Just before the starting gun jolts a crowd of thousands into action at this Sunday’s Louisiana Marathon, mastered and fledgling runners alike will feel the last of their pre-race jitters.

While the hares will separate themselves shortly after the boom signals the start of the race, the experienced and the uninitiated took strikingly similar paths to the starting line.

Marathon preparation is a grueling three-month process for even the most practiced runner. The contenders and the average Joes both found themselves incorporating their training into who they are as a person.

New Hampshire native and Baton Rouge resident Matt Manning will run the half marathon after his 2:33:42 effort beat the rest of the field by more than 10 minutes last year. Achilles’ tendonitis has put Manning on the shelf since September, and he didn’t resume running until three weeks ago.

“I don’t think I’m ready for the half, either,” Manning said. “But I’m going to go for it.”

Detroit resident Karen Meraw will return to defend her women’s title in the marathon after running a 2:58:54 last year.

Meraw was the only woman to break the three-hour barrier last year, but she’s still relatively new to the marathon scene. She ran her first one a little more than three years ago, and has completed 11 more since then.

Rachel Booth skipped last year’s inaugural Louisiana Marathon in order to run in the Olympic Marathon trials, where her 2:37:59 put her in 31st place.

She’s coming into Sunday’s run on the heels of winning the Disney’s Princess Half Marathon in February and will run the half marathon Sunday.

None of the three are considered professional runners, though Booth competed in the Olympic Marathon trials in lieu of the Louisiana Marathon last year. Manning works as a chemical engineer, Meraw is a pharmacist, and Booth dabbles in a number of running-related jobs.

All logged heavy mileage in the midst of a full work schedule.

Manning said when healthy, he would peak at about 100 miles per week. Booth ran 75-80 miles a week when preparing for the Olympic Marathon trials. Meraw topped out between 80-90 miles.

“It is a struggle, especially when I know there’s a race coming up,” Booth said. “Training takes a lot of work. It’s not necessarily just running.”

The mileage totals are staggering, but they’re approached by many who will take on their first marathon or half marathon distance for the first time this weekend.

Experts and average Joes

Shreveport native Steve Mikovich has had a marathon in his sights for a while, but as recently as three years ago, the thought of running to the end of the street was laughable.

With a history of heart problems in his family and his weight rapidly approaching 300 pounds, Mikovich needed a change. Three years later, he’s completed a couple half marathons and has grand goals for this Sunday, including a Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:24:59.

“I hear the excuse so many times where people say, ‘I don’t have the time to do that,’ ” Mikovich said. “My famous comeback is that if you wait to have the time, you’ll never have it.”

Lindsay Hartig will join Mikovich as a first-timer this weekend, but she won’t be running alone — the former Army Captain and Iraq veteran will run the 26.2 miles with an American flag in her grasp.

Hartig, whose training was supported by her friends in the nonprofit group Team Red, White and Blue, ran cross country at West Point and works as a personal trainer at Fort Polk, where her husband is an infantry officer.

She has a simple mindset for Sunday’s race: “Just put one foot in front of the other and go.”

Sulphur resident Mallie Bowers is not only running her first marathon Sunday, she’s running her first road race of any kind. She made the commitment to run eight months ago and saw that the Louisiana Marathon coincided with her 30th birthday.

Bowers is running the half marathon and will be happy just to finish.

“What better way to turn 30 than to push yourself physically and mentally?” Bower said.

Netherlands native Peter-Paul Langerak has gradually become a runner since arriving in America a couple years ago to work as a business manager for Albermarle Corp.

The 38-year-old Langerak spent more time cruising roads on his bicycle before he came to the states, but has since tackled just about every distance he could, including a handful of half marathons.

Langerak felt he could’ve raced last Sunday. He’s ready, and he’s eager to see how his body holds up over the full 26.2 miles.

“It’s not going to be just another day,” Langerak said. “I’m intrigued. I’m curious how it’s going to go. I’m not stressed for the race; I’m looking forward to it.”

But that’s not the same mentality most have going into the race.

Fear and nervousness set in

Whether aiming to run a sub-six-minute mile pace for the duration of Sunday’s Louisiana Marathon, or hoping to simply cross the finish line with limbs intact, whether it’s the first marathon, or the 20th, fear or nervousness can strike the hearts of both novices and masters.

“I’m OK until I flip my calendar page,” Meraw said. “Then I see (the date) circled.”

Nerves can fray as the runner prepares to put the finishing touches on months of hard work. The body can be restless as it goes through the drastically reduced mileage of the taper phase in a training cycle.

“With all my races, whether it’s a short one or a long one, all the work you put in you want it to come together on race day,” Booth said. “Regardless of whether it’s the (Olympic) trials or a local race, I still get butterflies. Especially race day.

“It’s a natural thing to do.”

Manning is especially anxious for Sunday’s half marathon. It’s his first race since the summer of 2012, and he’s eager to see how his competitive spirit deals with minimized expectations due to his injury.

“My fear is being so far off my normal expectations and beating myself up over it,” Manning said. “But I’m trying to look at it as just part of the training block and something to improve upon.”

Louisiana state senator Jonathan Perry will run his first marathon Sunday. He felt nothing he’s done, not the innumerable public speaking events nor presentations he’s given during his political career, could hold a candle to the anxiety he’s currently feeling.

Perry’s logged his miles early in the morning as a way to clear his head before work. He is prepared. But he is anxious.

With Sunday’s race rapidly approaching, Perry is “scared to death.”

“You put everything into it, but you always second-guess yourself,” Perry said. “Did I do enough? Did I run enough? Was my diet clean enough? I’m scared.

“It’s intimidating. But I really feel I’ve done everything that I need to do in order to make it.“