Many of us set running goals that culminate in a large race event with thousands of people. Even if you are not completing your goal race at the ING New York City Marathon (more than 45,000 starters) or the Zazzle Bay to Breakers (more than 50,000 starters in 2011), your race day experience will likely not resemble your typical “roll out of bed and head out the door” long run. How do you manage to find your normal, confident, well-trained self in the midst of a completely abnormal situation? Try these tricks for race day success.
Weeks or at least days before your race, take advantage of all the available information on the race website. If your race requires transportation to the start or transportation from the finish, examine your options and discuss the best choices with any friends or family members meeting you. Closely examine the course map, particularly if the race offers an elevation chart. Knowing exactly when you can expect hills, and how often hydration, gel, porta potties, and other key items are offered can help ease your stress by eliminating some of the unknowns of a big race.
If you have a web confirmation of your entry, double check you have the correct corral or wave start time, and exactly what tasks you will need to accomplish at the expo (shoe chip confirmation, etc). One of the key reasons to do this well before you race is to be able to contact the race organization in a relaxed way if you have any questions or discover any discrepancies. Usually, the organization is scrambling on race weekend and is off site at the expo so get on it early.
One key way in which many large races will differ from your typical workout is the length of time you will be required to stand at the start and the amount of walking you may be required to do to get to the starting area. Again, read through the race materials well in advance and have a sense of what this will entail. If it worries you, remember that everyone who is racing will also go through the same process, and that all the racers in prior years made it the same way.
To help condition yourself for this and to remind yourself that you will be ok, practice by walking a half mile or a mile before starting a few of your long runs, and then walking that same distance home when you are done. Plan to wear a last layer of clothing that you would be ok with discarding (pick from your Goodwill/ Salvation Army pile at home). This will leave you with a bit more warmth in the wait at the start, and less of a dilemma than if you had worn your favorite and most expensive outerwear to the line. A $3 plastic parka or a trash bag with head and arm holes punched through can also provide a cheap alternative to hold in a bit of warmth. $1 drug store knit gloves (or multiple layers of the same) can also be handy.
Even the most experienced racers have the butterflies on race day. Sometimes this means extra trips to the restroom, particularly if you are well-hydrated. The amount of facilities available at a particular race can vary widely, and it is likely you will need to wait in line, sometimes for quite a while. In addition to being very deliberate about using the facilities at the last comfortable and private location you will have before you head out, consider going right when you arrive at the staging area. If there is a line, you will have allowed yourself time afterwards to grab a drink or sit and relax a bit, and you won’t be as stressed as if you have left it to the last minute and are now faced with a full bladder, a huge line, and 10 minutes until you need to be at the start. A travel pack of baby wipes or Kleenex (accompanied by a small bottle of Purell) in your gear bag can also be invaluable in case improvisational measures are required, or if race management hasn’t managed to keep pace with the usage of toilet paper in the facilities available.
Finally, all of the machinations required to get tens of thousands of people in place to start a huge race require several hours of organizing the people involved. You may need to leave hours before your race and rise at a very early hour. It is worthwhile taking at least a time or two to get up earlier than normal before your run in the weeks leading up to the race to prepare yourself for what that will feel like on the big day. It is difficult to suddenly go to sleep at 8pm on the night before, so don’t expect yourself to be able to get a perfect and luxurious night of sleep from an artificially early hour. Instead, just do your best to have an evenly paced evening so your food is digested, your stress levels are low, and your body can wind down as quickly as it naturally can.
Many experienced athletes have different strategies for managing the above challenges. 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials Fourth Place finisher and our May 2011 Pro’s Perspective interviewee, Amy Hastings, reported that she plans by making Post-It note lists of all the things she will need to do on race morning between waking and beginning the race. Others may have great ideas – if a particular issue continues to trouble you, don’t hesitate to reach out to your fellow runners or to us (write us on the Forum or tweet us at @focusnfly). We’re athletes ourselves and have been there. Now that you have done the hard work of training, we’d love to help you enjoy and excel on race day!