No race ever goes exactly as planned, so here are some things to keep in mind.
When you show up to a start line, anything can happen. After all, that’s why you race. Otherwise, we could all just compare training numbers and skip the stress of race day.
But to be ready for whatever happens—storms, getting lost, bonking halfway through—it’s important to prepare in your training and before race day. Mike Hamberger, a running coach in Washington, D.C., sends his athletes an e-mail before race weekend with a detailed plan for the day and things to focus on. By then, the work is done and it’s time to cash in your chips. “Trust your training,” he said.
Planning also helps ensure that you don’t make simple mistakes like missing your start time or forgetting your gear. Race plans are key, but so is adapting the plan as you go.
“Always come to races as prepared as possible,” said Caleb Masland, a coach and elite runner. That includes being prepared for the unexpected. “The chances are that something is going to go wrong.”
The biggest problems people appear to have on race day, said Masland, typically have to do with fueling and hydrating.
“Make sure you practice what you’re going to do on race day in your training,” said Masland. That includes practicing what you plan to eat at the pace you plan to eat it, and also finding out what will be on course and becoming accustomed to that as well. If you drop your gel or your flask, you want to be able to adapt.
Practicing eating at race pace is particularly important, because the stress of race day can have a different physiological effect on the body and often force people to run fleeing to a port-a-potty or cripple them with cramps.
There’s also a tendency to worry too much about dehydration and drink an excess of water in advance of a race, said Masland, which just causes problems. Eat and drink like you’re used to in training; train like you plan to eat and drink in a race.
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Perhaps the second most common problem behind gastrointestinal distress or dehydration is improper pacing. Swept up in the excitement and with excess adrenaline, many runners go way too fast at the beginning and regret it later.
The problem, said Hamberger, is that runners often “become a slave to numbers.” They stare at their Garmins or watches, and a few seconds off pace in the first mile can freak them out.
“The most common problem I see is their psychoanalysis that they do in mile 1,” said Hamberger.
But mile markers could be off, your Garmin could malfunction, you might run a fast mile and then a slow mile. Bad weather might mean that you need to change your planned pace or cramps might mean letting up a little until they go away. Don’t stress, Hamberger said, but focus instead on your effort and your breathing. To do what you do in training, you have to warm-up like you warm-up in training—even if the atmosphere and crowds are different than you’re used to. The most common reason people feel dead in races (besides overtraining) is simply because they didn’t warm-up like they would be a hard workout, said Hamberger.
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After training most of the time by yourself, racing with thousands of your closest friends can feel a little cramped.
“Tune-up races are a really good thing to do,” said Masland. You’ll get experience running with other people, but you’ll also get some of the worry about crowds out of your system. There is often a desire to keep moving up and not get stuck behind slower runners. Don’t do that too much, though, or you’ll waste energy. Pick one side of the road and stick to it.
“Avoid the urge to weave,” said Masland.
And, the best way to avoid having to duck and weave is to pick the right spot when you line up at the beginning. “If you have a time goal, don’t be anywhere near the people with headphones,” joked Hamburger.
Maybe your fancy watch won’t work. Maybe your shoes end up being too tight or a sock rips. That’s why you’re not supposed to try anything new on race day—although it does sometimes happen by necessity.
“It’s much more of a worry before the race than during,” said Masland. Once you’re in the midst of a race, you tend to deal with dropping your watch or your shoe coming untied and you move on. Even if you suddenly get terrible blisters, there’s not much to do besides deal with it and keep running.
And, remember, no matter what you prepare for: anything can happen. People who are allergic to bees get stung; people show up and realize they forgot to actually register; people are hit by falling trees, run off course and lose shoes in mud. Gordon Wright, a Northern California athlete, was once lost for 41 hours in an adventure race and the Maine National Guard was called out to find him. Chances are that won’t happen to you, but something else could.
About The Author:
Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.