The process of a tech shirt gradually grinding a few layers of skin from your nipples during a marathon really doesn’t hurt all that much. The finish line realization that you’ve apparently been lactating blood for many miles and the crimson streaks sluicing down your chest and stomach; more embarrassing than anything. Indeed, these pale in comparison to the worst part of nipple chaffing. The worst part of nipple chaffing—the worst part by far—is the post-race shower. By the time you’re ready to clean up, that bloody shirt is a vague memory—a memory that rips back into your consciousness the instant hot soapy water re-wets dried sweat and comes into contact with your raw chaffed nipples. I guarantee it is the next big craze in torture—water boarding and electrocution have nothing on the searing pain.
It took me just one race to learn my lesson about proper nipple care while running—I now band-aid up before every marathon, half marathon, and long run—and whenever I see a novice (male) runner with his high-beams on at a start line, I share the advice I would have praised all those races ago: “You better put something on those…”
Combined, The San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors and staffers have run and trained for every type of race imaginable—from Mark Hagan’s recent Empire State Building Run-Up to Jojo Reuland’s upcoming Lake Sonoma 50-mile race in April. In these literally hundreds of races, we’ve learned a thing or two about the do’s and don’ts—nuggets of advice that are as second nature to us now as they were foreign to us years ago. While the tips below specifically focus on marathons, they are useful for any distance race.
• Don’t debut a new outfit for race day. I know, it’s tempting to have shiny new gear, but it could cost you. Make sure that you’ve logged a couple long runs in clothes so you know how they ride and if they rub you the wrong way—this makes you aware of what hot spots—near seams, around the waist string on shorts, under sports bras, inner thighs, basically anyplace friction is generated—need some Body Glide (or nipple band-aids) on race morning. Shoes should be broken in, but not worn out. I like to have at least 50 miles on a pair of flats before a race; more substantial shoes should have at least 100 on them.
• Eat and drink smart. It is important to supply your body with the kinds of fuel that will help it perform to its highest potential on race day. As a runner, your diet probably already consists of a lot of carbohydrates, a reasonable amount of protein, and not so much fat. In the week before a race, increase your intake of complex carbs—aka carb-loading—and avoid new foods or anything that might upset your system.
• Have everything you’ll need on race morning ready to go the night before. Pin your race bib to your shirt (on the front, by the way), attach your timing chip, charge your Garmin, and set out your shorts, shoes, socks, glasses, pre-race sweats, post-race clothes—everything that’s going with you on race morning so you aren’t scrambling to find anything at the last minute.
• Wake up at least two hours before the start. It is important to not be rushed on race morning. Being rushed is stressful, and being stressed wastes energy you’re going need for the race. Two hours (depending on how big a race is, you might have to wake up four, five, and even six hours before the start) usually gives plenty of time to eat, take care of any pre-race rituals, and reach the start with a reasonable amount of time to spare.
• Use the bathroom early and frequently. The moment you wake up on race morning, hit the bathroom. Before you leave your hotel, go again. As soon as you arrive at the start, line up for a porta-potty. Don’t have to go, you say? Tough. Line up anyway. Many runners take some form of Loperamide (think Imodium) before races to help control their bowels and avoid potentially embarrassing moments, if you choose this route, make sure you’ve tried it before and are familiar with its effects on your body.
• Make a plan for getting yourself back in order after the race. The crowds at the end of a marathon can be disorienting for people who didn’t just run 26.2 miles, make sure you know where you’re going to retrieve your sweat bag, organize a place to meet friends and family, and know how you’re getting home or back to your hotel.
• Line up where you belong. Most of us should not literally toe the start line, and starting too far up in the pack puts unnecessary pressure on you to keep up with faster, more experienced runners and is rude and potentially dangerous—lining up too far back in the pack can be very frustrating and requires a lot of unnecessary lateral movement to pass other runners. Races such as the San Francisco Marathon have pace groups, even if you don’t plan to specifically run with a group, lining up near them at the start ensures that you’re in the roughly right place.
ON THE RUN
• Pace Yourself. Assuming you lined up in the right place before the start, you shouldn’t be passing a bunch of people in the first couple of miles, nor should you be getting passed by waves of people. Taking it easy in the first two miles is vital to remaining strong throughout the race. For most runners, 30-45 seconds per mile slower than goal pace is generally a good starting pace.
• Eat, drink, and be merry. Aid stations exist for a reason, take advantage of them and take water, electrolyte drinks, and energy gels, chews, bars, etc. to help your body perform at its best. I usually take electrolytes every fourth aid station, and energy gel every 45-50 minutes and always in conjunction with water. Pinch the tops of cups down and drink through the side of your mouth to avoid a face-full of water, and make sure you’ve tried your energy food during long runs so you’re familiar with how it will affect your stomach. Finally, if you literally stop at aid stations, look behind you and move off the course before stopping so you don’t pose a hazard to other runners.
• Smile for the camera! At most races, professional photographers dot the course to snap photos of runners that can later be purchased online. When you see those photographers, even if you’re hurting worse than you thought was possible, try to muster a smile, funny face, or appropriate hand gesture.
• Be grateful for volunteers and spectators. Obviously you can’t acknowledge everybody at a race, but say “thank you” when an aid station volunteer hands you water, smile or wave when a family cheers for you, high five a child who stretches his hand out as you pass, and thank police officers who block traffic to keep you from getting run over.
• Finish strong…or at least finish. Keeping a reasonable pace at the start and throughout a race will help ensure that you don’t bonk in the final miles, and unless you’re injured, it is important to keep moving. Take walk breaks if you must, but don’t stop. Stopping gives your muscles a chance to tighten up and makes it exponentially harder to get moving again. The last 10K of a marathon is going to hurt no matter what, you might as well make it WORTH THE HURT.
• Replenish. Near the end of the gauntlet of volunteers past the finish line, mountains of fruits, snacks, protein and electrolyte drinks, and water have the sole purpose of speeding your recovery. Even if you don’t feel like eating anything—and there’s a good chance you won’t—do it anyway, your body will thank you later.
• Walk it off and ice it down. Unless you’re injured, avoid sitting immediately after finishing. Walk around and keep your muscles as loose as possible. Within a couple hours of finishing, you’ll want to take an ice bath to speed recovery. Twenty minutes in a tub full of cold water and about enough ice to fill a hotel room garbage can should do the trick. Be ready for some discomfort, and if you thought the final 20 minutes of the marathon crawled by and were excruciating, just wait until you’re nether-region-deep in 40-degree water…
• Live it up! You just ran 26.2 miles! Less than one percent of everyone on earth has accomplished that feat, and most people don’t even drive that far on a Sunday morning. Smile, shout, cheer, hug loved ones, hug strangers, just enjoy yourself. You might run dozens more marathons in your life, but never again will you run your first, and the feeling will stay with you forever.
These tips are by no means everything you need to know, and it is assumed that you’re already following a training and nutrition plan that works for you. After all, we’re not professionals, just a bunch of runners that want you to have a good race.
What advice do you have for first-time and novice runners on race day? Anything you wish you would have known before your first race?