Maybe it was the new $110 running shoes or a midlife crisis brought on by having turned 42. But one evening, at the crest of a hill near my Connecticut home, I noticed a different spring in my step. From that point on, I was a runner--not the jogger who had been slogging 2.5 miles a day for 20-odd years. Soon, I entered my first 5-km race and joined a running club.
Well, it's a year later, and with a dozen 5-km and 10-km races under my belt, not to mention a half-marathon race in blistering heat, I am officially training for October's U.S. Marine Corps marathon in Washington, D.C. Why run 26.2 miles? There's no simple answer, but Jeff Galloway, a 1972 U.S. Olympian and veteran of about 100 marathons, offers one that rings true for me: "People are looking for something that gives them a sense of real accomplishment." That may explain why the median age of male marathoners is pushing 40. The fastest-growing group, however, appears to be women in their 20s. The marathon's appeal is broad enough for aging baby boomers worried about mortality and expanding waistlines, and Generation Xers who revel in the challenge.
Whatever the motivation, how does a first-timer go about it? Let's assume you're running three to five miles regularly and you're in good health. First, before you embark on any serious exercise program, you should visit your doctor for a complete physical exam. Then, it's time to go to work. There are two basic ways to train, and both require a minimum of four to six months' commitment.
MILES TO GO. One approach is to run four days a week, building up to two 5-mile runs, a 10, and a 20 in one week. This is the regimen favored by Runners World columnist Hal Higdon, a veteran of more than 100 marathons. Another approach, favored by Galloway, features twice-weekly maintenance runs of 30 minutes, and long weekend runs gradually reaching 26 miles and beyond. Galloway even encourages walking part of the time. His routine has greater appeal to me because the limited weekly mileage means less pounding on my large frame. On the off days, I can cross-train by biking or swimming.
If you need the structure of an organized program, those offered by Galloway (800 200-2771) and Higdon(219 879-0133 or www.halhigdon.com) may be the ticket. Higdon is currently running an 18-week program in Chicago geared to the Oct. 19 LaSalle Banks Chicago Marathon. His 600 followers have paid $90 each. Galloway organizes sessions in 40 cities, usually tied to a local marathon. His six-month program costs $129. It begins either in April, to focus on fall marathons (Chicago, the Marine Corps, Philadelphia, and New York), or in September, for such winter and spring events as Disney World in Kissimmee, Fla., in January, Los Angeles in March, or Boston in April.
An alternative to these programs is to join a local running club. To find one, call the Road Runners Club of America (703 836-0558) or visit its Web site (www.rrca.org). I run Sunday mornings with the Pequot Runners in Southport, Conn. The camaraderie of a group helps maintain training discipline: Don't ever underestimate peer pressure.
Whichever training program you choose, you should appreciate the nature of the challenge. Approach it cautiously. First-timers are likely to be on their feet for at least four hours during a marathon. The only way to build endurance is to increase your long-distance runs steadily. Novices are running to finish, not win, so save the speed for shorter races you can use as diversions from the marathon grind. The secret is to run long and slow. That way you will minimize the risk of injury.
CARBO-LOADING. Another way to protect yourself is to choose good running shoes. Heavier runners require extra cushioning, while those with flat feet or who turn their feet inward or outward need shoes that compensate. Also, maintain a healthy diet that's high in carbohydrates and low in fats. Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, so limit their use, especially within two days of the long runs. And the lighter the clothing, the better. Synthetic moisture-removing fabrics dry faster than cotton.
Don't forget nourishment--before, during, and after any run. I've found high-energy food bars and gels to be helpful, while Gatorade and Powerade are most welcome after a long run. Also, don't forget water. No matter how much you drink, it's probably still not enough.
Let's face it. You have to be nuts to run a marathon unless you are being chased by an armed bandit. But if you train properly, the exhilaration you'll feel at the finish line will make all the craziness worthwhile.