First-Time Finisher: Taking the Marathon Challenge

Our writer signed up for her first Philadelphia Marathon. Each week until race day, she'll chronicle her journey from first-timer to finisher right here on Be Well Philly.

Well, I did it. And if you’re like the 25,000 other compulsive, quasi-masochistic Philadelphians now frantically trudging up and down Kelly Drive, you did it, too: I registered for the Philadelphia Marathon.

The task itself is almost too easy—like signing up for Netflix. Name, birthdate, credit card number (a marathon now costs a half a year of DVDs), and some personal info.

Click that “register” button and voila! Deal sealed. The path has been paved for three months of total reinvention. You buzz at first. You can hear the crowd roar! Feel the tape break against your sternum! Picture your soon-to-be-cast-iron calves propelling you down the Parkway!

Once that confirmation screen pops up, however … “Check out one of these training plans from Runner’s World for just $24.99! No, seriously. Have a look. You do realize what you just signed up for, don’t you?”

Anyone who’s ever signed up for a marathon has faced this moment: How do I make November 20th a marathon instead of a death march? How do I set up the next few weeks such that I don’t panic a month before the race and convince myself that, no—no I really won’t miss the registration fee or the technical T-shirt that comes with it?

Perhaps the trickiest part about deciding on a marathon plan is having to be honest with yourself about what exactly you hope to accomplish over 26.2 miles. Clarity? Sense of accomplishment? All well and good, but many plans force you into a more brutal kind of self-evaluation: Runner’s World (the runner’s Britannica) offers plans for four-hour marathons, three-and-a-half hour marathons and three-hour ones. $24.99 for a three-hour marathon seems like a great buy to me, but I digress.

The point is, it’s easy to give inquiring co-workers and friends a wishy-washy, “Oh, trust me, I just want to survive this ordeal!” But the truth is that even the registration forms ask you to estimate a time; more likely than not, there’s some number out there that you’re fixating on (compulsive, quasi-masochistic people are good at that).

Ross Martinson, one of the owners of Philadelphia Runner, recommends using McMillan’s running calculator. Enter in your last time, whether it was a mile, a 10K, or a half marathon, and it’ll calculate what a reasonable marathon goal is. The closer the distance to an actual marathon, the better.

“I try to encourage people to do a half marathon six months before the marathon,” says Martison. “It’s a lot easier to gauge a finish time from that.”

If, however, you don’t exactly have a recent race time by which to do such a calculation (cough), Martinson recommends keeping your plan (and your goal) as unspecific as possible.

“It’s really not a good question for a beginner,” he says. “It’s easy to try to do too much that way.”

When you’re at a loss for what exactly to do with yourself for the next 10 to 12 weeks, though, staying casual and unspecific can be more anxiety-inducing than carving out a detailed plan. Those $25 plans for advanced runners? Every day, they’ll e-mail you a new workout (always during the wee hours of the morning): Today, five minutes at race pace on rolling hills. Thursday, six miles of tempo on soft terrain. Two weeks from now, quarter-mile strides.

It made me think of one time when, approaching a high school cross country season over the summer, I asked a coach what tactics would be best for increasing my endurance for the fall.

“Run,” he suggested. What about hills? I want to be able to demolish those! “Run on some hills.” For a strong last mile? “Run fast, sometimes.”

I asked Martinson: So, if there’s no take-as-Gospel plan for someone who’s never done this before, how am I supposed to know what to…you know…do?

The good news for novices is that the most generic training plans are also free. Martinson (along with a few other marathon veterans I know) pointed to Hal Higdon’s training plans. They’re about as generic as you can get, will fit on an 8-by-11 sheet of paper on your fridge, and will still help you make sure you’re increasing your mileage in a sensible way. Best part? You can copy and paste them from a web browser. Free of charge.

“The weekly long run is really the most important thing,” Martinson emphasizes. “I also suggest that, mid-week, people do a somewhat longer run. Say, a nine mile. But make it a little more of a workout. Try to do 30-second intervals hard, or something like that.”

The Philly Marathon, he points out, doesn’t have any “significant hills,” so while hill training will certainly make you tougher, it’s not crucial for surviving race day.

I’m not sure if the whole “run a lot, but relax” guideline made me feel much better. That’s probably because, no matter how you cut it, marathon training is a scary undertaking. Whether you have a detailed plan holding you by the hand each day, or are simply willing yourself to jog a few miles, it’s easy to be troubled by the thought of the hours, the sweat, the aches, and, most of all, the possibility of failure.

But while I’m tempted to get wrapped up in the sense of preparation, or in a goal that will end up distracting me from actually taking pride in what I’m about to attempt, I think I’ll follow a plan that’s proven, that will keep my legs and head on straight, and that, most importantly, will be fun: to run. And when I can, to do it a little faster and farther.

Have you ever run a marathon? Do you have tips or advice for Annie? Chatter away in the comments, Be Well runners. And be sure to check back next Thursday for Annie’s latest update!