I wanted to race well so badly. I’d had a full month of running since I was injured, and a few really quick efforts that felt good. I’d been sick the week before, but could breathe through my nose again! Everything was totally shaping up. Race day morning was 20 degrees warmer than it had been and nearly full humidity, but I’d run through the Houston summer – this was nothing! Right?
Wrong. Mile 1 was a blur. Mile 2 was slower, but I felt okay. Mile 3…ehhh…at least I was still second. By 5 miles in, my race was clearly no longer a race. I couldn’t put my finger on it either: my legs felt heavy but they weren’t screaming, my lungs felt tight but I’d breathed harder before. Something just wasn’t right. I stopped to walk and felt dizzy. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the upper respiratory infection that hadn’t quite cleared, but I really thought it wouldn’t be this way. The difference between what I had imagined happening and what actually happened during the half at Brazos Bend 100 was so different that I let it get the best of me for a few minutes and felt pretty rotten. Luckily, the other runners out there reminded me it’s all for fun, so I chilled out and enjoyed the scenery and camaraderie for the remaining miles.
So what did I do wrong?
I failed to adjust my expectations going into the race. As runners, we want every race to be perfect. We put in the work, and we want the outcome to reflect that. Makes sense. Unfortunately, we can’t control every detail. While it doesn’t take everything going perfectly to have a great race, many factors impact your ability to run your best. Being realistic about this is key when it comes to modifying your race strategy.
The week leading up to the race, be honest with yourself. Consider all variables to determine how to attack the course. Slowing down a little bit (or a lot!) or changing your goal from one based on performance to “get as many high fives as possible” is sometimes a good idea. I am normally too stubborn to admit when I’m not in a position to have a good race. While this optimism can be a good thing, it can also lead to a little bit of mid-race soul crushing, which can in turn lead to silly things like thoughts of DNFs even when I’m totally capable of finishing. A better method is to go into the race knowing that I need to change my game plan, run it a little bit slower and keep those spirits up the whole time!
Now, before I get down to it, let me be clear that I’m not advising you to come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t run your hardest. Truly racing is a scary thing – to toe the line between going really fast and blowing up is enough to make anyone hesitate. There is physical discomfort to deal with, but that is not cause to hold back. The reasons listed below are things that are out of your control – your ability to deal with the pain of exertion is not one of them.
1. Sickness – While Tracie Akerheilm may be able to bust out a 1:33 half with bronchitis (beastly performance, Tracie!), I’m tellin ya it’s not for everyone! When you’re sick, everything is going to suffer. Your body is focused not on performance, but on healing. If you do decide to run, know that you’ve got to slow it down.
2. Weather – Maybe you’re in hot and humid Houston. Maybe you’re up North with ice and snow covering the trails. Maybe it’s super windy. While you’ve still gotta give it your full effort, that effort will not get you to the finish as fast as it would if conditions were great. Don’t worry about being off your anticipated paces, just keep on crushing.
3. Injury – If you’re injured, go take care of yourself! But if you’ve just come back from injury, that’s something to consider too. With a few months of training behind you, you’re in a very different place than you were at your pre-injury peak. That’s okay! You will definitely get back there, but in the meantime don’t try to pick up right where you left off. Be conservative with your expectations and measure yourself against your post-injury workouts.
4. Other life stuff – Stress is a real thing with both psychological and physiological consequences. If you’re planning a wedding, working long hours, moving, dealing with a loss in the family, having relationship issues, or any other stressful life event leading up to your race, you’re likely not at your physical or mental peak. It’s really tough to quantify the effect of these stressors, so keep that A-goal in mind, but also have a B-goal and a C-goal, and listen to how you’re feeling on race day.
5. Lack of sleep – Sleep is when your body recovers from training. If you haven’t been sleeping well leading up to a race, you may be less ready for it than your training indicates. Sometimes we are in control of our sleep and sometimes we aren’t. Work and social obligations, kids, colds, the neighbor’s crazy dog…there are a bunch of things that could get in the way. While it’s frustrating to admit that these factors have compromised something as crucial as your sleep, be conscious of it going into race day.
Consider these factors leading up to your next race, and stay positive! You’ll never find a better atmosphere than in the trail running community, and that’s really what we’re all here for.