What to expect on race day

After many months of training you’re stood in a park wondering why you’re stood in a park after many months of training.

Welcome to race day, your target for many months, the thing you’ve been pursuing, the thing that has been pursuing you for so long. Wondering how on those longer runs how you’ll ever make the distance, wondering whether come race day if it will hurt this much, be this rung out, be this elated, be this struggle, be this breeze. Just what will it be like?

Well as I get ready for my 7th go (it was only meant to be one, the bucket list item ticked off) I can safely conclude it will be all those things above, and more.

Some expected, some unexpected, some little known or appreciated till after the event. As I struggled for blog content a few thoughts came to me. One, perhaps there are some pointers I can offer about just what to expect come the big day, but also a bigger realisation of what we tend to lose through our training.

In part this is a loss of innocence. We forget how far we’ve come in sheer cumulative distance but also physically and perhaps in the greatest sense personally. We tend to forget what we’ve pressed on through, the ‘flat’ hills we have traversed and those steeper ones too. The hill repeats we’ve done, the tempo sections we’ve run, the wrong turns taken, the joys we’ve had, the niggles or injuries we’ve got through, the gels and blocks consumed, the camelbaks we’ve carried, the kit we’ve worn out, the toilet stops made, the Vaseline we’ve utilised, and the refuelling we’ve allowed ourselves. Celebrate the things you’ve gone through. Whilst these practical aspects tend to blur into each other, our appreciation of how we have developed personally is perhaps even less obvious to us.

So what has been learnt? Firstly, you have persevered with training over a number of months stuck it out, got through those bits where you thought you’d never keep going, revelled in those times (perhaps all too brief) when enjoyment and the ‘buzz’ overran everything and you were champing at the bit to get out there again only to find that it isn’t there the next time. Second, appreciate the physical learning your body has been through. You are likely to be fitter and have better stamina than you have ever had and learnt some things about how your body responds to exercise and what you fuel it with. Thirdly there’s insight gained into just how different niggles and injuries feel and how they can be overcome through recuperation, recovery and remedial action. You’ll also have learnt how to drink and eat whilst running though I’m not clear that this offers much in other areas of life. Finally appreciate that this training has got you ready for race day however much the doubting voice in your head may disagree. The training you have got yourself through has got you ready to complete your race, accept it, revel in it and use it wisely.

So what to use it wisely for?

For other tips you can read a previous blog here.

Arrival at the race venue really brings home what you have let yourself in for. At the very largest event you understand, as you hang around with your official kitbag amongst the myriads of kitbags, just how many other runners you’ll be running with. By planning your arrival at the start you should have plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere, appreciate the surroundings, enjoy that this is your environment, and get your bearings. Work out where you need to drop off your kit bag, where the start point is and which corral you’ll be starting from.

Marvel at the toilet queues and join one as early as possible if you have any inkling (tinkling?) that a visit is going to be needed.

However, the biggest pointer I can offer is trying to relax, adrenaline can be your friend but by trying to relax you can make it so. So you control it and use it to aid you not hinder you. Try to get into your usual run preparation routine, stretching, jogging, whatever you usually do as this can act as your body’s triggers for getting ready to run.

Getting into the start corral is a great idea as you can find a spot that helps you get a good start though appreciate that if you are close to the front of the pen it is likely to get very crowded as start time approaches. Control this and you will reap benefits because it gives you the best chance to use the training you’ve done. In the pen check your watch, check those laces, and check that your gels/bloks, water bottle are all securely stowed. I’ve lost count of how many of the aforementioned I have run past in the first few miles lying abandoned as running shop flotsam and jetsam to be regretted when later miles mount.

A ‘celebrity’ will start your race wittering some words to wish you well on your way before hooting, flag waving, firing you on your way. Now this is the point where your training comes in, and the relaxation will provide a foundation for its use. Ease yourself into the race. If you are in a later pen there will be some wait before you and your fellow runners begin a slow prowl, like leopards spotting a hunting opportunity, before beginning to run. Being patient at this stage can make or break your race. There is an extreme temptation to get moving, easily losing your target pace and raising the possibility of burn out. You can also get dragged into the early race weavers, runners who weave in and out of the main pack trying to get going as soon as possible. In half and full marathons you’ll find that the first 2km are best used to gradually build your pace, check your running form, and watch other runners around you. The key here is sticking to your pacing, building gently to your race pace and then seeking to maintain it. Weaving in and out increases the distance you’ll run overall and it puts extra physical demands on your body using up key energy resources early on. Steady consumption of these should be your target so you can steadily replace them throughout the race with your own refuelling plan.

By the middle section of the race you should, if starting steadily, be eased into your running, try to enjoy the surroundings around you and the atmosphere from the crowd. There will be people cheering for you that you will have never seen before and probably never see again. Hopefully you’ll also have some supporters there so try to work out where they will be so you can make sure you gain most benefit from them. Think through when and where you will take on fluid and fuel if you’re not carrying it yourself and use this to get you through sections of the race breaking it down into manageable chunks of time or distance, whatever works for you.

However well, or not, you’ve managed the early stages of the race there will be a section, or sections, where you face real challenges to keeping going and this is where your training will come to the fore. In training you will have had these sections and the fact you are there running today shows that you have got through it. Check if you need to take on fluid and/or fuel. Check your pacing. Ease back if you need to. Try focussing on the cheering of the crowd, look for landmarks ahead to run to from trees to lampposts to particular buildings or even markings on the roads. Draw on your training to think through those previous times you got through this, there will be a point where the pain is likely to stop getting worse. If you are really concerned then seek out a race official or other volunteer. By preparing for these sections you will give yourself the best possible chance of getting through them.

It is the last few miles where your training acts as a psychological prop to get your tired, battered body through those last sections. Some refuelling, caffeine shots may help here, but often it is sheer willpower, belligerence, and bloody mindedness that will get you through. However, as you get closer to the finish line the noise from the crowd will rise, you’ll be dragged magnetically by the sight of the giant finish clock. Crossing the line you’ll find an opportunity to receive a finisher’s medal lowered over your exhausted, bowed head, enjoy the elation of having finished, and then realise you still have to drag your raggedy stumps a bit further to get your timing chip removed, collect your finishers pack, and try to remember where the hell you’re going to find your kit bag from the back of a series of identical articulated lorry trailers.

Now the celebration begins in a probably ill-fitting finishers t-shirt.

This may sound daunting but be inspired by the training you’ve done, the lessons learnt, the physical and psychological journey you’ve made. You’re ready, now’s the time to hunt your prey.

Good luck.


About Simon Tanner

Eight time marathon runner, having run Brighton x6 and London x2, finally got a London ballot place after 7 consecutive attempts. I try to write about things I'm going through / have gone through in training to help others attain their running goals, whatever the distance.
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