One of the great things about a marathon is that most of the preparation is done well before the day of the race. Just like writing final exams, you can't cram all of your preparation into the last few days and expect to give your best performance.
Unlike final exams, though, there are a number of things you can do at the last minute that may significantly undermine your chances of getting the best results you can. Here are some things you should keep in mind as race morning looms.
1. Stay with what you know.
One of the biggest mistakes marathoners make prior to a race is trying to change their routines and do something different on race day. Some people wear brand new shoes and then get blisters during the race. Others try something new for breakfast and spend the day looking for porta-potties all along the course.
It's best to stick to the familiar. Wear shoes and clothes that you've worn before on long runs so you know you won't have any problems. Don't try any new foods or drinks. If possible, find out which hydration and gel options are offered at the aid stations along the course and use those in training.
The key is to minimize the number of surprises you'll face on race day. Try to familiarize yourself with the course as much as possible. If you can drive the course beforehand, that's ideal. At the very least, have a good look at the course map and elevation profile before the race. For example, it would certainly help your race planning to know that there's a huge hill at mile 22.
2. Get to the starting line early.
Medium to large size marathons can be a logistical nightmare. Typically there are several thousand people milling around a relatively small area trying to find the baggage check, bathrooms, starting line etc. It's best to get to the starting area at least one hour before the start of the race.
Once you're there, take care of the most critical things first. Make sure you've got your number and your race gear on and ready to go. If possible, have a friend or relative look after your bag. Standing in line for half an hour at the baggage check is not an ideal warm up for your marathon.
Speaking of the warm up, many of us don't need to do much of a warm up for a marathon. You might want to jog very slowly for five minutes or so and maybe do some light stretching, but that's about it. You want to conserve as much energy as possible before the race.
3. Start slowly.
When I talk to runners who have struggled in the final miles of the marathon, the most common thing I hear is, "But it felt so easy at the start." One way to stay on track is to wear a heart rate monitor and make sure you don't go above a particular heart rate. For beginners, about 75 percent of your maximum heart rate is probably high enough. Advanced runners may be able to maintain 80 percent. I recommend that you train with a heart rate monitor. Doing so will help familiarize you with the heart rate zones you need to be running in for the long distance.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about marathon pacing was from another runner at the 20K mark of a marathon. I remarked about how good I was feeling and he said, "Make sure that you are feeling this good at the 30km mark, or you'll struggle at the end."
When running a marathon, it's very true that the slower you start, the faster you'll finish.