Planning the perfect race strategy is easy. Executing it, on the other hand, is another story. You’ll probably find that to be a bit more challenging. I’m not saying there won’t be days when everything aligns; there wil. But, there will definitely be days when it feels like nothing is going right. Unless you forget both shoes and struggle with remembering how to run, I am going to boldly promise you that no matter what goes wrong, you can work with it. And, when you can’t, you graciously fail forward.
Runners do everything in their control to have a good race day. Despite all the effort, the race gods do not always play nice and we are left feeling like it’s just not our day. Sometimes we can control the unplanned, sometimes we can’t, but we can do our best to avoid the mishaps and offset and accept them when they can’t be avoided. Let’s work through some strategies together.
Make a plan, then a plan for the unplanned.
Make a plan, then a plan for the unplanned.
A PLAN FOR THE UNPLANNED
Make a plan, then a plan for the unplanned. This is probably some of the best advice I have ever received. It requires a physical and emotional response. Mid-race, a summer storm rolls in, temperatures go from too hot to freezing in a matter of seconds. If you planned for the unplanned, you have a jacket or other layers. If you didn’t, you are probably in for a sufferfest. While you definitely can’t control race-day weather, you can fight back against it. Jacket, check. Smile, check. Yes, I said it, no one wants bad weather, but don’t lose your attitude about it. Keep your eyes on the prize, jacket on, smile on your face, forward motion to the finish line.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT EXPECTATIONS
Dream big (cliche, right?) but, be realistic. Don’t set your expectations so high that there will be likely disappointment. Know where you are in training — did you stick to the plan or did you cut workouts short or sub a workout for a day out instead? What did previous races look like? Is this your first race like this? There are a lot of factors to consider, but when you are real about expectations, you make a goal that is challenging and within reach.
Do I want to win the races I enter? Of course I do. But, if I’m real about it, my training and overall ability doesn’t always align with finishing first. Disappointment usually comes when we compare what we expected to happen to what actually happened. So think about those expectations before you set foot on course.
Race day is here and you are faced with the not-so-perfect day. The weatherman’s foreboding predictions were, in fact, right, food choices are not agreeing with you, your legs are extra heavy, and you are feeling dehydrated. None of this is ideal. But, you can work with all of it.
Assess what is happening, figure out how you can deal with it and then deal with it. That means looking at the obstacle at that moment and coming up with a plan so you can continue toward the finish line. Plan for extra layers (Pro tip: garbage bags make excellent rain protection and insulation), ginger to settle your stomach, more food or electrolytes to put some pep in your step. When you stop to think about it — that it stopping you from executing your plan — you can probably work with the obstacle; then move forward.
Some common race-day obstacles:
Dehydration: Prepare to drink on course or bring your own hydration via bottles or a hydration pack, then decide if you need electrolytes with your water. It may sound silly, but hydration is one of the obstacles that’s simple to avoid. I’m pretty sure you do not want to end up in the medical tent because you didn’t drink water.
Heat exhaustion: There are a lot of strategies for running in the heat. The first is to try to train in the heat if you know it’s going to be a hot race day. Get uncomfortable in training, so you know how to respond to discomfort on race day. Mountain races often bring the heat — exposed, high elevation — gets hot. When the day warms up and shade is nowhere to be found, start to run off of feel. Stop watching the watch. And, when you can, find ways to cool off. Dump water on your head at aid stations, put a cold towel with ice around your neck, take a dip in the stream. It will be refreshing, I promise.
Upset Stomach/Nausea: Do not wait until race day to find out what nutrition choices work well for you. A sloshing stomach is uncomfortable. But, like anything else, if you practice, it gets easier. Eat on those training runs, start to find something that works. And, if it’s not working on race day, know some tricks. Sometimes my go-to becomes pretzels or potato chips, not ideal, but if it’s going to stay in my stomach, I’m going to eat it. Ginger anything has also worked nausea miracles — ginger chews and ginger ale are always top of my list.
Rolled Ankle: This one is probably a bit more out of your control on race day. But, when you roll your ankle, you assess the damage: Are you able to run? Or do you need to check your ego and call it a day. There is nothing wrong with putting your foot up with some ice and letting your body recover. Prehab work also goes a long way. And, while race day is a little late for this, you may want to rework your training plan if this component isn’t there. Running takes more than running. Strengthening those ankles and small muscles in conjunction with adding the miles is essential.
When race day doesn’t go as planned, it hurts. Let it hurt and then move on. You can’t change what happened, but you can learn. It may feel like it’s the most monumental point in your life when it doesn’t go right, but it is one race. Start with identifying everything you feel led you to disappointment — the things in your control and those outside your control. Once you identify them, start to determine solutions. How can you avoid the same obstacles again? While it may have been a day of bad luck, you can probably learn from that, too.
Remember race day is as much a physical challenge as it is a mental one. You need to keep your mind in it at all stages. This isn’t easy. It takes a lot of practice, especially when things don’t go as planned. Visualize what race day looks and feels like. When you can see it and feel it, your head and body start to sync. Then, if race day starts to go a off course, you stay calm, confident and positive. I’m not telling you a hard, bumps-in-the-road race day won’t leave you hurt; it will but coping with the hurt moves you forward. Remember, we are talking about the big picture.
I will cross my fingers that everything goes perfect on race day, but a few too many runs in the mountains tell me it probably won’t. Remember these tips and tricks, face any obstacle head on, learn anything you can from it and move on.