It’s not too late to train for your first marathon, top coaches say

By Caroline Tanner
Medill Reports

“If you can put one foot in front of the other faster than you walk, then you’re a runner,” says New York City running coach and triathlete Corinne Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald uses this mantra to guide marathon runners as a coach at Mile High Run Club (MHRC), a studio that trains runners through treadmill workouts in New York.

“If you would have told me in middle school or even college then that I was going to be a run coach, I would have told you there’s no way in hell that’s happening,” said Fitzgerald, who has been coaching for five years.

Corinne Fitzgerald coaching a runner. Instagram: coach.fitz

At MHRC, Fitzgerald, who goes by Coach Fitz, works with approximately 800 runners per week, ranging from novices to Olympians. Members can participate in 30 to 60 minute classes, individual marathon training and Team MHRC, a weekly running club.

A former New Jersey field hockey player, Fitzgerald, 26, has been running competitively for eight years. She didn’t start running until late in high school and competed in her first race her senior year as a member of the Morris Hills High School cross country team. What started as a way to stay in shape for the field hockey season led to a scholarship to run Division II cross country at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. Her main event became the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter obstacle race with four hurdles and a water pit.

Since she began running competitively, she has run virtually every type of race, from 5Ks to duathlons, which include running and cycling. She ran her debut marathon in the 2016 New York City Marathon.

In 2013, Fitzgerald placed fifth in the world in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship in Hawaii. Known as the crown jewel of trail running, the XTERRA Championship features more than 2,000 runners on a half-marathon course on Oahu.

Fitzgerald previously also competed in triathlons, but at the peak of the triathlon season in 2015, she got injured during training. She admitted to overdoing it, and struggled with the swimming portion of triathlon training.

Stepping away from swimming, Fitzgerald started training for a duathlon, that contains two running legs with a cycling leg in between. Later that year, she became the national champion in her duathlon age group.

As a competitive runner, Fitzgerald runs unattached and competes against collegiate racers.

Elizabeth Corkum celebrates her finish in the Frankfort Marathon. Instagram: coachcorkyruns

Another coach at MHRC is Elizabeth Corkum, a 33-year-old former model and actress, known by her clients as Coach Corky. She didn’t lace up for her first race until she was 26, when she decided to run the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011. She qualified for the Boston Marathon in that race, and realized that running was something she could do competitively, despite the absence of a running background.

“When I crossed that finish line, it was an empowering moment,” recalled Corkum. “I crossed it a very different person — I viewed myself as strong and capable.”

Corkum continued working full-time as a model and actress in New York City until she became a running coach in 2013 and then joined the MHRC staff in 2015.

Before running, Corkum said she had very little stability in her life. Running became something that she had “total ownership of,” she said.

Since 2013, she’s become one of the most sought-after run coaches in New York, leading to the development of her own brand and business — Coach Corky Runs, LLC. She ran the Berlin Marathon in 2016 and the Frankfurt Marathon this past November, running a 3:03:21 in Frankfurt, her best time yet, making her the third American woman to finish.

“Nobody should feel like they’re not a runner. The minute you step outside for a jog or hop on a treadmill, you’re a runner.”–Elizabeth Corkum

Since running has played such an important role in their lives, Corkum and Fitzgerald are devoted to helping others become runners and reach their goals, regardless their experience level.

With every runner, regardless of past running experience, Fitzgerald said marathon training should begin with an assessment of a runner’s starting point. This should ideally occur five to six months prior to a marathon, especially for first-time runners. This baseline, she said, is determined by the number of times an individual runs per week and whether or not he or she is currently incorporating strength work into a daily routine.

From there, runners should map out their training plan each day of the week, during which mileage is built up slowly. To start, this plan should incorporate a minimum of three runs per week, including a speed workout, a three- to four-mile run and a long run of around six to eight miles.

Mileage should gradually increase each subsequent week, based on how runs went the previous week, said Corkum.

Ideally, the majority of runs should be done outside, although treadmill workouts may be needed in bad weather. Both coaches said that no more than 50 percent of runs should be on the treadmill. But treadmills can help with specific pace training.

“When you’re outside, it’s really easy to lose pacing,” said Fitzgerald. “Treadmills can be a really good tool for pacing.”

And Fitzgerald notes that resting enough is key.

“Whenever you’re working hard, you have to take the day after to recover to avoid overtraining and plateauing,” said Fitzgerald. She advises her runners to take two rest days when training five days a week.

Elizabeth Corkum running in the Frankfort Marathon October 2017. Instagram: coachcorkyruns

“The most important thing is to listen to your body,” she said.

About a month out from your marathon, Fitzgerald suggests mimicking the morning of marathon day in every practice run you take.

“Everything you do and eat should be preparing you for that race,” she said. “Practice everything so that you don’t have to think at all.”

While she doesn’t advocate any specific dietary changes and is not a nutritionist, her golden rule is to always eat more vegetables, and hydrate more as mileage increases.

When it comes to race day itself, Fitzgerald says to trust your training and prepare the night before by laying out everything you’re going to take with you to the race. She also suggests bringing an extra layer of clothing you don’t mind discarding during the race.

Fitzgerald crossing the finish line at the New York City Triathlon Undie Run in 2017. Instagram: coach.fitz

“Worry about the things you can control and don’t worry about the things you can’t control,” said Fitzgerald. “You can expect to not sleep the night before, two nights before is the best time to sleep.”

During the race itself, consistency in running pace is crucial.

“It’s easy to go out fast, so don’t force the hills, and don’t get frustrated if you’re losing pace on inclines,” said Fitzgerald. “Allow yourself to flow freely downhill and take it stride by stride.”

Most importantly, both coaches stressed the marathon training process as one that is most effective when tailored to fit each individual runner.

“No two runners are the same, head to toe,” said Corkum. “[Each race] is a new blank slate with a new potential.”

Speaking from personal experience, Corkum knows that it’s never too late to run your first marathon.

“Nobody should feel like they’re not a runner,” said Corkum. “The minute you step outside for a jog or hop on a treadmill, you’re a runner.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Elizabeth Corkum crosses the finish line at the 2017 Frankfurt Marathon in October. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Corkum.