Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Running a Marathon

Hunter Johnson

Last month, I completed something I’ve been dreaming of doing for years. In just four and a half hours, I ran a marathon! After months of training, the experience of running 26.2 miles with 25,000 other people was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things I’ve ever done. I could barely stop smiling the entire race (which some very embarrassing professional race photos later confirmed). Since posting my Instagram photo at the end of the race, I’ve received countless questions from aspiring runners and pros about how my race went, what I’d do differently, and what my experience was like. Below are some of the highlights:

1. What inspired you to run a marathon?

The college I attended is at the halfway point of the Boston Marathon, so every year, we’d cheer for hours (and, per tradition, get kisses), starting at the crack of dawn. The excitement was so infectious that even as a spectator, I felt so happy and proud of all of the strangers running past me. After cheering for a marathon last year in New York, I felt so inspired that I signed up that day to run the next year’s New York Marathon with the charity Team for Kids. After fundraising and running with the team every Saturday morning (which I highly recommend if you live in New York—it was my favorite part of every week!), I wasn’t able to compete in the November marathon since I moved to Los Angeles for a job (hey!) that May. Since I’d been so set on running a marathon, I signed up for the L.A. one the moment registration opened. That’s a really long way of saying: I signed up for a marathon because of how inspired I felt watching other people run them!

2. How did you approach training? Did you use a specific plan?

I’ve been a casual runner for years (I competed in high school cross country, and later ran three miles most days), but going for long runs was a brand-new thing for me. I used the Nike Running Club app, which I loved. It has you select a training goal (I selected “Marathon Intermediate”) and the number of days per week you’re able to run (I opted for five to six), then it comes up with a plan for you. I love that it tracks the mileage of your runs, and adds a little green check mark next to each completed day. There must be some psychological reward system that goes along with those check marks because I lived for them—they kept me accountable to running each morning.

3. Were there any setbacks over the course of training?

Yes! Since I’d never had a sports-related injury, I thought I was immune to them. Turns out, everyone needs to stretch and cross-train, and they don’t just say that to be annoying. In February, I went on a 16-mile training run on a Saturday and my foot hurt badly by the end, but everything hurts at the end of a long run, so I didn’t really think much of it. The next day, I went on a six-mile hike with friends and could barely walk by the end. After a day of X-rays and an MRI, I learned that I tore several ligaments and tendons in my left foot (a direct result from years of not stretching). I was still determined to race, so I saw a physical therapist two times a week to strengthen my ankle, got some ankle-stabilizing orthotics, and took a month off of running, which was pretty much the entire time leading up to the marathon. It was an investment and the rest took a toll on my endurance, but it paid off: My foot barely hurt during the race!

4. What did you do to prepare for the race in the days leading up for it?

Since I only had a week between returning from Paris and running the marathon (bad planning on my part), I went into full recovery mode. I got at least 8 hours of sleep every night, stayed hydrated and didn’t drink any alcohol, and ate only healthy, carb-heavy meals. The night before, I ate a protein and carb-rich salad from Whole Foods with grains, sweet potato, eggs, and leafy greens and drank water and Gatorade all day long. I also saw my physical therapist the day before who helped me stretch properly and had me do some last-minute ankle strengthening exercises so that I didn’t re-tear my ligaments in the middle of the race.

5. How did you motivate/organize your friends to come cheer for you?

I sent out an email as soon as I got my bib number with information on tracking me—but I honestly could never have imagined how many people would show up to cheer me on. Every time I saw a friend, family member, or coworker, I completely lost my cool—it was like an immediate power boost! I saw someone I knew almost every two miles, after Mile Six. Also, since my friend Alice Ann lives a few blocks from the finish line, she organized a get-together at the end (with bagels and beer), which worked magic for powering me through the final few miles.

6. Were there any moments that stood out as particularly memorable during the marathon?

The diversity of the people cheering made me so emotional—L.A. is such a melting pot of people and cultures and it felt so cool to see so many people united by their support of an athletic event. At one point, I saw a man holding a huge Guatemalan flag and, since my mom is from there, I screamed “Guaté!” and he started running next to me cheering. It felt so unique and special to be able to make a quick connection with a total stranger and then feel supported by him. Also the signs were amazing! A lot of “Run now, beer later” and “Hey, perfect stranger! You inspire me!” And of course, crossing the finish line was awesome.

7. How did you approach re-fueling during the race? Did you eat/drink during it?

This was the biggest epiphany for me! Usually I run before breakfast and don’t eat or refuel on runs—even my longest runs are on an empty stomach—but since I was so concerned about endurance, I figured calories could only help. My boyfriend Jonah met me at three points during the race to give me food and Advil, and while I usually feel unbelievably fatigued at the end of long runs, I felt so energized by the time I finished—like I could run forever! Here’s the breakdown of what I ate during the race: two Clif power blocks and two Advil at Mile Six, two Clif power blocks at Mile 12, half a banana and two Advil at Mile 18, several Gu Energy Gels throughout, which were provided at two different water stations along the course. Note: The excessive Advil use was to help keep my foot pain under control and doctor-recommended, so you may not need as much if you run.

8. What do you do if/when you have to go pee?!

Ha! At the risk of giving too much information (but how can you not with this question?), normally I don’t have to pee during long runs since I get so dehydrated from sweating, but since we had to wait so long in the corrals before starting (almost an hour!), I had to go by the time the race started. There are porta-potties along the course for runners, but the lines get long and I didn’t want to add time by waiting for one. I was in denial for about fifteen miles. Finally in West Hollywood, I spotted a set of porta-potties without a line and ducked in! I can honestly say that was my first time sprinting out of a porta-potty (pretty sure I was still pulling my pants up as I darted out, just to paint you the full, graphic picture).

9. Did you listen to anything while you ran?

I don’t think I could run without music! I made a seven-hour playlist so that I could skip any songs I wasn’t feeling, with a mix of Top 40 and classics.

10. What did you wear for the marathon?

Lululemon leggings and tank (both of which I’ve had for eight+ years—they’ve treated me well!), an old bra from Target, Hanes socks (nothing fancy!), and Mizuno Wave Enigma 5 shoes, which are the same I’ve run in since high school (though not the same pair!). I also had an arm band with my iPhone and the classic white headphones it comes with. I was tempted to treat myself to a cool new marathon wardrobe, but I decided it was a better call to run in the same old things I train in every day, and I was completely comfortable and happy the whole race.

11. What was most surprising to you during the marathon?

The amount of fun I had! I expected the entire thing to be a five-hour long lesson in torture, but when my boyfriend dropped me off at the starting line he said, “Don’t forget to look up and enjoy it.” I thought he was crazy, but it turned out to be such good advice—every time I felt my energy depleting, I’d remind myself, “Just enjoy this! You’re running a marathon!” Also, it ended too quickly. The first ten miles went by in the blink of an eye since there was so much adrenaline from the starting line, and I felt like all of a sudden I was at Mile 22. I also felt like I could have run at least five more miles at the end. I had so much energy from the course and everyone cheering!

12. How did you feel when you started? And when you finished?

Nervous/terrified/cold and then so happy/confident by the end!

13. Would you have done anything differently?

One thing I didn’t expect is how long you’re standing in the corrals before the race even starts. It’s dark, cold, and everyone looks like they’re better equipped for running. I started asking people for their advice, and one guy—who looked insanely fit—told me to jog as slowly as I could from the start to pace myself. He scared me so much that I started with the 4:45 hour pacer, which was 15 minutes slower than my goal of 4:30. At a certain point, I gained confidence and caught up to the 4:30 pacer, but eventually I passed her as well and settled into my own pace. I ended up finishing at 4:25, but I had so much energy at the end that I realized I could have trusted my gut and run faster at the start.

14. Do you want to run another marathon?

Absolutely! That may be naive since I think Los Angeles is known to be a fairly easy course (it’s downhill overall, and there’s so much to look at), but I’d love to run one in another city.

15. How sore were you after the marathon?

I definitely had some trouble with stairs the next day (until someone wrote to me on Instagram to take them backwards!), but I felt almost 100% by the second day, and was able to exercise after three days, at which point I took a spin class (it was still too soon at that point to run). I also got a stretching massage at the massage boutique The Now that Friday, which felt amazing and entirely worth it.

16. What are your exercise plans now that you’re finished with running the marathon?

For the near future, I’m taking a break from long runs to do some more toning and stretching classes, since skipping cross-training is what got me into the mess with my foot. I signed up for Classpass (they have a great intro deal!) and have been taking a lot of barre and pilates classes through that (Physique 57 and Silver Lake Pilates are my favorites, respectively) and running about three to four miles or hiking on on other days.

17. Any words of advice for someone who’s interested in running a marathon for the first time?

Be prepared to invest a lot of time in training, don’t skip any long runs (even though they may take over your weekends), stretch after every run, don’t over-do it (cross train!), and invest in a foam roller. And have fun! It’s an exciting, inspiring, fun thing to do! Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Leslie Stephens is the Editor of the Los Angeles-based blog Cupcakes and Cashmere and a recovering NYC food editor.

Keep up with Leslie on cupcakesandcashmere.com

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