As diligently as you prepare for race day, it can be very easy to lose confidence and composure as soon as the starting gun fires. Here are some steps you can take to make the most out of all your hard training on race day.
1. Don’t start too fast. It’s very easy to get caught up in the competitive vibe of the pack, and shoot out fast on the first mile—especially if there’s a downhill start. Resist the urge to go out too fast. If you do go out too fast, you risk losing energy and speed, and fading long before the finish line. Aim instead to start easy and smoothly accelerate toward the finish line. This can take a lot of discipline. It can be humbling to watch people pass you. You may start to worry that you’ll be the very last finisher. That likely won’t happen. Use the first few minutes of the race to regain your focus, get back into your own zone, and get into a sustainable pace that feels like a natural extension of what you have done during training. There is a good chance that in the final miles of the race, you will pass many of the people who passed you in the first few miles.
2. Think positive. No matter how well you’ve prepared, at some point during the event, negative voices are likely to creep in. And they can drag you down if you let them. Thoughts like “I’m tired,” “‘I can’t,” “I’m so slow,” or even “I want to quit,’” may start to weigh on you. Have a plan for how you’re going to talk back to those negative voices. A short mantra like “fast finish,” “breathe,” or “stay strong” might help perk you out of your funk. Or it might be powerful to have a phrase like “you’re stronger than you think you are, more powerful than you know,” that you can sync to your footsteps. Positive imagery can also help. You might have a memory of a strong workout or fast finish in a past race that you could summon up. Take some time the night before the race and on race morning to review these positive phrases and visions so that they will feel accessible when you need them on race day. It might even help to write them on your arm. Think about the race as a victory lap for all the hard work you did during the weeks and months of training. The race lasts for just a few hours. The pride you will feel at having committed yourself to the training, and giving all that you had during the race will last a lifetime.
3. Do a body scan. When the going gets tough, take a second to do a mental body scan. Mentally scan your body from head to toe to identify areas where you’re holding tension in the upper body that are stealing energy your legs need to run strong. Unclench your jaw, your fists, and your brow. Bring your shoulders down away from your ears. Breathe. Keep your eyes on the horizon.
4. Just give it all that you have. Do your best, and commit to being proud of whatever that amounts to. Remember: your “best” is going to amount to something different on any given day depending on factors like the weather, the quality of your training, how much sleep you’ve had and how much work and life stress you’re enduring when you step to the line. All you can do on any given day is give it all that you have. Try to resist the very tempting urge to compare yourself to others or past race performances. All you can do on any day is your best. And if you gave it all that you had, then that is reason to celebrate.
5. Let the pack empower you. If you’re not naturally competitive, or not a seasoned racer, the experience of running with thousands of others in front of thousands of others can be very intimidating. Everyone may seem more fit, fast, relaxed and prepared. And unless you’re the winner, it is likely that people will pass you. Try not to let all of those negative thoughts undo you. Instead let the pack be a powerful source of inspiration. Like you, they sacrificed much sleep and ease to prepare for this race. Like you, in signing up for the race they had to muster up the courage to step outside their comfort zone. Like you, they had to negotiate fear, injury, work and family commitments and logistical gymnastics to get to the starting line. Try to savor the experience of being elbow-to-elbow with so many thousands of people who shared the experience of training with you. And remember that just by running, you are inspiring thousands of spectators on the sidelines. You had the courage to sign up for a race, you had the discipline to train for it, and you had the guts to give your best effort on race day. And that amounts to more than anything that could ever be measured by numbers on a finish-line clock.