10 Marathon Day Mistakes

Mistake #1: I trained wrong
As a native Coloradan, I have long assumed my mountain-girl lungs would have me feeling downright bionic at sea level. But it turns out running trails at altitude in subfreezing temps is not the best way to train for humid low-elevation road races that can get surprisingly warm midcourse. Duh. "That's one of the biggest mistakes I see people make," says Henry Guzman, a Boulder, Colorado, coach who has run 101 marathons. "If you don't train for the conditions you're going to be racing in, your body won't know how to adapt to the course or to the terrain."

Mistake #2: I got psyched out
Because I am a resident of Estes Park, Colorado, you might assume I have a home-field advantage in our local marathon. Indeed, many experts say training on the actual course is ideal physical and mental preparation for what you'll face come race day. But I felt like I knew too much. Miles before the dreaded climb around mile 17, my body and psyche were already revolting in anticipation. I surged on an early downhill, and then slowed way down on a relatively flat stretch before the big climb, two voices in my head arguing over whether I should bank time or save energy. By the time I faced that hill, my quads were trashed and my momentum was sapped by nerves. It ended up being one of my slowest finish times ever.

Mistake #3: I didn't fuel up
Distracted by glorious views, rockin' Zydeco bands, or spectators bearing cowbells, I have been known to let more than 13 miles go by before popping my first chews. At one race, I figured I'd save my Turbo Double Expresso shot until I really needed the jolt. But by the time that need reared its head–in the form of a weird, presumably low-blood-sugar-induced tingling in my face–it was too late.

Mistake #4: I arrived late
En route to an East Coast race, I listened to rain pelt the airport rooftop for seven hours before I caught a connecting red-eye that got me to my hotel just before sunrise the day before the race. I had slept zero hours that night–the night that coaches say matters most, since nerves keep most of us awake on race eve. "People try to cut it too close and end up spending all their prerace energy being stressed out," says Star Blackford, a Clif Bar pace team leader and veteran of 140 marathons.

Mistake #5: I ate too much
There's nothing like an all-you-can-eat buffet of cheese-soaked ziti to inspire a sense of calorie entitlement in a marathon runner. "I'm carb-loading," I rationalized before one 26.2-miler. The next day, despite my typically foolproof ritual of strong coffee and morning headlines, the buffet stayed with me, making my stomach slosh and my waistband chafe all the way to the finish line.

Mistake #6: I dressed all wrong
My long, reddish curls can take on a life of their own, so I take headwear seriously. On one unfortunate destination marathon morning, my beloved purple bandana went missing, forcing me to wear a hot, black, cotton baseball cap. By mile eight it was saturated with sweat, but because it was adorned with pins from previous races, I couldn't bear to chuck it. With hat in one hand and a water bottle in the other, I ran the rest of the race squinting, my sunglasses on my head in a failed attempt to keep my humidity-crazed locks out of my face. Twice I had to pull over to tighten the shirt and the jacket tied around my waist–a product of race-morning indecision and refusal to part with spendy garments.

Mistake #7: I got cold and wet
After a few days of rain or even a crisp morning dew, the soft grasses that surround many a race starting line or athletes' village can be transformed into a muddy sea of goo. At races that have required me to arrive at the start hours before the gun went off, I have looked longingly at runners sprawled out stretching and meditating on Hefty bags they had brought. I once waited for a group to have their wave called and poached their make-shift tarp from the garbage–along with a trashy tabloid to keep my mind off what lay ahead.

Mistake #8: I went out too fast
I admit it. This is, and has always been, my tragic downfall. Whether it's a massive metropolitan race with 25,000 fellow runners or a quaint mountain run with 250, the frenetic energy at the start is irresistible. Throw in an elevation drop at the start, and I am doomed. At one recent mountain marathon, I burst out of the gate with a joyful surge and didn't realize until around mile three that I was two minutes ahead of where I should have been. Yes, I should have been alarmed. But for a proud instant, I thought, Cool?! By mile six, I longed for a nap.

Mistake #9: I hyped the finish
On a rare occasion when my husband got to travel with me to a race, I thought he could cheer wildly as I crossed the finish, then sweep me off to a nearby watering hole for a celebratory ale. I am told that he did, actually, see me cross. But I did not see him for nearly 90 minutes. Instead, I joined a crush of sweaty finishers for a grueling march toward Gatorade, a Mylar blanket, and a medal, after which we rounded a corner en route to the family meeting area straight into a blast of wind. Meanwhile, my dear husband had to walk a dozen blocks to get around the barricaded finish line. By the time he reached me, crumpled under my silver blankets trying to call him on a borrowed cell, I had melted into a delirious puddle.

Mistake #10: I forgot the fun
Typically, I spend too much time obsessing over sock choice and gel flavor, panicking at the starting line, and neurotically checking my watch mile by mile. Fortunately, there always comes a time when the overachiever in me shuts up long enough for me to remember why I do these things. Suddenly, the cheers and cowbells seem louder, the sideline signs–"Go Mom," "We Love You Dad"–more vivid, and the other runners like comrades rather than competitors.

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