How to Run a Marathon and Live to Tell the Tale

Updated: November 1, 2011

David Damron

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This is a guest post by David Damron of Running Somewhere.

With every ounce of my body worn and every emotion from my soul being exposed, I stepped across the finish line of the 2006 Corelogic Sacramento Cowtown Marathon with a time of 4:06:48.

Then, I cried for the next 30 minutes.

To this day, I like to ignore the fact that it was probably the pain coursing through my body that brought about the overwhelming emotion and tend to focus on the idea that the emotional high of finishing a marathon was finally allowed to be free. I was a marathon finisher.

On that day a handful of years ago, I learned that it doesn’t take being an expert to finish a marathon. All it takes is putting one foot in front of the other...for a very...very...long...time.

How You Can Become a Marathon Finisher & Live to Talk About It

The first time I truly understood what a marathon was, I thought “they”, being marathon runners, were crazy and that I could never accomplish such an idiotic and painful feat nor would I want to. A few years later, I found myself at the starting line of 26.2 miles and one incredible experience.

Honestly, I could stop there and let you believe that finishing a marathon was like finishing a gallon of cookie dough ice cream. We both know that they both don’t end well though. You’re in pain and regret the decision to complete such a task half way through. Fortunately for you, this guide will help you accomplish something more self-fulfilling than finishing a carton of fattening ice cream.

Throughout this guide, I will detail the process, approach, mindset, and plan for teaching you how to complete a marathon. This guide will not help you win the next marathon, rather become enough of an expert to have the opportunity to brag about finishing one.

Before continuing, please grab a notepad and pen and jot down key points, notes, thoughts, questions, etc. as you read through. This is extremely important because part of your plan of attack is to be as prepared as possible. The more thought and dissection you bring to marathon planning, the likelier you are to not to collapse when “the wall” hits (more on that later). You will find tasks throughout which will keep you on track while setting you up to succeed and eliminating the chance of failure.

Let the fun begin...

The #1 Way to Finish a Marathon is...

This journey from no miles to twenty-six point two is 100% possible and you need to know that from the get go. The #1 way to finish a marathon is committing to the idea that you will finish it whether that is by running, jogging, shuffling, walking, crawling, and/or a little bit of them all. All you have to focus on during training and the race is putting one foot in front of the other until you cross that finish line.

So, here is your first task, take a piece of paper and write down the following:

I will finish the marathon. 

Now, post this somewhere in your home or car that you will see every single day from now until race day. By the marathon, this will be so ingrained in your brain that come mile 23 you will be talking yourself off the marathon ledge in no time.

How to Pick a Marathon

To many non-runners surprise, marathons are now quite frequent in your own neck of the woods assuming you are within 50 miles of a major metropolis. They may not all be the New York City Marathon, but they all cover the same distance.

When picking a race, make sure to pick one that allows for four to five months of training (more on this later).

Finding one near you is as easy as checking out one of these sites:

Runners World Race Finder: One of the most comprehensive guides on the web, Runners World can narrow down your search even to the race type like chip-timing (time tracking device). Runners World is always the go-to site for a beginner.

Active Running Race Search: Provides a search tool (on the left side of the site) that is just as detailed as Runners World. The benefit here is that most races in every corner of the United States use as their sign-up source. Thus, you will find more of the smaller races listed here than on Runners World. The unfortunate part is that the search is sometimes overwhelming and inaccurate in regards to what is a race and what is just a group doing a training run.

GetSetUSA Search : Like, I seem to find the most obscure races that I would have never known about here. GetSetUSA is a highly comprehensive site that I think will continue to grow. Only downfall for their growth is that has become such a huge powerhouse in race sign-up sales. This is still a top source.

Advice on Picking the RIGHT Marathon

Love my wife to death, but traveling to races seems to bring about more stress than racing locally. Her best races are when they are within driving distance of our front door. When it comes to my marathons, I crave destination marathons. As you can see, picking the right marathon is critical to making the experience a good one for you.

Local marathons offer the comfort of home and knowledge of the area. You know exactly how long it will take to get to the start area. You will be as prepared as possible and, if something comes up, you can adjust accordingly. Through running a local marathon, you will be able to have the most support of friends and family. Local marathons can reduce the overwhelming feat of the marathon itself.

Destination marathons are those that you travel to and often make a vacation out of the journey. Traveling to a marathon can bring about heightened awareness of what you need for your race and keep you on your toes in regards to being prepared. Traveling to a marathon also brings the opportunity to meet a new city and its people. Often, cities are accepting of big races as they are a major economic boost to the region. If you have never been to the location before, you get a chance to check out, what is often, 26.2 of the best, most beautiful areas of that location.

As you can see there are plenty of pro’s and con’s to each. You will have to make the call as to which is better for you.

What Gear Do You Need

As with any new venture, there is a price tag attached. Luckily for you, there are endless opportunities to get the latest (or near to it) gear and not break the bank.

When it comes to gear, there is one item that the price tag shouldn’t matter. Your shoes.

Shoes are a major part of this undertaking.  The right decision is critical and that is why I am not going to list one single shoe here as the shoe to get. Why? Because there is not one shoe that works for everyone. I have tried and/or ran in Vibram barefoot-style shoes, “traditional” thick soled shoes, low-drop shoes, and on and on. To this day, I have found a few shoes that I prefer, but I have yet to find a shoe that works for everyone as well as me.

The key to buying the right running shoe is accepting ignorance and pleading for help. During my first marathons, I ran in run-down (pun intended) shoes that should not have been taken on a 26.2 mile journey. I was being the typical guy and refused to ask some running shoe expert what I should be running in. These days, I do a lot of my own research, but I still rely on the experts at the local running stores. Why? Because they get the most feedback and experience with the shoes out there. On top of that, they have ways of testing what would work best specifically for you. Once I started accepting my ignorance and pleaded for the shoe-gods at the local running store for help, I started to find shoes that were right for me.

If you only take one piece of advice from this entire guide in your journey to completing a marathon, let it be this. Go to your local running store and ask for help picking the right shoe for you.

In regards to other running gear, I suggest picking up what works best for your climate and your feel while running. For example, I wear the same type of Adidas running shorts during every run. They work for me. The same goes with my running hat, climacool technical t-shirts, and headphones. When you head to the running store, take a look around the clothing section and head out to Amazon when you get home to save a bit of money on a new running outfit that works for you.

How to Train for a Marathon

It’s about time we got to the running part. Now that you have the mindset for the marathon, the race picked out, and the gear you want to look cool in, it’s time to focus on the one aspect that is probably the most important - training for the marathon.

Before I begin, I want to share a bit of back-story regarding my own approach to training for a marathon. The longest training run I had prior to my first marathon was 15 miles and I finished in just over four hours. The longest training run I had prior to my attempt at qualifying for the Boston Marathon was 21 miles and I finished in 3:56 and change (due to a race injury). Recently, I ran the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 4:21 and change with only a 10 mile training run under my belt. First, these aren’t amazing times and I accept that. Second, my approach hasn’t always been perfect or worked out. Lastly, there is no right training plan for me or for you if your sole goal is to finish a marathon. With that said, I highly suggest following a structured running plan for your first marathon that has been developed by someone who has finished at least a few. There will be times when you may stray from what you should be running, but if you stick to 95% of a training plan developed by someone who knows what they are doing, you will finish the marathon in a lot less pain and suffering.

A key to developing a training plan is to make sure and take it slow at first. It may not seem like it now, but some days you will want to run 5 more miles than you are scheduled to do. Stick to the schedule and you will prevent training injuries that could kill your efforts. Set the goal of competing in the marathon 4-5 months from the day you start training. Any longer and you will lose focus and desire. Any shorter and you might not have enough time to prepare. Obviously, the level of your current running abilities will play a significant role as to how far out you start training.

The following are great sources for developing a training plan.

No Meat Athlete Marathon Roadmap: Matt Frazier’s marathon guide is one of the best I have seen in regards to guiding you to completing a marathon. Sure, he does discuss doing it on a vegetarian diet, but you don’t have to follow the diet plan if you don’t want. It’s simply an additional approach to finishing a marathon. Matt knows his stuff as a Boston Marathon qualifier and I highly suggest this guide.

Runners World Marathon Training: Tons of information for all levels of running with expert advice as well as novice commentary.

Cool Running Marathon Mania: Much like the running advice per Runners World, Cool Running has a wealth of knowledge for all levels. There are a bunch of quick tip articles for solutions to problems that are bound to come up during training.

Jeff Galloway Marathon to Finish Guide : Galloway is a marathon legend and genius that you are bound to read about anywhere you see marathon discussion. He has written multiple books on running and each is considered to be top of the line when it comes to running advice.

What Happens When I Get Injured?

It is quoted that Kenyan kids run up to 10,000 more miles than their American counterparts before reaching the age of 18 (source). In other words, unless you spent your childhood in Kenya, you probably will find becoming a runner to be a rough transition. Along with that, you might find that you aren’t as “agile” as a Kenyan schoolboy.

You name the injury and I have had it. The worst being an injured iliotibial band. I have lost (lots of) toenails. My ankle has been sprained numerous times. Lactic acid makes its home in my legs after long runs. The list could really go on, but I will spare you. The thing is, you will probably find yourself injured in some way at some point. It’s okay though. Every runner gets injured at some point. Hopefully, not race week. It’s a matter of addressing the injury immediately and appropriately.

Your #1 source for running injuries will be Google. If you have injured something running, you are bound to find a cure (actually thousands of them) via a basic Google search.

Since, explaining every running injury would take the rest of my life, I will just go over a few key injuries and ways to prevent and/or cure them.

  • Illiatibial Band & Tight Muscles: I injured my IT band during my Boston qualifying attempt in 2008. I found that using a foam roller pre and post training runs and races brought fewer ITB injuries. Matt Frazier has some great advice on foam rolling here. I suggest buying a Trigger Point roller , which is actually hard plastic with an outer edge of tough rubber. Foam rollers can warp while the roughly $45 Trigger point never changes form.
  • Lactic Acid Build Up & Joint Issues: Though recent research suggests that lactic acid may not be such a bad thing for the body, I have a feeling you will find yourself, like me, with cramped legs and hips come the end of the workout no matter how well you train. The solution many people have found to resolve much of the muscle fatigue and joint discomfort is to take a 10 minute ice bath following workouts. No, they will not feel comfortable. I have put up with the torture simply because my recovery time has been reduced to just that day following long runs and an ice bath.

Still Have Doubts You Can Finish a Marathon?

I completely understand. Running a marathon is quite the undertaking. Through proper planning and training, it can be accomplished by anyone.

Sometimes, we need something else to propel us to success. Here are a few tips on how to really increase your success rate:

  • Find a Partner. Running groups are some of the fastest growing communities in the US. Through the camaraderie and commitment of joining a running group and having running buddies, you will be able to help others complete their goal and they will help you likewise.
  • Help a Charity. Team in Training is an enormous charity that supports the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Runners ask for donations to help the charity via their accomplishment of completing a marathon. Not only will you be accomplishing an astonishing goal, you will be helping others in need.
  • Show Off. Run with your smartphone and use the MapMyRun application (don’t forget to turn on GPS settings). Once you are finished with each training run, the program lets you easily share your results on Twitter and Facebook. Show off to your friends your progress. Often, they will encourage you and keep you accountable throughout the months of training.
  • Know that Anyone Can Finish a Marathon. Even this guy.

Don’t Believe Me - Ask These Folks

I am no expert on finishing a marathon. I am just enough of an expert to finish without killing myself. However, there are thousands of others out there that are much wiser than yours truly. Here are a few I suggest checking out to find guidance and inspiration:
  • Matt Frazier, No Meat Athlete - Frazier went from my level of running to incredible feats including Boston qualifying and finishing an ultramarathon. His vegan-preaching ways have built a huge following at his site and community. His articles are always extremely thorough and honest. Great read for all levels of running.
  • Pete Larson, Runblogger - Your average joe running way better than average times. I like to think of Pete as me, just the much much older me. ;) Actually, this 30-something father and runner shares incredibly detailed reviews of the latest products he has tried as well as running approaches. If you are looking for someone who has done the research themselves and that you can actually relate to, look no further.
  • Jason Fitzgerald, Strength Running - Jason provides top-notch training advice along with practical running advice at Strength Running. He has a wealth of knowledge and personal running experience to back it up. Definitely hit him up for any running question you might have. He’ll probably hate me for saying that when he gets a hundred emails from you guys. :)
  • Running Somewhere - Shameless self-plug? I know. Hopefully, I can help you become a better runner through my advice and personal experience over at Running Somewhere. I am always down to right an article answering any of your questions, so feel free to send them to me via Twitter or email : runsomecontact [at]
  • Others? : I know I missed some great resources so please include in the comments section below.

Time to Start Running

The first marathon I finished brought me to tears as I stated earlier. What I didn’t tell you before was how those tears have led me to four other marathon finish lines and countless other running races.

I have accepted the fact that I will not be an Olympic marathon runner. However, I have found myself living the running life that allows me to be expert enough to accomplish the impossible of finishing marathons time and time again.

I’d wish you good luck, but luck has nothing to do with finishing marathons. It’s all about your determination to reach that finish line by putting one foot in front of the other for a...very...very...long...time.

(post image via Flickr)

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