First-Time Finisher: Lessons from the Finish Line

She did it! Annie finished her first marathon on Sunday. Here's what she learned.

Annie after the race—absolutely glowing. Her time? 3:33:53!

When you register for a marathon on your own, you start to seek out advice. You beg for insight from previous finishers, prowl online Runner’s World forums, and pester the cashier at the running store for sure-fire shoe advice. Marathons training tips are a lot of handed-down wisdom, some of it solid and professional (“Don’t do anything too rigorous before mile 10”), and some of it superstitious lore (“A sausage McMuffin with a smear of Nutella and a sheet line knot in your left shoelace will make the day!”).

While these wisdom nuggets work better for some than for others, I found out Sunday that at least one kernel of what everyone says about marathons is true: the first 20 miles will feel fine, and then you’ll wish you’d never been born. Then you’ll finish, and be convinced you must have undergone a body transplant: there’s no way you just did that.

Because I wouldn’t have made it to the start line (let alone the finish) without advice and wisdom from predecessors, I tried to divert some of Sunday’s agony by compiling a list of my own marathon tips. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Make peace with the fact that you may have to use the bathroom during the race. When you have to stand in a two-person line to do so, take a deep breath. It’s just a minute or two. You have 26 miles to make up for the lost time, and nothing will slow you down more than a heavy bladder at mile 17.
  2. Don’t be too serious during the first ten miles. Chuckle at the signs (my favorite: “WTF? Worst parade ever!”), and bask in the roar of Chestnut Street. You can plan on being in a bad mood later.
  3. You are Pacman, and those Clif-sponsored pacers are your power pellets. Seek them out. Try to pass them. Find the next guy.
  4. That said, don’t get stuck behind one on South Street. Everyone and their grandmother is clamoring for stability during the first few miles, and if you feel like you need to get in front of one, you’ll never make it past the mob.
  5. Be prepared for the water stations. Maybe even have then written down somewhere. They come out of nowhere, and you will be pummeled with the elbows of runners zig-zagging across the course for fuel.
  6. Eat a gel at the first fuel station. You won’t be hungry, and you won’t want to slow down. But at mile 16, your stomach will start to grumble. Don’t get stuck with an empty tank.
  7. You will get that gel in your hair. And lemon-lime Gatorade down your shirt. Own it.
  8. Step lively at the water stations. There are wet, discarded water cups everywhere, just waiting for a sluggish foot or a loose shoe lace. No good can come of a nasty fall.
  9. Have someone waiting for you near the last mile. During the torturous final steps of the race, their cheers (and, if you’re as lucky as I am) pacing will be the angel of marathon mercy. (Thanks Jane Morley for running the last mile with me!)
  10. For recovery, your best bets are a giant sandwich, some light—though not vigorous—stretching, and, the next day, a couple of morning-after pills (otherwise known as Advil).
  11. One marathon will never feel like quite enough. Just hours after the race, when  you’re replaying the mile markers in your head, you’ll start to wonder what you could have done differently, and how you could go just a little bit faster next time. Yes, next time.

So there you go. Just a little wisdom for the next first-time finisher. And, perhaps, for my second go-around.


Research editor Annie Monjar blogged about training for the Philadelphia Marathon each week here on Be Well Philly. Want to catch up on the series? Here are her earlier posts, starting from the beginning:

• Taking the Marathon Dive
• Running a Marathon is @#^%*! Expensive
• The Great iPod Debate
• Knowing When to Take a Day Off
• A Good Trail Is Hard to Find
• Is Yoga Worth It for Runners?
• Group Runs Are for Angry Birds
• Does a Runner’s Diet Matter?
• The Morning Run Conundrum
• Why You Should Care About Pro Runners, Not the Eagles
• Hitting the Marathon-Training Wall
• Cue the Race-Day Nightmares
• Races Are Carnivals for the Spandex Set
Q&A with Philly Marathon Veteran Abby Dean