We know, 26.2 miles seems crazy, but you’re going to have to trust us. You’re ready. Completing your first marathon, and even scoring a competitive time, is within the reach of any experienced recreational runner willing to go the distance. With this 12-week program, broken into three simple steps, you’ll be ready to race with confidence.

Weeks 1–4

“You don’t have to start running all 26.2 miles in the first week,” says Steve Gisselman, C.S.C.S., assistant coach for athletic performance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a local running coach. “If you can end up running 30–35 miles in a week, you can handle 26.2 in one day.” If you’re already running 15 miles per week spread out over four or five days, start by adding two or three miles per week to your distance. So, in Week 2, you could run 17 miles, in Week 3, 20 miles, and so on.

Of your four to six weekly runs, devote one to a pace ses- sion and another to interval training. For your pace run, go to a track and run one mile at a pace faster than usual. Eight- and-a-half to nine minutes per mile is a good goal for a reasonably fit guy. Give yourself up to 10 minutes to recover and then repeat for up to six total miles.

Add some mileage every week, but keep the same pace. For your interval train- ing, run at a pace you can maintain for nine minutes, and then walk for one minute. Repeat until you hit your total planned mileage for the day.

Weeks 5–10

“In Week 5, drop your mileage 25–30%,” says Gisselman. You’ll keep training hard, but not as long—you’re giving your body a chance to recover. In Week 6, pick up with the mileage you left off at in Week 4.

Make one of your workouts a hill session. Find a hill of any length and try to run 2,000 total meters on it. “If you have a 500-meter hill,” says Gisselman, “you’ll have to run it four times. If you have a 50-meter hill, just run faster.” Find a pace that you can keep for whatever distance you have available and add 20 seconds. Run up the hill, walk back down, and repeat until you’ve hit your 2,000 meters. Add either distance or intensity over time.

Weeks 11–12

The last two weeks before the race are known as the “taper.” “You’ve accumulated a lot of [mileage] over 10 weeks,” says Gisselman, “which has enhanced your car- diovascular system and strengthened the tendons in your lower body.” Now the goal is to maintain it and recover until race day.

Limit your runs to about five miles at race pace, and cut out the hills and interval training. Your workouts should feel short and fairly easy.

Many marathons begin early in the morning, so spend the week before the race getting up early to acclimate. A few days out, prepare everything you’ll need for the race, including any nutrition you plan to consume on the road. Above all, be consistent. The morning of is no time to experiment with anything that may have a negative effect on your performance. Give yourself every chance to feel positive and assured when you take off from the starting line that morning.