Come marathon race day, only so much is under your control. The miles are already in the bank, but you can’t stop a sudden snowstorm, surprise 90 degree heat, or a train that gets in your way. There are, however, a few small steps that I’ve found to make marathon day go a little more smoothly, can easily be done ahead of time, and can help you get those little details right to help you on your way to a great race experience.
1. Use the small plastic bottles meant as fuel belt refills as mini stand-alone bottles.
Especially if you are lucky enough to have someone out there on the course for you, these mini bottles are the perfect size to carry as you run—a standard bottle can be awkward to hold, weighs more, and can be a little on the obnoxious side to tote around when it is halfway empty and the liquid sloshes around a lot. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to carry anything unnecessary and/or that makes a sloshing noise around on those 26.2 miles!)
For both Steamtown and CIM last fall, I brought a bag full of 7 or so of these mini bottles, filled them with my preferred beverage of choice the night before, and gave them to family members who would be stationed along different points along the course. You can even put two mini bottles in a plastic baggie, and then carry one in each hand for a bit if you know you’ll have a stretch without much support for a while. Bonus: sometimes handing off a plastic bag is easier. I’ve put my single mini bottles in individual baggies before, and this ensures I don’t have to slow down or risk a missed bottle. Have your course support hold the baggie by one corner so you can easily grab it.
I marked the bottom of each bottle with their respective mile markers—so the bottle marked “5” would be doled out near mile 5, etc. Marking gave me some extra piece of mind because my now-fiancé Phillip just flat out forgot about meeting me at mile 20 of Kiawah in 2014. (Yes, he will probably hear about this occasionally for the rest of his life… he has since much more than made up for it with excellent course support and keeping me company for 4 of the 5 marathons I have ever run up to this point). The extra bit of planning involved here was well worth it come race day, because I knew I’d have a drink exactly when I needed it. For Kiawah 2016, I just make sure Phillip knew 6, 12, 17, 20, and "wherever he could find me" in the last 4 or so miles.
Another benefit of this is that refills for a fuel belt are often fairly inexpensive and sold in multi-packs.
2. Practice with the drink that will be at the course’s aid stations, and practice with the particular GU or nutrition supplement that you plan on using.
You can’t really overemphasize how important hydrating is over the course of the marathon, hence this is also the subject of tip #1 as well as #2. Nearly every marathon will advertise ahead of time what drink besides water will be out on the course. Don’t just assume that your body will respond fine to whatever flavor of Gatorade/Powerade/nuun is out there—get your body ready ahead of time by using the same flavor if possible. This may be more important for the relatively exotic drinks like nuun, than more commonly found drinks like Gatorade, so that is also something to keep in mind. (Kiawah 2016 served at least 3 different Gatorade flavors which was actually kind of a nice surprise as I ran along!)
Likewise, this is not the time to suddenly go for caffeinated gels if you’ve never tried them, nor should you be reaching for that limited-edition Pumpkin Spice flavor if you’ve not tested it. Be sure you’ve tried the flavors of GU that you plan on using; mile 22 is not the time to discover you can’t stand the smell of it. If possible, stash an emergency GU somewhere on your body—in your shorts pocket, etc. This might especially be something to consider for the smaller marathons, where there might be different nutrition stations but only one or two for gel. (This, of course, assumes you will have some gel of some kind!)
Addendum: At my most recent marathon, I had never actually had the GU Roctane Lemonade flavor before. (I went with Chocolate Sea Salt, Pineapple, Chocolate Sea Salt, and then my last one was Lemonade.) This was actually DELICIOUS! So, if you know generally what you like flavor-wise, maybe a little experimentation is ok!
3. Have a plan for when you’ll eat and drink during the race, and don’t skip your nutrition and hydration early on just because you feel good. After the race, make notes as to what worked so you know what to do for next time.
Know when you plan on having your energy gels (or whatever nutrition supplement you’re using) down to the miles. Running 26 miles is no joke; anything you can do ahead of time to make this mentally easier on yourself, like knowing when to have a GU, is a great idea. Don’t bypass early gels or aid stations or water just because you don’t feel like you need it. Even if you feel great, that energy or water you take in early on will help you in the latter stages of the race (when sometimes it can be more difficult to eat a gel or drink some Gatorade even if you had planned on it).
One awesome thing about having marathon experience under your belt is that you know what has worked for you in the past. At CIM last year, I had a GU at miles 6, 12, 17, 20, and then opted for a drink instead of a GU at mile 23. (Of course, I had been drinking nuun, etc. the whole time before mile 23.) I essentially just repeated this plan for Saturday's 26.2.
4. Attach any GUs to your mini water bottles by screwing the edge of them into the cap!
Phillip, my cyclist fiancé, taught me this method, which evidently cyclists use for nutrition handoffs all the time! When you screw your water bottle cap on, put the edge of the top of your gel in there—then, when you grab your water bottle, you’ve also got your GU! Don’t underestimate how tricky it can be to grab something from someone while running; you want to make this as easy as possible so you don’t drop anything and you only have to reach out once! For my most recent marathon this past Saturday, we did this four times and it worked great—I grabbed the drink/GU combo, detached the GU, temporarily stuck the water bottle in my sports bra (one more reason to use a smaller one!), ate the GU, then drank my drink. Presto, energy!
This also works well because it really helps to have some liquid to immediately wash down that gel. Even with the aid stations along the course, taking in some more substantial hydration (i.e. more than a sip or two) is really helpful.
5. For goodness sake, know which shoes you’ll run in and make sure you are comfortable with them for the 26.2 distance.
Probably most runners just go with their regular training shoes for the marathon distance—in many ways, this is an excellent idea because that cushioning can helpfully stave off legs cramps or other issues that would only appear over the second half of the race.
If you do choose a lighter shoe, make sure your body will be used to it and that they are not too light. I made the mistake of wearing my 5k flats for my first marathon and was greatly impeded by calf cramps beginning around mile 18 or so—I was pretty much running on tip-toe for the last 8 miles and no amount of willpower can will away calf cramps.
Know your shoes and know that they’ll work.
6. If you’re meeting family or friends after the race, plan a meeting spot ahead of time.
….nothing like running a marathon and then feeling like a lost (and very very tired) child unable to find her family. This is a tip that might be equally useful for the half marathon, or any kind of distance with the potential to really tire you out. After the Kiawah Half one year, I couldn’t find my mom, had walked back and forth for a while, and finally just gave up and found some kind of lounge chair under shelter near the finish to lay upon. With my eyes closed, I very possibly silently cried a few subtle tears from sheer fatigue, and also because once I lay down I could not very well have gotten up, and meanwhile, I was picturing my mom worriedly unable to find me or thinking that I had just passed out somewhere (which, actually was sort of true, though on a decent lounge chair). Laying there, exhausted, I just figured I’d stay put, possibly for forever, and eventually my mom would find me. (She did, and I don’t think she had been worried at all yet...) Anyways, illustrative story aside, have a good meeting spot mapped out ahead of time, preferably one close to the finish without being so crowded that you’re unable to find your people!
7. Pack some compression socks AND A CHANGE OF CLOTHES for after the race too!
Most people plan out their race outfit ahead of time with thoughts of what is both most comfortable and helpful to your performance. But what about after the race? Add a pair of extra compression socks to your bag, so that you have a fresh pair for post-race. No time is too soon to start the marathon recovery!
Likewise, if you can, throw some comfy postrace clothes in your bag. This way, if it rains, you are insanely sweaty (pretty much a given), or have to wait on awards, you won't be shivering.
8. Bring your own pillow if your marathon involves an overnight trip.
Some of you may totally not care about your pillow, but I sure sleep a lot better with my own. (I’m also allergic to down, so often sleeping on a hotel’s available non-down pillow means sleeping on an annoyingly poofy overstuffed pillow that puts my neck at a highly unnatural angle.)
I've never regretted bringing my own pillow, even with the space it takes up. Sleeping well before a marathon never hurt any runner.
9. Bring good company with you!
I've brought Phillip with me to 4 of 5 marathons and he is great, not just in terms of course support, but just general company too. He keeps me calm and knows a lot about endurance events. Just now....
Ann: (to Phillip) Do you have any tips to add?
Phillip: After the race, treat yourself to...ice creams, cookies, ....candy.
He also suggested that you eat a "safe meal" that you know will work in your stomach the night before. (VERY good idea.) Finally, he adds, have mental checkpoints along the way--so know that you're going to get a GU at mile 7, etc.
The more marathons you run, the more tips of your own you'll discover along the way. In the meanwhile, I hope these get you through 26.2 a little faster!
And, up next: the Kiawah Island Marathon 2016 Race Report, that was very nearly a 13.1 race report!!