Introduction: How to Run a Great Marathon

I love running and want to share tips that I learned along my running journey with you. Running a marathon can be enjoyable and rewarding experience if you have good preparations and strategies.
Before you prepare to sign up for a marathon, you should consider why you want to do it in the first place.  Is it because you want to be physically active, or you want to attain your personal record time?  The diagram below shows some of the goals runners at various levels aim for, but there are other goals you can set for yourself.  Photo Credit.  Ben Ko.

"What kind of crazy nut would spend two or three hours a day just running?" -13-year-old Steve Prefontaine, before becoming a runner.

Step 1: Setting Your Goal

5.Runners running for charities, to lose weight, or for well-being.  Their goal is to enjoy the race and finish the marathon.
4.Runners who have completed one or more previous marathons.  They have a finishing time goal.
3.Runners who want to qualify for certain races with strict qualifying time standards such as Boston and NYC marathons.
2.Runners who belong to a local competitive running club: they regularly participate in races.  Their goals are to achieve a certain time goal and finish very high within their age or gender categories.  They sometime win awards and free entry for future races.
1.Professional runners, runners with shoe sponsors, Olympic trial qualifiers: their goal is to finish on the podium and earn money for either the finish time or the placement in the race.

Make sure your goal is challenging, but attainable. 

Step 2: Running Gear

If the temperature is not unreasonable, it is better to wear minimal clothing that is as light as possible.
DO NOT wear anything made of cotton or anything new.  You can also bring a throw-away shirt to keep yourself warm if you feel cold before the start.
White color reflects heat, so wear lighter color clothing for a warmer race and wear darker color clothing for a colder race.

1. Performance Singlet
2. Shorts
3. Socks
4. Appropriate shoes for you (Don't wear minimal shoes if you are an overpronator.)  This website should help you select right shoes.
5. Sunscreen
6. Vaseline (Use this on your body prior to the race to avoid chaffing)
7. GPS or time watch
8. Timing chip (Provided by the race)
9. Spibelt or anything that allows you to store the gels around your waist
10. GU packets or any gels (with carbohydrate, electrolyte, caffeine)
This is very important.  Many people don't take gels often enough or early enough and end up in a glucose depression phase in the latter miles.  I take 4-5 gels for a marathon distance.  Make sure you take them with water.
11. Bib number with 4 safety pins

In cold weather, you may need additional layers. 
_Arm warmers
_Running tights
_Long sleeve performance shirts 
_Running cap

You will also need:
_ 14-20 weeks of training  (There are a lot of online training guides as well as books to help guide you)
   I suggest the book "Run Faster" by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald
_ Capacity to suffer
_ Positive attitude and outlook
_ Study the course profile (elevation change)
_ Study water and gel mile stops
_ Join pace group if the race has one
_ Get a good night’s sleep and a high carb meal 2 days before the race. (Pasta, Rice, Baked Potato)

Step 3: Pre-Race Preparation

"You can't cram for the final. By that, I mean you're not going to get any fitter during the last couple of weeks before the race. So don't try cramming any last minute long runs or extra training. The best thing you can do for your body is rest." - Gordon Bakoulis Bloch

Your training schedule should include 1-2 weeks of tapering before your marathon. Tapering refers to the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important competition. Tapering is customary in many endurance sports, such as marathons, track events and swimming races. For many athletes, a significant period of tapering is essential for optimal performance.
Make sure you sleep well and avoid stress in the days leading up to your race.  You should be eating a lot of carbohydrates such as pasta and rice and hydrating during the last couples of days.  Some people go through a carb depletion phase before they load up with carbohydrates in the days leading up to the race.  However, there is no scientific evidence that proves this depletion and loading combination is more effective over the carb loading only method.

Here's an example of the carb depletion and loading method.
• Perform an exhaustive workout one week before a long race (90 minutes-plus).
• Consume a very low-carb diet (10%) for the next 3-4 days while training lightly.
• Consume a very high-carb diet (90%) the next 3-4 days while continuing to train lightly.

Now you are all ready to run a marathon.  Even if you don't finish it, it is still a huge achievement to train for one and go through the process.  After all, only 0.5% of the US population ran a marathon(s) in 2011. Your friends and running buddies will be very supportive throughout your training and will be on the course to cheer for you.

Step 4: Race Day Morning

Go to the starting location/meeting location at least an hour before the start time. Take photos with your running buddies (“before” photos are always a lot better than the “after” photos ) and make sure you go to the restroom several times before the race.  Ideally you should avoid stopping at porta-potties during the race.

My personal advice/strategy for running a great marathon:
_ Don't run faster than you need to until you reach mile 20.  This will save you from hitting "the wall" earlier in the race and will help you   finish in better shape.  I like to use my friend's quote " Marathons don't start until mile 20".  I have seen many people tire very quickly by going out too fast for their pace.
_ Drink sports drinks or water at every water stop even if you are not thirsty. Your body is losing water faster through sweating than you can replenish it.
_Take gels early and often. This will delay the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles.

"I tell our runners to divide the race into thirds. Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart." - Mike Fanelli

Step 5: Start

"Get out there and do what you love!" -Kara Goucher

You are at the start and the gun goes off.  Start your GPS or time watch as you cross the starting line.
It is important to conserve your energy by paying attention to your form. A lot of USATF sanctioned events won't allow music listening devices during the race. It is mainly for safety reasons.  Chatting with another runner is good for morale, but if you want to conserve energy, keep your conversation to a minimum.  Make sure you are taking your gel with water every 30 minutes or so.

Step 6: Mile 2-12

"If you feel bad at 10 miles, you're in trouble. If you feel bad at 20 miles, you're normal. If you don't feel bad at 26 miles, you're abnormal." -Rob de Castella, winner 1983 World Marathon Championships

You should be feeling good at this stage of the race.  If you aren't, you are running too fast or it is not your day to run a great race. Let people pass you.  Enjoy the atmosphere, scenery, and the crowd.  When you take a water cup at the water stops, do not take the first one in line as it causes a bottle neck effect.  Find a runner or a group of runners who are running at your pace and you can work together to achieve your goal.  Make sure that you are running the shortest route possible by taking the tangents.

Step 7: Mile 13-19

"Marathoning. The triumph of desire over reason." -New Balance

You will be getting tired as you approach mile 20.  It is normal.  Your feet feel heavier and tight and you are laboring more to run at a constant pace.  Running at this stage doesn't feel as good as you felt at mile 3.
Keep calm and try to conserve your energy by paying attention to your running form.  Keep your arms low and relaxed.  Don't swing your arms in front of you and keep them at your sides.  Don't raise your legs too high and take small steps. Running with a higher cadence is a more effective way to run than taking high and long steps in distance running. 

Step 8: Mile 20-24

"Marathons don't start until mile 20." -Jane Morris

Mile 21-25 are the toughest miles for most runners.  You may hit the wall and you may get muscle cramps if your glycogen and electrolyte balance is low.  If you are running at your goal pace at this point of the race, you are doing great.  Keep going and know that you will be finishing the race in less than one hour.  If you see a photographer taking your photo, make sure you smile even if you don't feel like smiling.  If you are falling off the goal pace, don't fret.  You can either pick up the pace in the last couples of miles or you will be finishing very close to your goal time.

Step 9: Mile 25-26.2

"At mile 20, I thought I was dead. At mile 22, I wished I was dead. At mile 24, I knew I was dead. At mile 26.2, I realized I had become too tough to kill." -Unknown

This will be one of the memorable miles of your race.  You know that you  have only a mile and a change to go.  Push your pace a little if you can.  Focus on the runners ahead of you and try to catch them if you can.  This is when you are supposed to put the hammer down and go.  No more holding back. You want to finish the race strong.  As you passed mile 26 marker, the goal and the time clock are within your sight.  You will feel a sense of relief, but don't slow down.  You should be running as fast as possible.  If you are competing or running with somebody, this is a great time to push one another. Don't slow down until you cross the last finish lines and timing mats.  Some races have multiple timing mats and you want to make sure you don't slow down before the timing mat.  Stop your GPS or time watch if you wear one.

Step 10: After You Finish

"To finish will leave you feeling like a champion and positively change your life." -Jeff Galloway

After you receive your finishing medal and pick up your bag at the packet pick up, find your friends and family and take more pictures.  Congratulations! You just ran a marathon. This is one of the greatest feelings and accomplishments.  Share your celebration with your running buddies and the runners around you.  Make sure you walk slowly and take in post-race drinks and food right away.  Most people will expend anywhere between 1200-2000 plus calories in a marathon depending on your weight.  Your recovery starts right after you finish. Taking in calories right after the race will help you recover faster.

Step 11: Race Result

Most races post runner's chip times immediately after the race.  Look up your time online.  Analyze how you ran and use the record to improve your next race.  Paul Ryan had claimed that when he was younger he had once ran a “2 hour and 50-something” but according to the race record, he finished with a time of 4 hours, 1 minute, and 25 seconds....You won't be able to lie about your time since all your record is online.

"Marathoning is like cutting yourself unexpectedly. You dip into the pain so gradually that the damage is done before you are aware of it. Unfortunately, when awareness comes, it is excruciating."
- John Farrington