What we can all learn from the hard-earned success of three first-time marathoners.
We sometimes learn the most when things go the least according to plan. So was the case at the 2021 Boise Marathon this past October.
In the August of 2020, a long-time friend named Mackenzie floated the idea with me that he was thinking about trying to run his hometown marathon in Boise, Idaho in the Fall of 2021. He had just moved back and was working remotely for the defense contractor Lockheed Martin after two years in Philadelphia. As someone with a limited background in running, he had concerns about his ability to finish a 26.2 mile race on that kind of time frame. I was clear with him that it was well within his ability, and soon after agreed to come down and run the race with him in the Fall of ‘21.
In the months leading up to the event, we’d end up recruiting a couple more runners to come out for their first marathons as well, setting us up for an interesting case study in what can happen in the first marathon. Below are some of my big takeaways of what we can all be thinking about ahead of the first marathon attempt. While a lot of things are outside our control on race day, there’s a lot we can gain from focusing on the things we can control.
1) Proper training
In the months leading up to Mackenzie and I working together, he would not have classified himself as a runner. It had been 2.5 years since his last running race, which also happened to be his first half marathon. We would need to start conservatively and teach the body the strains of running before we progressed to more intensive training.
Mackenzie’s case was in some ways similar to that of Treeline Athlete Shae Rhinehart that I covered a few months ago. Shae’s body had felt the strains of running more recently than Mackenzie’s, but she was also recovering from a long-term injury. To our benefit Mac was in less of a time crunch for his race than Shae had been, so we could allow for a less aggressive build. Since he was unlikely to have any of the initial tendon/ligament durability that comes slowly with consistent, long-term training, we started with 5+ weeks of three, 30 minute easy treadmill runs. We built to four runs per week, and then five before progressing to more intensive training with workouts targeting specific fitness gains (beyond general aerobic base).
Marathons are long events. They not only require the runner to be strong, but to be able to maintain strength for a really long time. As a result, it’s common to focus on building a high degree of strength early in a marathon build, and then to worry later about maintaining that level of ability over increasing durations. This was the approach Mac and I took once we had built a routine.
Mackenzie’s goal for his first marathon was, like most, primarily just to finish. For the first-time marathoner, I believe this is a solid and intelligent aim. Nevertheless, we had initially planned to top out at an ambitious 22 mile long run ahead of Mac’s race to try and help prepare him for his secondary, much more aggressive goal of crossing the line in under 4 hours. Like most plans, we were forced to make adjustments, but still landed him on a really solid peak long run distance of 20 miles.
The other two athletes who’d decided to join us for the Boise Marathon, Nathan and Devin, had taken on a different philosophy of training: don’t train.
Neither Nate nor Devin had any more of a running background than Mackenzie had before this training block, but in their build to the race Nate had “done a ten mile run a few weeks ago” and Devin said “ I think I ran 13 miles over five days” and “I didn’t drink alco… oh no, wait I did drink alcohol in the week before the race…”
2) Race day Logistics
It might feel safe to expect certain things out of the race organization itself, but I’m here to ask you to reconsider what you know. The Boise Marathon was a great test of what you could and should be better prepared for.
Weather is a common and fairly obvious consideration for any 26.2, and while there’s little you can do to control it, there’s a lot that can be done to account for it. What if you finish two hours ahead of schedule because you took a wrong turn and ran the half marathon instead of the full? In Boise, it was 50 degrees, rainy and windy. Hypothermia seemed imminent, but conditions didn’t deteriorate until the race had started. Knowing the weather forecast inside and out ahead of standing on the starting line can make sure that you’re dressed for what you’ll encounter.
I had always previously thought that reliable race course markings were a given, but when you really think about it, it can take a lot of signs to lay out a course that’s over 26 miles long. Wrong turns don’t need to be the end of your race, but they can throw your psyche into a whirlwind if you’re already feeling anxious about your finish. If the race is in your hometown, then you might be able to run the entire course in sections ahead of race day, which is an all-around fantastic opportunity. If the race isn’t nearby, it can still be worth it to download the route to your GPS sportswatch or to carry a small copy of the race map for reference.
Not all races run this risk. If you are running the New York City Marathon, it’s probably safe to expect intuitive course marking, but it never hurts to reconsider. A lot of us will probably start with smaller events that don’t require the race directors to plan for tens of thousands of participants.
Nutrition and Hydration
Poor nutrition and hydration are a major threat to the success of a first marathon attempt. The marathon distance is simply too far for the human body to run well without taking in water or calories along the way. As someone who is painfully familiar with the metaphorical “wall” that you hit when the body runs out of fuel to burn, I will say it is no exaggeration that even walking the final six or eight miles to the finish can seem like an insurmountable challenge.
Never assume that a marathon course will be providing ample water and calories on course. Read the race website carefully for what fuel will be available and where. Even if the course has bottles of water and 5 brands of energy gels every two miles, carry a few backup gels just in case. In Boise, Mackenzie and I ran eight miles before the first calories were available, and even then it was only half a paper cup full of sports drink. Had we not had backup supplies available, this would have spelled absolute disaster for his race.
3) Brain Power
The Boise Marathon was an undeniable example that the single, most important factor in the success of the first marathon is the head on your shoulders. When everything else goes wrong, we still have the ability to accept and adapt to meet our goals.
In the two weeks leading up to Boise, Devin had been reconsidering his objective. While he believed he could still finish the marathon if he needed to, he had decided the prudent decision was to change his registration to the half marathon to avoid any risk of long-term injury interfering with the upcoming ski season. Regardless of his email exchange with the race organizers a week ahead of race day confirming his changed registration, when he arrived at the race start to pick up his bib, he found himself holding four safety pins and a tag that read “Full Marathon”. He and Nathan laughed nervously as they pinned on their bibs, and started doing pace calculations to determine how fast they needed to move to beat the finish line cutoff.
Mackenzie held a methodical pace from start to finish. During his race he was met with uncertainty about being on-course, concern as to whether he would have enough calories to give his best, and consistently worsening course conditions that were leaving him soaked and running into a gusty headwind. Mile after mile, Mac looked unshaken and determined to get this job done.
Ten-mile Nate would go on to run, walk, and run again to reach his first marathon finish in a time of 5 hours and 20 minutes- an incredible performance for the minimal running experience he had going in. Devin was able to run strong for 15+ miles, shuffle some more, make a wrong turn and get back on course, and finally march his way to the finish line in 5:51:33; less than 9 minutes under the race course closing time. He even did it with a smile on his face. Mackenzie fought for every step, finishing far under his aggressive sub-4-hour goal in 3:57:09. Mac would later say that he believed the final ingredient in reaching his goal was having a friend to run with to keep him focused on moving, but distracted from thoughts of what distance remained ahead of him.
Even in the face of trying circumstances, every one of our runners was able to realize their greatest version of success through mental strength.
“What made you decide to run a marathon anyway?”
“You know, I was just kind of always miserable working at Lockheed, and I thought that I needed to have something that I was doing for myself.”
Running a marathon is a massive athletic and personal achievement. Like Mackenzie, most of us have some pretty resounding reasons that led us to that starting line. Don’t forget those. Hold onto them from start to finish, and let them push you forward when the going gets tough. No matter what you’re facing on race day, know that you can do it, and that the suffering will be worth it in the end. Go get it!