What to expect from your first marathon

Anna, Amelia & George


Last week, as part of our Road to LDN event series in partnership with Mile 27, we hosted a panel talk discussing 'What To Expect From Your First Marathon'. We had three panelists - Amelia Ritchie (WMN Run leader), Nic Errol (running coach) and George Rendall (founder @ Mile 27) in the hot seats and covered everything from their first marathon experiences, top tips with a week to go and learnings from their marathon experiences so far.

Fortunately, for those who missed it, Amelia Ritchie, Anna Boniface and George Rendall have taken the time to note down some words...

Talk us through your first marathon experience

Amelia: The first marathon I took part in was the Liverpool Marathon, 2011.  I had just moved to London from Canada and I decided to take up running to stay fit since I couldn’t afford a gym membership. 

A colleague of mine had been training for the London Marathon which provoked a curiosity within me. I considered myself to be a bit of an athlete after having grown up playing ice hockey in Canada (I know stereotype!) and she didn’t seem like any sort of star athlete to me.  I was inspired!  I thought, if she can do it, surely I can do it too!! I went home one evening and googled ‘Marathon Training’.

I found a 16-week plan, then googled UK marathons and found a marathon 16 weeks away, Liverpool!! I signed up and started training the next morning.

I had no idea what to expect.  I had never even run an organized half marathon.  My only experiences with running were from a Middle School Cross Country race and one Charity 10 km run I had blagged my way through a few months prior.

The day of the marathon was a humbling one.  I went through a plethora of emotions.  I laughed, I cried, I triumphed, and I failed.  I ran, I walked, I chatted to other runners, cheered other runners and they cheered me!  It was an amazing experience and even though it was painful I was so proud of my resilience and ability to push through.  A real achievement! A few hours after crossing the finish line I realized I was absolutely hooked!  

George: My first marathon was in Spain as part of AAUT 2014, a 230km stage race. I was very nervous, mainly because of the heat - temperatures were due to hit 40C+. I remember heading in to see the race doctor the night before the race to get my blood pressure checked…they told me it was quite high but it was likely just the nerves - not what you want to hear before taking on a marathon for the first time!

Race morning was nerve-racking, similar to Amelia I had only ever run one organised half marathon, but after around 10km I found the nervous energy had been very helpful - I got into a zone and was able to channel that energy into my race.

Were there any unexpected moments during that first marathon?

Amelia: Yes, almost everything is unexpected during your first marathon. 

I think the most unexpected thing was how much of a mental game the marathon is and how much positivity you can take from the crowds. For someone running their first marathon, especially London Marathon, you will be surprised at how far a strong positive mental attitude will take you! The crowds lining the streets cheering will elevate your spirits and keep your legs turning over and over and over until you cross that finish line!

Another expected thing for me was how important it is to run your own race.  You will see runners of all shapes and sizes.  Don’t try and keep up with people based on their appearance.  It won’t end well.

Anna: How many people I know in running! During the race both in the crowd and runners there were so many familiar faces! I spent most of my first marathon waving to people which was lovely. The running community is pretty special and the London Marathon brings a lot of us together, its like a big party! 

George: I echo what Amelia said about running your own race. The night before the race, I was looking around the room at people who had so much more experience than I did, so I decided to take it super easy for the first half marathon. At around 30km into the race I began to pick people off who had gone out too hard…it was definitely a surprise to see how having my own race strategy made such a big difference and unexpected to see the negative impact of running someone else’s race.

Are there any rituals you've brought in through your experience - a new breakfast, kit you wear, any other tactics?

Anna: My race day hair is a pretty big deal. I tend to get get braided and I always have my vest colour ribbons in my hair. 

I also always hair a milky bar before the race. 

More recently, I've worked on some visualisation strategies before racing - it's called a zone box, which involves merging all together a song, colour, a moment of confidence and a phrase. This "zone box" is initiated by certain action in your pre race routine. 

For me, my zone box is a tent of red, with the song Watchtower by Devlin & Ed Sheeran. I think of mile 14 at the London Marathon last year and my phrase is "Run Brave" - I start the process as I do my pre race strides.  

Amelia: I think the most important ritual that I have for the marathon is coming prepared with a game plan.  The way I do this is by breaking the marathon into three sections. I always have an A,B and C version of each game plan.   Then the big ritual part of this is that I write notes for each plan out on my hand and arms.  This way I can look down and see how I’m doing.   I write down pace and time markers so I know I’m on the right track.

George: I don’t race that much, so every time I do I seem to pick up a new habit or ritual. Also every race is different so I think it pays to be flexible as much as you can so that little things that you can’t control don’t mess with your head. If there’s one thing I learned from London 2016 it was to take care of putting your number in place so that it doesn’t affect your gait - my arm kept brushing my number all the way round and it was pretty challenging mentally to ignore it and focus on doing a good race.

Let's talk about the mental side of things - how hard is a marathon really? And how different is race day to training?

Amelia: The marathon will be difficult mentally, but remember, you’ve already done the most difficult part, which is the months and months of training.  On marathon day, trust in your training, show up with a positive attitude and remember all the positive things you achieved in your months of training.  Then when you need it, feed off the positive vibes from the crowd and the other runners!  

Anna: The marathon is a tough cookie! It's both a beauty and a beast so you need to treat the distance with respect. It's way better than training because you have thousands of people cheering for you. I love the crowd and when I'm finding things hard I really embrace them by smiling (trying) or pumping them up. The atmosphere is what makes me run fast. You cannot beat it. 

George: The marathon is so tough because of the intensity you have to sustain over the race. For me the marathon distance is the hardest out there…which makes it even cooler that you’re in a position to out there and smash it on Sunday. 

It’s easy to ‘idle’ on a training run and lose focus…I’ll need music or a podcast to get me through longer training runs. On race day, everything will become a bit of a blur of emotion and you certainly won’t need any more motivation with the crowds so it’s very very different. If anything you need to calm yourself down on race day, kind of the opposite on training runs.

London specifically - you've all done it, how does that compare to other marathons?

Amelia: The iconic landmarks dotted along the London Marathon route make it one to remember.  Running over tower bridge is a dream.  Once you pass Buckingham palace, you will be really and truly on the home stretch.  The atmosphere from the crowds and the other runners is unlike any other.  It’s such a special day.  The crowds cheering you along will make you feel like a professional celebrity athlete.  Give them a smile and they will cheer louder!

Anna: I've only completed two marathons which were both London! (Toronto was unfortunately a DNF for me) 

London is the best city in the world and Londoners know best how to put on a sporting event. The marathon is a incredible view to see the city and its wonderful people. The marathon truly shows how great humanity is. I makes me smile even thinking about it. 

With two weeks to go, what would you say to someone doing their first marathon?                             

Anna: The hay is in the barn, don't light a match. The only way you are going to get fitter now is by embracing your taper. Let all your hard work through the winter absorb into your legs through recovering and being fresh for race day. Get ready for the best day of your life! 

Amelia: Here are some top tips to remember…

-Glide!  Buy a stick of body glide and use it in any possible place you might get chafing.  You will thank yourself for this!

-London Marathon starts at 10am.  You might eat your breakfast at home quite early.  Pack a tried and tested energy bar so you can eat it when you arrive at Blackheath

George: Get a good night’s sleep on Friday night. Don’t worry if you don’t sleep that well on Saturday night. Keep your feet up on Saturday & drip in carbohydrates from sources you know your gut can handle. Control the controllables - get your kit prepped early evening, attach your number - and try and remove the uncontrollables (weather being the main one) from your mind.