Sometimes I get the question, “what should I be thinking about in a marathon?” 26.2 miles is a long way and a long time. Are there helpful things to think about that will help the time pass by and keep me on track to hit my marathon goals?
Honestly, there is a lot of variety out there when it comes to how people pass the miles by in a marathon. Some people like to run and chat with others. The time does go by fast when you get into a few good conversations. However, some people prefer not to talk. Either they want to really focus on the race or it takes everything they’ve got to just keep their breathing relaxed and their body going. They don’t want to expend energy and air trying to talk with others.
I personally focus my mind on “pace” the first five to six miles. It is extremely easy to end up going out too fast. I check my watch regularly to get splits and to adjust my pace accordingly. My goal is to settle into a nice comfortable rhythm. I also think about staying as loose and relaxed as possible while also maintaining good breathing habits. Remember, everyone is fresh those first few miles, so charging off the start line too fast is a very common occurrence. I’ll allow the speedy people to leave me behind because my focus isn’t on trying to keep up with them but to find my race day “zone”. I do try to concentrate on holding back and relaxing so that I have more to give in the second half of the race.
After the first quarter of the race I will have settled into my pace and now direct my mind to keeping hydrated at every opportunity and to enjoy the race course scenery. I may or may not be running with a particular group of people that have a similar pace as I do. It is still to early for me to worry about if I’m on target for time but I’m just trying to stay relaxed. I am not trying to real people in at this time either. Sometimes I’ll talk to and encourage a runner or two around me. That helps me keep my mind off of myself and psychologically I am trying to tell myself and those running around me that I am feeling strong.
When I get to the halfway point I begin to get more serious. I do an evaluation on how I”m feeling. Do I feel good? How are my legs? When should I take an energy gel or drink sports drink? I personally take an energy gel or have sports drink somewhere after the halfway point. I’m also computing if I’m on goal pace and looking at my most current mile splits to see if I need to hold back or go ahead and begin to pick it up slightly.
From here till the end I am trying to hit my splits. I am trying to stay relaxed but your body will begin to wear down more and more. It will feel like you have to give more effort each mile just to maintain pace. Changes in elevation will feel more noticeable. For example, a hill later in the race is going to tire your legs and increase your heart rate beyond what is comfortable. By miles 17 and 18 I may not be taking in the scenery or talking to the runners around me. I’m trying to stay relaxed and hit my splits. I’m saving every last bit of my energy for the last 8 to 9 miles. I will be focused on taking in as much water as I can and also any anti-cramping stuff for my legs if needed by miles 19 and 20. I am also discerning if I need to take another race gel or more sports drink to get some carbs and electrolytes in me.
The last 10k is all guts! You have to be mentally tough. Your body and mind will be telling you to slow down because you are hurting. My thinking switches over to a few tricks I use in the later parts of the race. One of the things I do is run point to point. I’ll pick out spots ahead of me and just try to stride smoothly to those points and then start the process over again. I’ll also run person to person. My goal is to pass people but not have people pass me. Therefore, I’ll spot who is ahead and slowly try to catch them. I don’t sprint to catch them but gently pick up my pace to reel them in and then I will keep my pace to pull away. None of my surges are super fast nor really long because I am saving some for my final kick in the last mile.
When I get to the last mile or two if I am feeling good, I usually empty out the tank. I make sure I have nothing left by picking up the pace as much as possible. In the final mile, I’ll surge for the first quarter of a mile and then settle into a pace up to the final half mile. With half a mile to go I will slowly start to pick it up and by the last quarter of a mile I am running as fast as I can because I can usually see the finish line in the distance. It’s honestly hard to think about much in the last couple of miles. You are hurting a lot and it takes all you have to just stay focused on taking the next step sometimes. If you are thinking about your pets at home, some house project, or what you want to eat once the race is over then you didn’t really run a hard race. You might let your mind wander into such thoughts somewhere in the first half of the race but in the later miles of the race you should be in a mental fight to keep pushing to the finish line.
Those last 8 to 9 miles may seem long when you are running them. That’s because you are tired. Everything is also a “blur” in the memory banks after the race when it comes to those late miles because it’s hard to think when your body is demanding your attention because it is straining to finish the race. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot what you want to think about in the first half of the race just as long as you are smart about pacing. However, be ready to have some mind tricks, encouragements, or a mantra or two to keep you going in the later miles. A mantra you can keep repeating to yourself could be as simple as “you are a machine”, “believe”, or “run fearless”. I like to think about my wife and kids who are eagerly waiting for me and cheering me on. The biggest challenge of a marathon is always your mind. So be ready to focus it on the positives and let your mind know that you are committed to never giving up!