Humblebrag time: I’m good at distance running.
Not in the same way some people are good at tennis or basketball, I’m good at distance running the way some people are good at small talk or wearing high-waisted shorts. My body, which is useless when it comes to most sports, is highly efficient at covering long distances at a moderate pace.
Emphasis on moderate because I have never, and probably will never, win a race.
And I’m fine with that. I’ve run every distance from 5K to marathon and signing up for a race has never been about winning.
Signing up for a race teaches you more about life and yourself than any other athletic endeavor can. And if you’ve ever thought about taking the plunge yourself, here’s everything you need to know for when you do:
Over the years, I've met countless people who confided in me that they just didn’t really get into the whole training thing, but they’d already paid for the race, so they thought they may as well try it.
This is like signing up for medical school and then dropping out because why all the reading? You just want to perform surgery on people!
Nothing can screw up training like an injury.
It turns out that proper stretching, shoe replacement, and meticulously timed rest days were no match for my dog's enthusiasm for chasing squirrels and tripping me. He darted under my legs, and I lunged out of the way. Pain shot up my heel. This wasn't good. I'll let his guilty face speak for itself.
I went to my orthopedist, a sports injury–focused physician, and he suggested I take a few weeks off running and apply the good ol' RICE method (Rest Ice Compression Elevation).
"But what about my race?" I whined, mentally pleading with him to assure me everything would be fine.
He instead shrugged and said, “Listen to your body. If you feel like you can, then do it.”
I ended up missing about three weeks of runs. I knew from experience this could make for a pretty miserable race, and I had to make a tough decision.
Not wanting to drop out entirely, I emailed the race organizers, pleading with them to let me drop down to a lesser distance. I braced myself for their response and began to wonder if there were other races in the area that weekend I could sign up for at the last minute.
They responded almost immediately:
“Do whatever distance you can and just have fun.”
A sentiment I’m thinking about embroidering on a pillow.
I enrolled in the 10K distance, and it was NBD. Other races have a more strict policy due to capacity limits, but it never hurts to communicate with race officials. More often than not, they'll do everything they can to make sure you have a good race.
It was spring in New York a few years ago.
I had just completed a three-month training program in preparation for my third marathon in New Jersey. In an effort to save money, I opted not to book a hotel room but instead planned on taking the 5 a.m. train from Penn Station. I set a bunch of alarms, readied my coffeemaker, laid out my race outfit, and went to bed at 9 p.m.
At 4 a.m. when my alarm went off, I had a conversation with myself that went like this: “We’re not really going to do this, are we? We could just run 26 miles around Central Park,” and I proceeded to shut off my alarm and go back to sleep.
I still don't regret this decision.
That is to say, if your race is more than an hour away, and you can afford it, book a hotel the night before.
On top of being more convenient to the race start, the benefits of staying at a hotel are endless. All your stuff is already together, so there's no mad dash to find things, you get a chance to explore the area you're visiting, and there's room service!
My night-before-the-race ritual goes like this:
I lay out all of my items (and sometimes pose them into a runner shape for fun). If I already have my race bib, I'll pin it to my shirt because maneuvering safety pins is beyond my ability at early hours. Then I'll notice one thing is missing, usually my headphones or favorite socks, and I'll tear apart the room until I realize they were under my stuff the whole time.
I always have coffee at the ready.
There are many schools of thought on race-day ritual, and I'm of the "don't try new things" mentality. For shorter distances, a new pair of shorts or shoes and an exotic breakfast choice is less risky, but anything longer than a 15K you're asking for trouble. I'm a fan of doing a dress rehearsal run a few weeks out where I try to create my race scenario as close as possible. And when in doubt, chafe cream is your friend. (Men, nipple tape is your best friend.)
You know all that pesky correspondence the race organizers keep sending you?
It turns out you need those. For years, I'd trash these emails without reading them, assuming I'd arrive at the race and intuitively know where everything was.
This is a terrible idea.
Because marathons take so much longer to run, they have the earliest start time, with shorter races starting up to an hour later. I have shown up for half marathons a solid hour and a half early in the past because I didn't properly read the race email.
So stop right now and repeat to yourself: I. Will. Read. The. Race. Emails.
One winter morning in NYC, I found myself finishing a race with icicles hanging from my eyelashes.
The morning had started pleasantly enough but had deteriorated by the time I arrived at the race start after a $20 cab ride. Race organizers stood by the start line informing people the race had been downgraded to a “fun run” due to the weather.
"Everyone is still welcome to participate!" the volunteers told us. The underlying sentiment being "no refunds will be given,and run at your own risk."
I approached one of the organizers. “You’re telling us this now, 10 minutes before the race?”
“We sent an email,” they replied.
I moved to Southern California a few years ago, and the constant sunshine has lulled me into a state of lazy optimism...which is why at a recent race, I was very surprised when it started to rain at the start line. Everyone else around me seemed to be prepared, pulling out full-size running ponchos and plastic bags for their phones. I stood there dressed for 70 degrees.
I looked at my fiancé, the rain beginning to soak his shirt. "You don't have to stand outside and wait for me."
He rested his hand on my shoulder, nodded, and went back to the hotel. What a jerk.
During a half marathon not long ago, I found myself spending the first six miles or so being chased by a banana.
The man in the banana costume had been accompanied by a friend in a complementary gorilla outfit, but the gorilla had fallen behind, and now the banana was gaining on me. I would speed up and push it for a while, but the banana would always be there bobbing along in my periphery.
“I will not be passed by a banana costume,” I fumed.
This oblivious banana and I played a game of cat and mouse for a few more miles, me sprinting ahead, and then as soon as I’d slow to catch my breath, he’d infuriatingly come loping up behind me.
At this point, I had burned most of my energy and was barely halfway through the race. I hadn’t stopped at any aid stations along the way because I had become so focused on defeating this man in a banana costume.
My legs began to feel leaden.
I saw an aid station in the distance, and my mouth started watering. Stopping would almost ensure that the banana would overtake me, and I would most likely never recover the distance.
I turned and got a good look at him. He was smiling and waving at the crowds. This banana had no idea I was trying to beat him. He was just enjoying the race.
I slowed at the aid station. As I sipped my water, I watched the top of his costume get swallowed by the distance. In addition to water and gels, the station had a barrel of bananas, something I always thought was weird, but this time I took one, unpeeled it, and bit the top off. Then I continued with my race.
Here are some of the ways that I have entertained myself during races:
1) Try to remember plots to entire episodes of TV shows.
2) High-five as many spectators as I can in one minute, then try to beat that record the next minute.
3) Chat up other racers.
4) Listen to the end of an audiobook that I've been saving especially for the race.
5) Fake-race a guy in a banana costume.
It's easy just to throw on music when racing, and believe me, I've definitely listened to my fair share, but once in a while remove your earbuds and take in the sounds and energy of the crowds and other racers. Sometimes this alone can carry you for miles.
At some point in every race I've ever run, my brain will decide the race is just a cruel trick and that it in fact has no end. This is often referred to as "the wall," and if you're picturing a giant icy cliff overlooked by the Watch, that is a fair analogy.
During multiple marathons, I've called my boyfriend around mile 18 and begged him to come get me.
"How can I come get you? The streets are all closed down," he'd reason.
I'd realize that walking back would be the equivalent of just finishing the marathon, so I would continue on, eventually finishing the race just fine.
Even during shorter races, I have that moment of hopelessness — at my recent 10K, I became convinced I had missed the turnaround and had just kept running into oblivion.
And then suddenly there was the turnaround.
Wow, I thought, already? That wasn't so bad.
At some point during every race, I'll decide this is my last.
I don't have time for this, I'll think. I've done enough. But then I'll come into the home stretch, the spectators' encouraging faces cheering me on, the announcer reading my name over the speakers. I'll think about how awesome our bodies are that they can carry us these distances and about all these other racers experiencing the same emotion.
I'll cross the finish line, my pace slowing to a walk.
A race volunteer will hand me a medal and congratulate me. I'll pose for a picture and at my favorite races claim my complimentary post-race beer. And I'll begin to wonder where I should race next.