I have a well-documented history of being a complete basket-case before a big race. Case in point :: The weeks leading up to my BQ race — the 2010 St. George Marathon. My taper tantrums took on a life of their own. And all the bubble wrap in the world wasn’t going to make me feel safe.
The one thing that always calms me down as race day approaches are my Race Rituals. They’ve been the same since my first ever race that I cared about — the Austin half marathon in February 2009. (Yes, Brad and I ran a half marathon for Valentine’s Day. I’m that obsessed, and he’s that wonderful.)
So, here are my top tips for gearing up for your goal race . . .
1. Start increasing carbs and hydrating yesterday.
I love a good pre-race pasta dinner, but it is physically impossible to take in all the carbs you need to sustain you during a marathon solely by eating a bottomless bowl of pasta the night before the big race. And, even if you could, the consequences of spending all day running from Port-a-let to Port-a-let to relieve your clogged digestive system would be catastrophic. Instead, about 3-5 days before your race, increase your carbs to 70% of your calories, while keeping your overall calories the same as they were during training. And, make sure the carbs count. Low to moderate glycemic index foods (e.g., bananas, milk, yogurt, beans, apples, and pears) are better than high glycemic index carbs (e.g., honey, Gatorade, white bread, and potatoes) because they enter your bloodstream more slowly and are easier to digest. The key is that a more steady increase of carbs will result in a safer, but equally effective, increase glycogen so that your muscles have what they need on race day.
You can lose up to 128 ounces of sweat during the marathon. Even if you drink 4-6 ounces of water at every aid station (usually one every 2 miles), you are only replacing about half of what you use. For obvious reasons, you don’t want to load up on liquids immediately before the race, so it is important to increase your water intake throughout the week. At the same time, limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, both of which will sabotage your hydration efforts.
2. The early bird gets the worm, so get to the Expo for packet picket early.
I love to expo. I go even when I’m not racing. There are great giveaways, good deals, and interesting people to meet if you get there early. The longer you wait, the longer the lines, and the less likely you are get a race shirt in your size. Go early. Go often. The energy is contagious — even for non-runners!
3. Know the course and have a spectator plan.
It is nearly impossible to spot your family – and for your family to spot you – in a big race. Drive the course the day before. Make mental notes of any tough spots, any places where you could pick up time, and any major turns where you need to run the tangents. Bring those who will be supporting you along for the ride, and reach a consensus on exactly where they will be standing and at what time. Trust me; unless you want to race with an enormous orange traffic cone on your head, this is your only hope.
4. Set out ALL your race gear the day before.
- Lay out all the clothes you plan to wear. Check the weather and plan to dress as if it will be 20 degrees warmer. If you’re worried about being too cold at the start, wear an old sweatshirt that you don’t mind tossing once you warm up (most races pick up any clothes along the course and donate them to charity).
- Attach your timing chip to your shoe.
- Pin your bib to your shirt.
- Set out all the energy gels or sports chews you plan to carry. (Typically one per hour of racing, but this will vary by runner. Hopefully, you practiced this during training and know exactly what you need.)
- Set out a water bottle to carry — even if it’s just a disposal bottle. You should carry something for the first 5-8 miles because the early aid stations are typically very crowded and will suck up time.
- Pack your gear check bag. This should include dry, warm clothes to put on at the finish and your recovery snack of choice (e.g., chocolate milk, a Slim Fast shake, etc.) The race will probably have food, but you never know what your options will be, and this is the best way to ensure you get the right nutrients at the right time.
4a. Don’t try anything new on race day.
Now is not the time to experiment with a new Gu brand or flavor, new clothes, or a new type of food. This is not the time to find out how well you can run having just eaten 3 breakfast tacos. This is not the time to break in a new pair of shoes — they need at least 30-50 miles before race day. This is not the time to try out a new shirt or shorts — all the Body Glide in the world won’t save you if your clothes are too tight, too small, don’t wick properly, or do weird things when they get wet. If you didn’t train wearing a fanny pack, hat, or sunglasses, don’t wear it on race day! Get the picture?
5. Set several alarms.
I know for a fact that I am not the only person who does this . . . Set your regular alarm clock, set a back-up alarm clock (or arrange for a wake-up call), and set the alarm on your phone. Chances are that you won’t sleep that soundly anyway, but you don’t want to miss your goal race because the battery died in your phone or because you set the alarm for PM instead of AM. You got up early every day for 16+ weeks to train for this. You can do it for one more day!
6. The early bird also gets to avoid stress, so arrive at the race site earlier than you think you need to.
I learned this one the hard way. Get to the race site at 30 minutes earlier than you think you need to. This will give you time to get oriented to the starting area, go through gear-check smoothly, get in a little warm-up jog, and make it to your starting corral cool, calm and collected.
7. Enjoy the race!
When the gun goes off, throw your hands up, cheer loudly, and get ready to start your journey. Most races are designed to show off the best parts of their host city, so don’t forget to look around and enjoy the scenery. Thank any officers who are protecting your safety by closing roads. Thank the volunteers who hand you water or Powerade at aid stations. High-five the kids alongside the road who are cheering for you.
(This last one is controversial. Some will say that shouting back at spectators is your enemy because it zaps you of energy and makes you lose focus. While this may be true, I will never stop high-fiving little girls who see me running a marathon. It was not long ago that women were shunned from the sport. I hope that each and every one of them grows up to enjoy running as much as I do.)
8. Smile big at the finish.
Please, I beg you, do not cross the finish line staring at your Garmin. You will only lose a few seconds, at best, by pressing ‘stop’ after you cross the line, and the race director doesn’t care what your Garmin said — he’s going to record your chip time anyway.
When you approach that finish line, make sure there’s a clear path in front of you, do a victory salute, and smile proudly. I don’t care how tired you are, you will want to savor this moment, as you should. You earned it!