I once went the wrong way in a 5K and it cost me the win. I have seen cyclists on the run course at triathlons and more than one runner be audibly surprised by steep hills in the late miles of a half marathon. Every runner should know the race route and rules. Just because you’re not in the lead pack does not mean you can’t benefit from knowing the racecourse and rules.
Obviously if you register for a race that is known for brutal hills (Big Sur), steep descents (Hardrock 100), or pancake flat (Chicago) you know what you’re getting yourself into. Chances are the majority of the races you will participate in are not so obvious when it comes to the course terrain and, one woman’s “hilly” can be another’s “flat” based on region, fitness level and expectations.
Just recently I participated in the USA Triathlon National Championships in Omaha, NE. I felt like a rocket on the bike since the terrain in Omaha, in comparison to my mountainous home in the northeast, felt completely flat and fast. After the race, I overheard one of the other participants in my age group say, “Someone told me the bike course was flat! It was definitely not flat!” She was from Texas.
The Very Least
At the bare minimum you should look at a map of the course online. Hopefully they have a topography map and offer details like “rolling hills at miles 5-7” that can help you mentally plan for the course.
Even if you set time aside to visualize the course it can be helpful on race day. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Do I need to warm up? For how long?
Are there starting corrals? Where should I line up?
What does my pace look like in the early, mid and late miles?
Where are the hills?
Where are the descents?
What does the last mile look like?
Being mentally prepared for race day will calm your nerves, help you from starting out too fast and keep you from despair when your pace inevitably drops on the hills. The more you visualize yourself barreling down that last mile to finish, feeling strong and fast, the better your chances of making it a reality on the day of the event.
Having a good idea of the terrain you will cover on race day and maybe even having previously run part or all of the course will benefit you immensely.
After you have a good running base, you should begin specificity training for the course you will be racing on.
Here are some questions to ask and appropriate workouts to consider:
Is the overall course hilly? Do hill repeats 1-2 times per week.
Is the later part of the course hilly? Practice speed during the later miles of your long runs.
Are there hills in the middle of the distance? Practice on a route that mimics this to the best of your ability. No hills? Try these workouts.
If the course is accessible to you, drive it in your car and make note of landmarks like unique houses, businesses or parks to mark off mental miles like the halfway point, 5k mark and the last mile. Having these mental markers will benefit you tremendously on race day.
The more times I have run a racecourse, the better I am at figuring out exactly how to run it. This doesn’t mean I PR each time, but I finish feeling strong mentally and physically.
If you can, the biggest benefit will come from running the actual race course prior to race day. Obviously if it’s a marathon or longer distance you probably don’t want to run the entirety of it. Instead, pick a section you think will be particularly difficult for you to run either because of where it falls in the race (mile 20!), or because it’s the steepest part of the hills, etc. You may also just want to run the last 3-4 miles so you know when you’re really “almost there” and, your mind and body will know what to expect in the last miles before the finish line.
The Lead Pack Or Last Of The Mohicans
If you know you may be part of either the extreme front or back of the pack, you should be responsible for knowing the route. Not all races are well marked, well staffed or just well organized. Often times volunteers have no racing or running experience and will stare at you blankly if you ask for assistance. The last thing you want to have to do is figure out which way to go when you’re racing so be prepared and know the route.
Follow The Rules
In order to follow them, you need to know them. Consult the race website for a complete list and try to also follow some “unwritten” ones to keep the peace.
Headphones—Most races no longer allow them and for good reason…and one not so good one.
Strollers—Do we really have to tell you to line up in the back?
Dogs—Keep them on a leash please. Not everyone loves your dog as much as you do.
Selfies—If you must, avoid stopping abruptly and impeding other runners. Pull off to the edge of the course and have at it!
Groups—Please do not run in a line straight across the run course. Please.