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Austin Marathon Strategies for First Timers

Don’t look now, but the Austin Marathon is just over the horizon and it will be here on February 14th before you know it. If Austin is your first marathon, you need to start formulating a game plan today. You had a training plan to prepare you for the Austin Marathon; now you need a marathon plan. Failure to have a good one is a prescription for failure.

Assuming Austin is your first marathon, your goal should probably be the simplest: To finish. If this is the case, your strategy will boil down to one of three basic ways to run the marathon:

Start very slowly (much slower than your marathon goal pace going south up the Congress Avenue hills). Gradually pick up the pace in the final nine miles after Northcross Mall (and after the toughest hills) and finish at a slightly faster pace than you started.

Start slowly on Congress (slightly slower than your marathon goal pace), but pick up the pace to marathon goal pace around seven or eight miles (along Cesar Chavez) and try to hold that pace until the finish.

Start at marathon goal pace and try to run the entire way at that speed.

Each strategy should have been practiced numerous times in training and you should have mentally rehearsed each plan in the months, weeks and days leading up to the marathon. It’s too late for that now, but you should still pick some marathon strategy and at least practice it on parts of the Austin course in the next couple of weeks.

The most important trait you’ll need to exercise with any of these three strategies is patience. You must exercise great patience to hold yourself back in the early, hilly miles and not get carried away by starting too fast to keep up with other runners, especially on some of the steep downhills in the first eight miles. This is key and it’s also very difficult to do well.

The steepest downhill in the early miles (miles 4-6) is along South 1st Street and chances are you’ll feel great here and be tempted to run just a little faster as you head west on another rolling downhill along Cesar Chavez. But if you start even a few seconds per mile too fast in the early miles, you’ll pay for it dearly in the latter stages of the race. There is no room for error.

A good tip is to get a pace wrist band at the marathon expo on Friday or Saturday which will give you exact splits (your time at each mile marker) for your projected finish pace.

Check the clocks in the first few miles against your pace band. Are you going out too fast? Even if you feel great, you must slow down and adjust your effort and try to get back on pace within a couple of miles.

Too slow? That’s a different story. If your split times are too slow, but the effort feels hard, you are going to have to readjust your time goals. The idea is to finish, not break any records.

But if you start out much slower than your goal pace, yet feel good, increase your tempo gradually. Don’t try to get back on pace within a mile and don’t try to get back on pace on an uphill section. Give yourself two or three miles to get back on pace and then settle back into your marathon goal pace which should feel comfortable.

Here are some other tips for Austin Marathon first-timers:

Run together. Try to find other runners running the same pace you are and stick together. Talk it out, encourage each other and work together for a common goal of finishing. If it’s windy as you head north up Exposition and Shoal Creek toward Northcross Mall, take turns blocking the wind for each other. In a marathon, it’s always better to run as part of a group rather than as a solo act.

Join a pace group. Austin will have numerous organized pace groups for every level of marathoner. (The pace group leaders will be at the marathon race expo on February 12-13, passing out pace bands.) These pace groups are coordinated by finishing times (3:30, 4:10, 4:30, etc.). The various groups start together and hopefully, hang together. The pace group leader is an experienced marathoner and pacer who knows the course well and will try to run even splits for whatever the marathon goal pace is and does so from the very first mile. Some pace group leaders may adjust their pace, based on the hills. But if you can stay with the group, you will meet your time goal.

Meet your pacer. There will be 15 separate pace groups (from 3-hour to 4:55) and each will have two pacers. At the marathon expo, the various pacers will explain their strategies for pacing. Plan to attend one of those clinics. And then on marathon morning, in the starting area at Congress and Cesar Chavez, there will be pace group signs.

Be alert. The one thing you want to avoid is getting tripped up. Especially at the start on the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge when you could get trampled. So be aware of the runners around you and try to avoid any inadvertent jostling or panic. Another spot where you need to stay alert is at the aid stations where runners tend to flock to the first few volunteers handing out water. It can get congested at the beginning of the aid stations tables so plan to take water or Gatorade from one of the volunteers in the middle or end of the aid station.

Don’t overdress. It’s way too early to worry about the weather for the marathon, but Austin Marathon weather is usually good. That hasn’t been the case the past three years as it has been unseasonably warm, but cooler is better in a marathon. Hopefully, it will be chilly this year and if it is, 40 or above you will probably be fine with shorts, shirt, a hat and possibly light gloves that you can toss if you get too warm. Unless it’s below freezing, you will be best off without tights or a jacket because you will warm up very quickly. If it’s colder than 40, you might wear an extra long-sleeve shirt that you can toss. Also, consider bringing an extra old shirt or sweatshirt to the starting corral on Congress to keep you warm until the race starts.

Drink. Regardless of the temps, it’s still important to drink during the entire marathon. Grab some water and Gatorade at the aid stations and if you have to walk to get it all done, do so. Spilling it on your shirt doesn’t do any good.

Marathon supporters. Position your friends and supporters at key spots along the course. There’s no question that cheers and support from your friends and family can inspire you. Pick some key points in the race (at City Hall, the top of Exposition, near Northcross Mall, the UT Intramural Fields are good spots) where you can get plenty of encouragement.

Break the race up into segments. A marathon is a long, long way to run. It’s a difficult distance to wrap your mind around. So segment it. Olympic marathon great Joan Samuelson used to visualize her marathons as an easy 16-mile run, followed by her favorite 10-mile training route. Or, it’s a simple 20-mile long run, followed by a six-miler. Or, a series of five-mile runs, followed by a six-miler. Whatever works for you. When the going gets tough in the final few miles, tell yourself you are just going to run from mile marker to mile marker. Or from aid station to aid station. Or if it’s really getting difficult, from tree to tree. But segment the race into manageable sections.

Find a mantra. You’ll have plenty of time to think during the marathon and when the miles become more and more difficult, you don’t want to dwell on negative thoughts. Instead, come up with some easily repeatable positive affirmation such as “Endure,” or “Stay relaxed”, “Keep it going”, or “I feel good”. If you can associate positive thoughts with the effort, you will be more likely to able to keep it up.

Keep moving. Even if you have to walk (which, by the way, is quite common), the idea is to keep moving forward to the finish. Try not to stop completely–even if you feel bad. Just walk it out for a few moments and then try to run again when the bad patch passes. But try to keep moving forward to the finish.

Avoid the speed bumps on Duval. This might not seem like a big deal, but there are several speed bumps on Duval in the 24th mile that you will have to contend with when you will be extremely tired. The speed bumps aren’t large, but anything at this point feels like an obstacle. Try to go around the bumps by the side of the road or in between them, rather than run the risk of tripping over them. At the very least, be cognizant that they are there.

Run the final uphills. In the final half mile of the Austin Marathon, are the infamous San Jacinto hills. There are three hills and they aren’t really all that tough in a normal run, but at the end of a marathon, are devilishly difficult. After 26 miles, the temptation is to walk the San Jac hills. Don’t. Even if you have to run the hills very slowly, it’s much more uplifting to finish a marathon by running, than walking. Once over the hills, it’s all downhill to the finish on Congress.