Planning to Address: What to Do When Problems Arise During Marathon

In the midst for training for my marathon, with ambitious (and possibly unrealistic) time goals, I am looking ahead for formulating my official Race Plan.  As a wise man once said, running a marathon under a certain time is just a goal; what you do between the start and 26.2 miles is the Plan.

And of course, while you may hope all goes well, there’s bound to be at least one or more issues that arise during the race.  I’m talking about problems that can hurt your overall finish time or possibly even prevent you from finishing the race for which you’ve spent months training.  These are the types of issues that can derail your goals and dreams.  Fortunately, most every problem has a solution, so long as you plan ahead for all eventualities.

So, here are some of the potential obstacles, in order of what I worry about most, as well as potential solutions for the problems I’ve gleaned through research and consultation with marathon veterans:

  • Side stitches – Perhaps nothing, in terms of impact and probability of occurring, worries me more than side stitches or cramps.  They’re essentially muscle spasms of the diaphragm that occur because your internal organs keep moving up and down while running.  Most people, including me, experience them on the right side because that’s the side where the liver, which is the primary culprit, is located.  Also, continued breathing on the same cycle as your stride (such as exhaling when your foot hits the ground, causing organs to lower) also tends to cause side stitches.  Once they come on, as it did for me during my Broad Street Run last year, you are pretty much in a lot of pain and slowing down until you remedy them.  Solutions – The best thing would be to try to prevent them from occurring.  Don’t eat within an hour of the race, for instance.  It will allow your food to digest prior to the race.  If they do occur, stretch your right arm straight up and lead to the left for 30 seconds before stretching the other side.  Massaging or pressing the area also helps.  Crucially, improve your breathing by taking deep breaths from your belly, rather than shallow ones.  Finally, disrupt your running tempo by stepping unevenly so you are not landing on your right foot as you exhale anymore.
  • Gotta go – Some people tell me that they go the entire marathon (about 4 hours or more) without having to go relieve themselves.  Personally, I find it difficult to do so particularly after taking in so much water before and during the race to stay hydrated.  There are times, even in short runs, when you just have to go.  Solutions – I personally think that doing your business sooner, rather than later, is best, particularly when it’s very early in the race.  I’ve found it extremely uncomfortable to run while under duress.  The quicker I relieve myself, even if it’s gonna slow down my time by 30-45 seconds, the better.  Fortunately, most marathons now ensure the placement of portable toilets at just about every mile or so.  Use the empty ones, perhaps even racing to get to one to use it.
  • Blisters – Anyone who has run a long distance race while developing a blister knows how painful it is.  I usually get them right on arch of my foot but only on races (as opposed to long training runs).  Solutions – Try to prevent them if you are prone to them by rubbing lotion or ointment on them before the race.  Also, try to handle the pain as much as possible.  It’s not quite as debilitating as a side stitch.  Otherwise, if it continues to hurt, try and use a band aid or other blister remedy that you may be carrying.
  • Losing focus – Running for three or more hours will test anyone’s mental focus.  At some point, you may lose incentive, motivation or focus to continue forward.  Solutions – Remind yourself of all the training you’ve done and how you’ve put in all that hard work for this race.  Also, try to position some of your fans/entourage around the 18-22 mile mark, which is probably the hardest part of the marathon.  Seeing them, or at least looking forward to seeing them, will give you an additional boost and motivation to finish the race strong.
  • Bonking – As opposed to mental fatigue, maybe you’re just physically tired.  Heck, there are some short runs I do in which I start sucking wind early. Solutions – In addition to obviously pacing yourself, you should consider if you’re going too fast for your own personal pace.  If so, slow down just a bit and then pick it up again later on.  It’s not a spring, it’s a marathon.  Also, ensure you hydrate as much as possible, particularly with energy drinks on the course.  Nutrition is also key.  Hit up every nutrition stop and make sure you’re recharged.  Considering the amount of calories you lose during a marathon, every energy bar or gel supplement helps.  I’ve never done the salt supplements, and I don’t think I would either.  But some folks say it helps, so consider that as well.

Running a marathon is such an achievement, and it would be terrible if your training and time you’ve put in went by the wayside due to potential problems.   Planning to prevent or address the problems will go a long way, both physically and mentally.


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