Advice from an Amateur
5 Things You Need to Run Your First Marathon
Eighth grade, third period. That’s when I first heard the story of Pheidippides (sometimes known as Philippides), the messenger who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to proclaim the outnumbered Greek army’s victory over the Persians. Scholars argue over which telling of the account is true — in another version by Herodotus, the herald covered 140 miles from Athens to Sparta — but in the one I first learned, he ran the distance in his armor. The feat seemed impossible but birthed what might be running’s most famous distance race. And, of course, after completing his mission, the ancient runner died on the spot.
From that moment, I began relating modern Olympic marathon runners to Pheidippides; they became heroes in my mind (even as they wore ultralight polyester shorts and singlets and carried neither spear nor sword nor shield). And to run such a long distance became heroic and, accordingly, unachievable.
Tell eighth-grade me that a decade later he’d toe the line of the New York City Marathon, and he wouldn’t believe you. Tell him he’d shoot up those daunting bridges without faltering, that he’d hit a low point in the Bronx around mile 20 but would finish strong, with a smile on his face (and negative splits!), and he wouldn’t laugh in your face, but his insides and legs would tighten with self-doubt. After all, he was no hero of Greece, no Pheidippides.
My First Marathon Training Kit
Back in those days, I ran occasionally, mostly to feel like I was maintaining a certain standard of fitness between sports seasons, but I never took running seriously. (I even had to run extra hill sprints for being the last to finish a team 5k at the start of lacrosse season one year.) I never monitored my heart rate or measured my pace, I didn’t target intervals, and I didn’t know what a tempo run was. Those were the concerns of serious runners, a crowd whose entry required an exclusive membership card I’d never acquire.
It wasn’t until much later, 16 months before the NYC Marathon, that I ran anything farther than six miles. I had accepted an invite to the French Alps for a story and, a week before departure, received a trip itinerary that included seven- and nine-mile trail runs. Despite indulging heavily in fondue and French wine throughout my entire stay, I eked out both runs and felt good about them, too. That trip was proof to me that longer distances were within reach, and that the primary obstacle between them and me was the self-created notion that they were off-limits in the first place.
When I came home from the trip, I signed up for a half marathon (which I documented for Gear Patrol). Naturally, doubling that distance germinated in my mind while my quadriceps still quaked in the finish area.
But then, during my first run after that race, a heel injury flared up and refused to abate for weeks. Meanwhile, the New England days shortened significantly (dark by 4:30 PM) and the winter cold set in. I put my training regimen on hold. In the spring, not long after the vernal equinox’s passing, marathon aspirations began to creep up from my lower psyche like the daffodils in my backyard. By June they were in full bloom, with no time to spare if I were to have adequate time to train my stagnant legs up from zero to 26.2.
I quickly realized that marathon training called for more thought, planning and attention to detail, not excluding the small collection of items needed to get through it. In the absence of a proper training journal — which I do suggest keeping, even if it’s just a spreadsheet — they became the record of the entire endeavor. I used them as tools for carrying out an intended purpose, but they also took on an additional meaning that went beyond (another Athenian) Plato’s philosophical ideas of object and form.
1. Watch: Garmin Fenix 5
How I Used It: The Fenix 5 can record mileage (or kilometer-age), pace and heart rate, it can track you via GPS, it can measure splits, it can execute pre-programmed workouts and, when you’re finished with a run, it can give you a full summary of what you did. I paid the most attention to the first two metrics, but this watch can go as deep into training analytics you’d like. (Garmin also recently released the updated Fenix 6.)
What It Symbolized: Time. Specifically, how little of it there is. After working a full-time job, going to after-work events, grocery shopping, cooking, commuting, moving the car for the street sweeper four times a week, traveling, binging shows on Netflix and sometimes, sleeping, it wasn’t easy to find time to run 30, 40, 50 miles per week. A sheer lack of time might’ve been a greater challenge to overcome than anything having to do with stride or pace. But nobody has time; you make it.
2. Fluids: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5L Hydration Vest
How I Used It: Except on race days, there are no volunteers waiting cup-in-hand every few miles to replenish your fluids. That means that on long runs you have to bring your own. This vest comes with two half-liter flasks and has handy pockets for your credit card, ID, keys, phone and whatever else you might need as you extend your max distance.
What It Symbolized: Self-sufficiency. Running long miles can be a lonely pursuit, but embrace the matter of covering distances others might only attempt in a vehicle, and it becomes remarkably empowering. Or, join a run club.
3. Fuel: Nuun Hydration, Maurten Gels and Revere Cardio Recovery Mix
How I Used Them: Once you begin to exercise for longer than an hour at a time, biology will demand that you replace the fuel your body is burning. There are innumerable choices when it comes to hydration mixes, gels, chews and post-workout drinks; the combo I landed on is mostly plant-based and helped me get through long distances. Here’s a tip: try lots of different types of fuel during training to figure out what works for you (so that you don’t end up with an upset stomach on race day).
What They Symbolized: Science! So much of running is mental — maintaining the enthusiasm to train for weeks, focusing on things other than your aching muscles, fighting through the last few miles of a long run. These, for me, were the major challenges that I came up against. But a lot of it is physiological too. Demand more of your body and it will demand more of you.| |
4. Shoes: Mizuno Wave Rider 22 and WaveKnit R2
How I Used Them: When we think of the things needed for running, shoes top the list. Finding the right shoe can be easy for some — I know runners who are comfortable wearing anything — and trickier for others. My job at Gear Patrol allowed me to test loads of shoes to find the best pair, and I ended up cycling through a few preferred ones during four months of training, depending on the run (I wore On Running’s Cloud X and Nike’s Zoom Fly Flyknit in addition to these two).
Mizuno’s flagship Wave Rider became my go-to for longer training runs, and once I discovered the WaveKnit, a similar but more comfortable option, I saved it for race day. Both of these shoes have lots of support in the heel cup and plenty of cushioning through the midsole. They were perfect for my style of running, but again, they might not work for everyone. My recommendation for finding a decent set of shoes is to do some research online (start with our guide to the best running shoes) and then head to a specialty running store where you can receive a gait analysis and try on lots of different pairs.
What They Symbolized: Everything? Shoes take on so much in running. They’re a runner’s primary tool, the link between body and ground, propelling one over the other. Running shoes become a stand-in for the sport itself — they can represent movement, flow, routine, comfort (and discomfort), control, connection and groundedness. As the miles pile up, they become so much more than rubber and fabric.|
5. Massage: Brazyn Morph Foam Roller
How I Used It: I began my training by going to physical therapy to address a persistent injury. There, I was told that I had an imbalance, that the muscles on one side of my body were more active (and stressed) than the other, which had a trickle-down that manifested as plantar fasciitis and a right calf in a semi-permanent deathlock. The solution? An adjustment in my running form, targeted stretching before physical activity and consistent self-massaging with a foam roller. The Morph became indispensable — I used it nearly every day, including while traveling, which was manageable because of a collapsible construction that made it easy to pack.
What It Symbolized: Self-care. One of the more revealing pieces of marathon training, I found, was that as I focused intensely on this single endeavor, I was forced to pay more attention to everything else happening in my life. With my physical state under the microscope of training, rest became as crucial as activity. The choices that I made when I wasn’t running — what to eat and drink, when to wake up and go to bed — carried consequences into the time that I was. Naturally, and almost subconsciously, these habits shifted to align with a new lifestyle.
That’s not to say that I gave up all vices and lived like a monk — I didn’t adopt a strict new diet or give anything up. But I did become more aware of how certain foods made me feel (or jostled around in my stomach), and what might’ve been five-beer nights turned into two-beer evenings. After all, I was determined not to end up like Pheidippides, crossing the finish line in Central Park only to collapse in a lifeless pile after collecting my medal.
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