The outcome of a race is often decided before the gun even goes off, as the physical and mental preparation required to successfully perform in a race has a huge effect on a runner’s ability to “put-out” and do well. However, when it is a new season, your knowledge on preparation for racing can be a bit rusty - maybe because you haven’t done it for several months, or maybe you’re brand new to competitive racing. This can be especially true for the mental side of race-preparation. Everyone (hopefully) understands that stretching out, hydrating (even if you’re in school the day of a race), sleeping well, and other physical tasks are necessary to do well in a race. However, the mental preparation for a race is much more difficult to fully wrap your head around. How much should I be thinking about the race? How emotional should I be about it on the bus ride over? How about a week before? Should I be trying to hype myself up or stay mellow? Learning the answers to these questions is a painful process, and if you ever feel like you’ve fully “figured out” racing, you are probably a few races away from one that punches you in the gut and makes you question your philosophy on preparation and racing. So, how would I best advise you to prepare for a race?
There are two core items that you must understand going into a race: what you need to do, and what is about to happen to you. Knowing what you need to do is simple: what’s the race strategy? Do you need to come through the first mile between in 6:20? Do you need to stick with a specific person and beat him at all costs? Do you need to run a challenging first half mile then dial it back? What task do you need to accomplish? A lot of this is up to Winters, but making sure that you understand exactly what he wants you to do is important. A related piece of advice: set concrete goals. Saying “I want to run fast,” is not the same as, “I want to come through the first mile in 6:20.” Saying, “I want to try as hard as I can,” is not the same as, “I want to run a reserved first two miles, and then go ballistic the last 1.1.” Make sure that your goals are material and real rather than unclear so you actually know whether you are doing them correctly.
Now that you understand what you need to do during the race, you need to understand what is going to happen to you during the race. It is going to hurt a lot. In case you missed it: it is going to hurt a lot. If you are not prepared to be crossing the line totally exhausted barely able to feel your legs or control your breathing, you are not as ready as you need to be, as that brutal experience is what it may come down to for you to achieve your task. I use the word “brutal” intentionally, as racing is a brutal experience. I have come to view competitive racing as a combat sport, maybe not of the punch and kick kind of combat, but of mental combat. You need to be willing to go step-for-step, mile-for-mile with someone until they can’t take the pain that your effort and running is making them feel. Imagine you were in a foxhole with an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat, where only one of you walks away alive. In that situation, you need to be willing to be vicious. You need to be willing to be savage. You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to beat your enemy and live on another day. I’m not saying that you should view racing as a military encounter, but what I am saying is that in the same way you need to be willing to not stop fighting when the enemy punches you in the face, or stabs you, or bites you, you need to not stop racing at a high effort level when you start to feel sore, or when another racer makes a move to try to pass you. I’m also not saying that every race will be a hellish, primal experience. What I am saying is that you are not fully ready to race unless you are prepared to face anything that gets thrown at you. No matter what, you need to keep executing your task.
How could you possibly prepare for a race mentally knowing just how brutal it has the potential to be? How do I think about a race in a productive way? Quite frankly, I’m still working on finding the answer to that question, because I’m not sure myself. I think that figuring out how to think about racing is a career-long process. However, I do have a few pieces of advice: