“Five minutes until the start!” yells the official donning his MHSAA cap, red polo shirt, yellow arm band, khaki shorts, with his starting gun in hand.
My team groups up one last time before the race starts. I usually don’t say anything earth-shattering at this point. They’ve done the work. They know what to do. I just want them to have confidence in themselves, their training, and their race strategy we’ve discussed ahead of time. I put my hand in the middle of the circle, and I say calmly to the guys, “Run smart. Run tough.” They nod, and put their hands in the middle. We proclaim in unison, “CHEIFS!”
I never, EVER tell the boys, “Good luck!” before a race. I tell them to RUN SMART and RUN TOUGH. Telling them, “Good luck!” sounds like they only have hope and a dream for the race to go well. This is not the case. With the proper training and mindset, the race is about being smart and tough, not lucky.
Breaking down the race into smaller segments empowers my runners. You can use the following tips, no matter the race distance. The 5k is easy to break down into 3 parts, 1 mile per part. My team follows these guidelines, and I use these tips for my own races as well.
Part 1 (Mile 1 in a 5k) RUN SMART.
Go out at your goal pace. Not too fast, not too slow. Keep your composure, and don’t let your ego get the best of you. Run what I like to call a comfortable hard. If you feel like you are overexerting yourself at this point, you are going too fast. Be smart. Remember that everyone feels fresh and like a champ at the beginning of the race. Keep good running form and stay smooth. For more serious athletes, the pack of competitors that you should be racing need to be in sight. You don’t need to be beating them at this point, but they need to be within striking distance, especially on a trail course with many twists and turns. They may have gone out to fast, so you need to be the one who runs smart and stays in control. Keep your eyes up.
Part 2 (Mile 2 in a 5k) RUN TOUGH.
After the first mile in a 5k, the field usually slows down. Make a point to start passing people. Lengthen your stride a bit and race. Kevin Hanson, my high school cross country coach, used to often yell during the middle mile, “Always passing! Always passing!” Remember, if you aren’t passing people, you are slowing down. Focusing on racing will keep you engaged and help you keep your pace. If you run along with the herd, you will slow down with everyone else. NEVER tell yourself that you are going to wait for the third mile to pass. The field typically spreads out later in the race, so there won’t be as many people to pass, and you won’t be as fresh. If you are one of the top dogs near the front, this is the place to start testing your competition in the front pack. Never let anyone else pass you without a fight. Quite often they will back off if you pick it up when someone tries to pass you.
Part 3 (Mile 3 in a 5k) CONTINUE TO RUN TOUGH.
When you hit the mark for the final mile, lengthen your stride again. As you fatigue, your strides tend to shorten up, so it helps to do this. Lengthening your stride will allow you to use your muscles slightly differently and will freshen you up for a bit. Continue to focus on passing the next few people ahead of you, although the field will probably be more spread out at this point. Know that it is normal to feel discomfort. Everyone feels this. Many runners forget that everyone is feeling the pain. What you need to do is focus on NOT showing it. Don’t wince, don’t groan, don’t let your arms flail, and don’t disengage from the race. Focus on good arm carry. Don’t let your arms come up too high or cross your body. Find a saying that inspires you, and recite it over and over again in your head. I always tell myself, “You run because you can.” I also remind myself how hard I trained. Don’t wait too late to kick. You don’t want to have any gas left in the tank when you finish.
If you are new to racing, remember racing takes practice. It takes time to learn how to pace properly and run smart. It takes even more experience to figure out how to run tough in the middle and final segments of the race. Breaking the race down into smaller pieces makes the race less daunting and enables you to attack each portion of the race with confidence. Even if you don’t get your desired results right away, you can celebrate the portions of the race that you DID execute properly, and you can set specific race goals for the next time.
Keep reminding yourself: your race success is not dependent on luck. You are in control of your race if you RUN TOUGH and RUN SMART. Most runners have the intention of running the perfect race as they approach the starting line, as you probably do. Next time you race, don’t change your mind while you’re out there.