Last week while doing recovery speed work in Central Park with the Tuesday Night Twitter group I was asked why I ran the Manhattan Half-Marathon as a training run and not as a race? To be honest, that isn’t the first time I was asked that question, especially since Sunday’s course was two loops of my regular training route, so why would I go ahead and pay for something I can do for free?! The more I thought about my “race” and my state of mind as I toed the line Sunday morning, the more reasons came to mind. What is the value in paying for a race that you are not going to race?
Reason #1: Test Your Fitness
During Marathon training it’s a good idea to have one good fitness test a month to really evaluate your physical condition and there is no better place to do that than at a race. Seriously, there is nothing better than going out, burning up the course and seeing what you can get those sticks of yours to do and how hard you can push them! I know we all love the feeling of acid filled legs, lava flowing through your veins, lungs spontaneously combusting, heart pounding out your ears and your body emitting more steam than a paper mill chimneystack. Who wouldn’t?!
Now the ‘what’ you test can vary: lungs, legs, paces, finishing speed, hill competency (up or down), endurance, post-injury recovery, etc. The important thing in all of this is that when you, or your Coach, have worked out when that race will be that you plan for it and approach it with a clear focus in mind. This past weekend, my only focus was on quality long miles without the faintest twinge of my injury from last year. I wanted to start slow, build speed, hold for the middle miles, and close out the last 5K strong. A good plan, if I may say so, and one that was 100% successful, 1:33:20.
Reason #2: Experimentation
A major No-No for Half-Marathon and Marathon race day is doing/wearing/trying something new. Seriously, you just don’t want to do it, whether it is new socks, shoes or belt to different flavor GU you’ve never tried before, but thought sounded good until mile 14 when you had it for the first time and gagged almost instantly, forcing you to stop, kinda half-puke on your shoes and then spit for the next six miles as you try to clear its foulness from your gob. Let that image clear from your mind for a second. Ok. Good. Let’s proceed.
Organized long mileage races are outstanding, because you can toy around with things and experiment with your race routine. Nutrition is one of the biggest issues that people have race day, because of anxiety, adrenaline and excitement, which can lead to an absence of appetite before and during a race. Everyone wants to know what, and if, they should eat before a race and which is better for on course nutrition: Shot Blox, Sports Beans, GUs, Hammer Gels, etc. Well, here’s your chance to go try them out and figure out which one works best for you. Similarly, you can afford to run without your belted water bottle(s) and just your fuel belt, making you a little lighter and allowing you to try different techniques for taking in fluids on the course. Perhaps most importantly, you have the opportunity to play with the timing of your nutrition on the course, allowing you to ascertain the optimum time for your gel, or whatever, and get the most out of it without having a dip in energy or bonking at all.
These races are also the time to test any new gear you are thinking about for race day, especially for seasonal races that can have extremely variable weather conditions. Hats, gloves, arm and leg sleeves, tights, shorts, sunglasses, windbreakers, you name it, try it out, because if there is one thing you don’t want to do is to be trying out something new on race day and ending up with toe nails falling out, blisters, awesome modern art-inspired sun burns, or chafe marks from hell. Fascinating and totally worth a photo, but not really what you want to be going through on race day.
Reason #3: Practice Makes Perfect
As in all things in life, practice does make perfect and when it comes to any sort of competitive or non-competitive racing there is no substitution for performing under live conditions. It doesn’t matter how many times you run your 10k Out-n-Back course and crush your PR time, it will never measure up to the experience of running that time on the course in the swell of emptying corrals and the thunderous pitter of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pattering running shoes on the pavement. There is just something about how you feel when you have your bib on, the chip on your shoe and you toe the line with everyone else that changes everything about that run. Learning to handle the stresses that can hit on any given race day is an awesome thing to have control over. One of the most common things to go on race day that drives runners nuts is, let’s all say it together, GOING OUT TOO FAST. This is something that plagues us all and the more we can control that adrenaline rush and learn to handle the excitement as we cross the starting mat the better we will be when we hit our big day.
Taking this idea a step further, having one good race a month you start to streamline your routine for the night before through race day morning. You refine what you have for dinner and when you have it. You work out how early you need to be up to eat and take care of any GI issues without any embarrassing moments or having to stop on the course. You know exactly what you need to do in preparation and removing that little bit of anxiety can make a HUGE difference!
As you look at your race schedule heading into your ‘A’ race, think about what you want to work on. Try and refine everything so that through repetition it is second nature and feels like that is the way you have been doing it since the beginning. When you’re on the course have a pace plan worked out and see how well you can maintain your discipline and hit your marks regardless of the excitement and the visual cues (people being passed or passing you) that prompt you to step on the gas and push harder. The money is never wasted if you learn something from the experience and you should every time you toe the line.
And just to make sure that you have taken notice, 90% of this is all mental discipline, the tough stuff, and the RUNNING is the fun part.