Image: New York City Marathon
Van Tine Dennis  /  Gamma Press
The New York City Marathon draws more than 85,000 applicants and runs on a lottery system.
updated 4/7/2006 8:23:26 PM ET 2006-04-08T00:23:26

Marathon running is among America's most grueling competitive sports, and it's also our most democratic. Each year, thousands of amateur athletes get to take part in its championship competitions, complete with a cheering crowd at the finish line.

The idea is incredibly tempting: Marathon running is an amazing physical feat, and yet with the right training and psychological focus, experts say almost anyone can do it. Granted, most weekend runners who attempt a marathon don't expect to win. But the thrill of completing a 26.2-mile race in the company of world-class runners is enough to motivate even non-athletes to devote a year of their lives to training.

The workout can be grueling, and the risk of injury high. But the emotional payoff is huge.

"After I ran the marathon, I thought, 'If I could do this, I could conquer the world,'" says Katte Mathias, who ran her first in New York in November. "I'm not a runner. So I felt like after that, anything I put my mind to I could do."

Many first-timers are already recreational athletes, but others hit upon the idea that prepping for a marathon could be a great way to get back in shape or jump-start their lives.

Unlike in many sports, age isn't really a factor in distance running. Older runners may even have a small advantage.

"Psychological training accounts for most successful endurance athletes, and that's why these athletes tend to be older," says Dr. Kevin Stone, an orthopedic surgeon with a sports medicine clinic in San Francisco.

Picking a race
For those who sign on, the first step is choosing among the dozens of marathons taking place across the country each spring and fall. Registration policies vary: Many marathons are simply available for the taking. The New York City Marathon runs on a lottery system, and also grants automatic entry to runners who've completed a certain number of designated races. The Boston Marathon is the only one that requires runners to achieve a qualifying time in another marathon before registering.

Many marathons also offer a few slots to charities. "This year we'll be working with 18 different charities," says Marc Chalufour, spokesman for the Boston Marathon. "They're each given a number of entries for the race, and they give those out to people who are raising money for them."

For a first-time marathoner, well-planned training is crucial.

It's wise to begin by getting a physical, and some runners also hire a personal trainer. But there are many Web sites and books that can help people who train on their own.

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One popular option for beginners is to join a running group.

"Psychologically, it's very tough to do it all by yourself," says Jen Mueller, a personal trainer and motivational expert at SparkPeople, a Cincinnati-based health and fitness company. Groups provide moral support, advice and companionship.

It can be hard to stay focused when the marathon is months away. Mathias trained for four months, as many experts recommend, clocking more mileage each week during runs through her New Jersey neighborhood. She prepared for the marathon with her two roommates, also beginners.

'Every week you amaze yourself'
"The first time I ran three miles, I was like, 'How the heck am I going to run more than this?' But you grow into it. Every week you amaze yourself," she says.

Training required a huge time commitment. "I was getting out of work at 9:30 or 10 o'clock and still had eight miles to run," she says. "I think of it now and I can't believe I did it."

Meredith Strauss, also a first-timer at the New York City Marathon last year, trained alone and had similar moments of doubt. But as she began tackling half-marathons and 15-mile runs, things got better. "I always had that ultimate goal in mind," the New Yorker says. "A lot of it is mental."

A training log can help beginners stay motivated and make sense of the many variables involved:

  • Nutrition: Each day, "write down what you ate before you ran. How did it sit with you?" advises Liz Applegate, a sports nutritionist at the University of California.

Depending on runners' size, Applegate advises them to consume about 350 grams of carbohydrate per day to replace lost glycogen. "Three-fourths of their plate should be carbs: fruit salad, brown rice, steamed vegetables," she says, and also include plenty of protein for fuel.

To defend against dehydration, she recommends sports drinks — but not just any one.

"Find out what sports drink is going to be at the marathon and practice with that," Applegate says. "There's nothing worse than you practicing on 'blueberry flame' or whatever, and come the day of the race you find they have an orange flavor or some brand you don't like."

  • Shoes and clothing: "The two keys to running shoes are a good fit and a relatively new shoe," says Dr. Stone. "It's amazing how rapidly the mid-soles on running shoes lose their compressibility."

Stores specializing in running gear can help a novice choose the pair that works best, perhaps even videotaping them on a treadmill.

For clothing, Mueller recommends wicking materials. "Cotton clothes that absorb sweat are going to weigh you down," she says.

  • Injuries: Cross-train to prevent injuries, or to stay strong while recovering if injuries occur. Yoga, crunches and free-weight workouts can improve flexibility and core strength. Stone's favorite cross-training technique is one he says was stolen from veterinarians.

"We train runners as we train horses: in swimming pools, so they can get the running motion and cardiovascular workout without impact."

In the final weeks, "you start to taper your training," says Applegate, who advises patients not to make major diet changes at that point and to consult their training logs to choose the perfect meal for race day.

Even with the best preparation, completing the race can be tough for a beginner.

"I'd hit my wall at mile 24," says Mathias, so the last two-tenths of a mile felt endless. "When I crossed, I was relieved that finally it was over, and then kind of amazed," she says. Exhausted and in pain, she celebrated with her family.

Four months later, her feet are still bruised, but Mathias doesn't regret a moment. She's too busy looking for the next challenge, including another marathon.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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