If you have been into running for a while, or if you have run a few marathons, chances are you have taken a look at some races you would have to travel for. Many runners have run races in cities that they are unfamiliar with. It can have its own set of challenges.
It’s true that 26.2 miles is the same distance in Boston as it is in your hometown. However, if you expect to have the same experience running the Boston Marathon as you did in your local marathon, prepare to be surprised. Here are 5 tips that will help you prepare for a race in a new city.
If you are running your first ever out-of-town race, I would suggest a city you have been to before and feel somewhat comfortable and familiar with. A city you have spent some time running in is even better. Most importantly, make it a city you enjoy. The reason for this is because your whole view of the city will be skewed by your race. If you have a super painful race and things don’t go well. You are going to have a negative association with that entire city. By the inverse logic, a city you have been to before, are comfortable with, enjoy, and have enjoyed running in before is more likely to yield a good race result because of the positivity associated with that city.
The even more obvious reason to pick a city you are familiar with is to manage stress levels. If you are traveling out of town to race for the first time, you are inevitably going to be stressed. A brand new city that you are unfamiliar with will most definitely add to those stress levels.
Most runners figure out their nutritional needs long in advance of a race. If you are about to opt to travel for your first race of any distance, chances are, you have run a race of that distance before. If that is the case, chances are you know what kind of food you will need the night before and day of the race. I would highly recommend finding a place where you can get that type of food in your race city in advance. If you like a good steak the night before a race, find the nearest steakhouse to your hotel, if you need pasta, find the nearest Italian food.
Personally, I love to eat local when I visit a new city, but before a race is generally not a great time to experiment. While a chain restaurant might be a little boring, it provides, continuity and reliability. You want as much of these things as possible leading up to a race in a new city. My rule is; eat familiar before a race, eat local after.
If you are travelling for a race, it is probably a more popular race than your local race at the same distance. Generally the reason people travel for a race is to try and run a PR, experience a different location, or run a more popular race.
If you are travelling for a larger, more popular race, there are probably a lot more people than there are at your local race. This may not be the case for you if you are from Chicago, New York, Boston or another city with a major marathon or other large race. However, the higher likelihood is that you are travelling to these large races. Know how crowded the race will be. Look at how many finishers there are and compare that to your previous race experience. Look into the previous years’ results and see how many people finished around your expected finish time. If 20 people finished within seconds of when you hope to finish. Chances are, it’s going to be crowded out there.
A crowd can change the game. It is more of a mental change than physical, but it is a change nonetheless. On one hand, having a lot of people can push you to faster times. On the other hand, many people who run the Boston Marathon lament that they are not able to take a full step for the first half of the race.
The main point of knowing how crowded the race will be is mental preparation. You want to know how crowded it will be, how many footsteps you will be hearing, and how much labored breathing will be around you. This will likely be in contrast to your isolated training. You want to know what is coming and be ready for it.
If you are doing a race you haven’t done in the past. I would highly recommend getting to know the course. If you are doing a shorter race like a 5k or 10k, I would run the course or as much of it as possible prior to the race. You don’t have to run it hard at all, it can be nice and easy, but this will give you the best possible simulation you can get before the race itself.
If the race is longer like a half-marathon or marathon, I would recommend running a key section of the race. I cannot necessarily say what a key section will be. This is up to you and it depends on your race plan, but get as familiar as possible with as much of the course as possible. For the sections you don’t run, try and drive as much of the course as possible.
Sometimes logistics make travelling the course impossible. Delayed travel, lodging arrangements, or road closures can stand in the way of course exploration. In these situations, study the course map and the elevation profile. Google maps is also a good tool in these situations to help you get a visual of what things will actually look like when you are out there.
You get better at running by training. However, more than just getting better at running, you get better at running routes. So, that 8 mile tempo run you do every other week to get fit for your marathon does make you more fit. However, it also makes you better at running that particular tempo run course. You get familiar with the intricacies of it.
You will not have this luxury in a city you are unfamiliar with and a race you are doing for the first time. That is why I recommend a conservative start. That doesn’t mean that you need to go out slowly, just conservatively. I would recommend starting about 10-15 percent slower than your goal pace for the first 25-35 percent of the race. You can make up the time in the last 25-35 percent of the race, as you will likely be feeling good from your conservative start.
Most importantly don’t get stressed because of your conservative start or the crowds, or any other unfamiliarity. Don’t start to jones for that next mile marker. If you find yourself indulging thoughts along these lines, you can easily distract yourself. Remind yourself that you are running in a brand new place. Look around, take in the scenery, build curiosity about what is around the next turn. Have fun, you are there to enjoy yourself, so don’t forget to do that.