Prior to Sunday, Tyler Pennel had never run a marathon. In fact, to prepare for 26.2 miles, the farthest the 26-year-old North Carolina resident had run was 23 miles in training. Didn't matter. Against some of the best (and almost certainly more experienced) runners in the country, Pennel didn't flinch or stumble in his route of the field at the U.S. Marathon Championships in Minneapolis, breaking the finishing tape in 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 32 seconds.
Here are Pennel's top tips, arranged chronologically, to help ensure you don't fuck up your first.
Set A Goal, Then Count Backwards
Just because you really, really want to run 9-minute pace doesn't mean you can just wish it into existence. Pennel and his coach looked at the October race on the calendar, counted back 10 weeks, and then planned out all the runs in between. In short, they didn't just wing it.
Run At Your Goal Marathon Pace Often, But Not All The Time
Your goal marathon pace is faster than your everyday, run-off-the-booze speed, so therefore only a small percentage of your miles will be at this goal pace. But you can't shirk off these consistent efforts and expect to lock into the right speed on the Day of Days. Every single long run Pennel did—and don't kid yourself, you'll be doing a weekly long run—had a portion at his goal pace of around five minutes a mile. Sometimes it would be a minute or two; sometimes it would be as long as 13 miles.
Part of the reason is physiological. But there's another equally important reason: "There's definitely a mental component," Pennel says. "At first, marathon pace is a little tough. But as you run it more and more, you gain more confidence. Like, 'Oh, this is getting easier.' By race day, you're very relaxed running race pace."
Don't Turn Into A Food Nut
While Pennel may eat generally good, he's not neurotic. The biggest change he made for his buildup to Minneapolis was to cut down on food that contained processed wheat, like crackers and bread. "I noticed that my stomach didn't get upset as much," he says, "but overall, I've never been too picky with what I eat."
. . . Now Don't Blow Your Load Before The Big Day
The week before Minneapolis, Pennel says he was "itching to race." The large number of miles he was used to running had been whittled down to nearly half the normal amount, and his legs felt amazing. The temptation was to go out and nail a run to the wall. He didn't. "It was holding it back and saving something for race day," he says.
And Don't Stew, Either
"Sitting in the hotel can suck," he adds. "You're just sitting there, stewing about your race." So instead of contemplating hotel pornography, he left his room, met up with friends and family, and generally talked about anything but running. "That definitely took my mind off the race so I wasn't there thinking about it."
Nothing To Write Home About
The day before his race, Pennel was up at his normal hour, went out for a short, slow run, and took a nap. He met up with family and read, and in the evening he went out to eat. His day wouldn't even have made it as a plot point in To the Lighthouse. "It didn't put any stress on me mentally or physically," he says. And that's important. Tomorrow you will be putting more stress on your body than ever before. No need to pregame.
And about sleep? Just do what you normally do. Pennel's used to going to bed at 10, so he went to bed at 10, despite a 5 a.m. wakeup the following morning. "I tend to not sleep eight hours a week even when I'm training hard, so it's not abnormal for me," he says. "That schedule is ingrained into what I've been doing."
Always try to do what you've done before your normal workouts. Pennel was up two and a half hours before the race started, and he ate oatmeal with brown sugar, just like he always eats. He drank coffee, because he always drinks coffee before his workouts. He did not burn incense to the marathon gods or tape his nipples because he doesn't do any of that on a normal day. "I don't have many kooky superstitions," he says. "I just try to keep it the same."
The Race Is The Warm-Up
Forty-five minutes before the race start, Pennel starts to walk around for about 15 minutes. Thirty minutes before, he goes for a 15-minute jog. After, he'll do some drills and light sprints. But the first few miles of the marathon are the real warmup. "You may not feel absolutely fantastic," he says, "but you get into it."
Embrace The Freak-Out
"Thirty seconds before the gun, standing on the line, I just got this rush. Like, 'Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into.' But I just said my training has gone great, and I'm ready to run well.'"
Don't push the pace.
Half Marathon (13.1 miles) To 20 Miles
Stay relaxed and mentally prepare for the final 6.2 miles, which Pennel says "make the race." They will also hurt like a sonofabitch, so get ready.
Last 6.2 Miles
Glory, baby. You will want to die or walk or both. After a particularly brutal four-mile stretch of hills from miles 20 to 24, Pennel had his doubts. "Those last three miles were pretty scary. I didn't know if I'd pushed too hard on the hills and I was going to blow up the last mile and a half and get caught," he says. "But the crowd was really loud the last two miles, and that helped."
"Savor it," Pennel says. "Time for me was secondary."