Friday, September 20, 2013

13 Tips For Your First Road Race

A colleague recently asked a couple folks on Twitter for some advice about preparing for his first 5K. I suggested that he not think too much about it. 

As it turns out, there is a lot to think about before your first road race. After all, it’s your indoctrination into the Cult of Running, and it’s human nature to not want to be That Guy, whether you’re standing in the wrong spot, wearing the wrong shirt or hitting the wall less than a mile into the race. 

To avoid embarrassment, real or otherwise, here’s a few things you should do. 

Stick to what you know. Now’s not the time to try something new. Wear clothes, including shoes and socks, that are comfortable and familiar to you. If you eat, make it the same light breakfast you usually have. (If you’re a bacon-and-eggs type, save that for post-race brunch.) If you drink anything, make it water or your sports beverage of choice. Coffee is OK in limited quantities. Don’t drink a ton, though, unless, you know, you like waiting in line for Port-a-Pottys. 

Plan, plan and plan some more. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the starting line. Research your parking options and try to find a spot convenient to bib pickup, the starting line and the finish line.(If you’re lucky, all three are in the same spot.) Plug the race address into your phone and review the directions the night before, as you may wake up so early that you're incapable of rational thought. 

Leave early. I like to leave my house such that I’ll arrive an hour before a race, perhaps earlier if it’s a long race, a race I’ve never done before or a race where I expect a lot of traffic. If I’m early, I’ll just sit in the car and kick out the jams for a bit. 

That said, stay loose. You don’t need to jog for half an hour, but you shouldn’t sit in your car until two minutes before the gun goes off. Walk around a bit. Take a swig or two of water. Do some dynamic stretches, such as squats or lunges, to get your blood flowing. (This has the added effect of psyching people out.) Don’t head to the starting line until it’s about 10-15 minutes before gun time. 

On the line, breathe. There will be a lot going on. People pose for pictures. People look for friends. People violate your personal space. People pose for more pictures. Do your best to ignore it all. 

Don't stand up front. Unless you plan to win, you wore the greatest costume ever or you personally know the race director, you can stand back with the hoi polloi. Larger races will use corrals that put faster runners up front and increasingly slower runners further back. Look for signs that mention a specific pace per mile, find the corral that best fits your pace and make some friends. 

Don't take off like a bat outta hell. It's hard to avoid starting too fast. I've been running for 18 years and I still do it myself. About 95 percent of the time, I regret it. You will, too. Keep breathing, stick with the pack around you (you made friends, right?) and remember that the thundering herd will quickly thin out. 

Push yourself, but not too hard. I know, it’s like saying, “Take your time, but hurry up.” Presumably, you signed up for this race in part to see what you’re made of. You should be going faster than you did on your training runs. Don’t hold back, and you’ll surprise yourself. That said, it’s your first race, so be careful. At any sign of non-routine discomfort (that is, anything that’s not the usual soreness or tightness that all runners feel), dial it back a bit. 

Don’t worry about hydration. Unless it’s obscenely hot out, you’re probably not going to need to drink water during the course of a 5K. If you do, one little cup will suffice. (Obviously, this will be different for longer races, but for now you’ll be fine.) Anything more and it’s gonna slosh around in your stomach. 

Enjoy yourself. Odds are you’ve never had people cheering you on. Soak it all in. Use that to push you if you start getting tired, sore or cranky. Once you cross the finish line, make the most of the post-race festivities (especially the food). Rehydrate. Find the friends you made, or the friends you already have, and cheer them on as they cross the line. Make plans to run together again. 

Stretch. You don’t have to do this at the race itself -- though if you’re feeling tight, you probably should. But at some point during the day, take a few minutes to stretch. Remember, you’ve never run this fast, so you owe it to your legs to treat them right. (You’ll probably want to stretch the day after the race as well.) 

Treat yourself, albeit within reason. I usually grab coffee and breakfast on the way home. You should, too. And it’s more fun with friends. If it’s the right time of year, you could always get ice cream. 

Oh, one final thing: The race T-shirt is like the concert T-shirt. Don’t wear the race T-shirt during the race itself. Amateur. But if you need to change after the race, the race T-shirt is acceptable. Plus, it’s a silent way of explaining to the folks in the coffee shop why you smell so bad.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Looking Back on My First Marathon

With my ninth marathon, Smuttynose Rockfest, rapidly approaching, and with many preparing to embark on fall marathon adventures, I thought I’d partake in an equally humorous and cathartic exercise and relive the calamity of my first marathon. 

I was a 21-year-old college junior when I toed the line at the BayState Marathon in October 2001. My longest training run had been 18 miles, and that hadn’t been planned -- I managed to get lost in the vicinity of Jamaica Pond and inadvertently add a couple miles to my planned route. (Aside: How the hell did we map out long runs back then? I’m pretty sure I just guessed.) 

My goal, of course, was to finish in 3:10 and qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’d written “3:10 or Bust” on a sticky note that I’d taped to the wall next to class/work schedule. Naturally, I knew nothing about proper marathon training, cross-training, eating or recovery -- though I did have enough sense to write “avoid beer” in my planner in the three weeks leading up to the race. (Yes, I was legal. And no, I didn’t take my own advice.) I was so poorly prepared that I never wore a watch and didn’t think to actually get one until the day before the race, for $7, at my local Walmart. (Hey, I was on a college student budget.) 

I started the race well and maintained a BQ-ready 7:10 pace for at least the first 13.1 miles and, perhaps, longer. (It was 12 years ago, after all. The memory’s foggy) Around the 16-mile mark, though, my legs turned to jelly. I collapsed into a telephone pole, clung to it for dear life, and began the humiliating 10-mile, 90-odd-minute Walk/Jog of Shame to the finish. 

I crossed in 3:22 and change, collapsed on the ground, napped on the futon at my parent’s house and hobbled around campus for a couple days. (I did at least stretch once I’d returned to my Boston apartment that night. Otherwise I very well may still be on the futon at my parent’s house.) 

For a variety of reasons, I didn’t do my second marathon -- also BayState -- until 2006. That one didn’t go as planned, either. I came down with a wonderful bout of runner’s knee the month before, missed my last week of real training and the first week of my taper, and went into the race with no real goal of any kind. Finishing around 3:33 was a blessing as far as I was concerned.

Both races taught me a lot.
  • You need a real training plan, and you need to do your damndest to stick to it. 
  • You need to set a realistic goal. Especially if, you know, you’ve never run a marathon before. 
  • As I was painfully reminded of this in my eighth and, to this date, worst marathon, sometimes it’s better to be smart than fast. Especially if, you know, training hasn’t gone as planned.
  • Training for and running a marathon is freakin’ hard. In 2001, my roommates thought I was nuts. (To their credit, they were genuinely concerned about my tardiness on the day of my sojourn to Jamaica Plain.) Today, my wife thinks I’m nuts. (Well, marathon training is only part of it, I suppose. And, in buying compression socks for my birthday, she enabled me.) 
  • Most importantly, no matter how badly you bonk, no matter what fluids emanate from your body, no matter what hitherto undiscovered muscles ache, nothing feels more satisfying that running, jogging, stepping, hobbling or crawling across the finish line of a marathon. 
Have fun this fall, everyone. Remember: Even if you miss your time goal, fail to qualify for Boston or get a swanky age group prize, you’re still doing something that the vast majority of the population doesn’t have the intestinal or testicular/ovarian fortitude to even start, let alone finish. 

If nothing else, you will finally get to eat and drink whatever the hell you damn well please, with no fear of consequence, for a few days at least. (Until you start training again, of course.) And a futon in your parent’s basement will suddenly become the most comfortable bed in the world.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Remembering My Running Anniversary

Generally speaking, August is a stupid month. Sure, some awesome people have birthdays, but August is pretty much a longer, warmer, Monday-holiday-less version of February.
That said, I do look forward to the end of August, as it's my running anniversary. It was at this point 18 years ago, right before my freshman year of high school, that I started running.

I was always an active kid. I played Little League baseball, youth basketball and lots of pickup football. (I failed to hono[u]r my father's Canadian heritage and never tried hockey.) But puberty robbed me of what shred of coordination I possessed.
On top of that, I was starting at a new school. I went to public schools until fourth grade, when I a) discovered sarcasm and b) got bored. My parents thought a Catholic school might help, so I went to one for middle school. (It didn't. I emerged more sarcastic, largely agnostic and still bored.)
A couple weeks before the beginning of school (which in New England is around Labor Day), the local paper ran an ad listing the dates and times of fall sports tryouts. I wanted to do something, but I hated playing soccer, was way too small for real tackle football and had never tried whatever were the other fall sports. (Hey, it was 18 years ago. I don't remember.)
Then I saw cross country. "How hard can that be?" I wondered. I also that no one ever got cut from cross country teams. Done.
I showed up the first day of practice in high-top basketball shoes and knit shirts. It took me at least 45 minutes to cover the 5K course, and I stopped several times. Needless to say, I wasn't really cut out for running.
But I persisted. After all, I'm stubborn and competitive. (Those plus sarcasm are a mighty mix.) Plus, once I finally invested in running gear and stopped finishing dead last, I kinda liked it.
Now, I never imagined I’d still be running 18 years later. After high school, I went to a small, urban liberal arts college that would have been Division IV in athletics if there were such a thing. The urban part, though, made running easier, not to mention fun, and aside from a preventable bout with runner’s knee after my freshman year -- the cause? Insufficient stretching -- I haven’t taking more than a couple weeks off running since I took my first uncomfortable, basketball-shoe-clad strides in August 1995. 
I’ve detailed the stages of my running career before, so I won’t rehash them here. I’ll only add one thing: Despite the soreness, the chafing, the loads of laundry and the smartass kids shouting, “Run, Forrest!” I have no regrets. None. And every year, in the last week of August, I remember why.