Marathon tapering: Tips from a veteran runner

Relentless forward motion with a bit of gratitude will get you to the finish line. And try not to sabotage yourself.

By: Jacqueline Palfy .

Sioux Falls marathon runners
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Taper madness is real.

It’s that feeling of dread that comes over you the week before a big race. You go over it all in your head: Did I do the right training? Enough miles? Why does my foot hurt? What does this weather app say compared to that weather app?

This weekend is the Sioux Falls Marathon, and my social media feeds are full of people wondering what to wear, how to pace themselves and if they’re really ready to tackle 26.2 miles.

I’ve been in their shoes, stood at that starting line -– and then the finish — of 10 marathons and two ultramarathons, dozens of half-marathons and a handful of triathlons. Those of us who do this do it because we have to -– something inside of us says, “You must try.”

So we do. And sometimes it pays off –- with Boston-qualifying times, personal bests, hours spent on a single-track trail in the woods where you come out transformed. Or something more incremental but no less transcendant –- the day you wake up and realize, you feel like a runner. You signed up for your first race.

You’re at the starting line.

And there’s only one thing to do: Relentless forward motion until you cross the finish line. In between? Try not to sabotage yourself.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve been given in my 30 years as a runner:

  • Slow down. I don’t know how many races I’ve blown by starting out too fast. Even after years of experience. The excitement of the crowds, the legs fresh from the taper, the occasional belief you’ve somehow turned into a super runner overnight. All of it can combine to make you tick off the first few miles faster than you should have –- and you always, always pay for that. So take a deep breath and run the race you planned to. If you still feel great in a few miles, reconsider.
  • High-five the kids, thank the volunteers. If you’ve never volunteered at a race, you don’t realize that it’s its own endurance event. Many volunteers start well before dawn, setting up the course, and then stand there offering encouragement until the last runners crosses the finish line. Then they begin to tear down the course. It’s a long, exhausting day. It’s fun -– bearing witness to others’ dreams coming true, or being deferred along mile 22, but it’s also a lot of work. Show your thanks –- with words of gratitude and kindness. As for the kids: You’re their role model. Show them not only a model of what a healthy, active lifestyle looks like, but what a bit of fun and kindness look like, too.
  • Stop claiming the course was long. This is maddening. Courses are measured and U.S.A. Track & Field-certified by based on running the tangents (run the inside of the turn, not the outside). That means if you don’t run it as efficiently as possible, it’s likely you’ll run slightly farther than the posted distance. That’s true for everyone. So stop saying you ran XXX time for 26.34 miles or whatever you measured. Just be happy.
  • Get back out on the course. Many of us have run in both the front and the back of the pack through the course of our running careers. You know what it takes to finish a race, no matter what you’re time is. And you know how it feels when it didn’t go as planned, and you just feel miserable as you tromp toward the finish. Remember that, and then go back out to mile 24 or 18 or wherever, and stand there for a while saying, “Good job, runner.” It makes us all feel better.

For most of us, recreational running is our our passion and our past-time. Nobody is paying us to do this. Maybe it’s how you socialize or tamp down the anxiety or find time to think about work or listen to podcasts. Maybe you have a goal in mind and you’re putting in the work to get there, or a demon to escape and you’re putting the miles between you.

Whatever it is, remember, as you stand at the starting line: You’ve done the work. And if you haven’t? You can’t do it now.

All you can do is keep moving forward.

Go on, now, runner. Be amazing.

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