The Marathon.  It conjures up images of early mornings, grueling training runs, gallons of Gatorade, heaps of dirty, sweaty running clothes, and for some, a seemingly impossible achievement.  Yet each year, over half a million Americans complete the 26.2 mile journey from start line to finish line.  While it is physically demanding and stressful on the body, it is certainly a feat anyone can accomplish with the right effort and preparation.


The first thing to do when you decide to take on a marathon is to establish a running base.  Nobody is born with the ability to automatically run a distance like that; it takes time.  If you’ve never been a runner, start out with what you can.  Run a mile, rest a day, then run another mile.  Gear is important, but not as essential as catalogs and boutique running stores will try to make you believe.  Obviously, appropriate footwear is a must, and as you start to run longer distances, you’ll want some anti-chafing lotion.  Slowly build up your distance until you can comfortably run 6-10 miles, then start to look at marathons you’d like to try.


Most experts recommend allocating about four months for training.  If you already have a running base of 10 miles, it’s easy to comfortably train in about three months.  Taking this into consideration, you should pick a race anywhere between 12-16 weeks away.  Other factors to consider in picking a marathon include, obviously, location.  Are you going to easily be able to get to the race the day before?  Since most marathons start between 5:00 and 7:00 AM, you'll want to arrive comfortably in the city the day or night before.  You’ll be pretty sore and worn out the next day, so plan on staying an extra day if you can, especially if you’re travelling a long distance.  Also, take a look at the terrain and elevation.  If you live and train in Houston, which is flat and at sea level, you probably don’t want to run your first marathon in Denver, which is most certainly not flat and is definitely not at sea level.  Train on terrain and in conditions that are close to those of the race you’ve selected.


Once you’ve picked a race, made hotel reservations, signed up, and made travel and hotel arrangements, you can focus soley on your training.  There are hundreds of training plans and routines out there, but basically, you’re trying to build your distance.  Your first marathon shouldn’t be about how fast you run, it should be about finishing.  Start with a few maintenance runs of 6-9 miles per week, with one long run of 10+ miles per week.  Each week to ten days, add a little bit of distance – usually a mile or two – to your long runs until you get up to 20 miles.  While that 20 mile run will feel long and brutal, know that if you can run 20 miles, you can definitely run that extra 6.2 to finish the marathon.  One of the most rewarding parts about training is realizing that only a few weeks before, you may have been struggling to run four miles, and here you are knocking out 15 and 16 mile runs!


A few weeks before the marathon, you’ll want to taper.  “The work is in the barn,” as they say.  Missing a run here or there won’t negatively affect your performance on race day.  Run a few times a week to keep yourself in shape and remind your body that it has a job to do, but save your energy for the big day.  The day before your marathon, get out and run just a few miles to keep your body in the zone, knowing that in 24 hours, you’ll have accomplished something very difficult!  On race day, the adrenaline and the fact that you’re running with so many other people will keep you going.  Volunteers will be stationed every mile or so to pass out water and snacks to keep you going.  You’ll realize that little things that made training tough, like crossing streets and remembering where to go, are a non issue at most marathons.  Make sure you don’t start out too fast; it’s best to start out “painfully slow” and save your energy for later.


When you cross that finish line, you’ll beam with pride like you’ve never felt before.  Smile for the pictures, make sure to give a kid a high five along the course, and enjoy the experience! 


Credit: Atlanta Marathon