Making the most of your marathon debut as marathon season starts to blossom

April sees the launch of the marathon season, with big days coming up in London and Brighton, plus further afield in Paris Milan, Vienna and Madrid. From April onwards, there are dozens of marathons across Europe to enjoy.

For those contemplating their first-ever attack on those fabled 26.2 miles, Phil Hewitt, author of Keep On Running, offers ten top tips to make sure you get the most out of your day.

  1. Familiarise yourself with the course. You don’t have to be heading out there into the great unknown. A little bit of research in advance can pay rich dividends. In New York, it was great to know that even when you reach Central Park, you’ve still got the best part of three miles to go. Lack of preparation had the opposite effect on my first London marathon. I thought I was home when I first saw Big Ben. Far from it. Three miles far from it, in fact. It was an awful moment – and so easily avoided.
  2. Get organised the day before. Don’t be afraid to be a bit anoraky. Make a list. Lay your kit out. Check it is all there. You absolutely don’t want to be fretting about the details come marathon morning.
  3. And for similar reasons, get to the start early. Don’t heap extra pressure on yourself by leaving it all to the last minute. Get there in good time and start to focus. Be early and mentally get yourself in the zone.
  4. Enjoy the start. Soak up the atmosphere. Chat to your fellow runners. There are countless tales to be told and stories to swap as you wait for the off – and they all can be part of your preparation. Marathon-runners are naturally friendly, chatty people. Make the most of that fact, and you will really start to feel that you are part of something special. Wallow in the camaraderie that will be there on the day.
  5. But keep warm as you wait. Take something along that you can discard a minute or two before the gun goes off. Once you’re running, generally the less you’re wearing the better; but you really don’t want to be starting off cold.
  6. Drink early and drink often. Your biggest enemy – in fact, your only enemy – out there on the course is dehydration. It is crucial to stay ahead of it. I always carry a bottle, especially in those early stages. Drink every three or four minutes. Remember if you start to feel thirsty, then it may already be too late. Don’t ever let yourself reach that point. It’s also a good idea to throw in a few strategically-placed sports gels. Remember, though, that these very often need to be washed down – otherwise they just sit on your stomach. They are quite thick and sticky, so a sip of gel followed by a sip of water and spin it out over half a mile, maybe three or four times during the race. But remember: if you’ve never used a gel before, a marathon is certainly not the place to try one out.
  7. Don’t set off too quickly. In my early marathons, I used to fret about the inevitable bunching you get at the start when 36,000 people simultaneously start running. But it really isn’t a cause for concern. Heavy-crowding can be your friend, reining you back when your first instinct might be to hare off. Do that, and you could well burn out way before the finish. Your best approach is to recognise that you are in it for the long run. You should therefore slip into that long run gently.
  8. 26.2 miles is a hell of a long way, so break it up in your mind to make it manageable. My own tactic is to find significance for every single mile number along the way. Mile one leaves a nice round 25; mile two is the first even number (yes, it can be as basic as that); mile six leaves a round 20; mile seven sees the remainder dip below 20 for the first time; and so on and so on. Or just count up in fives. But do something. Don’t ever think about the race distance in its entirety. That might just be a little off-putting!
  9. Be alive to your surroundings. Look for the landmarks, look forward to the landmarks, enjoy the crowd, interact with the crowd. Make sure you’ve got your name written clearly on your vest. As you tire, a great game to play is to decide which person in the crowd you are going to make shout out your name. Fix them, plead with your eyes and they will always respond. And it makes such a difference.
  10. Look forward to that moment of crossing the line. Focus on the feelings you will have, and those feelings will get your there. It’s like having your Oscar-acceptance speech at the ready. Focus on the elation that is coming your way. Nothing else will combine exhilaration and exhaustion in so magical a mix. Make sure you’re ready to savour your great moment of glory.

Keep on Running: The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict is published by Summersdale on April 2 2012 (£8.99; ISBN: 9781849532365) – http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/

Phil, arts editor for Sussex Newspapers, has completed 26 marathons in conditions ranging from blistering heat to snow and ice, in locations from Berlin to New York, sets a cracking pace in a light-hearted account of his adventures on the road. This story of an ordinary guy’s addiction to running marathons looks at the highs and lows, the motivation that keeps you going when your body is crying out to stop, and tries to answer the ultimate question, ‘Why do you do it?’

Phil’s marathons include London, Amsterdam, Rome, Dublin, Mallorca, Brighton, Portsmouth Coastline, La Rochelle and Tokyo.

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