You can find a lot of articles out there that give you advice on how to “conquer” your race day jitters, but I am starting to think that if you are really “racing” an event – race day jitters are just part of the deal.
Since January of 2010 I’ve toed the line at 2 ultra marathon relays, 4 marathons, 5 half-marathons, 1 ten-mile race, 4 10K’s, 19 5K’s, 2 mile races, 1 sprint triathlon and 1 triathlon relay. I have been nervous before the start of every single event.
A 1950’s British Olympian Gordon Pirie once said, “Any runner who denies having fears, nerves or some other kind of disposition is a bad athlete, or a liar.”
I think that Pirie hit the nail squarely on the head. If there is an athlete out there that can stand in the starting corral without any type of uneasiness, fear of the unknown or mild irrational panic – I have yet to meet them. What a gift it would be to calmly wait for the starter’s gun without the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, having made at least 5 stops at the portapotties and doubts about your training, your ability, the weather, your race plan, a nagging injury or a flat performance dancing around in your head.
But once that gun does finally go off, rather amazingly all of that goes away and you fall quickly into “racing”.
In the blink of an eye I go from a nervous, unsure athlete to a confident racer within 10 strides of crossing the starting line.
Ever since last February’s Austin Marathon I have been trying to pinpoint how I am able to set all of those fears and reservations aside once I am on the race course, but unable to tame them completely prior to the event. They typically start the night before the race, just after I have laid out all my race gear for the morning.
It begins with trouble falling asleep, thoughts of splits and times dancing in my head. I sleep restlessly, catching an hour here, thirty minutes there, but never a sound slumber that I can fall into virtually every other night of the year. I wake up with a nervous stomach, force myself to eat something and start hydrating as I know that will play a key role in the longer races.
I use the restroom, dress, use the restroom again, get ready to leave for the race, use the restroom again ….. you know the drill.
During the drive to the race or the walk to the start in a large marathon I start to relax just a bit – my mind distracted, but when I see the lights, the crowd and all the volunteers all of those feelings return, and with a vengeance.
What I have started to lean on for race morning that helps me stay calm and focused may or may not work for everyone. But for me, I stick to the “routine” that has allowed me to perform well in the past. I draw on previous experience knowing that at my last event or events at that distance I executed my pre-race routine, went out on the course and performed well. In some cases, outperformed my training indicators and expectations for the race.
It may not remove those “jitters”entirely, but it has certainly diminished them.
Essentially, I am searching for that same confidence that I race with. Only an hour or so earlier, allowing me to stay relaxed, get in a solid warm-up and not burning useless, foolish energy.
Here are the 10 things I do prior to the race to tame those jitters.
1. I make sure that I arrive to the race 60 minutes before the starting gun without exception. Big race, small race, doesn’t matter. One hour allows me to get settled in, get the lay of the land, use the restroom and know that I have plenty of time and will not need to rush my warm-up.
2. I walk to the starting line to take it all in. This early before the race there will be very few people milling about. I stand in the corral and I visualize the start. What it will be like when the crowd arrives, what side of the corral I will line up in so I can navigate the first turn of the course without congestion. If the first turn is to the right, I line up on the right. If it is a left turn, I line up on the left. Always. Every time.
3. I find the portapotties if I did not spot them on the walk to the starting line. I look at the lines forming and determine if I can wait a bit or need to get in line for the first of probably two or three pit stops prior to the gun.
4. I find a quiet spot away from other runners to do some light stretching and review the course map either on paper if it is a long race or in my mind if it is a course I have memorized or have run before.
5. I think about the opening mile. What pace I want to run it in, what it should feel like from an effort perspective. In a 5K that pace may be an opening 5:45 mile. For a 10K 6:05, half-marathon 6:15-6:20, marathon 6:55. I try to imagine how my legs will feel at that pace, getting in tune with my internal clock to make sure I do not go out too fast, but at the same time, not too slow. In the shorter races a slow first mile can cost you as much as a fast one can in a long race.
6. I get in line for the portapotties and take care of that last pre-race pit-stop.
7. With 25-30 minutes before the start of the race I go for my warm-up. At a short race like a 5K, my warm-up may be as long as 2 easy miles in 16 minutes. At a longer race, it may be only an easy mile, 1/2 mile out, 1/2 mile back. Just enough to get the legs moving and blood flowing. It helps burn off a little nervous energy and calms me down.
Whenever possible I run the start of the race course in front of the corral. It lets me see the start to the race and plan my route to the first turn or series of turns. Where I can tangent, how I can shorten the course.
8. I take off my trainers and put on my race shoes. This is when I flip the switch mentally. I’m not here for fun and games. I’m not here to just get a finisher’s medal or take some pictures with friends. This is a race day. Time to go to work.
9. After I stow my gear wherever it is that I am going to do that – at a large marathon, I may have had to run my warm-up in my race shoes and stow my bag early, but now it’s time to get into chute. If I am wearing throw away sweats I will keep them on until 5 minutes before the gun. On a warm day, no worries, I tuck myself in with the other runners.
I never talk with them about training, how much they have been running, how many miles a week – all of that will just get in your head. Everyone is different. I trust my own training and preparation, there is no time for doubting all of that work and wondering if someone is more ready than you are.
10. After the star-spangled banner I crouch down and think about Dom. His initials are on my flats. I run my fingers over them and thank him for all of the gifts he has provided for me. The desire to train and race to the best of my ability and to never give up today no matter how hard it gets out there. I think about Dawn and Landry and seeing them after the race. I straighten up, fix my gaze straight ahead and make sure my watch is set to 00:00:00.
Boom goes the dynamite.
I’ve found that keeping this routine the same race after race, time after time has given me a much calmer approach to race morning. If you can find rituals that will help “take the edge off” of things prior to the starter’s gun, being your best becomes a function of training, strategy and desire.
Three things that you control completely.
Let fixating on the weather, the wrong shoes, a nagging injury, second guessing race strategy, wondering where the water stops are and all of the other distractions fall on your competitors. Let them talk about their PR’s and goals for the race, talking themselves into things that perhaps they are not ready for.
Trust your training.
Trust your preparation.
Trust your race plan.
Go out and execute.
On Saturday morning I get to race again. Can’t wait.