On Sunday*, I ran the Berkeley Half Marathon. I'm excited to report and break down how the race went, because I think there is a great deal to be learned both for myself and for any runner who plans on racing now or in the future.
So to start, I won't keep you in suspense. As far as I'm concerned, the race went pretty well. The time was the slowest I've ever run a half marathon in (1:19:03), but I accomplished what I set out to. I can't emphasize this enough: we are the ones who define our own success. And that success is defined by proper goal setting. I set out my initial goals three months ago and adjusted them based on my training over the last few weeks as the race got closer.
My success was defined by what I wanted this race to be about and my own honest assessment of my fitness level. Foundationally, this race was simply to remember what it was like to race, because its been over four years since the last one. I also recognized that I didn't really know how fit I was, but that it was definitely below the level required to race at the more elite level implied by my initial goal times of 1:09 to 1:14. 1:09 was actually the winning time, interestingly, and 1:14 was tenth place as it turned out.
As such, I decided to remove as a goal any particular time. Instead, I chose to make sure that I made it my best effort, whatever that resulted in. That's something I'm actually quire proud of, because I have tended to be a goal raiser in the past and had difficulty setting realistic goals. And when goals are not realistic, they set you up not only for failure but for a terrible race experience. The frustration and upsetting feelings of falling far short of a goal can make races very unenjoyable. I've done this many times in the past, and yet it can all be prevented simply by setting realistic goals.
Related to that was the application of the wisdom of sports psychology for racing. I remembered that it had been so long since I last raced that I was a bit surprised by how incredibly difficult it can be. I monitored my thoughts and emotions carefully and made sure to stay focused on doing my best rather than on what was going wrong, or giving up, or any other number of possibilities.
I did this a number of ways. I focused on aspects of running technique- staying tall, relaxed, different meditations that help me run faster and easier. I made certain thoughts repetitive- throughout the second half I would periodically tell myself, 'With each mile I get stronger'. I'd pick people to catch up to. I'd stay with people catching up to me rather than let them pass me.
I helped other people race better (that wasn't to help me but in retrospect it did and that's now a new strategy I'll use) including helping the second place woman pass the first place woman at one point. I pictured my partner and friends waiting for me at the finish line, those few who were willing to wake up early just to see me run. The final mile simplified down to a mantra in my head, repeated to the exclusion of all other thoughts: “With each step I get stronger.” That mantra allowed me to pass several people in the final mile and to finish strong.
Three mishaps did happen, which is why a visualization or race plan must include practicing how one responds to the unexpected. First, I got to the start line so late that the gun went off before I was fully at the start line! Rather than get upset, I just calmly ran after the front runners despite the minute long handicap I faced. With my current hindsight I've realized that next time I won't race after them but instead just run my own race, but the emotional calm was still important. Racing after them did unfortunately exhaust me in the first few miles, which made the following ten miles that much harder.
But here it is important to remember how helpful clear goals are. My primary goal was simply to remember how to race. So rather than being something I'm upset about, I can now remember to not do that next time. And I'm happy I learned that and other racing lessons in a tune up race rather than in one that I will want a specific faster time on. Here again, the goal of the race as an opportunity to remember how to race turns that mishap into in fact meeting my goal rather than a negative.
The second mishap was I intended to use my GPS watch to track my mile splits and help with race analysis afterwards, as well as use it to help pace myself during the race. Unfortunately, the battery died nearly immediately so that never happened. So I chose to simply run, because there was no other option. Soon enough the idea that I even had a GPS watch was forgotten.
The third mishap was a huge side cramp about 7 miles in. Its been years since I experienced this myself, so now my advice to runners can be updated a bit. Side aches may seem permanent and debilitating, but they end! Especially if you are able to breath into them at all and continue to have the best posture and running technique you can. While there was an uncomfortable five minutes in there, the side ache wasn't a huge deal. Side aches will probably be a whole other article, so I will let you all wait until that one to say other ways to deal with it and its various causes.
Finally, it's important to remember to warm down after a race. Warm downs after longer races in particular vary based on how you feel. If you are able to jog slowly for five to ten minutes and then stretch for fifteen or twenty minutes, that's best.
However, you may not be able to run or stretch following a race due to exhausted or cramping muscles. This is what happened to me, actually, and the response to this is a bit different. Make sure to walk at least twenty minutes after the race while rehydrating, and see if you can walk a fair amount throughout the day. And then if there comes a point later in the day where you can stretch, do so. It will be worth it if you can!
Alright, I hope you enjoyed reading this and got something out of it for yourself as well!
* (originally published 11/2016)
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