Running Your First Marathon: Getting Mental with 26.2

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On February 19, many in the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge (AFMDC) will run their first marathon. They’ll have logged many miles in training, solo or with a group, and at least 42.4 miles of races (the total for everyone still in the AFMDC. The half-track competitors bring their total to 55.5 with 13.1 miles at the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon, while the full track adds 26.2 miles for a total of 68.6. When this article hits the stands, there’s really nothing more that can be done physically to prepare for the race. Physically, about all one can do is get enough sleep, eat well, and refrain from any new or weird exercising in the final weeks. There are several equipment preparations (selecting that perfect, old, comfortable shirt to wear; making clothing choices for various weather scenarios; laying out gels and water bottles to carry; arranging race day logistics), but the old maxim “nothing new on marathon day” holds true. It’s not the time to try a new outfit or a new exercise routine. There is, however, one crucial area of training that is best practiced in the final days and may be something new: mental preparation.

Visualize race day. Visualizing, also known as guided imagery, is the process of imagining the events of race day with an emphasis on a positive outcome. Many, however, take this as only seeing the best possible scenario. The optimal practice is to pull up a picture of a realistic day with positive attributes. Sit in a quiet spot, relax, and think about the race, mile by mile (for accuracy, it helps to have driven the course, taking into account prior experiences to realistically render your imaginary performance). See and feel the experience in your mind; no detail is too small. Run through your warm-up and start; mentally practice taking water or gels. Imagine physical ups and downs at various mile points. Insert some “down” stretches, places in the race where a low point—physical and/or mental—is reached. See yourself pushing through these rough patches and “live” your finish. American Olympic runner Jorge Torres talked about practicing visualization before his marathon debut at the 2009 New York City Marathon. His coach had him conserve his emotional energy by waiting until three days before the race and then focusing more on creating the race atmosphere than specific details of the course. Torres finished seventh overall, with a time of 2:13:00.

Make a commitment to finish. This may seem oddly obvious but many first-time marathoners get caught up in the time trap: “I will finish my first marathon in x time.” Finishing, however, is by no means guaranteed, no matter how much work has been invested or how well prior races have gone. Danny Spoonts, an outstanding local age group runner and past organizer of the Austin Marathon pacing team, shared the story of his first marathon and the subsequent regrets that came with a DNF (did not finish) in the results. His advice: just focus on a finish. There is often a point in a race where a runner must decide to tough it out or walk off and try another day. In the case of a first marathon, making the mental commitment first to finish and only then consider a time reduces pressure, which often can keep a runner going in a less-than-perfect event.

Consult with running buddies. Even though running buddies have been through thick and thin together in practice runs, the actual marathon is different; friends need to be clear with one another on partnering expectations. Talk it out before race day. If one person is having a great day, does s/he have the other’s blessing to take off? Or have the runners agreed to stick together, no matter what? Some running buddies are perfectly fine with “to each his/her own” on race day. Whatever the strategy, make sure all parties understand and agree. It’s not the kind of discussion runners want to have at mile 18 or so on a rough day. Experienced marathoner, coach, and co-owner of Tri Zones Training Tracy Nelson ran the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon with her sister, who was running her first marathon. Beforehand, they had agreed to stay together. Even so, there was a “bless and release” moment on the course where Nelson reaffirmed her promise to her sister to stay with her, no matter what, and let go of her faster finish. It wasn’t the best time Nelson could have run, but her sister was supported on her special day, which had been their plan.

Enjoy your first marathon. You only get one first marathon. That’s a fact. There’s only one time when everything will be new and scary and immensely thrilling in that particular way. No subsequent marathon will occupy the same space in a runner’s heart and memory. Make a mental commitment to savor what the day gives. Whatever the outcome, the adventure will be one to treasure for the rest of your life. If you don’t believe that, just ask a group of marathon runners, “Tell me about your first marathon….”

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