It's the evening before your first marathon. You've loaded up on spaghetti, drank gallons of water to make sure you're fully hydrated and laid out your new sneakers and running shorts.
Inadvertently, you've also set yourself up for an upset stomach, a long night of frequent visits to the bathroom and potentially race-ending blisters and chafing from your stiff gear. These are just a few of the common mistakes runners make when preparing for the often-unnerving 26.2-mile race.
And it's not just the beginners who stumble, says Brian Collins, founder of 1st Marathon, a training program based in Mesa, Ariz., that coaches about 1,000 first-timers a year.
"The pros, sometimes because of their competitive spirit," he says, "can make the same mistakes."
Staying on course
In other areas of life, you can turn to friends and colleagues, top-notch equipment and even money to get you through a tough situation.
Not so with the marathon.
You've got to do it yourself, and you're not going to get very far without a plan, says Terrence Mahon, a coach for Team Running USA, a national athlete-development program that supports U.S. distance runners. With so many Web sites, magazines and coaches dedicated to running, there's a lot of advice available, but you've got to figure out what's going to work for you.
While Mahon recommends that people spend a year or two running consistently before taking on a marathon to build up an aerobic base and the muscles necessary to handle the pounding ahead, other experts say you can go from couch to finish line in four to six months.
Whatever you decide, sticking to your training schedule is essential. One of the biggest training errors people make is running every day, says 1972 Olympian Jeff Galloway, author of several running books, including Half-Marathon, You Can Do It and Running Until You're 100. Over-training can cause muscle fatigue and injuries, and leave you unmotivated.
"Burnout is what the majority of people I work with experience," says Galloway, who has run 133 marathons and taught his low-mileage marathon training program, which combines running and walking, to more than 150,000 people. "They do too much too soon. They're so tired they don't even want to think about running."
People frequently get trapped thinking that if they're not sore all of the time, they're not getting stronger or deriving benefits from their training. But if you don't give your body a chance to rest and adapt, all the training in the world won't help you.
Experts like Collins train runners to complete their longest runs two to three weeks prior to the marathon and then taper their workouts leading up to the big day. Resting, for the first time in months, will get you back to 100 percent mentally and physically.
Knowing your race
No matter what marathon you run, do the homework. Research the details, such as the course route, crowd size, number of runners, elevation and climate. Knowing ahead of time whether there's going to be a few hundred or 40,000 runners you'll have to shuffle around will allow you to mentally prepare. Galloway suggests checking out Web sites, such as marathonguide.com, for information.
Don't forget about the weather report, either. Dr. Howard Palamarchuk, a Temple University podiatrist who frequently cares for runners' feet, treated participants after they completed April's Boston Marathon, during which a Nor'easter struck. While the pros only had to brave the 40-degree weather and wind gusts for two hours, everyone else slogged away for four to five hours. Some runners' feet were so wet, wrinkled and blistered that half of their soles were falling off, Palamarchuk says. Wearing waterproof shoes and socks and applying a layer of Vaseline to their feet might have prevented the problem.
Ready for the rush
Even if you've thought of everything beforehand, realize nothing is going to be the same on race day as it was during training. Standing at the starting line with runners surrounding you and people cheering, you're likely to experience an amazing adrenaline rush that could have you finishing your first few miles 20 to 30 seconds faster than normal.
Pay attention to your pace and pull yourself back if you need to, no matter how good you feel. Worst case scenario? At mile 20 you're still full of energy and ready to race to the finish line--though it doesn't usually happen that way. Learning to conserve your energy is what will ultimately get you across that line.
"If you don't honor your pace, you'll end up burning your candle too quickly," Collins says, "and it will hurt you in the end."