3. THE RACE
When the gun goes off, it is all about you. Fortunately, by this time, you will have two things going for you that race novices do not; a familiarity with the race distance and with the race pace.
These two things should give you a good shot at your PR. But if you want to increase the odds substantially, you need to keep a few general racing rules in mind, and also come up with a workable race strategy - one you have thought out in the weeks leading up to the race - that you can employ during the race. Here's what you need to know:
START CONTROLLED, FINISH STRONG
When the gun goes off, everyone's first impulse is to take off much faster than race pace. Call it nerves. Call it excitement. It is probably a little of both. Yet you must tame this impulse or risk losing precious energy at a point in the race that is essentially meaningless (who cares how fast you run the first 800 metres of your 5K or 2 miles of your half marathon?).
A good way to help stay controlled at the start line is to line up back in the pack a bit (but not too far back) rather than at the front lines. The congestion in front of you will force you to go out under control so you will have to work up to your race pace (which will empower you), rather than bolt out and then have to slow down to find race pace (which leaves you feeling tentative and out of sorts).
In the same vein, you want to finish the race strongly, but with a controlled strength. Finishing strong does not mean sprinting wildly for the last 100 metres, as so many runners do at races. This is a simple waste of energy, since a sprint over that distance can only earn you a few seconds off your finishing time (and besides, a sprint like that is usually guilt driven, following a huge drop off in pace). Instead, take that same energy - you know it's there - and use it to fuel race pace over the final 800 metres of a 5K or the final 2 miles of a half marathon, and you have a much more efficient use of that energy. And a finishing time that's more likely to be a PR.
THINK OF YOUR RACE IN SEGMENTS
Try thinking of a marathon, or even a 5K, in its entirety, and the task gets a little overwhelming. ("I have to run 26.2 miles! Do you know how far that is from my house?" "I have to run 3 consecutive miles in 9 minutes per mile! Just one of those miles puts me in pain!") If you think of your race as a whole, you will lose sleep, have a hard time training, and fail utterly in your quest for a PR.
Instead, what you need to do is what you did with the training process - divide it into segments. This is a general concept, a way of thinking about the race, not necessarily a way you will attack the race come race day (that would be your race strategy). For instance, a 5K race can be divided into three 1-mile segments,. Your 10K can be handled as two 3-milers; your half marathon as two 6-1/2-miles runs; and your marathon as two half marathons or two 10-milers and a 10K.
These divisions are better than thinking about the race as a whole. But if you are smart, you will think about your race in segments that correspond to the overall effort involved in covering the distance. They are as follows:
- 5K - the first two miles, then the last mile.
- 10K - the first four miles, then the last two miles.
- Half Marathon - the first 10 miles, then the last three miles.
- Marathon - the first 6 miles, then the middle 14 miles, then the last 6 miles.
HAVE A RACE STRATEGY
What should be your race strategy? That depends on the type of training you have done and how you feel coming into race day. If you have followed a training schedule in this book and taken care to rest and recover as race day approached, you should be ready to run these strategies for these races:
- 5K - even pace - at PR pace - for 3.1 miles. This is the most efficient use of your energy for a 5K.
- 10K - even pace - at PR pace - for 6.2 miles. This is the most efficient use of your energy for a 10K.
- Half Marathon - even pace - at PR pace - for 13.1 miles. This is the most efficient use of your energy for a half marathon.
- Marathon - The marathon is different from the other three race distances since an even-paced race will not work for your PR time goals. That's because every recreational marathoner slows down over the last 6 or 8 miles. It's inevitable. Therefore, for your race strategy, you need to build up a "time cushion" before you hit this point. You do this by averaging a pace faster than a break-even pace. (The marathon training programs in this book have you training at a pace that is 10 seconds per mile faster than even pace for your PR). Then, when you get to the inevitable slowdown over the last 6 or 8 miles, your strategy should be to hold on, keeping a slower, but still consistent, pace. This will be tough (you are running the miles that make the marathon infamous here). But if you don't panic at your slowing mile splits, and keep in mind that you have built up a substantial time cushion, you should be strong enough to hold on over the final miles and get to the finish line under your PR goal).
Because distance running is hard work and it hurts, at certain points during your race you will be struck with a lack of energy and confidence. These moments are called "bad patches," and they need to be dealt with as soon as possible or they can linger, and cause a massive slowdown in pace. What should you do when you encounter a bad patch? First of all, try to keep running at your designated pace. Then work through some relaxation motions - like shaking your arms out, keeping your thumbs loose - while you remind yourself of all the hard work you have done in training and the fact that you are on pace to PR.
If that doesn't work, don't slow down. Instead, speed up. Try a gradual increase in pace for 100 yards or so, then come back to race pace. You should be more comfortable when you get back on race pace, and your bad patch will simply be a bad memory.
THE MIDDLE MILES MALAISE
Different from a bad patch, the "middle miles malaise" is a loss of focus during these crucial miles of your race (most often it strikes just after you have reached the halfway point). If left unchecked, it can slow down your race pace so that a PR is out of the question.
If you feel the middle miles malaise coming on, concentrate on your strike cadence and remind yourself of all the hard work you have put into training. Then, when you reach the next mile marker, note your time, and make it your only goal to run the next mile on pace. Do the same for the next mile. And the next. Until you have kicked the middle miles malaise out of your system.
FUEL AND FLUIDS
For fluids and fuel, the key is to eat and drink during training so you are comfortable with them in the race. First off, that means figuring out what kinds of fluids and fuel will be available at your race. You can do this by calling ahead and speaking to race organizers, or check the race website. Once you know what type of energy drink, for instance, that will be offered during your race, you can stockpile at home, and get used to drinking it during your training runs. A good time to do this is during your Saturday morning long runs, the runs that most closely resemble the race at hand.
Fuel can be handled in the same way. Find out what - if any - fuel will be available during your marathon (for example, Gu), stockpile it at home, then get used to it during your Saturday morning long runs.
You also have another option with fuel: You can bring your own - and this might be your only option during a half marathon. If you are particularly comfortable with one type of gel, for instance, you might consider taking them along for the run by pinning them to your shorts or the bottom of your singlet.
In general, here are your fluid and fuel priorities depending on race distance:
- 5K - no need for fluids or fuel
- 10K - no need for fluids or fuel (if it is a warm day, a cup of water halfway can invigorate you).
- Half Marathon - Fluids should be taken. Fuel can be used if you will be out on the course for more than 2 hours. For instance, pop a gel as you approach 10 miles and have only a 5K to go.
- Marathon - Fluids and fuel need to be taken . In general, fluid stations come along every 2 to 3 miles, offering water and energy replacement drink. Figure out during your long runs which kind of drink you will be taking and when. Similarly, figure out what type of fuel you will be taking and when, making sure to save fuel for the final 6 miles, when you will need it the most.