Don't forget to bring your cheering section: Making the most of your marathon

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Allsport
I was a senior in high school in April 1983, the year I made my first trip to the Boston Marathon.

No, I wasn't running -- instead I went to get a taste of some incredible world-class competition and cheer on a couple of friends who were banditing the race (a practice which was actually encouraged in Boston).

I can remember the crowds some 20 deep at the finish line going absolutely wild as Americans Greg Meyer and Joan Benoit each took home victories, with Benoit smashing the world record in the process. It also marked the last time an American would win Boston.

But as exciting as it all was, what sticks out most in my mind is the strategy employed by one of my friends who was running in the race.

The plan was to drop off brothers Don and Kevin Levine at the starting line in Hopkinton, then drive to the finish and watch the race. Don was a veteran marathon runner, while Kevin would be attempting his first in just a few short hours.

We talked about the race almost nonstop on the two-hour drive to Boston, and when the conversation finally got around to clothing, Kevin reached into his bag and pulled out the shirt he would be wearing for the marathon. Written boldly across the front was the word "KEVIN."

Well, all of us had a good laugh at his choice of attire, but after the race, he said that the shirt is what got him through his first marathon. All along the course, spectators would yell, "Go Kevin!" and it was like he had his very own cheering section.

The important details

With the fall marathon season getting ready to kick into high gear, there's a good chance that you, too, will be competing over the 26.2-mile distance in the next few months. And while it's probably too late to make any drastic changes in your fitness, it's not too late to go over the details that can make or break your marathon -- things as simple as a "Kevin" shirt.

Shoes: While brand-new shoes may look nice, they're a big mistake for a marathon. You should put at least two weeks on a pair of running shoes before marathon day, and doing one of your long training runs in them isn't such a bad idea either.

Paper cups: Learning to drink from paper cups while you're running will allow you to make the most of an aid station. Squeezing the top of the cup so that it is nearly flat will keep the water from splashing all over your face (and up your nose).

If your goal is just to finish the marathon, a good strategy might be to walk through each of the aid stations. My wife used this strategy in her first marathon and finished feeling tired, but hydrated. And always take a sip out of a cup before you pour it over your head -- if it's not water, you'll be a sticky mess for the rest of your race.

Drink the drink: Many races these days offer water as well as an energy replacement drink and gels. Practice with the items that will be offered and learn if your stomach can tolerate them. Oftentimes a sponsor's product is not the best item for racers. If you can not tolerate what they have to offer on the race course, then you may want to carry a bottle of your own drink or some gel packets, and use the aid stations for water only.

Plan ahead: Take time before the race to learn where the aid stations will be located. This is especially important in smaller local marathons and trail marathons where aid stations may be far between or located at odd intervals along the course. Carry a water bottle if necessary.

Dress rehearsal: Do your last long run in the clothes you plan to wear on race day, right down to your socks. If there's going to be a problem, it's better to find it now than at mile 12 of the race. If you discover that your shorts chafe or your socks cause blisters, you'll have time to find an alternative.

TAPER: Many runners are afraid they're going to get out of shape unless they keep up their miles all the way to race day. The truth is, you're not going to get any faster in the last couple of weeks before a marathon, and you can ruin your race. A good rule of thumb is to cut your mileage in half over the last two weeks before your race. The rest will leave you feeling fresh and fast.

Stick to the plan: If you've done your training, then the opening miles of a marathon are going to feel mighty slow. That's a good thing! The temptation to pick up the pace is a bad thing. Several years ago I decided to use the Colorado Marathon as a training run. I set my heart rate monitor for 155 and made it a rule that I would run no faster.

Well, at mile five I was hovering close to 100th place, but as we entered the last half, I started passing people in droves. At the finish, I had moved into fifth place. The moral of the story is, if you plan to average an eight-minute pace for your marathon, then why are you starting out at seven-minute pace?

Lube: Vaseline or another lubricant is a valuable pre-race tool. Lube up any potential hot-spots, like your heel, toes or arch, your nipples, that spot behind your armpit, wherever you get blisters or chafing. And while you're at it, trim the toenails.

Carbo/hydrate: The week before the race is the time to start hydrating. It's also the point where you should increase the amount of carbohydrates you're consuming each day. All carbo-loading should cease during the last 12 hours before the race. Eat a light meal early on race morning, giving yourself plenty of time for it to digest. Remember, race morning nerves will slow digestion.

Rest: Lie around the day before your marathon. That's right, be a sloth! Cable TV in hotel rooms is the best pre-race prescription.

Remember, make the most of your marathon experience and leave nothing to chance. With all of the time and effort you've put into training, it would be a shame to let the little things get in the way of a memorable performance. And don't forget, there's still time to get that "Kevin" shirt!

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