3 days until the New York City Marathon.
When elite runner Josh Cox, ran his first marathon -- the 1999 San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon (with a time of 2:19 to qualify for the Olympic trials) -- he admits he was very nervous.
"Racing 26.2 miles is a beast, so it wasn't without problems," he says.
In fact, as a first-time marathoner, he was given some interesting advice around mile six.
"Dude, just relax and let it go," said the buddy he was running with, when Cox told him he had to find a bathroom. "Just let it run down your leg."
Cox's coach had recently suggested he start drinking coffee prior to the San Diego race, as the caffeine kick provides many benefits and stimulating powers. Of course, coffee also has the power to speed up other things, if you know what I mean. What Cox's friend didn't understand was that when he said he had to go the bathroom, he had to go the baaathrooom and "letting it run down your leg" was not really an option. That is just one lesson that Cox, who will also be racing New York this Sunday, learned from his first marathon experience.
All soon-to-be, first-time New York City Marathoners, like me, know that the training is complete (through heat, humidity, rain, an earthquake, a hurricane, and even an October snowstorm last weekend), so now it's time to get ourselves excited for the race and as prepared as possible. That's why I enlisted the help of the pros -- elite runners like Cox and Alice Kassens Uhl, running experts Bart Yasso and Jeff Dengate of Runner's World, Team In Training coach Christine Luff, some friends with prior marathon experience, and even a few fun running folks I've met through Twitter along my journey to the marathon -- to share their best race day tips. With this guide, we'll know exactly what to plan for (and exactly what you just can't possibly plan for) come Marathon Sunday.
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1. Don't Try Anything New On Race Day
Nothing. New. On. Race. Day.
If there's one piece of advice I've heard over and over again from every single person I have talked to about my marathon training, it's this one. So I figure it's worth repeating. Again.
"Having success on race day is all about your preparation," says Cox. "There is no such thing as luck in distance running." Long training runs were the time to "test" everything out, he says, from sneakers and gear to the food you plan to eat before, during, and after the race.
Runner's World Chief Running Officer, the Mayor of Running, and my new pal Bart Yasso agrees, saying that you should "be a creature of habit -- nothing new -- the week of the race." This means avoiding all that shiny and new marketing swag front and center at the race expo, too.
To really drive this tip home (for me at least), Alice Kassens Uhl, an eight-time semi-elite marathoner adds that if you do wear new shoes in the race, "no matter how cute they are, you could be missing all 10 pedicured and polished toe nails" before the race is over. I'm already sporting one black toenail these days. So I don't want any more, thank you very much.
2. Fuel Up With "Functional" Foods
My Twitter friend Emily (@TriRunner302 and the blogger behind "Whole Iron Woman") says that the "nothing new on race day" mantra is especially important when it comes to nutrition -- which should start long before you toe the line.
To her, race week hydration is key and "you should be hitting the bathroom so often you're getting annoyed with yourself." (There we go with the bathroom talk again...)
My high school friend Pete Thompson has been long distance running for ten years and still takes his Asics for a spin around the base in Iraq, where he currently serves as a First Lieutenant with the U.S. Army. When he ran the Marine Corp Marathon, he started a "cleanse" about two weeks before the race, making it "a priority to fill my diet with additional protein, whole wheat/grain carbs, vegetables, water, and multivitamins -- nothing carbonated or processed."
We all know (and love) carbo-loading, but it's important to understand that this doesn't just mean eating a massive bowl of pasta for dinner.
"Don't go crazy with this," says Emily. "Eating a big meal the night before the race is a bad idea."
For Cox, it's lunch the day before the race that's his "money meal" -- usually a trip to Chipotle for some white rice with some chicken.
"It's not very sexy," he admits. "This is food for function, not food for fun."
And for race morning, it's all about repeating that same ol' routine again. Which means I'll be noshing on some peanut butter toast for breakfast, while I'm shivering in Staten Island (see shivering advice in tip #3). The same goes for refueling on the road as certain gels or nutrition can upset your stomach if you aren't used to them -- strawberry and tropical punch Shot Bloks it is!
3. Follow Your Race Day Rituals
Once that carbo-loading is out of the way and you've packed food for the next day, you need to hit the hay. (I did not mean to make that rhyme, but I won't apologize for it either.) Just like your gear and nutrition, the night before and the morning of race day is all about preparation.
But first, because mama knows best, my mom reminds you all to "set your clocks back the night before." It's Daylight Saving Time.
"Race morning can be stressful, even for the veterans," says Cox. "You don't want to have to think. You want it to be totally turnkey. Lay out everything the night before. I like to make an invisible man on the ground with everything I need from my head to my toes."
Since I have to be on a bus at 6 am, but don't start running in Staten Island until 10:40am, that's also a lot of time to kill... and get cold. So I'll need to dress and pack accordingly.
When Twitter friend David Coligado (@dcoligado) sent me this Tweet in September, I thought he was a little nuts: "get cheap sleeping bag, cardboard box, plastic bag & find a place to rest before race, you wait around for 4 hours before running."
Now, I know he's brilliant. I'll also be bringing some old throwaway sweats to the start, a lesson my friend Pete learned the hard way.
"Get some of those stretchy gloves and hats that we all had as kids and some long sleeve shirts before the race," he says. "After the first few miles, your body will warm up you can start shedding layers and not feel guilty about what you're leaving behind on the curb. I wish I knew this before my race because I froze."
But before all those clothes go on, Kassens Uhl says don't forget the most important layer underneath 'em all.
"Put Vaseline or some lubricant between anything that rubs together... and I mean anything..." she says. "Or else the chaffing in the hot shower after the marathon will hurt worse than mile 26!"
4. Start Out Slow and Steady
This is a big mistake that many beginners make -- going out too fast. Even for a "race," apparently it's very important that first-timers take it easy, especially at the start of the race. My fellow AOL Marathon Team and TNT teammate Hailey Swartz (a three-time marathoner herself) shared this advice with me: "No matter how good you feel at the beginning -- because you will feel amazing and will have so much adrenaline -- it is so important to not go out too fast so you can conserve your energy for later in the race."
It's a tip echoed by Brooklyn resident Jeff Dengate, producer for RunnersWorld.com.
"Start out slow," says Dengate, who will also be racing New York this year (his fifteenth marathon). "The first mile of this race should be your slowest, because it has the biggest hill on the course. Don't worry about weaving around other runners; the road will open up over the next few miles."
For a novice like me, Cox says it's important to "keep the horses in the barn."
"When you feel good, don't pick it up," he says. "When you feel good after that, don't pick it up. And when you feel good after that, don't pick it up."
"After so many weeks of training, you're finally well-rested and ready to run," says Dengate. "On race day, marathon pace is going to feel like a walk in the park... for the first 10 miles or so. But as the race progresses, it will get increasingly difficult to maintain the pace."
Besides, Dengate adds, it's the perfect opportunity to take in the stunning sights.
"As you're running easy over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, look to your left at the city skyline," he says. "That's where you're headed. There are few opportunities in this race to see the skyline, so enjoy this one."
5. Run Your Race
So assuming we "keep the horses in the barn," (I'm not sure I really have horses in there, to be honest) what can we expect during the actual race? I'm going to go with, well, anything. Anything can happen during those 26.2 miles, so you just have to trust in the training and stick to whatever your game plan is.
As recommended by my inner circle of experts, I plan to run a pretty even, hopefully negative split (running the second half of the marathon faster than the first) since there is "no such thing as banking time in a marathon."
"20 miles is the halfway point in a marathon, so you want to keep plenty in the tank for that end," says Cox. "Remember, you want to be the person passing people at the end, not the one getting passed."
Like Cox, Bart Yasso is a strong advocate of a negative split, but is also a fan of telling newbies not to be worried about their time. (Although I'd still like to come in under 4:30 so that I can say I beat Oprah.)
"I always tell first-time marathoners, 'when someone asks you what time you plan on running, just look at them and say 'I'm going to run a PR,''" says Yasso. "First-time marathoners have a guaranteed PR." I like the sound of that.
In addition to probably still checking my Garmin like a freak, my game plan involves knowing things like where all of the big hills are waiting for me (thanks to a very detailed outline from TNT coach Christine Luff). My game plan includes staying hydrated along the way (Tip! "Don't go for the first tables -- those will be the most crowded. Go to the tables on the left. More people will go to the right because they're right-handed," says Christine.) My game plan is to also run with my teammate Caitlin DiLena, who I've done most of my long training runs with.
"If you want to run together on race day, you must make sure that you both have the same plan, the same goal, same race approach plan, and same pacing skills," says Christine. "It's very important that if at one point in the race you feel great, you let your buddy know by saying something like, 'I'm feeling good, I'm going to go for it.' Along the same lines, if you're not feeling great, say something like 'I'm not having a great day -- you go ahead, good luck." You hear that, Caitlin?
And my game plan involves listening to my body (and tending to it when it starts cramping up), but also staying aware that this race relies just as much on your brains and guts as it does your legs.
Twitter running buddy Gerard Pescatore (@GPescatore, who blogs at "The Music of Running") sent me a quote this week that I'll be thinking about on race day: "Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart. -- Mike Fanelli"
It instantly reminded me of the very first piece of advice I got from another high school friend and three-time marathoner Andrew Madonia when I announced I was running New York.
"Always remember: The first 13 is a test of body, the next 7 is a test of mind, and the final 6.2 is a test of heart," he said.
My game plan for those last 6.2 will be just that -- all about heart. This is a tip that I just love, and first saw on my Emily "Sweaty Emily" Halnon's super-awesome blog "Sweat Once A Day" -- to dedicate each of the last six miles to someone special in your life, one who inspires you, motivates you, and believes in you. Love, love, love it. That last .2 though? Call me selfish, but that last .2 is for me.
6. Remember to "Be A Part of It, New York, New York"
It will be hard not to get excited to see all the smiling faces and hopefully hilarious signs from the 2.5 million spectators who will come out on Sunday.
"The city itself is just so alive," says Cox. "New York that weekend is the center of the running universe. People coming all over the world from the race, from the back of the pack to the elite runners. It's inspiring just to be around it -- even as a spectator."
Which brings us to the next tip: Just have fun out there.
"Smile!" says Kassens Uhl. "Somehow everything hurts less and is more fun the more you smile."
But Cox and Dengate both advise, it's easy to get swept up in the "race day magic," which can excite you and push your pace.
"As you come off a very quiet stretch on the 59th Street Bridge, you'll encounter the most energy of any point on the course," says Dengate. "The crowds of spectators on First Avenue are thick and loud. Do absorb some of that energy, but be sure to save it to carry yourself through the 10 miles that remain. Don't waste it all here by breaking into a sprint or giving high-fives to an entire city block."
I don't think he knows how hard that tip will be for me. Hi, my name is Emily and I kind of love high fives. Still, you better believe I will be putting my name all over my purple TNT singlet in hopes of starting a "Go, Em, Go" chant throughout the streets of New York, and giving all my friends and family members the opportunity for perfect photo ops. They, in return, can hand me some Tylenol.
8. Milk It For All Its Worth
"At the finish, soak it up and be totally in that moment," says Cox. "Race day should be a celebration, a day where you finally reap the harvest of all your hard work over the past few months."
After months of training, that were not without ups and downs, the feeling of crossing that finish line is something I still can't begin to fathom, but listening to these tips makes me certain that it will be a moment I won't soon forget.
"The whole idea is to enjoy the experience so you want to do it again and again," says Yasso.
"You may run many more marathons in the future," Christine adds, "but there's only one 'first!'"
Still, in addition to enjoying the ultimate runner's high and showing off my medal to anyone and everyone, there are a few other things to plan ahead for post-race. I've already got my date with an ice bath and some chocolate milk at my good pal and running buddy Aubrey's so-close-to-the-finish-line apartment and a post-race victory party lined up with Caitlin and our friends and family (at a top secret location).
New marathoner Catherine New, who I ran my confidence-boosting 20 miles with and who just completed the Marine Corps Marathon in D.C. last weekend, says "I totally did not plan for after the race, so know exactly where and what you want to eat for your well-earned lunch," she says. "And do not plan to go to work on Monday."
I like Pete's advice though: "Bring a friend along to carry your stuff and get you home," he says. "After all, you just ran 26.2 miles."
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So if I follow all this advice, I think I'm going to have a pretty successful race on Sunday and I hope all of the other first-time, soon-to-be New York City Marathoners out there do too. But like Cox, I won't hesitate to listen to my body and I'm totally okay with losing a few minutes to stop and use a port-a-pottie if nature calls. After all, they are located at every mile, beginning at mile 3. See? Someone has done her research.