I don’t think it’s off base or too much of a generalization to say that as runners, we sign up for races with goals in mind. Sometimes the goal is big and public: I want to PR. I want to win. I want to qualify for Boston. And other times the goal is more personal: I want to run the whole distance. I want to finish strong. I want to negative split. Regardless, we usually go into races with goals and expectations, and it can be upsetting when elements outside of our control mess with our carefully laid plans.
How we prepare for and deal with the drama that sometimes accompanies racing can have a big impact on our performance and overall enjoyment of race day.
1) Set Realistic Expectations: If you’ve signed up for a 5k that’s not run on a track or on a USATF certified course, chances are the race will not be exactly 5k. In fact it could be 4k. Or 6k. There could be a train going through the middle of it (this happens constantly in Portland and has turned into something of an ongoing joke). The course could go straight up a hill or into a headwind. There could be severe runner traffic as different race distances merge. Half of the field could cut a mile off the course accidentally. There could be technical difficulties with the chip timing. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
Mentally prepare for unexpected challenges (keyword: flexibility) and hold your “A” goal with an open mind. Set at least one race goal that has nothing to do with all of the variables that are out of your control (e.g. I will finish strong. I will push through mental fatigue. I will thank volunteers. I will fuel appropriately. etc.). And remember, everyone is most likely experiencing the same conditions, so don’t feel too sorry for yourself!
2) Come Prepared: Look at the weather report. Review the course noting the elevation profile and the location of mile markers. Read the directions for attaching your timing chip to your body. Make sure it is in the correct location and if it is on the back of your bib number, don’t bend it! And if you have one, use a GPS watch. This way, even if the course is inaccurate and your chip doesn’t work, you will have some kind of record of your race.
3) Run Your Race: Don’t worry about all of the variables that could affect your time during the race. As mentioned earlier, the conditions are likely the same for everyone. Run strong. Follow your race plan. Be mentally present. Enjoy it as much as possible and finish with no regrets!
4) Stay Until Results are Posted: Outside of technical issues out on the course, such as weather, course length, or trains, there can be mistakes in the results themselves. Pay attention to your finish time and who finished around you. The best time to correct errant results is at the race itself, preferably before awards are announced. The results are usually printed out and posted in a public location as people finish, or are available digitally. Some possible errors in the results include: incorrect gender or age, part of the field cut the course short, runners switched from a longer distance to a shorter distance without making it official, runners started early and their chip start time defaulted to gun time, technical issues with chips, etc. I have experienced almost all of these errors at one time or another. Some of them are easy to correct, but others may live on for days or weeks or possibly forever. When you talk to the people in charge of timing to correct mistakes, go forth with humility, grace and as much information as possible.
5) Take a Deep Breath: It’s easy to get stressed about results and caught up in what is fair and not fair. It’s easy to be disappointed that the 5k you just raced as hard as you could ended about 400 meters too soon, or that your race win is not official. At a certain point, you just have to take a deep breath, remember why you run in the first place, and let it go.
For me, running is sometimes about PR’s and being competitive and exceeding expectations and finding limits. But it is always about a community of people who share a similar passion, about a sport that I love but that at the same time is incredibly humbling, and about the rhythmic joy of breathing hard and moving fast.
In conclusion, if you want to be sure that there will not be unexpected trains, mountains or extra distance on your PR attempt, wait for a clear day, find a friend with a stopwatch and go to the track, but your story won’t be nearly as good.
Have you ever dealt with a race result fiasco?