I ran Maine’s Mount Desert Island Marathon on Oct. 15 (a stellar race). Maybe because I can’t stop talking about it, I’ve chatted since with several first-time marathoners who are working toward the big distance, some months in the future, some this coming weekend.
While I don’t feel qualified to recommend training plans or give solid nutrition advice (for pro guidance you can find many plans online, join a group or even hire a coach) I can share a few odd things I’ve learned, through six marathons, about the actual experience.
BEFORE THE MARATHON
Your training is over; this section is about the hours leading up to the event.
Do a fun run.
A “shake out” run – a few easy miles and even a few strides at your race pace – is a great idea. Why not make it special? The day before MDI, I ran four miles along Eagle Lake, just outside Bar Harbor, where the scenery made me want to keep running and never stop. A good place to be mentally before a marathon.
Own the expo.
Depending on the size of the race, the pre-event expo, where you pick up your race number and browse discounted running gear, can be huge (Boston, Detroit) or a few tables in a college gymnasium (Bay State). Even if it’s underwhelming, linger, enjoy and talk with some people. At MDI, I had a great conversation with someone who organizes women’s trail running retreats (my idea of heaven) while my husband tried on sale Sauconys and my son ran circles on the gym floor.
Eat a picnic dinner in your hotel room.
This was my first real destination marathon, which means hotel (yay), unfamiliar surroundings (boo) and the problem of what to eat the day before. Rather than brave the crowds and unspecified butter content of restaurant fare, I decided to buy groceries. We cobbed together pita, hummus and veggie sandwiches the night before. This was a win, especially with a two-year-old.
Don’t let anything throw you.
In spite of the excellent dinner, I woke up with a pounding headache on race day. I was shaking; I lived through the cliché about choking down food. I wondered if I’d be able to stand in the start corral, let alone run across the line. One last attempt by my subconscious to sabotage my run? Determined to outflank the part of myself that didn’t want to run 26.2 miles, I set an intermediate goal: get to the start. I succeeded, a little hungry and shaky but I got there.
Marathon success is all about entertaining yourself for three-plus hours, I’m convinced. The longer you can keep your mind off what’s actually happening, the better.
High-five children, especially your own.
Tap all the Tap to power up! signs. Thank the teen athletes volunteering at water stations. High-five the kids cheering Southeast Harbor half way around the island. Find your own kid (held by his father) in a crowd, run straight for him and make contact, knocking a full bag of Cheez-Its into the air. They fall like artificially-flavored orange leaves to the ground in the bright sunlight while you hustle on, your Mile 12 Gu in your hand.
Be careful with free Gu packets.
Gu is hard to avoid in a marathon, and free Gu is hard to turn down. The packets go for $2-3 each and I slurp one every six miles during races and long runs. Not a huge expense but an annoying one. So when two volunteers yelled “Salted caramel Gu!” at Mile 16, I said “yes, please” and pocketed them for another day.
At Mile 20, another volunteer held out “Vanilla Gu!” Not my favorite flavor, but okay. I grabbed one, feeling the pliable gel squish in my fist. I was about to stick that one in my back pocket for another day, too, when I felt the pliable gel squish all over my fingers.
The volunteers had cut the top off for me. A nice gesture, but I did not need a vanilla Gu at Mile 20. In fact, the smell was reawakening the nausea I’d felt before the start. I was committed to maintaining the cleanest marathon course I’d ever seen, so I held that erupting vanilla Gu for the next two miles until I found a trash barrel and some water. Even after the finish, I had a slight stick to everything I touched.
It’s all good. In fact, it’s great. It kept me busy through four miles of hills and laughing longer than that. And then I was done. Almost.
You’re going to lose your mind a little. Prepare accordingly.
Savor the last .2.
You’ve run through Mile 26, but your marathon is not over yet. Thank the British Royal Family for tacking on an additional 385 yards, for the 1908 Olympic Games in London. I used to hold this against them, but in my last two marathons, the point-two has been a tunnel of hard-earned joy. It’s hard, but also so, so …
I’ll put it this way: It’s the last time you get to run before a week or more of limping around on sore legs. LIVE IT UP! People are cheering, music is blasting, the announcer is calling your name. It’s a little glorious. You might cry.
Check the official results table.
“Don’t underestimate yourself!” the MDI Race Handbook says under the heading “Awards,” the only section I hadn’t read because since when do Awards apply to me?
Well, this time. I finished in 3:36:25, a personal best on a hilly course. That was good enough for me while I wandered the finish trying to relax, re-hydrate and eat something. I passed the official awards table – medals arrange in neat rows, wrapped in their pretty ribbons.
I didn’t realize one of those was for me until 30 miles down the road, when my father-in-law texted my official results: 74th overall, 11th woman, 1st woman 45-49!
“I won my division!” I said.
“You could have picked up your award,” Bill replied.
“Darn” doesn’t even begin to describe the disappointment I felt for the rest of the drive as my inner fourth grader raged “I want my medal!”
So, new marathoner: check the official results, don’t underestimate yourself. Finishing, for some of us, is not award enough. We wants our precious token of age group domination.
Visit a playground.
The finish area of a marathon is a happy place. Music blares, banners wave, there’s free stuff everywhere. Your legs are jelly, you’re both starving and nauseous at the same time (GATORADE is your friend). Depleted runners totter around wrapped in silvery space blankets, clutching energy bars and, in the case of MDI, cups of ice cream scooped by volunteers.
I found my boys, gave sweaty hugs and went into parent mode immediately, toddling on sore legs after my toddler while he cruised the playground and my husband/support crew hero got himself lunch. I gave a few longing glances toward child-free runners who were lying on the grass – then snapped my attention back to “Paul, that’s a high…watch out!”
But really, the Playground Recovery Plan was the best thing I could have done. “Try to keep moving for 10-15 minutes” is excellent post-marathon advice.