Mental Tips for That First Marathon

Can you smell the marathon in the air? It’s a heady aroma.

The 2016 Austin Marathon and Half Marathon is right around the corner (on Feb. 14, no less). The event is celebrating its 25th birthday, and I’ve done my part in sharing quite a few of those memories. While I’ve lot count of how many times I’ve run the marathon or the half, I’ll never forget my first time.

Image of T-shirts from various marathons.

Now, to be technical, Austin wasn’t my first marathon — that was the 2000 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. But the Motorola Marathon was supposed to have been my first because, that year, 2001, Austin’s hometown 26.2-mile race fell on my birthday. That was, in fact, why I’d originally chosen it as my first. But having fun with my wonderful training group led to marathon greediness and so when the rest of the group registered for D.C., I jumped in on that earlier race, too. I’ve always been particularly susceptible to FOMO (fear of missing out).

Wherever you run your first marathon, it’s an extremely special event, one that sears itself into your psyche forever. At least, it did mine.

Here are a few tips to help make that very special day all it can be.

Getting Mental with 26.2: How to Feel Prepared for the First Big Race

This article originally appeared in Austin Fit Magazine

When this article hits the stands, there’s really nothing more that can be done physically to prepare for the race. Physically, about all one can do is get enough sleep, eat well, and refrain from any new or weird exercising in the final weeks. There are several equipment preparations (selecting that perfect, old, comfortable shirt to wear; making clothing choices for various weather scenarios; laying out gels and water bottles to carry; arranging race day logistics), but the old maxim “nothing new on marathon day” holds true. It’s not the time to try a new outfit or a new exercise routine. There is, however, one crucial area of training that is best practiced in the final days and may be something new: mental preparation.

Visualize Race Day

Visualizing, also known as guided imagery, is the process of imagining the events of race day with an emphasis on a positive outcome. Many, however, take this as only seeing the best possible scenario. The optimal practice is to pull up a picture of a realistic day with positive attributes.

Sit in a quiet spot, relax, and think about the race, mile by mile (for accuracy, it helps to have driven the course, taking into account prior experiences to realistically render your imaginary performance). See and feel the experience in your mind; no detail is too small. Run through your warm-up and start; mentally practice taking water or gels. Imagine physical ups and downs at various mile points. Insert some “down” stretches, places in the race where a low point — physical and/or mental — is reached. See yourself pushing through these rough patches and “live” your finish.

American Olympic runner Jorge Torres talked about practicing visualization before his marathon debut at the 2009 New York City Marathon. His coach had him conserve his emotional energy by waiting until three days before the race and then focusing more on creating the race atmosphere than specific details of the course. Torres finished seventh overall, with a time of 2:13:00.

Make a Commitment to Finish

This may seem oddly obvious but many first-time marathoners get caught up in the time trap: “I will finish my first marathon in x time.” Finishing, however, is by no means guaranteed, no matter how much work has been invested or how well prior races have gone.

Danny Spoonts, an outstanding local age group runner and past organizer of the Austin Marathon pacing team, shared the story of his first marathon and the subsequent regrets that came with a DNF (did not finish) in the results. His advice: just focus on a finish. There is often a point in a race where a runner must decide to tough it out or walk off and try another day.

In the case of a first marathon, making the mental commitment first to finish and only then consider a time reduces pressure, which often can keep a runner going in a less-than-perfect event.

Consult with Running Buddies

Even though running buddies have been through thick and thin together in practice runs, the actual marathon is different; friends need to be clear with one another on partnering expectations.

Talk it out before race day. If one person is having a great day, does s/he have the other’s blessing to take off? Or have the runners agreed to stick together, no matter what? Some running buddies are perfectly fine with “to each his/her own” on race day.

Whatever the strategy, make sure all parties understand and agree. It’s not the kind of discussion runners want to have at mile 18 or so on a rough day. Experienced marathoner, coach, and co-owner of Tri Zones Training Tracy Nelson ran the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon with her sister, who was running her first marathon. Beforehand, they had agreed to stay together. Even so, there was a “bless and release” moment on the course where Nelson reaffirmed her promise to her sister to stay with her, no matter what, and let go of her faster finish. It wasn’t the best time Nelson could have run, but her sister was supported on her special day, which had been their plan.

Enjoy Your First Marathon

You only get one first marathon. That’s a fact.

There’s only one time when everything will be new and scary and immensely thrilling in that particular way. No subsequent marathon will occupy the same space in a runner’s heart and memory. Make a mental commitment to savor what the day gives.

Whatever the outcome, the adventure will be one to treasure for the rest of your life. If you don’t believe that, just ask a group of marathon runners, “Tell me about your first marathon….”

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

0 thoughts on “Mental Tips for That First Marathon

  1. My first marathon was Austin-Motorola in 1997. I had no idea what was in store and was so glad I just kept slow and steady for the whole thing and finished feeling great (and in 3:37!!). You\’ve shared some great tips. The mental part is crucial. If you have trained, your body can physically finish the mileage. But, there are moments when you want to give up, when it hurts, when you\’re tired, and that\’s when you have to call on your mental reserves and stay strong. Enjoy the marathon, everyone!

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