My first was the Cleveland Marathon in May 2011. I've run two others since and am about to tackle the Wine Glass full on October 6. In my mind, I'm still very much a beginner, but I'm happy to offer some tips to the first timers out there, pulling off my limited experience. I'm no pro, but I'm happy to answer any questions you may have leading into your first!
In this post, I'm assuming you trained well, or as well as you could. I'm assuming you know the very basics, nothing new on race day, carb up, hydrate, eat smart, arrive early, use the facilities before you go, remember to fuel, dress for the weather, yada yada yada.
The following are things that I'm either glad I knew or wished I would have known, or just things I believe are really important and want to reinforce!! In the comments, feel free to add your own, I'll do my best to add suggestions from others into the main part as I see fit, or ask questions!!
(Computer is being difficult right now, I'll add a couple photos and links and make this post look pretty later!!)
CONSIDER A THROWAWAY: You're waking up at the crack of dawn, you will stand around for awhile before running, but once you get going both you and the weather will warm up. Dress accordingly, but many people will make their top layer a throwaway, either an old shirt or sweater or a cheap one from a thrift store. When you don't need it, chuck it to the side of the road or leave it at a rest stop. Most races will pick them up and donate the clothes to charity.
RUNNING WITH A FRIEND: If you're planning on sticking with someone else during the race, lay out the ground rules ahead of time. If one of you has to stop and walk, does the other wait or go ahead? The crowds can get thick the first few miles. What if you get separated? Do you wait up at the next mile marker or water stop? What if one of you needs the bathroom and there's a line? Do you both wait? If you're doing a full, that's a long time to keep a conversation going. Will you mutually agree to listen to music and not talk for awhile? Perhaps think of some stories or conversation starters to keep you chatting through the long miles.
BRING A CHANGE OF CLOTHES: I totally forgot a change of clothes for my first. Fortunately, my mom brought them. Loose and comfortable is the way to go. Oh, and if there's a bag check, put something unique on your bag. That will help you get it quicker.
PREPARE, BUT DON'T OVER PREPARE: I loaded up my Fuelbelt for Cleveland. I made a list, and posted it on Facebook. Did I forget anything? "Chapstick!" one friend said. "Body glide!" said someone else! I never used those things during any long run. I didn't need them during the race. Think about what you'll need.
SECURE YOUR CAR KEY: It never happened during a marathon, but I've had the unfortunate experience of losing my car key during runs more than once. Both times it slipped out when I was reaching in my pocket or pack for something else. If there's bag check, put it in your checked bag, or put it somewhere where this won't happen.
DON'T LOSE YOUR MEAL TICKET: Sometimes on your bib there's a perforated section to tear off that will get you food or beer after the race. But bibs tend to get damaged during races, especially if you're wearing them on your leg or if it's raining. Tear off any free drink/meal/bag check tickets before the race and put them someplace secure, just in case.
DON'T WEAR YOUR RACE SHIRT BEFORE OR DURING THE RACE: It's bad luck. You'll look like a rookie.
KNOW WHERE YOUR SPECTATORS ARE: It's really sweet of your friends and family to want to surprise you on the course. Really. But you tend to zone out, especially in the later miles, and faces blur together. Knowing your friends and family are at specific points gives you something to look forward to. It can be a mental break. Encourage them to let you know their plans. Place them strategically. Tell them to not be shy about cheering for strangers, either. It's so nice when a stranger cheers for you. Pay it forward.
DURING THE RACE
START SLOW: If you're just running to finish, the first few miles should seem unbearably slow. We get swept up by the excitement and tend to go too fast without realizing it. Resist. If at Mile 6 you feel like you can speed up, pick it up a bit. Then at Mile 13, then at Mile 18. If you finish faster than you started, you've run a great race.
THE LAST SIX MILES WILL SUCK: Seriously. They suck. Your training likely only took you up to 20 or 22. Mentally, you've never run that far. People will probably be dropping like flies all around you. How do you make them suck less? Run the first 20 smart, obviously. Latch onto people running your pace who seem strong. Save the best, most motivating songs for last. Save your favorite flavor energy gel. If you're running with someone and have a good story to tell, maybe save it for the end. But it comes down to self talk. This is one hour of your life. It hurts. This is probably the hardest thing you've ever done. What will you remember about this hour tomorrow? Will you remember how you dropped the ball and walked most of the way? Or will you remember how you roughed it out and finished strong, even though you wanted to stop? What story will you tell tomorrow? You got this far because you're tough. So finish. And smile.
DON'T COUNT ON THE FIRST TWO WATER STOPS: The first couple water stops can get overcrowded and overwhelmed. Plan on bypassing them. Some people carry a plastic bottle of water to throw to the side. Others start with a full Fuelbelt or pack.
BE SOCIAL, BUT D.B.A.A.: Marathoners are a friendly bunch. If you're bored, you'll find many willing to chat. But don't push it. If they have headphones in, chances are they don't want to talk. If they don't respond, they're probably just really focused.
STAY IN CONTROL: It's late in the race and you need to walk. You control your body, not the other way around. If you need to walk, tell yourself you'll walk for one minute, or to the next lamppost, or to the next mile marker. Then you'll run for however long. If you feel the need to walk, make yourself run for 30 more seconds.
WALKING HILLS IS OK: When I first started running, I always had to be running. Walking didn't count. Then I eased up. If a hill is so steep that walking is as fast as running, save your energy. Plan it out. If you see a hill coming that you might want to walk, speed up in anticipation then you'll recover as you're walking and make up some of the time!
RELAX: My most painful marathon was the one where I set my personal record. The most fun I ever had was the slowest. If this is your first, it will be a PR, so focus more on having a great experience.
AFTER THE RACE:
REMEMBER EVERY MOMENT: I was running down E. 9th Street, toward the Rock Hall and Lake Erie. My iPod was dying so I put it on random and forced myself not to touch it. "The Long and Winding Road" was playing. I saw the "Mile 26" sign. I pulled my earbuds up and made my very numb legs run a little faster. People were cheering on both sides of the road, on the bridge along the Shoreway and to the road the led to Cleveland Browns stadium. I passed under the arch. I finished my first marathon. That was my moment. Do not forget yours.
THIS IS YOUR MOMENT: If you're like me, you'll probably Tweet and post your time on Facebook as soon as humanly possible, if the race doesn't have an automated system that does it for you. If you're like me, you probably have an awesome support system who will instantly comment. Post your time, then shut your phone off (if you did a full, it's probably dying anyway.) This is your moment. Take it for you. Read and respond to all the comments later, when your phone is in the charger and you're drifting off into a well deserved nap.
SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE: Reading other people's success stories keeps me motivated. Pay it forward.
Good luck in your races!!