When I ran my first half marathon in May 2001, I had no idea of what I was doing or what I was getting into. Three weeks earlier, a friend had told me that there would be a women's half marathon in Central Park, and that if we signed up we would get a free subscription to Allure magazine. I am not sure why at the time I thought getting a free magazine was a good reason for running 13.1 miles, but there I was, among a thousand of other women, ready to start my very first race.
In preparation for the race, I had trained for three weeks on my University's treadmill. I thought that if I started with 3 miles, I could add one mile every other day and be ready for the half marathon in three weeks. I obviously had no idea about the 10% rule, I had never heard the word tapering, and I had never seen a training plan. In fact, my training went very differently than I had planned. Without getting into details, let's just say that the treadmill never marked more than 5 miles.
Despite my less than successful training, on May 13, 2001, I tied my trainers (which at the time I thought could totally pass as running shoes), spent more than a fair share of time trying to attach the timing chip to one of my shoes, pinned my bib on an old cotton t-shirt, and went out to run my very first race. I ran, I walked, I stopped... I ran again, I walked again, I stopped again... I yelled at my friend, I swore that I would never run again in my life... and then I saw the finish line... and passed the finish line. In that moment, I was overcome by an incredible sense of accomplishment and a rush of emotions that I cannot put into words. All I could think was that I wanted to sign up for another race. Next time I would be ready; next time I would know what to do.
Twenty years later, I am still struggling to be disciplined with my training, I am still seeking new information on how to fuel and hydrate, and I am still collecting tips on on how to prepare for a race. But here is the list of 13.1 things that I have learned and that I wish I had known before running my first 13.1 miles.
1. Choose your running shoes wisely
Make sure that your shoes fit properly from heel to toe and that they feel comfortable with your stride. The best way to find the right shoes is to go to a local running store that analyzes the stride and ask their advice.
2. Choose your training plan wisely
It is a good idea to start training 10-14 weeks before the race, and it is essential to have a clear plan. Set a challenging but realistic goal, and find your training plan (you can find many suggestions here...)
3. Monitor your nutrition and hydration during the training
When the training picks up, it is normal to be hungry. However, it is important to be conscious about food, and in particular about protein intake. You can find some advice on nutrition and a couple of breakfast recipes here... Hydration during the weeks preceding the race is also fundamental. Get a water bottle and make sure you drink at least 8 cups of water per day.
4. Plan your nutrition and hydration during the race (and practice it during your long runs)
Nutrition and hydration during the race are just as important as they are during the months before the race. Make sure you try a variety of gels during your long runs to make sure your digestive system tolerates them. When you use them, you can fuel up every 45 minutes. Also learn to be diligent with your fluid intake, and learn how to drink on the fly (squeeze the cup, and drink from the corner of your mouth).
5. During the week before the race, stay hydrated and carbo-load.
Do not wait the night before the race to carbo-load, but give yourself a week to focus on carbs. Start increasing your carbs (but keep a balance with your proteins) a week before the race, and pound on the carbs in the last two days. But stay light the night before!
6. Sleep well
Training is very tiring for the body, and sleeping is one of the best way to facilitate recovery. Aim at sleeping 7-8 hours per night during the training, and getting a good night's rest on the days leading up to your race.
7. Have a checklist for race day
The night before the race, lay out your gear and make your checklist: bib, safety pins, Garmin, phone, throw away clothes, fuel,... Check your list before you leave home!
8. Use body glide to prevent chafing
Nothing ruins a post-run shower like chafing. It may happen in any part of your body, and it is the most unpleasant part of running. Prevent it at the source with a lot (a lot!) of body glide.
9. "Nothing New on Race Day"
This is really a tenet of running, and it means: Do not to try new shoes; Do not wear new clothes; Do not eat eat a new breakfast; Do not test out new gels; Do not try new drinks; Nothing new on race day!
10. Get to the race early
Get to the race at least one hour before the start so you will have time to use the bathroom, check your bag, warm up, find your corral, meet your friend and take pictures. Take your time to focus, and enjoy the wait in the corrals.
11. Line up with runners of similar speed
Even if your friends are ahead of you, line up in your assigned corral. There are many reasons to respect this basic rule of etiquette, and the first one is that you will make many runners behind you extremely frustrated when they try to pass you and the other corral jumpers. Lining up in the wrong corral will also make it more likely for you to start out the race too fast, a mistake that you want to avoid at all costs.
12. Warm up, start slow, stay strong, finish stronger
Make your first mile your slowest mile. It can be hard to start slow, especially when you have the excitement of race day, but starting slow makes a big difference with how you feel later in the race. Keep a slower pace for the first couple of miles, then hit your race pace and keep it until mile 10. Pick up the pace in the last three miles, and when you have a half mile remaining, give everything you have!
13. Plan your recovery
Do not stop immediately after you finish the race, but keep on walking and start to cool down. Visit the HSS stand if available, and do stretching and foam rolling. Eat foods with protein within 30 minutes of finishing the race. It will make your recovery much easier!
13.1 Have fun
Take it all in, and have fun! Enjoy the experience and celebrate your accomplishment!