I’m just under four weeks away from the Walt Disney World Marathon 2016 – my first ever marathon – and I’m feeling both strong and a bit nervous. To help with the nerves, I’ve asked a friend of mine for some advice.
I’ve known Mike Cassidy since high school, back when we were both on our school’s cross country team. He has always been super smart, clever, and funny, but he’s since grown from a scraggly skinny teenager into a… wait, he’s actually still kind of skinny because he does a lot of running… anyway, he’s an incredible athlete. He has finished 7 marathons; his fastest was the 2011 California International Marathon, which he finished in a blazing 2:18:52 (that’s under 5:20 per mile!) and he’s currently working towards qualifying for the Olympic marathon trial – which he’s already done once before!
Let me get this very important question out of the way first: What’s your favorite post race food? Is it something magical, like bacon pizza and McDonalds hash browns?
Bacon pizza hashbrowns! Ok, not really, but I would totally eat that if it was an option. Honest answer would be just regular pizza.
I’ll make a note of that for my race. Next, when did you run your first marathon? What made you do it – was it temporary insanity and now you’re just addicted?
My first marathon was NYC in 2008. Doing the marathon was just the natural next step in my career. In high school and college, I was always better the longer the event -i.e., I struggle to break 60 seconds for a quarter mile [editor’s note: 60 seconds is a standard “you should be faster than this to compete” quarter mile time], so I knew I eventually wanted to try the marathon.
I graduated University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and began training under the direction of longtime NYC coaching legend, Bob Glover, who had coached a college teammate of mine. He guided my transition to the marathon, which was mostly about adding long runs and balancing hard workouts with adequate recovery. After preparing for a year, I was ready for NYC in 2008. It is still one of my fondest racing memories. Going in, I had some doubts that it was possible for anyone to actually run 26.2 miles, but on race day, my training came through and I felt great basically the whole time – I never really hit the wall. I had found my event!
You make it sound so easy! Tell me about training, specifically the last 2-3 weeks before race day. How do you use that time to prepare? I know you start to wind down the miles, but are you giving yourself pep talks in the mirror, too?
The last 2-3 weeks are all about tapering. By then, all the hard work is done, and the focus is on allowing your body to recover. But that makes it the toughest stretch mentally. As runners, we’re really good at pushing ourselves, but really bad at relaxing. You feel guilty. You question your fitness. You can’t understand why your legs feel so bad. The trick is not to let the anxieties lead you to waste energy. You have to realize these thoughts are natural, and convince yourself everything will be ok. The only way you’ll screw up your race is by doing too much.
I’m writing this down, “don’t do too much.” That’s a real relief!
Training wise, I do my last real long run 3 weeks out, then begin dropping my mileage by 10-15 miles per week (from a base of about 80 miles/week). At 2 weeks out, I’ll do a 8-10 mile tempo [translation = run at a specific goal pace] at around marathon pace (it’ll be around a 15 mile day total). Other that that, maybe one additional speed workout each week. The week before the marathon I gradually reduce my running from 45 to 25 minutes a day, pick one day to do something like 6 x 1 minute pickups [this is an easy way to incorporate speed into your training], and take one day off. I try to get extra sleep, and squeeze in some extra carbs.
What about the last 24 hours before the race. Do you do like to sit upside down on the couch with your feet up so your legs don’t get sore (I just made that up so probably not)? What about packing your gear? Do you have lucky socks or are you wearing something fancy?
Like most runners, I get pretty nervous before big races. Basically, I’ve found the ideal strategy is to keep things as close to normal as possible. I try to make sure to get good sleep 2 nights out, as the night before the race can be tricky sometimes. I try to avoid too much walking around at expos and things like that, though it always seems to be a more hectic day than I’d like. My usual concern wardrobe-wise is staying warm enough, so I’ll make sure I have necessary hat, gloves, arm warmers, throw-away clothes, etc., if it seems it will be a cold day. I’ll check to make sure I have my lightweight racing flats, my chocolate Gu’s [it’s actually important to eat just before and even during your marathon, usually in the form of a weird gel packet], and uniform. I’ll try to get a good dinner around 6 pm – chicken parm has been a longtime go-to for me – and hopefully to bed by 9 or 10. Other than that, I try not to think about the race too much.
I know you had a major fan moment during a marathon once – what’s it like to meet your hero?
Running and finishing with Meb [Keflezighi, 2004 Olympic Marathon silver-medalist] during the 2013 NYC Marathon was one of the highlights on my career. On long training runs, I often fantasize about running with (and beating) my heroes – people like Meb, Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Mutai, etc. – but you don’t actually expect it to happen, especially on a stage as grand as the NYC Marathon. I’m extremely fortunate to have had that opportunity.
I’d never met Meb before that morning (when a mutual friend introduced us in the pro athlete’s tent). He’s a fantastic human being – all the stories you hear are true. Despite his fame, he is humble, down-to-earth, caring, and just an overall good person. Over the last few years, we’ve become good friends, and we often go running together when he’s in New York. He’s shared many valuable insights with me, but most importantly, he’s taught me how one should handle fame and accomplishment.
Here’s a quick example of the kind of person Meb is. Whenever I see him, even if months have gone by, the first words out of his mouth are, “How’s Molly (my fiancee)? How’s your parents?” He has an amazing memory for names and details. He genuinely cares about others. With all the people he meets each day, I don’t know how he does it. He’s rightly an inspiration to so many.
I love that you’ve become friends with Meb – dreams really do come true!
Finally, what advice do you have for a first time marathoner? Is there a trick – possibly some especially motivational tunes or a particular brand of body glide that might ensure a good race?
This might not be what some first-time marathoners want to hear, but: LOSE THE HEADPHONES! Seriously. There’s a place for music, but you do yourself a disservice but cutting yourself off from the surroundings of a marathon. It’s one of the most exciting things you’ll ever be a part of. Listen to the sights and sounds around you. Get energy from the fans. Be in the moment, in touch with your body. Let your mind be free. It’s a tremendous experience – don’t block it out.
I actually ran the WDW Half Marathon last year with no headphones, and I agree! It was awesome to hear the crowds and the music and just take it all in.
Here’s some more running-specific tips:
First, don’t go out too hard. Go out slower than you think you need to. You’ll have loads of adrenaline. You’ll feel great. But you’re at mile 2. You’re supposed to feel great. Trust me, you won’t be thinking the same thing at mile 20. Be conservative. Aim for a negative split (running the second half faster than the first).
Second, realize that there will be rough patches. At some points, you will feel terrible. It will hurt, but you’ll get through it. Marathon pain comes it waves – it’s not constant. You will feel strong at points, too. Figure out strategies to get you through the struggles. Maybe it’s picking a landmark. Maybe it’s looking for a friend in the crowd. Maybe it’s about being competitive and passing the girl in front of you. When all else fails, tuck in with a pack of runners going your pace, and let them do the work. Go along for the ride.
Third, break the marathon into manageable segments. No one can run 26.2 miles, but lot’s of people can run 1 mile, 26.2 times. Try to stay in the moment, think about the mile at hand. Focus on good form, feeling good and having fun.
Most importantly, try to take some time, even a moment or two, to appreciate what it is that you’re doing. You’re running a marathon! You’ve put in months of training, and this is the reward. You’ve earned it – enjoy it!
Thanks so much for all of the advice, Mike! I will definitely keep all of this in mind over the next few weeks!
If you’re looking for more running advice from Mike, I highly recommend following him on twitter for gems like this:
Lastly, a friendly reminder that I’ll be running to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, and would greatly appreciate any donations – large or small!