Tuesday, May 16, 2017

12 Things I Learned From My Worst Race

I can say without hesitation that my worst race ever was my first Chicago Marathon. I ran that race in 2011 before I even had a blog. That first marathon was SO BAD that I was ashamed to even tell anyone that I ran it. I didn't feel like a real marathoner after I finished, even though I have the medal to prove that I crossed the finish line.

It took me 3 years to get up the courage to line up again and run the race I knew I had in me. I've run 3 marathons and 16 half marathons since, but I still draw on my experience from that particular race to drive me through my training and races. In addition, the mental toughness I've developed since then has helped me push through my current battle with RA, which is turning into one of those ultramarathons that won't quit throwing obstacles at me.

Since a lot of runners are gearing up to start training for fall marathons, I wanted to share some of the wisdom and experience I gained from that ill-fated marathon and my races since then. If you've been reading my posts for a while, some of what I have to say is familiar, but I've never put it all in one spot.

Yes, I felt as demented as I looked.
In the original recap, I shared a few things that I learned: I needed to learn how to fuel better, I needed to get a grip on my nerves, and that I had to train differently for future races. Now, 6 years later, I realize just how much more I learned from that day:

1. Set realistic goals. Don't let your ego sign a check your body can't cash. I had a goal of 4:30 for that first marathon, which I don't think was unrealistic based on my 3:18 20 mile run. But what I didn't account for: it was my first marathon and my nerves, which have always been a roadblock for me. Maybe I shouldn't have had a time goal at all. Instead, I saw my goal finish slip away early in the race and I couldn't get my head back in the game.

Nearly one hour after that 4:30 goal finish, I approach the finish line.
2. Always have a goal to have fun, no matter what the outcome. 12-20 weeks of training, down the drain in one day? Oh, hell no. If the race isn't going how you planned, then have fun with it. High five every kid along the course. Take pictures. Sing along with your music. Just don't quit on yourself. Soak in the experience. And have a beer at the finish line.

3. Nothing new on race day. This goes without saying. For that first marathon, I never did get my fueling figured out. Rookie mistake. When I started cramping at mile 14, my friend Sandy gave me salt capsules to take, which I had never done before. Someone gave me the advice to eat pretzels, but they turned to mush in my mouth and I couldn't swallow them. I should have tried all this stuff out before race day. I was so dehydrated that I didn't pee for about 8 hours after I finished. I still get nauseated just thinking about that!

Oh, the cramps! Sandy and me at mile 14.
4. The last long run is the dress rehearsal for your race. You should do everything on your long run that you plan on doing on race day, down to the outfit. Obviously, you can't control the weather, but you should try to mimic race day as much as possible. Oh, and by the way... There's nothing magical about 20 miles for a long run. I did 18 miles for my last 3 marathon long runs and I did just fine. Don't get hung up on numbers. Go for quality over quantity.

5. If you can afford it, hire a running coach who will design a custom training plan with you in mind. Although there are a lot of free marathon training plans on the web, no one plan fits everyone. While most plans follow a basic mileage building scenario, a custom training plan will take your abilities, your strengths, and your weaknesses and tweak the plan to fit you. You don't have to find a live coach. There are a lot of virtual running coaches. Ask your virtual running friends for recommendations. Or you could go rogue like I did and hire a CrossFit coach. Best thing I could have done.

That's my proud coach!
6. Trust the process. I say this over and over because my coach Becky says it to me repeatedly. Follow your plan. If you have to skip a run, don't make it up on another day. A missed run or 2 isn't going to blow your marathon. Just stick to the plan.

7. Don't cheat on the taper. Hear this: YOU COULD STOP RUNNING THE LAST 2-3 WEEKS BEFORE YOUR RACE AND DO JUST FINE. Yep, the taper totally messes with your head. You start questioning your fitness. Did you do enough? The answer is yes. You've got lots of fitness stored up. Let your body absorb it and prepare for the task ahead.

8. Don't discount the benefits of cross training. I could have used more cross training and less running for that first marathon. Instead, I picked a higher mileage plan than my body could handle and I paid the price for that with a stress fracture 6 weeks after the race. There are a lot of benefits to cycling and HIIT during marathon training. One less run per week means less pounding. Less is more for most of us recreational runners.


9. Go out slow. This is my downfall every time I race. You're going to be excited. When the gun goes off or your wave starts to run, hold back. Don't get sucked in with the masses. People told me not to listen to music during the Chicago Marathon but I did at the beginning, just to take myself out of the starting line chaos. I needed to focus inward, on the task ahead. Once the crowd thins out, it becomes so much easier to run your own race.

10. Work on mental toughness throughout your training. I cannot stress this enough. I am an incredibly high strung, type A kind of gal. At my first marathon, I completely fell apart at mile 18--I'll never forget my tearful phone call to my husband to come pick me up. Sheesh! Thankfully he told me to start walking. For my second marathon, I worked as hard on mental fitness as I did on physical fitness. My coach Becky knew this was an area I needed help in, and she kicked my butt in the CrossFit box. I didn't want to quit on those hard workouts and that translated into pushing myself hard on the road. I chose mantras that I could repeat to myself when the going got tough. In the 2015 Chicago Marathon, I struggled with a headache and difficulty breathing at mile 14. I could have quit but I didn't want to let myself down. So I figured out a way to finish with lots of positive self-talk and motivating music.

Becky gave me this rock to slip in my pocket. It has gone to every race I've run since.
11. Find a cheerleader to get you through your training. Find a friend to meet up with at the race. Find a tribe. Find someone! My friend Marcia boosted my confidence enough to push me to train for marathon #2. Everyone needs a Marcia in their lives. At my first marathon, I didn't know anyone who was running it. I walked around alone prior to the race and my anxiety was through the roof. The next time I ran Chicago, I was part of a team through work, and there were plenty of people to talk with, including one of my coworkers.

My girl Bonita and me!
12. Last: expect the unexpected. You can plan for everything and then something new happens. That's life. Certainly, if you have issues that might crop up--maybe you have asthma so carry an inhaler. I have GI issues, so I carry wipes and study the course map ahead of time so I know where the portapotties are. It was 80 degrees on the day of my first marathon, and even though I trained in the heat of the summer, I kept telling myself what a bad hot weather runner I was. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Don't do that to yourself. Roll with the punches.

source: theawkwardyeti.com
Of course, experience is the best teacher. The more races you do, the better you get at figuring out what you need to do. The key is to learn from your mistakes and your bad races. Don't take it all so seriously. Remember, we choose to do this. Running is a privilege. We get to do this. Make the most of it, even if the outcome isn't what you planned.

What have you learned from a bad race experience? Anything to add to my list?

I'm linking up with Marcia, Erika, and Patti for Tuesdays on the Run as well as Susie, Debbie, Rachel, and Lora for Coaches' Corner.



73 comments :

  1. Love and PREACH all of these. Your worst race teaches you so much. So we all need them, unfortunately. But it also teaches you resiliency!

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    1. I think I've learned more from that first marathon than any other race I've run!

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  2. Yay! Marcia Marcia Marcia! :p I was wondering in the first paragraph how what criteria you used to define that race as "bad" and then I saw your expectations. Yeah, now you know finishing is winning at those first races, especially hotties. Double yes to not taking it so seriously. The most important thing is you learned from it and let some serious awesome out at your next one. So much to be proud of!

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    1. My expectations were so high for that race. Ugh. Never again!

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  3. Oh man, so true about that taper!! I'm queen of feeling like a lazy slug and just thinking I should get just one hard workout in to feel better...or save me from getting out of shape.

    I should know this by now seeing has I spent my entire childhood tapering for swimming meets...and those tapers sometimes were 4 weeks long.

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    1. The taper is definitely the toughest--I don't think it's ever gotten easier for me! Especially that week prior to the race.

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  4. I have a hard time tapering. I think I never do enough during my training cycle so I try to make up for it the last few weeks. Knowing that is not the case, I have been trying to work on that in recent races, and I think it has paid off.

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    1. I have to remind myself not to try to make anything up during the taper because you can't! The work is done. When I crushed a half marathon 6 weeks after Chicago, I knew then that you do store fitness for quite a while!

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  5. All great points -- I'm usually well hydrated (but of course I've never done a full!) -- I can't even fathom not being able to pee that long. Scary!

    I do really believe that first races of any distance shouldn't have a time goal. Finishing = winning, after all!

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    1. It was scary! I didn't drink enough, for sure. I was a mess!

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  6. I think I might be the rare runner that loves taper time. I love having more time to rest :)

    I always believe that one goal should be to have fun! Granted I was disappointed with my first marathon finish time, but I finished smiling which was most important!

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    1. That's exactly my point. You can be disappointed in a race that doesn't meet your goals but never forget to have fun!

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  7. Excellent point about all those weeks of training for one day/race - yes, ENJOY IT (that note is to myself, LOL) because otherwise, why are we doing this crazy thing called running?

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    1. I really beat myself up over that point--that I didn't get to enjoy the experience. No, enjoyment and marathon running don't go hand in hand--but runners should at least enjoy the experience. I'm so glad I did it again to see what it was really supposed to be!

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  8. We need bad races to appreciate the good ones.

    I sign up for another before the race so I have another opportunity to redeem myself and don't dwell on the past one long.

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    1. I'll never have a race like that one--glad I got that over with!

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  9. I love the "Nothing new on race day" - at my last race I hadn't tested out my running tights and from the first km, I had to keep pulling them up. Thankfully it was a 10k and not a marathon otherwise I don't quite know what I would have done! Lol. And I am slowly learning about the having fun part - if all else fails, just aim to have fun. Thanks for sharing these lessons. Definitely taking them on board x

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    1. When I ran Door County a few weeks ago, I had on tights that I've worn a million times. For some reason, they kept falling down! It was so annoying and unexpected!

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  10. These are all fantastic. The mental toughness is the most important aspect for me. I've always said that marathoning is 90% mental and 10% physical. Sometimes it feels like an exaggeration and sometimes it feels spot on.

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    1. I really believe that. I ran Big Sur on almost no running and I ran that one faster than this first marathon. Of course, it was slow because, Big Sur. And we had fun!

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  11. Great tips! It's my experience the thing you never expected -- happens. JUST ROLL ON. Love me some James Taylor at the beginning of a race. It keeps me calm and slow. I can always push the pace later.

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    1. I should have credited you with that quote! It's so true and it's my new favorite mantra.

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  12. Personally, I think you're still being too hard on yourself. Having NEVER run a full marathon before you cannot possibly call this your worst race. Your worst race is one after you are experienced and know what to do and it falls apart anyway.

    A first race is a race you should have NO expectations of other than getting through it and learning a lot in the process.

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    1. That's why it was a bad race. I had big expectations for myself. But there's no denying that it was a bad race!

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  13. I think I have the "do more races" part down pat! I've been thinking more and more about doing another marathon.. I'd have to give up a lot of the half's that I do and I'd have to be very particular on which race to go for. I really bad wanna do another one with a decent time without injury.

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    1. I still think I have one more marathon in me. Maybe next year? Let's see where this RA journey takes me. Let me know what race you're thinking about!

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  14. I'm in taper right now, and it's hard to know what to schedule for a 10k race. My main goal is to get out and do at least 5k for each of my runs this week, then decide what to do next week.

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    1. I don't taper for a 10k, because 6 miles is kind of my usual run. I probably should tho, so I can go out fast on rested legs!

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  15. Blogging during training has really helped me. I can look back over previous race training and see that there were some really bad long runs but I finished the race. Even if no one else reads it, it helps to have more than just the numbers written down - I can see patterns, when my GI went crazy, how much cycling on "easy" days helped, etc.

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    1. I agree that blogging really helped me with my subsequent marathons. If nothing else, I didn't feel so alone.

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  16. All excellent points. I think one of the biggest things about races is that you have to roll with the punches. You can do everything right and still end up with something going wrong. You have to learn to not let it phase you and stay focused!

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    1. Exactly! And just have fun. No matter what!

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  17. This is pure wisdom right here!!

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  18. Great advice! I am lucky I survived my first half marathon when I had no clue what I was doing. At least it was a half. By the time I started running marathons I had a better understanding of how to race long distances.

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    1. I ran a couple of halfs prior to my marathon but the marathon is a beast! The distance really unraveled me.

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  19. Taper really is harder than it should be! It really messed up my mind before my marathon. I wish I could have enjoyed it more and really recovered.
    My worst race ever was a half I got sick at...I pushed so hard in the heat, I had to stop for about 6 minutes, I have run some extremely hot races since but i learned to slow down and luckily I have never been stuck behind a bush again.

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    1. I've never vomited at a race--I'm always impressed at runners who throw up and just get back at it!

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  20. I am all about learning from past mistakes. The slow start is the one I really needed to practice and have gotten better over time. Working on mental toughness is the most important one for me because it's expected in a race you will have to work through some challenging situations. And I think learning to overcome the tough parts is what makes me want to keep coming back to setting high race expectations.

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    1. The mental toughness piece is the the most important--once you tackle that, everything else will fall into place.

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  21. This is a great, great post. ESPECIALLY #2. I'm pretty sure that's what saved me at Marine Corps last year. Fingers crossed for a better marathon for me this year.

    Also, I was gunning for a 4:30 finish for my first, too. Can we say 6:00? Not my proudest moment. At all.

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    1. Oh, you get me! How did you move on from that finish?

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    2. Because I was determined not to let 6 hours be my marathon time... and I'm still working on it! Damn IT bands...

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  22. trusting the process and getting rid of negative thinking have really turned things around for me lately. These are all so true!

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    1. That negative thinking really works against us!

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  23. ahhh I am SO SO SO GLAD people like you saved me from the NEW ON RACE DAY choices.
    Who knew Id be so tempted???

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    1. Heck, I just went against my own advice at my last race, wearing a new top! Oops...

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  24. OMG YES to all of these! I barely squeaked in under 4 hours for my first marathon and I grossly underestimated how I would feel in those last 6 miles or so! I was also wearing a cotton sports bra (hello chaffing for weeks!) barely ate anything, didn't hydrate properly and it was pouring, driving rain for the duration. I still cannot believe I went on to run 6 more! So much great advice here for newbies and experienced runners alike!!

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    1. I learn something new from every race I run, but the first race was the biggest eye opener for me!

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  25. It took me 5 marathons to get all the kinks worked out! Between my nausea problems (in my 3rd marathon they started at the halfway point. I kept trying to make myself throw up because I thought that would make me feel better.) and my exercise induced asthma, it's amazing that I stuck with it as long as I did.

    Great advice!

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    1. I get that nausea mid-race too! What did you figure out about that?

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  26. Such good tips!!! I had an unrealistic time goal too-- so I totally get that!

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    1. It's so easy to tell other runners not to have a time goal, but it's tough to put that advice into practice!

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  27. Yes!! I love these! While I had a time goal for my first full, I totally advise people to just focus on finishing well - fulls are a totally different beast compared to a half.

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    1. It's funny that people just don't get that! When runners tell you to "respect the distance", you need to listen!

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  28. These are wonderful pieces of advice! I'm contemplating doing a full, and I definitely am glad I read these.

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    1. You'll have to let me know when you decide to go for it!

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  29. I really enjoyed reading this! Especially the part about not letting your training go down the tubes on race day - if it's not your day, just embrace it and those kids better be ready for all my high-fives! LOL!

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    1. You just have to make it a party, no matter what!

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  30. This is fabulous advice!

    It can be really hard to come to terms with the knowledge that one day might not be your day. But overcoming that and using that "bad" race to find a positive is a skill every runner should have. We're not always going to PR or crush our goals. We are human and it happens. It's what we do with that that matters most.

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    1. After all that training, it can be really soul-crushing to have a bad race. Trust me when I say that I was so depressed after that race. Bad races happen but it's how you handle them that really counts!

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  31. YES to everything! You can train like a beast, and still be blind-sided as the race day unfolds. You never know what's gonna happen until you're in the middle of it. Like you said, you gotta roll with the punches (and, if possible, laugh about it). ;-)

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    1. The key is never to take yourself too seriously! We aren't doing this for a living, right?

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  32. Great post to share and when we all take the time to sit back and reflect and not just run off to do the next race I am sure we could learn a lot! I need to use my taper time more wisely and get myself mentally ready for the course. We all know I like to have a good time so I think I have that part nailed! LOL!

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    1. I think being able to have a good time is an excellent skill!!

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  33. Great lessons for runners at all levels! My downfall has always been fueling during the race. I simply run out of steam. I'm slowly correcting that with each new race!

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    1. I always had that issue, but fueling with Tailwind really helped me bypass the wall.

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  34. My first and only marathon had a lot of ups and downs. I was super calm when I was at the starting line even though I was undertrained and battling a knee injury. The only reason I crossed that finish line in Nashville was because of my strong mental toughness. When I was at the start, I pictured the finish. I also wrote prayer miles and prayed for one person at each mile. This helped me focus on others instead of myself. Fuel is still a struggle. I can't seem to find what works best. It would be fun to all meet up at the Chicago Marathon one year or the RNR. Isn't that one in the summer? My kids would be out of school!

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    1. Marcia and I are doing RnR Chicago in July--it's hot but it's a fun time of year to visit the city!

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  35. Awesome post Wendy!! I learn something every time i run a race. Your experience wsn't great but you learned from it and that is what is important. My advice for first timers is not to have a goal but to finish and enjoy it. My first marathon was amazing. I had some stomach issues and battled wind, but I enjoyed it, had fun and actually never even hit the wall. All my training had come together. And then my second I hit the wall hard and if it wasn;t for my mental toughness I would have quit at mile 20.

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    1. That first marathon was so tough for me. The one key piece I didn't have in place was a mental strategy. I continue to work on that to this day. But I am such a different runner now than I was back then.

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  36. These are GREAT tips! I love #2, 5, 8, and 11. My first marathon was so long ago but I do remember wearing new shoes (about 1 month) and my feet were hurting a lot around mile 15. I started crying and wanted to quit. Luckily, two friends that I had trained with that summer pushed and encouraged me to keep running and finish.

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    1. You would think after one month, your shoes would be broken in! My feet hurt really badly in that first marathon. I think it's just something that happens.

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