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From start to finish - insider tips to run your best full or half marathon

You've made the decision - you want to go from "runner" to "Runner" with a capital R. If you're planning to participate in Methodist Mansfield's Run with Heart Half Marathon, 5k or 1-mile fun run, you're still picking up the pace, gearing up for the longest runs on your training schedule.

The Dallas Marathon and Half Marathon are just a few weeks away. If you're on a training schedule, you're about to take on your longest runs, then start tapering down to shorter runs. My first half marathon was in December 2011, back when the Dallas Marathon was called The White Rock Marathon. I was so nervous. I hadn't followed a training schedule, I didn't have the right clothes until the week of the race, I went out on the town the night before the race. Basically, I did everything wrong. I've come a long way in the past four years!

If you're a first-timer, whether you're running the Dallas race or Run with Heart, right now you may be getting anxious about finishing, about getting injured, or about the weather. Don't waste your energy worrying. Here are some great insider tips from myself and other experienced runners, so you can spend your time thinking about the most fun part of a big race - where to go eat afterward!

Before the race

Last Weeks of Training

  • The taper period is an important part of your training, especially for a full marathon. Go in rested, even if you feel sluggish in the weeks before the big day. There's no way to "catch up" on training in the last two or three week. (Don't follow my bad example from 2011).
  • Have a dress-rehearsal with your race day gear for your last long run. Don't wear anything new on race day, including new clothes.

The Expo

  • Pick up your packet with friends. It'll be more fun that way, and you'll save on parking (it's expensive).
  • Have a plan of what you want to buy and how long you want to stay. It can be chaotic with so many determined runners in one place!

Day before the race

  • Rest up. Go see a movie or have a Netflix binge watch. This year, I plan to alternate between the fourth season of "The Americans" and the second season of "Gilmore Girls" (no judgment.)
  • Just accept that you're probably not going to sleep well the night before. If you've concentrated on getting enough sleep the week before, you'll be fine.

Eating and drinking on race day

Dressing for race day

  • Don't wear race-specific clothing until you've crossed the finish line. It's so wrong. Seriously, don't wear the race shirt during that race. Ugh.
  • Have several running outfits picked out so you can make adjustments based on the crazy Dallas weather.
  • Experienced runners have learned (sometimes the hard way,) the right gear is so important. It's also expensive. See if any of your more experienced friends have extra clothes you can borrow, or look on neighborhood garage sale websites for cheap buys. For my first half marathon, my friend Liz outfitted me in her NorthFace running rain gear from head to toe. It made a world of difference, and I could try out the fancy clothes before making an investment. (Does anyone remember that race? 40 degree rain the whole time. Awful.)
  • Again, don't wear anything new!
  • Set out your race clothes the night before the race. My friend Jordan, who has run many full marathons, forgot his shorts for the New York Marathon in 2007! He was lucky enough to notice right before a local running store closed.

You arrived at the race. Now stay warm.

Wear a top layer of disposable clothing

I suggest getting to the site at least an hour early on race day, so you're not stressed about parking or finding the start line on time. That means you need to be prepared for the conditions. My first time running the Dallas half marathon (then called White Rock Half Marathon,) it was about 40 degrees, raining, with about 3 inches of frigid water on the ground. The hardest part was the hour before the race when I was just standing around. I learned to buy a really cheap pair of sweats, gloves and a hat, and then just shed them, leaving them on the ground when I got hot. Crews will come by later to pick up all the clothes. Some races even donate to charity.

Use trash bags as ponchos

Rip a hole in the top of the trash bag for your head, and, instant poncho. It keeps the heat in and is easy to toss away. My friend Liz even doubles up on the trash bags for more warmth.

Keep your tush warm

If you're at the race early, sitting is a great idea, but the ground will be really cold. Bring an old towel to sit on so you don't lose body heat or risk pulling muscles.

Recycle the Mylar blanket

Save the Mylar blanket you get when you finish the race to use for next year. It's great to wrap around your lower half while waiting for the race to start!

During the race

Conserve energy at the beginning

You're going to be raring to GO, and the slow start and bottleneck at the beginning will be frustrating. But it's so important to not waste too much precious energy at the start, especially if you're running the full marathon. The first couple of miles will be very crowded. Think very carefully before making a lot of movements up and down curbs to get around people. Just go slow; you'll need that energy at the end!

Pace yourself throughout the race

Run the first two to three miles about 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace. This preserves energy later in the race so you can finish strong. This is hard for me, and I'm lucky to have friends who make me slow down. (My friend David has to do this every time we're training on the Katy.) Pay attention to your GPS watch or your running app to make sure you aren't going too fast.

Pace groups: Friend or foe

Sometimes a pace group will help you hold back in those first miles, but over-aggressive pacers can ruin your race. If you feel uncomfortable with the pace, slow down and run your own race. Also, remember that the last ¼ of the race is hard for everyone. You'll be fine.

Stay hydrated

Alternate water and Gatorade and take in some liquid at every water stop, at least for ¾ of the race. I personally don't really like gu or other energy gels, but most of my friends love them. Just include them in your dress rehearsal if you want to use them on race day.

Entertainment = motivation

My best times have come when I've had a friend who kept pace with me, chatting with me the entire time. But sometimes you're running alone, or you pull ahead or fall behind your friend. When that happens, I usually know when I'm going to be at risk of hitting a wall. Mile 8 and mile 11 are the worst for me. Each race, I make sure my iTunes play list has particularly motivating songs from 80 minutes to two hours to give me an extra push when I really need it.

Enjoy the crowds

This also falls under the entertainment category. Take out your headphones to listen to the bands, give kids high-fives as they cheer, read the signs supporters made for their loved ones. Digging the crowd and feeling the love will really help re-energize you when you're tired. If you have friends or family cheering for you, plan where they will stand and where you will look for them. For example, tell your friends and family to stay on runner's left, and ask them to tell you where they think they'll be standing.

Visualize the end

Okay, 13.1 and 26.2 miles is a lot. A LOT. But you've trained! Moving that far in a day is doable; don't get caught in your head. Here's what helps me stay out of my head....even though my old Weight Watchers leader would disapprove. For each mile after mile five, I visualize something I'll get to eat or drink when the race is over. Mile six...sweet potato pancakes for lunch. Mile seven...cashew chicken for dinner later. Mile eight...egg rolls. I know you're not supposed to "run for your cookie," but, man, it helps.

Potty Breaks

Timing is everything

When you're shooting for a personal best, you don't want to waste time in line at the port-a-potties. But unless you're trying to win the New York Marathon, you're going to take the time to stop when it's necessary! I found that going right away at mile one (or wherever the first pit stop is) saves time. Most people want to wait until mile 5 or mile 10, and there will be long lines, hurting your overall time.

Be prepared, or be grossed out

Always bring a bit of toilet paper in your race belt. Port-a-potties are often out.

You finished! Congratulations!

  • Make sure to cool down. Walk around for as long as you need to; stretch for a long time.
  • If you can, make a massage appointment for a day or two after the race to reward those tired muscles.
  • Don't make any plans about future races until 10 days after your race. Don't swear off running, and don't sign up for your next race.
  • Plan where you will meet your friends/family after the race, especially if they are your ride home.
  • Check dry clothes in your check bag so you can stay warm once you finish. If it's cool or even cold outside, you'll get cold very quickly at the finish line.
  • And, of course, the fun part - go eat a delicious meal with your friends!

Good luck, runners! I'll see you on the course and at the finish line. And remember to have fun!

Methodist Mansfield's Run with Heart is January 28, 2017. To sign up click here.

Before starting a new training or exercise program, make sure to check with your doctor.

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