13 Tips for 13 Miles

Race day is upon us.  The last few months have been a potpourri of long runs, short runs, fast runs, slow runs.  You've hit the roads, the trails, the track, and the treadmill.  All culminating in the 13.1 miles that lay before you.  Training was mapped out and easy, what to do now that the race day is here?  Here's a quick guide to help you focus some of that taper energy/anxiety into being prepared.  

1. Get Moving | Most of us don't have issues with oversleeping on race day. That being said, we want to make sure we get up and get moving early.  Set a couple different alarms and have them set so that you are up and at 'em early.  We want to be able to eat breakfast comfortably without feeling like we're throwing it down our gullet as we sprint out the door.  We also want to get mother nature rolling so that we can hopefully utilize our own private commode and cut down on the number of prerace porta potty pit stops that will inevitably occur.

2. Arrive Early | Noticing a theme here?  Race day will be stressful enough.  We don't need to add "rushed" to the equation.  Half marathon races are huge events, therefore, parking typically takes much longer than people prepare for.  Plan to arrive a good 45 minutes to an hour before the race starts.  That will allow you to find a nice parking spot, hit the porta potty line a couple of times, and still reach your corral comfortably ahead of the starting cannon. 

3. Dress to Impress | This does NOT mean break out your fancy new running outfit.  It's a race not a fashion show.  Dress for the conditions you will be encountering as the race goes along.  Throw away sweat shirts are a great find at Goodwill to help keep you warm while standing at the start.  Make sure your bib is attached to the layer you expect to be your outer layer as the race goes along.  You'll want to dress for weather 20 degrees warmer than you'll be racing in.  That means you'll probably be a bit chilled early, but will feel much better as you begin to generate some heat while running.  Make sure to also pay attention to the dew point when you're planning your uniform.  The higher the dew point, the tougher it will be to cool yourself.  Two words that will save you when planning on race attire: moisture wicking.

4. I'll Drink to That | Hydration is huge.  Hydrating isn't simply something you do while the race is going on.  It needs to be a focus throughout the week leading up to your race.  During your race, start getting in fluids before you think you need them.  Also make sure to utilize an electrolyte mixture so you replace the salts you're sweating out along with the water.  Staying hydrated doesn't mean you'll be floating through the race.  Simply get on a consistent program of drinking to thirst throughout the race to better help your body transport fuel to your muscles, carry waste away from your muscles, and cool you.

5. The A-Z of Race Plans | As the great boxer Joe Louis said, "Everyone has a plan until they get hit."  Don't kid yourself and expect the race to be all sunshine and rainbows.  Be prepared for there to be speed bumps along the way.  The thing about speed bumps is that they don't stop us, they merely slow us down for a second.  13 miles is too long for everything to go perfectly.  When a hiccup occurs, let it go and adapt.  Basically, after Plan A goes astray, you've got 25 more letters to pick from.

6. Nothing New on Race Day | This may be the Golden Rule of racing.  Race day is about going with what you know and what got you to the start line.  Now is not the time to try new shoes, new clothes, new food, new strategy, new anything.  We just discussed how to have back up plans in case our initial race strategy falters.  Introducing new things on race day makes the likelihood of issues popping up go exponential.  Go with what you know.  The only thing I want my athletes having new on race day is a new PR at the end of it. 

7. Hooked on a Feeling | This is not just a really catchy tune, but it's a great basis for your first few miles of the race.  I've seen too many races sabotaged in early stages because athletes were paying too much attention to their Garmin or the pacers (which are great tools, but they're just that: tools), and not enough to themselves.  Listen to your body and how it's feeling.  Warm up into the race and let your body tell you when its ready to roll.  All the long miles in training tends to cause our body to take awhile before it really feels good and loose.  The other side of the coin is true too.  As a coach, I don't want my athlete to work hard to go slow.  If they're full of vim and vigor, and feel like they're pitter patting along but still quick, I don't want them to be jamming on the brakes with every step to be at a certain pace.  It's all about rationing out the energy we have to spend it as efficiently as possible. 

8. Rhythm Rhythm Rhythm | After letting your body warm up into the race, it's time to settle into your pace.  Running is like music; there's a rhythm to it.  The goal is to get into our rhythm to give us the smoothest economy of motion possible.  Changes in rhythm, whether it's speed up, slow down, darting or dodging side to side, all cost us greatly when it comes to our gas mileage.  Finding your rhythm and smoothing into it will help you save some gas for later on in the race.

9. Even Pace Isn't Even Effort | The most efficient way to achieve a fast time on race day is with an even paced to slightly negative split race.  The tough part is that our energy output to achieve that goal is nothing close to even effort.  Early in the race, we can be all over the place in terms of how we feel effort wise.  Sometimes we feel amazing because we have all this energy from our taper, and the adrenaline of the start has us fueled with rocket fuel.  Other times we feel stiff and tight because we haven't yet loosened up into the run.  The second quarter of the race, we're usually nice and loose and clipping along at pace on autopilot.  The third quarter is where we need to start putting some effort in to stay on pace.  This is where we may start to experience a rough patch or two.  By the end, we are getting tired and running low on fuel.  When we get there, we have to dig down deep and really push it to keep on pace. 

10. Find a Friend | Having a friend out there to cheer you on can be a lifesaver.  Coordinate with them where you'll need them to cheer for you, or to hop out and run a stretch with you.  It can also save a friendship if you have a conversation about what you will need and not need.  Some people know they'll need encouragement, a cheerleader to raise their spirits.  Others know they simply need white noise.  Don't try to cheer me up, coach me along, or tell me, "You're almost there."  Sometimes all we need is someone to tell us a long pointless story that takes our mind off of the demons we're battling at the moment. 

11. It's All Downhill From Here | As the miles accumulate, we need to find an active role for our mind to play, so we don't get caught up in our own head feeling miserable.  I like to tell my athletes to look for places to make time.  Look for downhills to help pull us along.  If we see an uphill approaching, accept that it will slow us down, so we simply need to find a downhill to help us make that time back up.  This helps to give our mind an active role looking for positive things to attack rather than serving up tea at our pity party over all these dang hills. 

12. Photo Bomb | Don't you love how the cameramen pop up at the worst points on the course?  You get that email with your pics a week or so after the race and wish the watermark were bigger so you didn't have to see how bad you looked.  You know the photogs are coming, so use it to your advantage.  As you're approaching them, go through a checklist in your head: hands unclenched, arms relaxed, shoulder loose, staying tall, etc.  As you get closer, start to smile.  It's amazing how much simply smiling can improve our mood.  Try out your best Runner's World cover form as you pass through the paparazzi.  What you'll often find is that after running the gauntlet you're looser, more relaxed, and rolling along much smoother than before.  It also helps for some much better pics to show off to friends and family later. 

13.113. Have Fun | Not to be redundant, but just like the 26 tips, I've got to end with... enjoy it all.  Running a half marathon is an adventure.  Enjoy the experience, because you didn't spend all these months of training to just "get through this."   You trained your butt off for the experience. 

Congratulations to everyone who showed the courage to race a half or full marathon over these next few weeks.  As Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”   Enjoy your race.

Tim Cary

Tim Cary is Head Track & Field and Cross Country for Lindenwood University at Belleville and the former Fleet Feet Assistant Training Manager.  Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors.  Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.

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