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How to make sure your first marathon isn't your last

By John Farah, Special to CNN
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
 Runners start the 15th annual Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in June in San Diego.
Runners start the 15th annual Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in June in San Diego.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Training is key when preparing for your first marathon, runner says
  • Mixing walking and running is a good way to stay strong to the end
  • John Farah recommends multiplying your 10K pace by 5 to get your goal time

Editor's note: John Farah is the co-author of "Let's Pick it up a Bit," a memoir and a guide to help people lead an active life.

(CNN) -- At this point in my life, at the wizened age of 69, I've managed to run 123 marathons -- and I'm happy to say I'm still going strong.

But things could have turned out differently for me. In fact, my first marathon was almost my last.

It was 1981. I was a pretty strong runner but had never really attempted that kind of distance before. A friend of mine challenged me to give the Detroit Marathon a try.

I was young, cocky and pretty stupid. I trained only sporadically, went out way too fast at the start of the race and spent the last 10 miles feeling like I was going to die.

By the time I finished, I had vowed never to run another marathon again -- and promptly ran my second one the following year, because I couldn't resist the challenge of overcoming my mistakes and my conviction that I could do better.

But I was lucky. Aside from being frustrated and overwhelmed, I easily could've injured myself, which would have put an end to my running completely.

John Farah has run in 123 marathons.
John Farah has run in 123 marathons.

Of course, my problems all started with not training properly, and if you're serious about running, your first marathon training is key. But there are a million good training schedules out there, and at this point you've probably seen most of them.

What I'd like to talk about is what you can do during the race to ensure your success -- not just so that you finish, but that you feel reasonably good doing it. Good enough that you'll be back for more.

Here are five things I've learned since that first miserable experience:

1. Pacing

As I learned that first day, pacing is critical. Start slower than you think you need to go -- that initial adrenaline rush will make you want to go out at a sprint, but that will only drain you for the rest of the race.

Bonus: A good way to figure out a healthy pace for your first marathon is to run a 10K at least a month in advance. Take your 10K time and multiply it by five. That should give you a pretty accurate predictor for your marathon time. So if you run a 55-minute 10K, shoot for a 4:35 marathon (275 minutes).

2. Walking

Mixing walking with running is a great way to get through a marathon and still feel strong doing it.

At each water station, try walking for 30 to 60 seconds. There usually is a water station at each mile. You'll conserve your energy, and your finish time will actually improve.

3. Talking

I know this sounds crazy, but talking to other runners during a race can be really helpful. Keeping your mind off the pain is important, and engaging in conversation is a great way to do that.

If you're too out of breath to talk, you're running too fast. Listening to music is another good way to stay focused, but in my experience is far less interesting.

4. Stretching

Stretching and warming up before a race is really important for preventing injury. There are many good stretching guides available on the Internet.

I also highly recommend yoga. Of course, you can't do yoga during a race, but try to fit in one to two hours a week during training. Positions like Warrior pose or down dog increase strength and flexibility in your entire core, and running a marathon isn't just about your legs -- it's about your whole body.

5. Experimenting

Don't do it! This sounds like common sense, but you don't know how many runners I've talked to who get a brilliant idea to try something completely different on the day of a marathon -- be it new shoes, socks, drinks or energy gels.

For the big race, stick with the rituals and gear you know and trust. Save the new stuff for something easy, like a 5K.

Happy running! Stick with it, and I'll see you in Boston.

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