Race Day – A Great Time to Experiment

Florida State College for Women students experimenting in the chemical lab: Tallahassee, Florida
Florida State College for Women students experimenting in the chemical lab: Tallahassee, Florida

Conventional running wisdom says, “Nothing new on race day.”
I say, “Bull puckey!”

One reason we race is to see how well we can perform when we give our all – perhaps against others, often against ourselves.

Following conventional wisdom, we only do things on race day that have proven themselves in the past. But, how can we know we’re doing the best thing?

We can’t!

All we really know is that we’re doing something that has (likely), at some point and in a very particular context, provided an improvement over some past performance or that (at least) hasn’t yet caused a spectacular failure. In other words, we’re playing it safe.

But, to truly excel, we need to explore the edges of the performance envelope – and risk taking a step outside. When we race to test our performance, we push ourselves beyond previous limits – into test pilot zone.

So, why do we play it safe? Two reasons come immediately to mind:

  1. To remove potential distractions from external factors (gear, nutrition, etc.) that we think might detract from our running / racing (strategy, technique).
  2. To eliminate anxieties so that we can focus purely on performance – aka, running / racing.

But. But. But …

These are also things that get tested on race day! And, we cannot possibly test them on race day without testing them on race day; there is no way to reliably simulate the conditions of any single race. The only way forward is to run that race and (with a grain of salt) apply our findings to future endeavors.

And, there is no way for us to ever know what is best – we can only approach it, but never actually reach it. We do this by trying new things and ruling out those that aren’t better.

So, given that we can’t possibly know that by doing “nothing new on race day” we’re really doing the best thing …

What happens if we give ourselves permission to experiment?

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll:

  • Feel free to follow our intuition
  • Spend more time feeling around the edges of the envelope in realistic, pressure situations
  • Gain confidence with novel situations and, hence, become better equipped to handle the unexpected when it arises – reducing anxiety and keeping us on our game
  • Discover viable alternates for the future, when we need to go to plans B, C, or Q
  • Give ourselves more opportunity to approach our best

In an upcoming post, I’ll share some thoughts on overcoming fear and mitigating risk – so we can more comfortably free ourselves to experiment with success.

Work Out Doubt

Runner at high school track and field meet 1912
Runner at high school track and field meet 1912

You’re in the middle of a workout and it feels tougher than you think it should.

You’ve finished a workout and find yourself more trashed than seems appropriate.

If I feel like this now, how will I be able to go as fast or faster (as long or longer) on race day?!

“If I feel like this now“? Is your race today? Tomorrow?

(No.)

This workout wasn’t a rehearsal. It was training.

If you can already run next month’s race today, you should either be racing today or upping your goal!

Now go relax and recover. You’re doing fine.

Something to Worry About

Don Finlay fell at the winning post after leading at the last hurdle. Don Finlay (1909-1970) was the British team Captain for the 1948 Olympics and was chosen to take the Olympic Oath.
Don Finlay fell at the winning post after leading at the last hurdle. Don Finlay (1909-1970) was the British team Captain for the 1948 Olympics and was chosen to take the Olympic Oath.

There’s a popular pastime among runners gearing up for races … Worry.

The most common topics seem to be weather and race pace. (You’d think pooping would be number two.)

And, yet, those who worry about these two things really ought to be worried about something else.

Worry About the Weather

  • OMG! It’s going to be hot!
  • What if it rains?
  • They say it could snow.

Yup. The weather might suck on race day. The roads might be too slippery. You might get wet and (help me here) chafe? It might be too hot for you to run your target pace.

The weather could also be perfect – cool, low humidity, a single small cloud to block direct sun, and a tailwind the whole way.

You can’t control the weather. It may well do anything on race day. And there won’t be a single thing you can do to change it.

Worry About Making Your Goal Time

  • I know I can make my B goal. The A Goal is going to be a stretch, but I think I can do it.
  • (OK – I’m really going for my Super Secret Goal. Anything else just won’t do.)
  • McMillan predicts X. But, it’s always optimistic/ usually pessimistic/ only accurate if you run the hypotenuse and correct for the current respiratory exchange rate.

Yup. You might not hit your goal. You might have been delusional when you set it. You might be flat on race day. You could be over-trained or under-recovered.

You could also hit every target or find that Race Day Magic is real and come soaring across the line faster than you’d even imagined.

You can’t control your best-possible pace on race day.

So, what’s a poor runner to do?

A Worry Worth Worrying About

If you keep wringing your hands over these things outside of your control, you’ll really have something to worry about!

Consider how the stress of endlessly refreshing the weather forecast page and running new pace predictions might affect your race readiness.

You’re starting the anxiety machine days in advance of your race, running yourself on the same adrenaline you’re hoping will give you a race-day boost. You’re likely losing sleep over it, too. How’s that going to play out?

Some people get so worked up they aren’t in a position to execute.

Others lose steam by the time race day rolls around – they’re cooked and just want it to be over with. Or, they don’t even care any more.

They arrive at the starting line feeling like they’ve already run a race.

If worrying about weather and pace is starting to look less appealing than it once did, here’s what you can do.

1. Take control by running through the worst-case scenarios

  • Live them NOW
  • Experience the emotions; sit with them
  • Plan for any contingencies you can (if yucky weather, wear X, drink Y, open at pace/effort Z)

2. Let them go, you’re done.

You’re ready to race and free to enjoy the days leading up to your event knowing that you’ll run what may come. You’ve set yourself up to make the most of your current level of fitness and run your best possible race.

Two-Part Race: The Gathering and The Test

Wearing No. 39 is Olympic athlete Sonia O'Sullivan in the Oman Cup Race at the Phoenix Park in Dublin
Wearing No. 39 is Olympic athlete Sonia O’Sullivan in the Oman Cup Race at the Phoenix Park in Dublin

After weeks of preparation (years, really), it’s your moment to shine. To celebrate all of the wonderful new things your body can do thanks to your hard work and dedication.

As runners, we celebrate with a race – where we get to experience all of the things we love about running, rolled up into one event.

Although it’s a single event, we often experience a race in two distinctly different parts – the gathering and the test.

In the first part, you get to experience the great joy of running – the gun goes off and you’re moving swiftly and effortlessly, gliding along as you only do in dreams.

In the second, you have the opportunity to test your mettle – exploring the edges of your physical and mental abilities, striving and straining for something you’ve never done before.

The trick is to take note of, welcome, and make the most of both.

As we’ve all experienced, the dream-like quality of the first part of the race will end and the reality of the test will set in. It might creep up, or it could surprise and overwhelm. It might come early, or it might come late.

Again, the trick is to work both parts.

During the first part – the dream run – be awake to it. Don’t squander it by not fully appreciating your good fortune. Enjoy these moments and note everything about them – the feeling, the color, the smell, the sound. Collect these morsels – they’re your sustenance for the trials to come.

If you run smartly, without greed or haste, you can extend this phase until late in the race – gathering your strength in preparation for the test.

Then, the switch flips and the light fades …

A ha! This is it. This is what I came for – I’ve been expecting you. Let’s roll.

The contest has begun. It’s time to make yourself proud.

Well fortified, this test is a joy. You’re unleashing hard-won strength and reveling in its power to propel you.
But, go in undernourished, having rushed or wasted your glorious opening strides, and this test is soul-crushing.

My challenge to you is to go beyond hoping for a great race to actively planning and executing a great race.

Set yourself up to enjoy the entire celebration.