In seven of the last eight marathon recaps I’ve written, it’s rained (aha, I knew there was a reason I was holding off on finishing my San Diego recap – it improved that stat!). I’ve learned a lot over 92 marathons, but since rainy races are (usually/hopefully) not all that frequent, sometimes I’ll go months between running them – and I often forget to do at least one of the things that will make me more comfortable. Therefore, I decided it’s time that I codify my knowledge and use it as a checklist for future rainy races.
Before the Race:
1. Choose your clothing wisely. Avoid cotton, which soaks up water like crazy, and aim for layers of wicking materials – except for one thin waterproof layer on top. (Excluding the waterproof layer, this is good advice in dressing for any marathon.) If it’s warm enough, consider keeping your skin as bare as possible – the rain will roll off your skin, while even wicking clothes will soak up some water. Just pay close attention to the temperature – running in the rain when it’s 70°F is glorious; running in the rain when it’s 40°F is not.
2. One of the worst things about running in the rain is the inevitable chafing. When your skin is wet, it’s much more likely to get rubbed raw. I used to think that there was no avoiding blisters in a race, but then I discovered the magic of petroleum jelly. Like Bodyglide, it helps create a protective barrier from you and the moisture that causes blisters (sweat when it’s sunny, and rain when it’s… raining). However, after receiving samples of Aquaphor from some marathon early on, it quickly became my go-to. Because Bodyglide comes in stick form, it’s harder to really cover your feet with it. Petroleum jelly, while messy, allows you to slather it all over your feet and in between each toe – dramatically decreasing the friction that causes chafing. I also apply it to my entire chest, since that area also gets pretty sweaty and can rub against my sports bra; gentlemen (who presumably don’t have that issue) should still apply it to the nipples.
Although I’ve tried all brands of petroleum jelly (particularly when I’ve forgotten mine and am simply hitting up the nearest drugstore/gas station for whatever they might have), I’ve become quite partial to Aquaphor, after receiving samples of it at the Maine Marathon in 2009. Regular Vaseline is made from 100% petroleum jelly, while Aquaphor is made from 41% petroleum jelly plus other ingredients (mineral oil, lanolin, glycerin, etc). The advantage? Aquaphor soaks into the skin a little bit, whereas Vaseline simply sits on top; that means the Aquaphor won’t just rub off on your socks, and some of those extra ingredients (like lanolin) help to soothe damaged skin. As I said, other brands/mixes of petroleum jelly are certainly better than nothing, but I’d highly recommend Aquaphor if you can find it for those extra benefits.
3. After you’ve got the Aquaphor all over your feet and put socks on, there’s still one other layer of protection: plastic bags. It sounds really weird, but putting regular plastic bags (the basic kind they put your groceries in at any supermarket) over your feet before you put your sneakers on does wonders for keeping your feet dry. And as an added bonus, it’s not apparent to others what you’ve done, so you don’t look like a complete idiot. (But don’t worry, the next tip will have you looking like one anyway). I’ve seen runners in many races try to fashion a way to keep plastic bags on over their running shoes – but I’ve also never seen it work. Putting the bags in between the sock and sneaker layer keeps the bags protected so they don’t rip, and still keeps your feet dry. I had amazing success with this at the 2009 New Hampshire Marathon, where my feet didn’t even start to get wet until mile 19 – not too shabby! The only caveat here is that it (obviously) makes it harder for your feet to “breathe,” so the sweat will stay trapped in your socks and your feet may be a bit warmer than usual. But sweat is a lot less wet than pouring rain, and you did remember to put that Aquaphor on first, right?
4. One last step to protecting your body – and it’s not a very classy one. The trash couture garbage bag! Worn over your entire running outfit, this is meant to keep you at least a little bit dry at the start (when you don’t want to have to throw away an umbrella that you obnoxiously carry to the starting line). If you’re staying at a hotel, you can ask housekeeping for a big bag, and they’re usually happy to oblige. Simply put it over your head, use your fingers to poke a hole in the top, and gradually widen until it’s just big enough for your head to squeeze through. Then do the same to make armholes. (The key with this one is making sure the holes are as small as possible, so extra rain doesn’t get in.)
When to take off your oh-so-beautiful homemade poncho? I’ve kept it on as late as mile 18 (of this year’s Country Music Marathon), but I think that was a bit late in the game. By then, enough water had seeped in that my clothing was already soaked, so the bag was just serving as a collector for additional water, which added weight. That said, it’s actually more comfortable than you would think to run wearing the bag – I found that the only real downside was the annoying rustling as I swung my arms. Just keep checking your clothing under the bag for moisture, and when you’re already wet, ditch it.
5. Finally, now that your body is fully protected, it’s time to cover the other valuable you probably have with you – your phone/iPod. (Most GPS watches are already waterproof so we’re not going to worry about that.) The aforementioned Country Music Marathon was the first time I ever killed my phone running in the rain, and I am now hoping it will be the last. Since I don’t run in the rain often enough to make a waterproof case cost effective, I again take the easy way out. First, fold a few paper towels and wrap them around the phone – these will soak up any spare drops that get in there. With your headphones already plugged in, put the phone in a small baggie (Ziplock-sized) with the headphones sticking out the open side, then fold the bag back on itself (along with the headphone cord). Now put that bag into another small baggie, this time facing the other way. You can do this one more time even for extra security, but the idea is that by alternating bag layers, there won’t be an easy way for water to get in. This technique has worked pretty well for me since I started using it, and doesn’t require purchasing anything special that you can’t easily get the night before the race if you weren’t originally planning for rain.
During the Race:
6. Watch your step! You should always be watching where you’re going, but when it’s raining, the road gets even more slippery, and falls are more common. To combat this, aim for short, light steps – akin to what trail runners do on rocky single track trails. Your gait will change during a 26.2 mile marathon, of course, but taking smaller/lighter steps will decrease your chances of slipping because they’ll make it easier for you to be agile and recover if your foot starts to falter. Also, while you’re looking at the ground, try to avoid puddles as best you can. You’ve done all you can to protect your feet from the actual water/accompanying blisters with the pre-race prep, but your sneakers are still ready to soak up the water like a sponge. Wet sneakers will weigh you down like crazy – just one extra ounce of weight in your sneakers is said to slow you down one second per mile! You’re bound to miss a puddle at some point, and your sneakers will also just get water from the rain that’s coming down, but anything you can do to minimize getting them soaked through will help.
7. Remember that no matter what the temperature, rain cools you off (kind of like sweat). In hot temperatures, it can feel great; in cool temperatures, rain can actually put you in danger of hypothermia. I already discussed the importance of dressing appropriately, but if you’re in a cool race and then it starts to rain, try to avoid coming to a complete stop. As I learned when I DNFed Breakers Marathon in 2009, running keeps your core temperature up in the rain – and stopping may feel good, but it will bring your core temperature way down so you’ll be freezing when you go back out in the rain. Just keep going!
After the Race:
8. You finished – congratulations! Now it’s time to bask in the glory of your accomplishment. How many runners DNFed, or didn’t show up to the race at all? You didn’t let a little rain scare you, and you look even more hardcore wearing your well-deserved medal around town in rainy conditions! (Now just don’t ruin your phone taking it out for a victory photo after you went to so much trouble to protect it during the race.)
9. Assuming that it’s not a super cold day, bring a pair of flip flops in your checked bag (yes, I do check a bag for rainy races) so that your feet can immediately get out of your wet shoes. Even if it’s still raining, the Aquaphor will help the water roll off your skin instead of socks/sneakers holding it in. A change of clothes is probably better left at your home/hotel (since you’ll want to go take a hot shower pretty quickly after the race anyway); instead, it’s a good idea to bring a heat sheet left over from another race. Any marathon worth their salt should provide these at the finish (regardless of the weather conditions), but sometimes the organizers won’t have planned for enough to go around, spectators will have taken them, etc. Better to be prepared on your own! A heat sheet will keep the rain from continuing to soak you, and will also (as implied by the name) help you to retain body heat, which is lost more quickly when it’s raining than when conditions are dry.
10. Finally, regardless of what tips you remember and what you don’t, try your best to have fun! Remember the joy of being a little kid sloshing through puddles in your rain boots? You didn’t care about getting wet; you just enjoyed playing in the puddles and knowing there would be a warm bath and dry clothes at the end. Channel your inner kid and think about how you get to play in the rain with tons of other (soon-to-be) friends, and you don’t have to go home and stop playing for 26.2 miles! I’ve said it before, but to reiterate, so much of a marathon is your attitude and mental training. You can’t control the weather on race day, but you can absolutely control your reaction to it.
Other tips to add? Any questions? Please share in the comments!