Less than two miles into my half marathon, I was sure I had made a huge mistake. For a few seconds, I started to get down on myself, because it’s a mistake I’ve made a half dozen times before, and one I’ve spent most of the year trying to correct. I was convinced I had gone out too fast, and that I had set myself up for a miserable second split. My pacer was gapping me, my legs were starting to burn, and my mindset was sliding from calm confidence into discouraged despair.
But while my mind looked for excuses to back off the pace, my body offered reassurance that everything was fine. My heart rate remained steady, right where it was supposed to be. My breaths were measured and controlled; in for two steps, out for three. The burning in my legs subsided as we crested the pedestrian bridge into Triangle Park. I noticed these signs, relaxed my shoulders, picked my eyes up off the pavement, and got on about the business of my race.
Proper Training Covers Contingencies
Training and competition have a unique relationship, in that the latter is merely the expression of the former. If you train with sufficient intelligence and persistence, you will arrive at your competition so thoroughly prepared that your success is almost guaranteed. In a perfect world, you will have planned for all possible challenges; physical, mental, and emotional. You and your coach will have thought of and addressed every foreseeable contingency, and you will have the tools and plans at your disposal to deal with whatever crises arise.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. There will always be some detail of your preparation that gets lost in the early morning scramble to get to registration. When the competition takes place outdoors, nature will have her say. And in many cases, you are dependent on the event’s staff or volunteers to provide the crucial assistance you need to keep your performance on the limit. But these liabilities are exactly what your training should be designed to cover.
A Comedy of Errors, But Not a Crisis
Like most distance runners, I do a long, easy run once a week. As long as it isn’t brutally hot and humid, I can do 8-10 miles without water, so I do. I started training that way because I hate carrying water, but I’ve since found it useful in building up my ability to perform without support.
So when some jerk swooped in from the left at the first water stop and took the last cup just as I was reaching for it, it wasn’t a big deal. And when the kid at the second water stop slapped the cup of triple-strength Gatorade into my hand, sloshing it all over my hand and wrist, it wasn’t the end of the world. When I needed to use the water at the third stop to wash the sticky mess off my hand and my Garmin, it was an easy decision to make. The fourth water stop was somehow out of water, which was annoying, but still not a crisis.
My preparation kept this comedy of errors from becoming a crisis. Because I have spent the last few years training to run without water, I had the confidence in the relatively cool conditions to keep going all the way to mile seven without a drop. I thought it might come back to bite me later in the race, but I had hydrated well enough in the previous 24 hours that I never got thirsty, and didn’t cramp.
Your dedication to the plan you developed with your coach has prepared you for what you’re about to undertake.
Train Hard so the Race Is Easy
Embracing a little chaos in your training allows you to arrive at your competition with an unshakeable mindset. Beyond the physical stimuli, your training should grant you the depth of experience to know how you will handle the challenges thrown your way. For me, that means running and riding in the brutal heat, through the pouring rain, and over rocky, technical trails. Subjecting myself to conditions and terrain far more severe than I will ever see in a race hardens my body and mind so that, come race day, I can focus on the task at hand.
A lot of the athletes that I know, even the experienced ones, have meticulous preparation for their events. But when something disrupts their carefully laid plan, they don’t know how to deal with it, and end up having a terrible race. Training in every sort of condition, on every kind of terrain, at various times in the day, and with somewhat uncontrolled nutritional inputs gives you the knowledge and confidence that you will still be able to perform if things aren’t perfect on your race morning. Effective training empowers the mantra, “I’ve been through worse.”
At 6ft tall and just under 190lb, I’m pretty heavy for a distance runner. Gravity is not my friend, so when the road turns uphill, I know I’m going to suffer a little more than my 150lb competition. But I’ve learned to train my weaknesses and race to my strengths, so I’ll let them gap me a bit up the hills, knowing I’ll bring them back with my long strides down the other side and my power on the flats. Since I train to my weaknesses, my hill workouts, trail runs, and strength work allow me to know that, whatever I might encounter on a race course, it probably isn’t as bad as what I put myself through on a random Thursday afternoon. This is no big deal, I can tell myself, compared to that day at the reservoir.
Push the “I Believe” Button
Every distance race has its own flavor of mental battle. A 5k is all pain, from about a half mile in, to the finish. Your struggle there is to simply endure. A 10k is a matter of convincing yourself that you can do the next mile just as aggressively as the one you’re on. That starts at mile two and goes all the way to the end.
The half marathon has become a favorite distance of mine because of the nuance of the internal narrative required to have your best race. Your only task in the first 5-7 miles is to keep your powder dry and try to enjoy yourself enough to make them go by quickly. For me, the race doesn’t really start until about mile eight, and that’s where the depth and quality of your training and preparation show themselves.
I had quieted my demons from mile two, but still wasn’t sure that I could maintain this unexpected pace all the way through to the finish. The long, hot summer had meant a drought in my training miles, only recently remedied. I had continued to run, but not with the same intensity and volume I had put out in the spring. And yet there I was, running 30 seconds per mile faster than I had in my spring half marathons, and feeling comfortable doing it. Surely, the wheels would fall off at some point.
But this is where my preparation enabled me to keep pushing. I know what it looks and feels like when my body needs to slow down. My pace will stay the same, but my heart rate will climb, my breathing will become erratic and labored, and my stance will degrade into a slight heel strike. As we passed mile 10, I wasn’t having any of those problems. I had reeled my pacer back in, and we were picking off struggling runners one by one, steaming steadily back toward downtown and the finish line.
Put Faith in the Work You’ve Done
I started to have those “this is the end” feelings in the final mile, but I knew from my training and racing this year that it didn’t matter. I thought back to my 1-mile PR in Winston Salem this year. I conjured the feeling of a 7-minute AMRAP at the gym. I knew that I could endure anything for the amount of time it would take me to get to the line, so even as my body started to panic, I was able to stay calm and lean on the accelerator. The race was in the bag now, overly aggressive pace and all, and the only thing I needed to do was keep my stride long, quick, and clean, and it would be over.
The sight of the clock as I kicked toward the finish was an affirmation of all the miles, and sweat, and blisters, and long days at the track I’ve put in over the past few years. I ended up beating my previous half marathon PR by over six minutes, and my expectations for the race by miles. I had planned on using this race as a tune up for my season finale in November. But I trusted my training and listened to my body, and was able to outperform any reasonable expectation as a result.
As the end of the season approaches and you look to your big race for the year, take a look at all the training you’ve put in. Your dedication to the plan you developed with your coach has prepared you for what you’re about to undertake. Your race started the first day you laced up your shoes in this training cycle, so the race itself is just the expression of what you have already accomplished. Run with the knowledge and confidence of your preparation. Trust your training, and go have your best race ever.
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