Ideally, you should have a big breakfast, about 3 hours before the race begins. Some people can manage a smaller gap between breakfast and the race, some need longer: you will have found out from your training runs what works for you. Race day breakfast should be easily digested carbohydrates. I have a tradition of eating a honey and banana sandwich, but porridge, cereal or bagels would be fine. Avoid fried foods, unless you have tried this in training.
Get to the start in good time, so that you have time to go to the toilet and hand in your kit bag. You don’t want to be stressed because you are short of time. If it is cold, remember to wear a bin-liner after you have handed in your kit to keep you warm and dry before the start. The conventional advice is that you should stop drinking about 2 hours before the race. Some runners keep sipping water right up to the start; my experience is that this makes me need to urinate during the first mile of the race.
I don’t warm up before the marathon – I think the race is long enough already. Your main objective at this stage is to conserve your glycogen stores. Instead, I prefer to start off slowly and warm up during the first couple of miles. If you do want to warm up a little, jog for half a mile, and don’t do any high intensity running which will be fuelled by glycogen.
At the start, line up with the people who are running at your pace. There are usually markers along the side of the start, or sometimes separate pens, which show where you should start off depending on your likely completion time. Don’t start further up the field than is right for you: you will be swept off too fast, which will wreck your chances of meeting your goal; and it is annoying and dangerous for faster runners to have to weave around you in the first mile of the race.
“Nothing is more certain than the defeat of the man who gives up.”
Your enjoyment of the marathon, and your performance, will be decided in the first five miles. Inexperienced marathon runners almost all shoot off too fast. You have rested, so you feel strong; the adrenalin is pumping; and the crowds are urging you on. The pace feels ridiculously slow compared to all the running you have done in training. All the runners around you have set off faster than you. At this point, your mind can play tricks on you. You convince yourself that you could sustain this pace for 26.2 miles, and finish much faster than anyone, including you, expected. All this is rubbish: don’t be one of the lemmings.
Start the race 10-20 seconds a mile slower than your target race pace. You can easily make this up later – after all, you have a long way to go! Running slowly can be very difficult to do, because the runners around you will sweep you along faster. But remind yourself that every 10 seconds a mile too fast in the first few miles will cost you a minute a mile in the final six miles.
If you find at the first mile marker that you have set off too fast: stop and walk. This is about the only way of giving yourself a chance to recover, and breaking your rhythm. (The day I first ran under 40 minutes for 10km, I ran the first kilometre in 3:06 – which was far too fast. I walked the first half of the second kilometre to get myself back on schedule.).
During the early miles of a big marathon, the route is often crowded, before the runners begin to spread out. Resist the temptation to weave around slower runners. This uses up energy, and is stressful. Fall in behind them until you can pass them easily. It won’t do you any harm to slow down a bit: you are probably going too fast anyway.
When I am running a marathon, I divide it mentally into three parts: the first half marathon, a hard seven miles, and the gruelling last six miles.
For the first half of the marathon, your mission is to keep relaxed, conserve energy, and find your rhythm. You should be feeling very strong, and having to fight the urge to go faster. Start drinking a little at every water station, even if you don’t feel thirsty yet.
Assess your position at half way. Ideally, you will have used up 49-51% of your target marathon time. You should feel fresh and strong. If you are working hard to maintain this pace, or you are breathing heavily, then you are running too fast, and may need to adjust your goal for this marathon.
The next seven miles are mentally tough. Concentrate on staying relaxed, keep your head up and your shoulders back, and think about your running form. This is where many runners begin to slow down without realising it. Don’t rely on the runners around you to maintain your pace: they are probably slowing down. Keep an eye on your watch as you pass the mile markers. If you feel you are beginning to tire, it is often a good idea to speed up a little – a change of pace reinvigorates your legs, and gives you a mental boost. Take your sports drink or gels, and promise them to yourself as rewards for getting to the next milestone or drinks station.
It is often said that the half way stage of a marathon is 20 miles; and it is certainly true that the last six miles are always as hard, mentally and physically, as the first twenty. They are also always harder than you think they are going to be. There is no suitable preparation for the experience. The battle is mainly in your mind. As you run the last six miles, remind yourself that you have done the training (you have done the training, haven’t you?) and that you have earned the right to achieve your goal. Think of all those early winter mornings, running in the cold and rain; think of those weekend long runs; those gut wrenching track sessions. Remind yourself that, when the race has finished, the pain and nausea will go away rapidly; and that if you keep running you will get there more quickly. Visualise success, and imagine what your friends and family will say when you are finished. Imagine the photograph of you crossing the finish line.
I have a personal trick which works for me. Smile. However much effort I am putting in, I find that if I force myself to smile, I get an extra spring in my step.