Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Courtesy Chicago Marathon
Like many “average runners,” I got sucked into the marathon distance through a series of baby steps, from running my first 10K (6.2 miles) to my first half marathon. After a dozen or so halves, the next 13 miles suddenly did not seem so impossible. But it required training and a real training plan. It also required an incentive to get me through all that training, which is how I chose the Honolulu Marathon. Suffering deserves a reward, and few rewards beat a Hawaiian vacation. I quickly learned that I was not alone, as each year tens of thousands of marathoners from around the world travel to Honolulu to run the big race in a dream setting. At the huge events, such as those in New York, Chicago, London, and Berlin, visitors from dozens of nations take over the cities, and you can see running jackets affixed with every imaginable flag for days before and after.

“The marathon is a major draw for Chicago as well as for both of our hotels — rooms are always in high demand,” says Michele Grosso, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, a Four Seasons Hotel. “The race attracts people from all over the world, and it’s always an exciting weekend. Walking down Michigan Avenue, you’ll see shops and restaurants buzzing with people wearing their numbers … . It was the same when I was at the Four Seasons London. People love to travel to great cities to participate in these events.” Hotels also rise to the occasion: The Ritz-Carlton Chicago offers special pasta dinners, additions to the room-service menu, complimentary Sunday brunch for finishers, and free shuttle service to the starting line during marathon weekends.

The marathon is not just a race, it’s a vacation. Besides obvious choices like New York and London, there are marathons in Macao, Venice, Napa, Rio … just about anyplace you could imagine — or would want to go. Many smaller races also offer the option of a half marathon or a 10K the same day. “Marathoning is a great reason to travel,” says Nyberg. “You get to enjoy the city a bit before and definitely after.” Nyberg, despite being a collegiate runner and fitness expert, had never run a marathon until the 2009 ING New York City Marathon, for which he traveled from Santa Fe. “You shouldn’t do a lot of walking the day before, but I wasn’t going to go to New York and not see anything, so I went to MoMA [Museum of Modern Art], one of my favorite museums.” Apparently art appreciation helps, as Nyberg knocked out a stunning 2:35:28, almost two hours better than the 4:21 average. How did he do it?

“I just stuck to a plan.”

There are almost as many marathon training plans as there are marathons, for all levels of experience, ability, and time goals. Runner’s World magazine has free online programs for all abilities, as does Nike. Hal Higdon, author of Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, created online 18-week programs for runners at all levels. When you break it down, you quickly realize that while a marathon is indeed a huge accomplishment, it is also very doable for mere mortals. In fact, the 26.2-mile distance conveniently turns into a reassuring formula: If you can run just one mile now and add a mile a week to your distance, you will finish training for a marathon in exactly six months. That’s a very conservative plan, and most take runners from zero to hero in 25 weeks or fewer or just eight to 14 weeks for those already running.

Typical programs involve building and gradually growing a base of shorter runs a few days a week while adding in a handful of long runs throughout (and maxing out at 20 to 22 miles). For instance, one Runner’s World 16-week marathon training plan for a runner who can now do five miles builds very gradually, just three to four days each week, with only one run longer than 10 miles in weeks six to 13 and never more than 20 miles.

Nyberg’s plan is even simpler. “The key to running an enjoyable marathon is consistency. You don’t have to do a lot of volume or a lot of distance, but you need to run at least four days a week, maybe five. Work up to 40 to 50 [miles] a week by a month before the race. Take your weekly target mileage and make your longest run a third of that, then split the difference over the other days.” Thus a five-day, 30-mile week means a 10-mile run and four five-milers. “Rule number one is consistency. Rule number two is get the long run in. But you don’t have to run a marathon to train for a marathon. You can get away with 18 to 20 [miles] as your longest.”

There are a few other tips that will help your quest. Running shorter races, like 5Ks or half marathons, during training is a great idea. It gives you a high-intensity “race pace” workout that is hard to replicate on your own. It also preps you for the excitement and adrenaline of the big day, which is hard to understand if you haven’t raced. Finally, you get used to the support stations and drinking and eating along the way.

Speaking of which, the science jury is currently out on whether the time-honored tradition of carbohydrate loading the night before has any benefits. What’s certain is that you need to fuel up on foods that are “clean,” free of grease, fat, spices, or sauces that may make you queasy the next day. Hydration is important and should be done both in the week leading up to the race and during the race. One big rookie error: starting too fast due to all the excitement, a trap that also snares veteran marathoners. Just like your training plan, you need a racing plan, a time-per-mile pace that you should stick to, even though it might feel slow at the beginning. The miles have a way of catching up and evening things out. Many runners believe the ideal is a “negative split,” where the second half of the marathon is run faster than the first, but unfortunately the norm is to start too fast and fade down the stretch. To help you revitalize, most races offer energy drinks, gels, and bars, so take advantage, especially for the much-needed boost around miles 18 to 22, when runners tend to hit “the wall.” But another rule of thumb is to not try anything in the race you haven’t had before, so you might want to quaff a few gel packs and energy drinks during training.

“Finishing a marathon is a phenomenal goal and remarkable achievement regardless of your time,” says Nyberg. “It’s a life-list-worthy undertaking, yet achievable. The perception of how difficult it is has changed, with better training, preparation, and even shoes, which are so much better, meaning fewer injuries. What once seemed superhuman now seems realistic. But while you start out with the motivation to finish a race, you soon realize that the benefit is the training, getting in the best shape of your life, and come the big day, the race is just celebration of that.”