This might not be popular, but I’m going to go ahead and say it.

Running a marathon is not that hard.

I said it. Don’t get mad.

That’s not to say that running a marathon will not hurt. And sure, you’ll want to quit…

Quit during training. Quit after a bad long run. Quit the moment after you realize what it’s like to “hit the wall.”

But when someone tells me they wish they were the type of person who could run a marathon, I look at them confidently and say, “You can! It’s not that hard.”

I’m a firm believer that any runner can run 26.2 miles. And that they should.

The problem isn’t that they can’t, it’s that most people just won’t do it. They feel too intimidated by the distance or they just don’t know where to start.

It’s time to quit finding excuses and get started.

5 Steps to Running Your First Marathon

1) Set a Goal

Before we put ourselves out on a limb to accomplishing something big, we usually start by setting a goal. In this case, the goal is a marathon.

Once that goal is set, it’s all about finding the best path to get you there.

Depending on where you are with your running, that path could be a long one. That shouldn’t get you discouraged.

I find that goals are best accomplished when they are big. Really big. Marathon or ultramarathon big. The longer the path, the bigger and better the goal.

The path you take to reach that extra big goal, however, should be traveled with small steps.

  • Start running a few extra miles a week.
  • Establish a weekend routine that includes a Saturday morning long run, even if that long run isn’t very long yet.
  • Stick to a regular routine, as if you were in the middle of a training plan.

It’s these small steps that create habits and those small successes keep you motivated and on track to reach the big, far-out-there goal.

2) Pick a Race

Last year I wrote a post outlining a number of things to consider when picking your next marathon. They were:

  1. Timing
  2. Location
  3. Size
  4. Course Layout
  5. Cost

Those five tips ring true no matter what distance race you’re considering. The race you select can dictate everything from how you focus and when you start your training, to how you’re going to feel at mile 23 when you’re either listening to crickets or a roaring crowd.

Put in the time to pick a race that’s right for you. Trail, big city, country roads, they are all great for the right person at the right time.

Once you select that race, sign up immediately. Don’t put it off by thinking you’ll start the training and sign up later. Go ahead and lock in your registration so that you have the time to mentally prepare and that extra drive to stay focused.

3) Start Training

Once you’ve set the goal and picked out your race, it’s time to actually start running.

When I signed up for my first marathon, I was only running about 15 miles a week. The thought of running 15 miles during one long run seemed so far away. Let alone adding another 11.2 on top of that.

But I had a friend send over the training plan he used during his first marathon and I got started. I built the base required for the first week of training, and once it was time to start following the training plan, I jumped right in.

Week after week I added more miles and found myself running further and faster than I ever imagined.

Find the training plan that works best for you and your needs. That might be a generic plan you can find free online, but you’re more likely to have success with a plan tailored to your needs.

Maybe that’s Matt Frazier’s Marathon Roadmap,  Brad Hudson & Matt Fitzgerald’s Run Faster, or a personalized training plan written for you by a coach.

Wherever you find your plan, if you trust it, listen to your body, believe in your training, and obsess over the training and end goal. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can build mileage and run further than you ever thought possible.

4) Build Your Support Group

I’ve been trying to make this all sound easy. After all, I started this post by saying that running a marathon wasn’t that hard.

But the truth is that it can be hard.

Very hard. And that’s exactly what makes the accomplishment so awesome.

So what do you do when things get hard? You lean on your support network.

You’re support network will be there after a bad training run and tell you to suck it up when you feel like skipping a workout.

They will cheer you on at practice races, ask about your training, accompany you on long runs, and hop all over the city to see you for brief moments during the actual race.

I like to say that running is a team sport, a team never more important than during your first marathon.

Your support network could be a running club or group also running the race, or it may be a best friend, husband, or wife that never runs at all. Whomever it is, find them. Cherish them. And keep reminding them how appreciative you are.

Because trust me, when the time comes, you’ll really need them.

5) Practice, Practice Again

I do my best to ingrain this in the brains of runners training for their first ultramarathon, but really this is something I learned when training for my first marathon:

Practice everything about the race.

  • Practice wearing the clothes you’ll wear on race day.
  • Practice the pre-race dinner and breakfast.
  • Practice running some of your long run miles at race pace.
  • Practice consuming whatever nutrition you’ll use on race day.

Don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to what you’re planning for the actual race. Long training runs offer the perfect stage for practicing. Take advantage of it.

The Benefits of Running a Marathon

Signing up on a whim for my first marathon was one of the best decisions I ever made. It completely changed my life. Over the past 5 years I’ve gone from thinking 25 minutes at the gym was all I wanted to chasing down and accomplishing a 100 mile dream.

I credit those changes to a few things that training for a marathon taught me. Things I know will translate to anyone willing to take on the 26.2 challenge:

Discipline: You can’t train for a marathon without discipline. The simple act of getting out on the road or trail day after day, in the heat and in the cold, with no reason but to log miles requires major discipline.

The habits and discipline you form throughout training will still be there when reaching for goals in and out of your running shoes.

Achievement: Other than running, there are few things I work so hard for in my daily life that all come down to one day. One performance.

That practice takes time to learn.

  • How to stay focused.
  • How to handle delayed gratification.
  • How to avoid discouragement when it feels like I have too much work left to do.

But when that day comes, and you toe the starting line with a buzz of nervous and excited energy in the air, it’s a feeling like no other. The miles and hours that go by are the victory lap for all the hard work that got you to the starting line. And crossing the finish, that achievement will show you that it was all worth it.

It’ll make smaller life challenges seem like child’s play.

Leads to Bigger Things: There were times when training for my first marathon that I thought it would be impossible. It turns out it wasn’t. And reaching that goal back in 2009 lead me to run another. Then another. Then my first ultramarathon.

Crossing the finish line of your first marathon will show you that things you once thought impossible are now just stepping stones. With enough hard work, blood, sweat, and tears, you can get through even the toughest of challenges.

Knowing and understanding that fact could lead you to a new PR or a 100 mile ultramarathon, a new career or major life change.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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