Managing Race Day Stress

This past Sunday, I had the great opportunity to run off a few of the Kit Kats which had been calling me home this Halloween season.  The Chicago Monster Dash (complete with a lovely stained glass medal) beckoned, and I obliged.

With registration in hand (there’s a good story behind that), I hit Grant Park on a gorgeous fall day, just as the Half Marathon crew was taking off around 8:00 a.m.   If you saw me wandering over to the start line Sunday morning, you might have thought that I was just another lame-o without a costume, getting ready to knock out three miles.  And I was.  But I was also a woman who ran dozens of races over the past ten years – but not a single running event – without being injured – in the past 18 months.

I don’t know about you, but for me, 18 months is a lifetime.  I mean, literally, children learn to walk and babble and do all sorts of things in 18 months.  People meet and get married in that amount of time.  Sometimes, they even wedge in a divorce.  In my intervening 18 months, I’d moved once, been through a stint of unemployment (and a return to work), welcomed multiple small children into my extended friends and family, and  – and – not to be underestimated – completed more than 30 PT visits and been introduced to the joys of cortisone.  In short, I’d been through some stuff. 

So toeing the line (or, more accurately, jumping in behind some girls dressed as Red and Green M&M and the Super Mario Brothers), had me feeling a bit stressed.  Was I really ready to try this distance?  Was I asking for trouble? 

I’ve been returning to running slowly, following the program given to me by my doc –  but I haven’t been following it to the tee.  I mean, really, that would make sense.  I’ve also been helping to pace the Chicago Endurance Sports 5k group this fall, and had been running without incident the past two weeks.  So part of my nervousness was wondering if 3 miles was too much, too soon.  (And trust me, when I say this, I cringe, becuase 3 miles used to be something I did when I was bored. )  But I knew that if I kept to my training, and kept an easy pace, all should be good.  And it was.  I focused on my “effort level” – how hard I was working throughout – and not on the pace per se – and felt pretty good at the finish.  No pain, and no worries.  Well, almost no worries. 

Because here’s something I didn’t count on:  all the race-day stuff that I thought just came with BIG races (you know, the ones where, if you quit, you’re 5-10 miles from home), well all of that was present too.  The things I thought would go away because I wasn’t running long – well, they were still there on Sunday, just for a shorter amount of time.  But make no mistake, they impacted the way I ran the race, and how I felt when I finished.  So here, a few pieces of advice about dealing with the race day stresses I encountered Sunday – and that you’re likely to encounter if you’re just the slightest bit like me!

Remember you race with others. The whole point of doing a 5k or a 10k is to put yourself in an event where you can push a bit with support – and an incentive to do well – AND  where you can feel like part of a community as you engage in a solo activity.  But running with others means you’re probably going to be impacted by them too.  Think about how you’ll handle it when the woman with the double-wide stroller cuts you off on the path – while talking on her cellphone.  Or how you might deal with a group who decides to walk right in front of you – four or five wide – while you’re trying to keep a pace.  These things happen, and they’re part of every race.  The best thing to do is either: decide you’re going to expend your energy to run AROUND them the whole race; or simply try to squeak through when you see a chance, smile, and keep breathing. 

On Sunday, I was so surprised by how much I wanted to keep at my effort level – without slowing down – that when Stroller Mom whipped around in front of me (but didn’t keep moving fast enough so that I wasn’t clipping her heels) I took two steps off the path and ran for about 20 yards – faster than I normally would – just to get ahead of her.  It wasn’t a great tactic, but it made me feel better.  

In other races, I’ve tapped people on the shoulder who did that to me, apologized, and said “can I squeak through?” and they oblige.  But it always goes down easy with a smile.  Remember, most people are just out there to have fun, and they don’t want to be in your way.  Be kind.  Or run ahead.  Either one works – one is just slightly more repeatable than the other.

Remember nothing’s perfect.  Saturday night before this race, the organizers found out they had to re-route the entire half marathon course.  People who had planned their mental game around a specific course were crushed by the idea that they were going North instead of South on our lakefront path. 

With so little notice, the course organizers did the best they could to create a route that would work for our police force, the Presidential security detail (he was in town and flying out near the course) and the runners.  And they did a great job – with one tiny flaw.  The re-routed course setup was just a hair long (for the half marathon, by about .4 mile.)  Some people who were using it to qualify – or who just wanted to claim a sub-something race, were disappointed.  Others were just glad they could run 13 miles AND tack on an extra .4 . 

In the 5k race, the mile markers were off.  I try to judge how well I’m doing by the pace I keep on each mile – but my “splits” – the pace per mile – were way off when I checked them against the mile markers.  As I kept looking at my watch after the last marker, I kept thinking “you suck, you’re never going to make it in”.  (Drama queen moment).  I did fine, and I came in in just over 50 minutes.  So the splits weren’t perfect.  It didn’t mean I was going to run TEN miles instead of 3 on Saturday.  I was just not going to be FULLY AWARE of every component on the course.  So what?  I still finished and had a great medal.  And that’s something to remember when you’re on the course.  Porta potties will be locked sometimes.  Pacers will not keep their pace.  Drawbridges may go up (as happened on Sunday).  It’s about keeping your cool – and your perspective on this.  It’s just. a. run.  Yes, you’re going to be thrown by it, but if you practice the mantra that “Sh*t happens” or “There is nothing I can do about THAT in THIS moment” you will have a much easier race. 

Find the joy.  When your’e in the zone – even if you’re a big, slow runner like me – sometimes you get so wrapped up in what you’re trying to accomplish that it’s like a tidal wave of coaching thoughts.  I’m a golfer, and I analogize it to standing over a balll, with a billion swing tips going through your head.  “Stand straight shoulders back  tuck that chest in  arms loose  pull back count and DOWNSWING and through and don’t dip and belt buckle to the pin and finish high!”   Jeeminy Christmas, it’s no wonder I chunk the ball half the time.

But when you’re running, it can be the same thing, and on race day, my running mantra goes a little like this: “Head up chin off the chest breathe in three out two and can you talk? and heel strike under your hips and god could that chest stop bouncing and ..”  You get the picture.  Add in the splits and a heart rate monitor and it’s DEFCON 4 out there and nobody knows it but me. 

So how do you keep from agitating yourself to death?  Simple.  Find the joy.  Focus on other people.  Watch that couple in front of you as they talk about the movie they saw last night.  Or keep your chin up – but take a look at the gorgeous scene around you (for me, this was Lake Michigan, sparkling on Sunday.)  Or find yourself a good looking runner to ogle!  There are options, people – all of them designed to distract you through 3.1 or 13.1 or 26.2 miles faster than you can say “shoe box”.  Take in what your’e seeing, though, and just grab the joy out of it. 

It’s that joy that brings me back to the path, every single time.  And as I left the race on Sunday, it was that joy that I carried with me.  I finished, pain free, and I had a blast.  I can’t wait for what’s next.

See you on the path.

14 thoughts on “Managing Race Day Stress

  1. Nice post! I have my first not-just-walking-it 10k coming up in (oh dear GODS) *5 weeks*, and although I’ve walked plenty of these babies before, it’s fair to say that I’m freakin’ terrified a tad nervous.

    Reading your ideas here made it all seem a little more doable somehow – thank you for a great post!

    • LOL. Starfie, I love the note. You’re going to be fine – no need to be freaking terrified 🙂
      When I get really worked up, it also helps to remember that no one knows how slow I used to be – or the journey I’ve taken to get there. So screw em. 🙂

  2. Is there always a woman with the double-wide stroller who cuts you off on the path? I swear my last race I almost fell on her baby!

    Congrats on your welcome back race!

    • YES! Seriously Taylor, there’s ALWAYS one. When they’re not running me over in Starbucks, they’re clipping my heels on a race course. You think if we did actually fall on the child, they’d stop trying to prove how much fitter they are EVEN THOUGH THEY”RE A MOM? (I feel like that’s there DEFCON 4 dialogue :))

  3. I have often felt in races that a number of people walk/run ahead of me because they can’t imagine that I would EVER be able to go as fast as they can because I am plus sized. Inevitablely as soon as they slide their butt in front of me they slow down. Why people, why!

    • Christy – LOVE the insight. And yes, I agree – isn’t it awesome though to know that you are, indeed, faster than they think??? 🙂

  4. I am hoping to get in my first 5k in almost 20 years this spring and something tells me there will be plenty of nerves on race day! Thanks for sharing your story and for the great tips.

  5. Thanks for the great post. I have just (yesterday) signed up for a half marathon in September (hands are shaking as I am typing). I get really emotional just thinking about the race. I have done two 10ks and cried the first time I completed the first one. Even when I support people who are racing I get emotional (people that I know by the way :).
    Is crying acceptable at the start of the race (just so I can just carry on with trying to run) or is therapy inevitable :)?
    Thanks again for sharing your great tips.

    • Sylvie –
      Congrats on registering – I often find that’s half the battle!!! I think you’ll find that crying at the start won’t happen once you’ve been living with the idea of doing this for so long – but maybe I’m wrong 🙂 On the other hand, you can always download a podcast of Dr. Phil prior to the race and maybe he can get you through the start 🙂

      Good luck – and keep us posted!!!

      • Just thought I let you know I DID IT ! my first half marathon (GNR) 🙂 I am still high as a kite with joy (did it yesterday) that I did not stop and finished in 2hr 45mn. I didn’t cry at the start but I did when I saw my husband waiting for me at the end. I have a time to beat for next year. Now just need to get ready for a 10k in 3 weeks ! (loving your blog btw 🙂

      • Hey Sylvie –
        A very belated CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! So very, very excited to know that you’ve conquered your first (but I’m sure not your last) half marathon 🙂 Always good to hear a great story….keep up the running!
        Sallie

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