There are a lot of things to keep in mind when preparing for your first marathon—and I'm not talking about the months of training you already have planned and in some cases, finished. I'm talking about the race itself—the actual day (and week) in which you are going to run those 26.2 miles. Once you have followed through with your training, how do you make sure all of the other factors are in order?
You have a great deal of control over how positive your race-day experience will be. Here is what I've learned during my 49 years of running and coaching over 250,000 runners.
If at all possible, run one or more of your long training runs on the race course. You'll learn how to get there, where to park (or which rapid-transit station to exit), and what the site is like. Run over the last half-mile of the course at least twice. This is the most important part of the course to know. Many runners will run segments of the course on several different long runs.
Visualize your line-up position. First-time racers should line up at the back. If you line up too far forward you could slow down faster runners. You want to do this first race slowly and have a good experience. Because you will be taking your walk breaks as you did during training, you will probably need to stay at the side of the road. If there is a sidewalk, you can use this for your walk breaks.
Don't run the day before the race. You won't lose any conditioning if you take two days off from running leading up to the race. If the race has an expo or other festivities, walk around, but don't walk for more than two hours. Some races require you to pick up your race number and your computer chip at the expo the day before. Other races allow you to pick up your materials on race day. Check out the information materials or the event website for instructions.
Some marathons have a dinner the night before. At the dinner you can talk with runners at your table and enjoy the evening. Don't eat much, however. Many runners mistakenly assume that they must eat a lot the night before. This is actually counterproductive. It takes at least 36 hours for most of the food you eat to be processed and useable in a race. But eating too much, or eating the wrong foods for you, can be a real problem. A lot of food bouncing up and down in your gut when you race is stressful. Carbohydrate "loading" the night before can lead to carbohydrate "unloading" on the course itself. The evening before your long training run is a good time to practice your eating plan, then replicate the successful routine for the race.
The day before the race, drink when you are thirsty. If you haven't had a drink of water or sports drink in a couple of hours, drink half a cup to a cup (four to eight ounces) each hour. Don't drink a lot of fluid the morning of the race. This can lead to bathroom breaks during the marathon. Many races have portable toilets around the course, but some don't. A common practice is to drink six to 10 ounces of fluid about two hours before the race. Usually this is out of the system before the start. Practice your drinking routine before and during long runs, and use the pattern that works best for you.
Eating is optional after 6 p.m. If you are hungry, have a light snack you have tested before that has not caused problems. Less is better, but don't go to bed hungry. It's a good idea to have eight ounces of a good electrolyte beverage about two hours before you go to bed the night before your marathon.
Alcohol consumption is generally not recommended the day or night before a race. The effects of this depressant carry over to the next morning. Some runners have no trouble having one glass of wine or beer, while others are better off with none. If you decide to have a drink, I suggest that you make it one portion.
Pack your bag and lay out your clothes the night before so you don't have to think much on race morning.
You may sleep well, or you may not. Don't worry about it if you don't sleep at all. Many runners I work with don't sleep at all the night before and have the best race of their lives. Of course, don't try to go sleepless...but if it happens, it's not usually a problem.
Photocopy this list and pack it in your race bag so you have a plan you can carry out in a methodical way. Don't try anything new the day of your race--except for health or safety reasons. Walk breaks are the only first-time item I have heard people successfully use in a race. Stick with your plan.
Fluid and potty stops--After you wake up, drink four to six ounces of water every half-hour. If you have used a sports drink about 30 minutes before your runs, prepare it. Use a cooler if you wish. In order to avoid the bathroom breaks, stop your fluid intake according to what has worked for you in other long runs (usually one or two hours before the start).
Food—Eat what you have eaten before your long runs. It is OK not to eat at all before most races unless you are diabetic, then go with the plan that you and your doctor (or nutritionist) have worked out.
Get your bearings--Walk around the site to find where you want to line up (at the back of the pack, or in a pace group), and how you will get to the start. Choose a side of the road that has more shoulder or sidewalk for ease in taking walk breaks.
Register or pick up your race number--If you already have all of your materials, you can bypass this step. If not, look at the signage in the registration area and get in the right line. Usually there is one for race-day registration, and one for those who registered online or in the mail and need to pick up their numbers. Pin your number on the front of the garment you plan to wear when you cross the finish line.
Computer Chip--More races use technology that electronically picks up your race number and time as you cross the finish. You must wear this chip--usually laced on the shoes near the top. Some companies have a Velcro band that is attached to the ankle or arm. Read the instructions to make sure you are attaching this correctly. Be sure to turn this in to the volunteers after the race; there is a steep fine for those who don't.
Start your warm-up about 30 minutes before the start. If possible, just walk backwards on the course for about a half-mile and turn around. This will give you a preview of the most important part of your race: the finish. Laugh and joke as you stand around waiting for the start. On your first marathon, I recommend using the first mile to complete your warm-up. During this first mile: