When you shell out some major cash for a half marathon or a full, you want to take the race seriously. And it’s not just about the Hamiltons, Grants and Benjamins — the smarter you train, the more you’ll enjoy the race.
What exactly should you consider as you select and train for your specific race? The terrain, weather, race course rules, and available on-course fuel.
The Course Description and Course Maps
Examine the course maps at three critical points in your training journey: (1) when you select a race, (2) as you plan your long training runs, and (3) during taper before race day.
When you read the course description and examine the course maps (both the route and elevation maps), the obvious first step is to find out whether the course is dirt trails, asphalt or concrete. Naturally if it’s a trail race you’re going to need to hit the trails for a majority of your runs and if it’s asphalt or concrete, you’d better be pounding the pavement. Some of your training runs can be done on the treadmill, but don’t be tempted to do all your winter runs indoors. Treadmills make running slightly easier with the moving belt and the lack of wind resistance. You can try to compensate for those by adjusting the incline on the treadmill but nothing will compensate for the difference in impact from the softer treadmill to the unforgiving concrete. I run three times a week and try to limit my time on the treadmill to one run (I love doing speed work on the treadmill!) and take the other two outside. Make sure each of your long runs simulates the course terrain. Long runs help you practice for the big race!
Next determine whether the course is pancake flat, hilly, or all downhill. If you live in a flat section of Florida but you’re training for the challenging hills of the Carlsbad Half Marathon or Big Sur International Marathon in California, try doing some bridge repeats for your “hill” work. If you’re training for a mostly downhill marathon like the California International Marathon or the Colorado Marathon, your knees will thank you if you practice several of your long runs on a downhill grade. For my first twenty-mile run of this training session for the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, I chose a route that ran from inland to the beach to mirror the full marathon course from the mountains in Ojai to the beach at Ventura.
Weather Considerations: Season and Humidity
Marathon training requires you to look at what the weather will be like both for the race itself and for the season during which you will be training for it. Ask yourself honestly whether you can train for a spring marathon like Boston through the winter conditions in your area (plenty of people do it, the question is are YOU willing to run in the snow?) A marathon with the humidity of the Honolulu Marathon differs vastly from the dry air for the IMS Arizona Marathon. Make sure you get in at least a few training runs that mimic the race day weather and humidity. It will be critical to plan your fueling and hydration for the expected conditions on race day.
Race Course Rules: Music and Support
If you love to run with music then it’s critical to check whether or not a given race forbids running with ear buds in. If you’re a music junkie but have your heart set on a race that bans your iPod, be sure to get in a few long runs without the tunes. You’ve got to practice your mental game as well as your physical. Another option is to seek out a race from the Rock ‘n’ Roll series to get your music fix.
More important to me is whether the race rules permit course support by family and friends. I’m not talking about whether friends can bandit a race to help a runner to the finish, I’m talking about whether your biggest supporters will be allowed near the course to cheer you on with signs or pass you a replacement fluid bottle. When I investigated some winter and spring marathons in California and Arizona, I ruled out the Death Valley Marathon (in spite of its gorgeous course) because of this deal-breaker rule: “NO PERSONAL SUPPORT! Your friends and family members may not drive along the course during the event – not to provide support, not to take your photo, not even to watch/cheer.” By contrast, many of my runner friends love the way the Surf City Marathon course loops back and forth to give runners the opportunity to connect easily with family and friends multiple times throughout the race.
Available On-Course Fuel and Sports Drinks
I like to carry my fuel with me so I’m not going to select a marathon based on the fuel offered on the course, but I do pay attention to which brand of gels sponsors a particular race and what type of sports drink will be offered on course just in case. When I trained for the Santa Barbara International Marathon I ordered up two tubs of FLUID Performance Drink to see how I liked it and whether or not I could rely on it to fuel me on race day (answer: yes, I like the Blueberry Pomegranate flavor, the product agrees with me, and I continue to train with it even after Santa Barbara).
When you train for a half or full marathon, use your long training runs to practice the race and course conditions. Right now I’m training for a “slight hill then all downhill, concrete road and asphalt trail, spring weather/dry air, family-friendly, Clif Bar and FLUID Performance Drink” full marathon. What are you training for?