK to have these, as they should go away quickly. But if you need to stretch at about mile three or four, it might be a good idea to take 15 seconds to regroup.
Miles five through 12 should be your “cruise miles,” where you are conditioned to run faster than you actually are, but you are running smart and saving energy for the later miles. This is where you relax and conserve.
You can’t assess how much quicker/slower you will be versus your goal time in these miles as they are the “easier” miles. Again, running quicker here than goal pace is not advised. If you decide to do so, it is advisable to limit “banking” to only five to 10 seconds per mile if you want to push yourself.
At mile 13.1 (halfway), you start to encounter the mental challenge area, where you are starting to feel some of the impact on your body. Mentally, you begin to think through how you will adapt in the next 13.1 miles. You will start to question your training again and mentally will start to “dig in” for what’s ahead.
Around mile 15 to 16, these miles will typically get more challenging for the first-time marathoner as your long run in training might have been 20 miles and your conditioning will now start to reflect how you will perform during the next 10 miles. This part again is the mental challenge area, as you now have to start to tell your body to keep pushing.
It might help to start taking it mile by mile as intermediate goals instead of looking at 10 miles to go. You can reward yourself with a sports drink or gel at the next fluid station. It is in these miles where your body starts to say, “Hey, walking right now would feel much better than running,” depending upon your goal to finish or to finish at a certain time. This is where you mentally negotiate with your body on walking or running.
Once you’ve made it to mile 20, which is typically known as “the wall,” you definitely start to focus on each individual mile as a milestone and await the vision of each coming into view. You are much more sensitive of injuries, soreness, blisters and chafing, and your focus on nutrition before and during the event will start to reflect in your performance.
Mile 20 is known as “the wall” because it is commonly a point where the body runs out of glycogen that it has been conditioned to store — based on how you have been training — these past months. The harder you train, the more glycogen is made available.
Otherwise, carbohydrates will be stored as reserve energy as fat. Unfortunately, fat is not nearly as good of a fuel source as glycogen, but it can still be used as fuel.
At mile 20, you are going beyond what your body has traditionally been conditioned for, and secondly your body can usually only store enough reserve glycogen — or what I like to call premium fuel — for about 20 miles’ worth of output. You will need to replenish your energy by taking in gel packs, electrolytes and simple carbs/sugar miles in advance of mile 20. I typically will take in energy packs at miles five, 10, 15 and 20 for this purpose to ensure I have a margin of calories for the final miles.
Once you have made it to mile 23 or 24, these final miles are usually where you have something “left in the tank” to push harder, or you are just going to hold on. These are the most challenging miles on the course, and you must be mentally tough to keep from walking or slowing.
If you have run smart in the previous miles, you should do fine here. In fact, if you have run smart and focused on an even to negative split, you will pass many runners who went out too fast or overestimated their capability.
As you approach the final mile, you realize you can do this, and you will run with your heart and adrenaline. You will think about how amazing the finish will be. You will focus on what has motivated you to get to this point. You should soak in this huge accomplishment in its entirety.
Many runners will run their hardest as they see the finish line and try to maximize their speed without running out of breath or staving off the onset of leg muscle cramps. This is the time to celebrate and enjoy your accomplishment.
Completing a marathon for the first time is something you will never forget. It is what you do after the marathon that will be an indicator of whether this was a one-time accomplishment or you want to continue to focus on maintaining some level of fitness into your lifestyle.
How you prepare/train for your first marathon might make it your last marathon. Training properly will definitely make it a more enjoyable experience. Be prepared to be sore for the next three days following the marathon. These are the “painful” reminders that you did something few people have done, and it’s OK to be proud of feeling sore.
One of the most challenging aspects of the race mentally is when your body is telling you to walk when your brain is reminding you that you have a time goal.
After mile 20 you will encounter many people walking, and you may think subconsciously that “hey, walking would feel good right now.” If you are focused on a Boston Marathon qualifying attempt and need a certain time, you will need to be mentally tough.
The best way to counter the desire to want to walk is to run a smart race and don’t go out too fast at the start or the first few miles. Save your energy during the marathon and train effectively prior to the marathon. Follow your plan and put in the miles.
You can’t fake training. It will definitely show up on race day.