If there is one constant at every race, it is runners who are in tip-top shape who figure out a way blow their race. Some runners never do seem figure it out and continue to make the same mistake race after race.
Just being in great shape is only part of the racing equation. Running a race to the best of your ability is a lot different than having a great training run.
What sabotages a race are often the simplest of mistakes. If you can somehow avoid those common mistakes so many of us make, you greatly enhance your chances of running a quality race or even setting a PR.
Fortunately, most of the race mistakes are correctable. Not easily correctable, but if you are aware of them, hopefully you can avoid at least some of the pitfalls.
Here are the most common racing errors:
1. Starting the race too fast.
By far, the most common mistake runners of all abilities make is going out too fast. Great marathoners make this mistake. Just ask Ryan Hall, America’s top marathoner, who begins his races way too fast and fails to finish strongly.
But it doesn’t matter which distance you’re racing, a certain percentage of the runners will start the race at too fast a pace and midway through, begin to falter. The result is these racers end up crawling home. It isn’t a pretty sight, especially in a half marathon or marathon.
There is no question that the most effective way to run a race of any length is to run a negative split race. That is, running the second half of the race faster than the first half. It isn’t easy to do, but it is the way the most successful racers run.
Start the race by running the first mile at least five seconds slower than the race pace you expect to maintain. Then, progressively pick it up to your race pace. The longer the race, the more important this is. In a marathon, if you go out too fast in the first few miles, you will pay for it in the final miles which can resemble a death march.
The best way to run negative splits is to practice negative split running on all your training runs until it becomes ingrained in you. Again, it isn’t easy because the natural inclination is to go out at your race pace right from the gun. But in a hilly marathon, such as Austin which has plenty of big hills (up and down) in the early miles, running race pace from the start is suicide.
If you can’t run negative splits—and it is difficult—at least try and run relatively even splits so the second half of your race is nearly as fast as the first half. Since the second half of any race is usually much more difficult, any second half split within a minute or two of the first half is terrific.
2. Concentrating on your competition.
Your competition is you. It isn’t the other runners. Running isn’t like tennis, football or basketball where what you do has an effect on the other players. You can’t throw up a defense against the other runners. In a race, it’s you against you. You are the only one who counts.
Don’t pysch yourself out before the race by focusing on how fit the other runners look. Nothing you can do about them. Focus on the things you can control. Pay attention to yourself—not anyone else.
3. Going into the race without a race plan.
In the days, weeks and months on your training runs leading up to Austin and 3M, you should have formulated a game plan for each race. The more important the race, the longer you will have worked on your game plan so you can execute it on race morning.
During the last half hour before the race, mentally go over how you intend to execute this race plan. Visualize yourself starting the race at an easy, relaxed pace. Visualize where the hills are on the course and how you intend to run the ups and the downs. Go over your intended goal pace and the splits you intend to run. Visualize yourself running strongly in the final mile.
4. Not warming up.
A good warm up is essential to preparing your body to run well right from the starting line. The shorter the race, the longer the warm up. Jog a bit, stretch and do some strides at race pace. Try to get loose and ready to race. You should finish your warm up no longer than a minute before the gun starts the race. If it’s a marathon and you have to line up well before that, jog in place, stretch and move around in the starting chute as much as you can to keep your muscles warm.
Austin and 3M usually have exceptional racing weather. That is, it is often seasonably cool, sometimes even cold for the early-morning starts. That’s good. Once the sun comes out, it usually warms up pretty fast. That’s why cool race weather does not mean adding layers of clothes for race morning. Usually, all you need is shorts, singlet, a hat and a pair of gloves. (A cheap pair is best so that if it warms up, you can throw them away.) The one thing you don’t want to do is wear a jacket or tights—unless it is colder than freezing. If it’s between freezing and 40, you can add a long-sleeve shirt that you can either toss or wear the entire way.
6. Slowing down when the going gets tough.
If you run aggressively and try to run what you consider a good goal time, you will feel discomfort somewhere along the way. At some point in the race, you’ll have a crisis of confidence and be tempted to slow down. Don’t.
Instead, try to relax at the pace you’re running and focus on what lies ahead. Drop your shoulders, shake out your arms and relax your jaw. Breathe deeply. Chill out.
Concentrate on maintaining a smooth stride—but don’t overstride. Possibly, cut your stride length, but maintain or increase the turnover rate. Use your arms and try to control your breathing. Take five deep breaths and then go back to a normal breathing pattern.
In every long race, nearly everyone has a bad patch. Accept this and try to run through it at race pace, rather than slowing down. Once you slow down, it will be very difficult to get up to race pace again. But if you can fight through this discomfort, chances are it will pass quickly. Don’t panic. It will pass.
7. Hammering the uphills; relaxing on the downhills.
Both the 3M Half and Austin Marathon and Half are very hilly races with substantial downhills. The difference is Austin also has some major uphills. Too often, runners charge the uphills and try to recover on the downhills. The problem with this strategy is the energy cost is much too great and, rather than making up time, you lose it. The better strategy is to maintain (or back off slightly) on the uphills, especially the major ones, and then cut loose on the downhills where you can make up time, increase your tempo and then hopefully extend it on the flat sections.
8. Not drinking.
Historically, 3M and Austin have the best weather of any of the Austin races. Not every 3M and Austin is perfect, but typically it’s cool, some years even cold. Even if it’s cold, you still have to hydrate. Not as much as a hot-weather race, but maintaining a hydration schedule (and in the Austin Marathon, a nutrition schedule) is still important to avoid depletion and bonking.
9. Failing to check extra clothes at finish.
When you finish either 3M or Austin, you will be tired, depleted—and cold. Maybe not at first, but once you finish, you will cool off very quickly. If it’s the least bit chilly, you will need dry clothes to change into immediately or you will get cold that will make your post race experience miserable. All you need to do is check extra clothes at the start of either race in your race bag. You can’t pack too much, but make certain to include tights, a jacket, a wool hat and a warm shirt or sweatshirt.