|1) WANT IT. REALLY WANT IT.
A friend of yours ran one and loved it. You've cheered competitors on from the crowd and figured they were having an even better time than you. You've heard those who finished one evangelize about the sensation and want to experience it for yourself. All of these are great reasons to consider running a Marathon. But none of them will enable you to actually get through it. Think long and hard before you enter. If you regularly run, bike, hike, swim, go on long walks or play a tough contact sport, you surely have it in you to complete and enjoy - a marathon. If you're a couch potato, if you drink and smoke heavily, if you treasure your late nights (and even later mornings), do everybody a favor and stay away. You'll only end up blocking the route for those who can actually run and be all embarrassed when it takes you six hours to complete the course. A good test is to run 15 miles a week for two weeks before you send in your entry form. If you're enjoying the experience, go ahead and enter. If you're not, please don't. There are plenty sponsored charity walks out there you would surely prefer. After all, you're going to need to
2) TRAIN. FEEL THE PAIN.
The most basic of the six training schedules recommended by the New York Road Runner's Club has you covering 20 miles a week some four months in advance of a Marathon. I was only doing 10. This meant a lot of catching up, and it took a lot out of me, make no mistake. But I was committed. I did hill training, speed training, long runs and short. The hottest months of the year, July and August, were spent pounding sidewalks, boardwalks, national parks, country roads and gym treadmills. Holidays away from the city offered no respite just a different view. September's social schedule was decimated by the dreaded 'long runs,' building up my distance every fortnight until I hit the 20-mile mark. Doing so meant giving up many a late Friday and Saturday night or running on a lack of sleep and, if I hadn't been careful, a hangover. Regardless of how I felt, I ran. Not running was never an option.
|"NO FRIES, MUST FLY." The leading pack passes up KFC as it passes up 4th Avenue in Brooklyn.
||"ANYONE GOT A MARS BAR?" The runners-up look for sustenance as they run up 4th Ave.
3) DON'T OVERTRAIN. WATCH THE PAIN.
Is this a contradiction of the last tip? Yes. And finding the balance between the two is extremely difficult. The aforementioned NYRRC recommended training schedules are, frankly, more than most casual runners are capable of. I barely kept up with the first and least demanding of all six. And still I pushed myself too hard. Over the course of five weekends around September, I ran 16, 10, 18, 10 and then 20 miles. Throughout these long runs, I felt my left knee hurting but ignored it. The week leading up to my 20-mile run was particularly social and I was neither as well rested nor eager as I should have been for my longest run ever. I went ahead and did it (at a stupidly fast 9:30 mile rate) and afterwards, I paid the price. I could hardly walk. For a week, my left knee was in agony and I had to contemplate dropping out of the Marathon.
Only with retrospective research did I realize that I had literally 'invited' a dose of runner's knee by doing just about everything wrong. What would have been 'right'? I should have upped my weekly mileage when I actually applied for the Marathon, so as to have been at 20 miles by the time I was accepted. I should not have run on so many hills and, especially, so many uneven road-side cambers. (The gym treadmill has its uses.) I should have looked after myself better (i.e. rested and avoided alcohol) for at least two or three days before the long runs. I should have cross-trained more. (Swimming and biking are two good ways of off-setting physical damage to the knees.) And I shouldn't have thought I could do this without outside help. As a result, I had to follow tip number 4 out of desperation, when I should have done it out of common-sense.
4) ASK FOR ADVICE. PAY A PROFESSIONAL IF THAT'S WHAT IT TAKES.
Any one who's run a Marathon will be happy to share their own tips and tactics. Start asking around as soon as you're accepted. Take advantage of local training courses. The New York Road Runner's Club offered everything from stretching classes to communal paced distance runs to Pilates to deep-water running. Each was well-priced and most lasted only four weeks. I passed them all up because I wouldn't commit going into Manhattan one evening a week and to save money. But after I contracted 'runner's knee,' I ended up paying for chiropractic care, massage therapy and lessons in the Alexander Technique (all about posture and energy flow) anyway. Don't make my mistake. Get advice, research the risks and join a program with fellow runners sooner rather than later.
5) STRETCH. PROPERLY.
One friend who's run several Marathons kindly spent an hour on the phone trying to help with my runner's knee. Her priority advice was to practice the active-isolated series of stretches as opposed to the old 'leg up on the fence' stretch that most runners routinely rely upon. I found these stretches in clear visual detail linked from the Road Runner's Web site, where I'd been too cocky to look for them until now. Three simple active-isolated stretches for the calf, hamstring and quads seemed to make a massive difference to my preparation, and especially in the week leading up to the actual Marathon I did them up to three times a day. Other stretches, found through web searches, specifically tackled the problem of runner's knee. Not only did I avoid cramping up on the big day or feel intense pain in my knee, but I had comparatively little soreness after the race too. The importance of proper stretching therefore can not be over-stated.
6) RACE. KNOW YOUR PACE.
You obviously don't want to run the full 26.2 miles before your big day, and your weekend 'long runs' take care of much distance training, but a handful of pre-Marathon races will inform you of your competitive speed and stamina. Short runs are useful for the former: I did a 5k in Prospect Park, at which I was thrilled to average 7 minutes a mile. Half-marathons are the best preparation for the latter, and are strongly recommended. I did two: one on a cruelly hot August Sunday in Manhattan, the other on a cool wet November Sunday in Staten Island. My average mile in Manhattan was 8:45, in Staten Island (just three weeks before the big event and only two weeks after busting up my knee) it was 8:30. Each time, my last mile was my fastest. Each time I knew I had more to give. This was encouraging. I therefore followed the rule of thumb, which is to take your best half-marathon time, double it (of course), add ten minutes for a slower pace over the long haul, and then in New York, add another ten minutes for the sheer size of the crowd, and concluded that if I stuck to 9 minute miles, I could squeak in under four hours. I finished in 3 hours 59 minutes. The rule of thumb works. And not only did the half-marathons set me up for this attainable goal, but they familiarized me with getting up early on a Sunday, without enough sleep, traveling across the city, and running. Hard.
|GATORADE DOESN'T ALWAYS AID: The crowd limps past Mile 18 on 1st Ave in Manhattan, empty Gatorade cups under crushed feet. (ALL PHOTOS by POSIE STRENZ, NOVEMBER 3rd 2002.)
||TEN THOUSAND DOWN: And twenty thousand more to go. Mid-paced runners head for home in Central Park on Mile 25. Your author is in the middle of the picture, determined to beat four hours.
7) FUEL YOURSELF. YOU'RE AN ENGINE.
Though it's a Marathon you're going to be doing, think of yourself as a Formula 1 race car. You'll be making pit stops. You're going to need oil, gas/petrol, water, everything except, hopefully, the equivalent of new tires. On my first ten-mile run in July, I took nothing but water from the local fountains. I was wrecked: I even got the shivers after six miles. I learned after that to experiment with various fuelling tactics until I could cover long distances without running on empty. Here's what worked for me. . . I would start my long-run day with a caffeinated vitamin-fruit juice drink. No solid breakfast though; I didn't want the complication of digestion. Half an hour before running I would down a Power Gel (liquid goo impersonations of actual power bars, they're so effective it almost feels like cheating); on the run itself I would alternate between water and Gatorade every twenty minutes, and I would take a Power Gel every hour. (Power Gels come uncaffeinated, caffeinated, and double caffeinated. I alternated between the first two.) I also chewed on dried papaya over the final hour, and after finishing I'd be sure to down a serious amount of Gatorade and water.
Finding how well this worked, I tried sticking to the same regimen on the big day. There were exceptions: it was harder to time the water and Gatorade stops in all the excitement, I eschewed the papaya but took some sliced banana off a kind donor in the Bronx, and my last Power Gel at mile 21 was double caffeinated for an extra kick. Plus, I had some solid food prior to the run, given that we were at Staten Island in cold weather a whole four hours before the start time: I opted for a power bar, a banana, and a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Regardless of last-minute variations, I was clearly well fueled and comfortable while running. Find your own formula as you go on long runs and stick to it. (Don't forget the usual advice about long-term diet and pre-race meals: as a committed vegetarian who lives on vegetables, pasta, cereal, bread, fruit, nuts, olive oil and occasional power bars, I was already on board.)
8) AVOID ALCOHOL. CUT DOWN CAFFEINE.
Being that these are my two drugs of choice, I know how hard this tip is to follow. But I also know that both substances are diuretics: they dehydrate you while making you pee more often, and they stiffen your muscles. And so, three weeks in advance, I cut out almost all alcohol. I couldn't quite kick the caffeine, but because I wasn't drinking, I didn't need as much coffee or tea as usual. I'm actually a strong believer that a glass of wine a day is extremely good for you, and in another year, I might live by that rule, but for my first Marathon I knew I was going to be short on sleep in the final week, and I didn't want to be able to blame my tiredness on anything else. Interestingly, Marathon Day was probably the only day of this year that I didn't have coffee - and the post-race beers at dinner tasted sweeter than the finest champagne, well worth holding out for!
9) REST. RELAX: RESERVE YOURSELF.
This was especially hard to live by. Not only am I the type of person who tenses up before big events (I barely slept the last month I was working on the Keith Moon book), but the CMJ Music Marathon hit New York the same week as the runner's marathon, and despite staying home the final two nights, I was out at gigs four nights in the final week. (Halloween didn't help either.) And while I tapered down my running schedule in the last week, I made the mistake of cross-training instead: going to the gym on the final Sunday and swimming the next day put a lot of tension into my upper back, which even a last minute massage failed to fully rid. (I'll take it much easier next time.) Not drinking helped keep me relatively fresh, but nerves still got the best of me: on the big morning I woke up at 4.30 am, two hours ahead of the alarm clock. Just to add to it all, when you reduce your running schedule while staying healthy, you're naturally prone to irritability. Rather than dwell on any of this, I thought of the tens of thousands of runners from outside New York who would be battling jetlag, strange hotel rooms, unfamiliar food and the lure of nightlife, and counted myself lucky. And besides, I had already determined to. . .
10) LOVE IT! REALLY LOVE IT!
Nothing was going to stop me having fun on the big day. Not tiredness, worries about my knee, my finishing time, or the freezing cold weather. Much like my wedding day, I got up on the big morning exhausted but exhilarated. I filled my head with positive vibes, thought of what people go through in wartime, childbirth and other circumstances where they draw on hitherto unimagined reserves of energy, and decided that the Marathon was small fry in comparison. I knew I was good for 20 miles. Thanks to the crowd, which made it so much fun, I found I was good for all of it. Watching the footage the next day, I heard it said that running the New York City Marathon is like being in the biggest Broadway show one with a 26.2 mile standing ovation. Precisely. Under those circumstances, it would be hard not to get through it, and indeed, almost everyone who passes the starting mat eventually crosses the finishing line. But as the number of hobbling, limping, walking, pausing and especially grimacing 'runners' demonstrated to me, if you want to enjoy the Marathon process, there's no substitute for preparation.
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