Marathon Training

How to Run an Impressive Marathon Debut

Ben Preisner reflects on his near-perfect marathon debut, outlining four important tips for your first marathon, or your next.

Everyone’s first marathon is filled with nerves, questions of doubt, and excitement. Regardless of the pace you hope to run, the question most people are confronted with as they step up to the starting line is “Can I really do this?” Ben Preisner, an elite runner and newly minted marathoner, was no exception leading up to his first marathon.

A rising star in the long-distance running scene, Preisner made his marathon debut last month at The Marathon Project. The race — held on a nearly flat course in Chandler, Arizona, designed specifically for fast marathon times — was one of the few opportunities in 2020 for elite athletes to race fast times. With the stage set for an exciting and monumental debut race, Preisner executed his race strategy to perfection, finishing in 8th with a time of 2:10:17. Preisner, a Canadian Olympic hopeful, flew well under the Olympic Standard time of 2:11:30, and in the process was the first Canadian to cross the finish line. 

Whether you’ve run numerous marathons or are eying your first, Preisner’s debut race offers every runner helpful insight into how to train and race the marathon. 

Remove Race Day Variables

Starting line of the Marathon Project, December 2020.
Photo: Luke Webster

Every race consists of hundreds of different variables, some controllable and others not. These range from the shoes you wear, to what you eat, to the road surface you run on, and even to the elevation or humidity of the race location. Every variable has the potential to impact the outcome of the race. Inevitably there will be uncontrollable variables — but there are also dozens of variables that you can control and eliminate before race day. 

“Acknowledging all of the variables in training and then controlling as many as you can before race day is a really important part of training,” says Preisner. He tested his clothing, his nutrition, his hydration, his shoes, and even how he performed in the climate of the race. Removing race day variables and eliminating the factors that could potentially derail a marathon debut was key to increasing Preisner’s chance of a fast debut. 

Simulate Racing in Training

Fear of the unknown is somewhat inherent in marathon debuts. By definition a debut includes firsts, and often those unknown firsts can fill runners with doubts. In training for his marathon debut, Preisner made sure to simulate his race as much as possible. “Experience speaks a lot in the marathon,” said Preisner. “Doing some sort of race simulation in your training will benefit you on race day.”

During his training for The Marathon Project, Preisner ran a trial solo marathon, clocking an impressive 2:15:24 time. While this solo time trial differed in many ways from his actual race, it still mimicked the physical and mental atmosphere, preparing him well for his debut at the Marathon Project. 

Train for Mental Strength

The mental aspect of running is half of the race, if not more,” commented Preisner when asked about his preparation for the race. “I prepared myself mentally in the weeks leading up to the race, working on my self-talk, and learning how to interact with my negative thoughts.” 

Mental strength and fortitude are a large part of race day and yet little time is given to adequately prepare and train for it. For Preisner he focused on his mental training during his long or tempo runs, honing in on doubts, fears, and negative self-talk, ensuring that when race day came he wouldn’t be derailed by mental weakness. 

Create Mental Check-ins During the Race

Preisner racing in the Marathon Project
Photo: Luke Webster

Discussing his race strategy, Preisner described three checkpoints where he refocuses on his body, evaluating how he’s feeling and allowing him to change his strategy if needed. His checkpoints were at miles 13, the crucial halfway mark, 16, when it starts to get long, and 20, ensuring that he was in touch with how he was running as the race came to a close.

“Having the focus to adjust your plan mid-race is an important thing,” Preisner explains. “It gives you the chance to check in with what’s annoying you, what’s hurting you, and what’s going to be potentially detrimental in the long run.” For him he focuses on turning off his brain for most of the race, letting his body do most of the work, only checking in at key points through the race.

At the end of the day, every marathon is different with training and preparation taking on many different forms. Yet, almost every runner can glean wisdom from Preisner’s monumental marathon debut.