Taking on a marathon for the first time is both exhilarating and mystifying.
To help runners navigate those 26.2 miles, we asked experienced marathoners and coaches for their advice. Weighing in are Pat Connelly, official coach of the L.A. Marathon and the L.A. Roadrunners, the marathon’s training program; Kathrine Switzer, author of “Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports” and a former L.A. Marathon commentator; Rod Dixon, Olympian and former director of coaching and training for the L.A. Marathon; Dawn Dais, author of “The Nonrunner’s Marathon Guide for Women: Get Off Your Butt and On with Your Training”; and Julian Myers, who, at 90, is a 13-year veteran of the L.A. Marathon.
* First of all, take it easy at the expo. Runners pick up their bibs, timing chips (devices that trip sensors during the race to track runners’ times) and race packets at the McDonald’s Quality of Life Expo held this Friday and Saturday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The expo is a big draw, with vendors offering clothing, running shoes, food and other goods and services. But Dixon urges caution. “What runners tend to do,” he says, “is have a free sample of this and a drink of that, and suddenly they’re taking in far more than they should.” They’re also doing a fair amount of walking as well -- on hard, unforgiving floors -- and if it’s Saturday, that could have profound effects on race day. Better to hit the expo on Friday, limit your time, and don’t overdo on the samples.
* Go with the tried and true. Most runners are aware of the adage “nothing new on race day,” but Switzer says that should be expanded -- don’t take or wear anything you haven’t tried out on a long run.
* Pace yourself on the first downhill. The temptation to sprint down Cahuenga and Highland in the early part of the race is strong. Some runners go flat-out, trying to shave off time, but that pounding can be bad for joints and uses up more energy. Others slow it way down, but straining the quadriceps muscles can lead to intense soreness later. “Just relax,” Connelly suggests. “Have a nice, relaxed heel strike and be limber, like Jell-O. Let the hill take you down.”
* Start drinking water from the very beginning of the race. “Do it before you get thirsty, and take at least a little sip at the first couple of water stations,” Switzer says.
* Ice it. If race volunteers are handing out ice, Switzer says, grab some and put it under your hat if you’re wearing one. Dais advises carrying small plastic zip-top bags in which to put the ice, which can then be applied where needed.
* Stay warm -- then cool. Some marathoners wear old shirts or T-shirts over their race wear, then chuck them once the marathon starts (make sure the racing bib isn’t on it). Others cut a hole in a large trash bag and stay warm in that before the race begins.
* Travel light. “People don’t need to carry water bottles,” Switzer says. She invariably sees runners loaded down with backpacks and belts packed with water, “like they’re going across the Sahara. There are water stations every mile.” The added weight can ratchet up the heat factor.
* Look to the past. First-timers and even experienced runners can have periods of doubt and dismay during the race when fatigue sets in and crossing the finish line seems like an insurmountable goal. It’s then, says Dixon, “that you have to draw on the good times you had in training, remembering that 15-miler you did.”
* Leave nothing to chance. Connelly advises working out a driving route and parking plans days ahead of time. With streets blocked off, trying to wing it the morning of the race could prove disastrous.
Similarly, get clothing and all other gear ready beforehand as well. It’s not unusual to see runners show up on race day so nervous and flummoxed that they’ve forgotten their shoes.
* Walk. Some first-timers are determined to run every step of the marathon, believing walking is for wimps. Not so, says Connelly. “People get caught up in the excitement, and they get to eight miles, and they should have done some walking breaks. They feel good, and then they get to mile 14, and it’s like a sledgehammer has hit them on the back of the head.”
* Consider caffeine. “Some people think that because it’s race day, they need that boost of adrenaline,” says Dixon. “But remember, if it works for you, stay with it. If you’re not used to it, don’t do it.”
* Stay in the middle. Blisters, muscle pain and joint soreness may be avoided by running in the middle of the street, which is usually the flattest part, Connelly says.
Running on an uneven surface close to the curb, he adds, could put extra pressure and cause more friction on the feet, resulting in blisters and soreness. If blisters do develop, go to an aid station and have them taken care of.
* Beware of the curb. Some marathoners -- especially walkers -- will finish way beyond the average time of four to five hours. Blocked off streets will eventually fill with cars, and participants will have to navigate sidewalks. “If you’re a slow runner like I am,” says Myers, “it can be a little dangerous going up and down curbs. You’re apt to get tired and slip.” He advises instead using sloped curbs or driveways, if necessary, to avoid the more extreme ups and downs.
* Warn your loved ones. If friends and family will be stationed along the route offering encouragement, Switzer advises to alert them that for runners, the marathon can elicit an array of feelings. Case in point: “I had a gang of people at one marathon who were leapfrogging around the race. I waved to them at mile 18 and everything was great, and then I saw them at mile 22, and I think I told them all to go to hell. I had gone into that terrible trough. They all looked so deflated. So warn them that your emotions might be all over the place.”