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Race Day Tips: The Ol’ Watering Hole

They say practice makes perfect, and in most cases, that’s true. Practicing your instrument makes you a better musician. Practicing your second language makes you a better world traveler. Practicing martini-fueled karaoke with your best friend on a Sunday night makes you a better Anchor Brewery tour guest the following morning.

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(Just kidding. We felt terrible.)

Sure, there’s talk of beginner’s luck and of first times being charms, but in nearly every situation, you actually get better with practice.

Which is why, after 56 timed running events, I feel like I know a thing or two about race days. For those of you just starting out on the running circuit, I wanted to share with you my tips for getting from the starting line to the finish line with a smile on your face. I’ve gathered these over the years from magazines and books and word of mouth, plus the good old fashioned way — making terrible mistakes and vowing never to make them again. This advice may not work for everyone, but here are the things I wish I’d known when I first started out.

This may or may not become a recurring feature, depending on 1. If I keep racing and 2. If I ever get a dog myself and this running blog quickly transforms into an adorable photo blog, a la Ali on the Run, my internet spirit animal. Assuming I do this again, I’ll just focus on one element of the race day in today’s post: the water stops.

Without further ado, my unsolicited advice on drinking on the go:

  • Water stops can get very crowded and slow you down. As you approach, scan several yards forward to see how long the table is. At many races, runners bunch up at the start of the water stop, leaving the second half of the table free and clear. In the NYC marathon, these stations can go on for the better part of a city block, so bide your time. The patient runner gets the drink without slowing down.
  • Another tip for smooth sailing at the refreshment stand — make eye contact with a volunteer handing out cups and (as rude as my fiancé will say this is) point at them (and smile at them) as you approach. They’ll know you’re coming straight to them, and the beverage handoff will be oh-so-much smoother.
  • On that note, thank the volunteers as you power through. This step is non-negotiable.
  • Plan to drink something at every stop, even if you don’t yet feel thirsty. The race gurus have positioned these water stops in the right increments; trust them. Alternate water and Gatorade at every other stop if they have it. The exception to the must-stop rule: if you only have a mile left to go, feel free to skip the final stop and really drop the hammer speedwise. The exception to that exception: if it’s a heatwave.
  • On particularly cold days, watch for fresh ice in front of the water stations. These are the days to slow down and walk, or risk a bruised tailbone.
  • Practice drinking water on the move out of a paper cup before the big day. I used to have to walk through all water stops because I always coughed when the water went down the wrong tube, but then my friend Leigh-Ann taught me a useful trick: pinch the paper water cup in half at the top, bring it to the side of your mouth, tilt the cup up and use one half almost like a straw. I realize this sounds crazy until you try it, but I can now run through a water stop and imbibe without spilling or choking. Win win.
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Like this, except with a water cup on a race course and not a coffee cup at work.

What are your tips for getting through a water stop on race day unscathed? Seasoned pros, share your tips!

Categories
Races Running

Exorcising (Exercising?) My Demons

I’ve reached an age* where nearly everything can make me cry.

*Just kidding, I’ve always been like this.

Seriously though, it doesn’t matter whether the event is big or small, happy or sad. Practically any wave of emotion will turn on the waterworks, and the variety of experiences that can set me off is downright embarrassing. Saying goodbye to my brother and sister-in-law as they left for their deployment. Dropping my sandwich. Asking my best friends to be bridesmaids. That sappy Christmas commercial where a man ties an engagement ring to a puppy’s collar. Finishing a good book. The final scene of While You Were Sleeping. Every dog I’ve ever met that I can’t keep.

Aloha.
Aloha.

In November, I experienced something new that could bring me to tears: an utterly disappointing performance at the New York City Marathon. I crossed that finish line on Nov. 1 in involuntary sobs after missing my goal time by more than 25 minutes, and vowed right then and there to never put myself in that situation again. I was never again going to put so much weight on the outcome of a single event that it left me shattered. I was never again going to let my emotions get the best of me on the race course. I was never again going to have a run leave me crying at the finish line.

Me. Crying. But also smiling. It's like when it rains and the sun's out.
Me crying post-marathon. (But also smiling. It’s like when it rains and the sun’s out.)

Turns out, that was a promise I couldn’t keep. Today, I ran the NYC Half Marathon – my first race since that god-forsaken marathon – and as I crossed the finish line, my face contorted into uncontrollable sobs once more. But this time it wasn’t due to disappointment.

It was because I FREAKING KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK.

HEAT-SHEETED LIKE A CHAMPION!
HEAT-SHEETED LIKE A CHAMPION!

That’s right, folks: today, I shaved almost 2 minutes off my half marathon PR, felt strong all race long, smiled ear to ear for 13.1 miles straight and, most importantly, finally feel like the ghost of my 26.2 mile slog in November is behind me.

Why was it such a good race, freezing cold (but not snowy!) start and all? Lots of reasons: the first 6 miles were in my home park, so I knew exactly how to tackle those hills; miles 7-8 took us through the closed-down streets of Times Square, a neighborhood I’d never visit willingly but is pretty great when you’re barreling through it; miles 9-13 were straight down the wide, flat West Side Highway with a welcome tailwind at our backs, and, most importantly, I knew the sooner I finished, the sooner I could head home and warm up.

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And drink all the liquids my lovely fiance left for me. Swoon.

But above all, the best part of the day was approaching mile 11, doing the math, and realizing I could beat my previous PR of 1:49.12 if I could just maintain pace for two more miles without losing steam. During the last two miles of November’s marathon, I could hardly lift my legs, but today, maintaining didn’t seem so challenging. In fact, I felt so good, I actually picked up the pace.

Those last two miles of today’s race, I found myself getting faster and faster, with more fuel left in the tank than I’d ever expected. As I tore through the Battery Park Underpass, took the final corners and sprinted my way toward the finish line, I knew I made the right decision not throwing in the racing towel after the marathon like I was tempted to. I was reminded just how great a great race feels, and that’s a feeling I didn’t know if I’d ever feel again. And that level of emotion, well, brought tears to my eyes.

Thank you, New York City Half – I feel redeemed.

How did your race go?

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Races Running

The Game Plan

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they said the one word that makes God laugh is “plans.”

(I think we can all agree the word “fjord” is also pretty funny — that is, unless you’re on the receiving end of it in a high-stakes Scrabble match. But I digress.)

I’m a natural-born planner, and for the most part, that serves me well. It means I’ve already found the venue, dress and photographer for our autumn wedding. It means I already know what healthy meals I’ll be eating an entire week out. It means I’ve already done hours of research on the best month to visit Hawaii to see my favorite hula girl and WHO AM I KIDDING I WOULD GLADLY GO DURING MONSOON SEASON IF IT MEANS SEEING THIS ISLAND-BOUND FACE AGAIN.  

“This deployment is HOW long?”
 

With planning and scheduling and list-making such a major part of my life, I felt prepared saying I was only running one distance race this year because I intended to do it right. I’ve been training diligently for the New York City half for literally months, including intervals and pace runs and weight training, forgoing many a happy hour (fine, or glass of wine alone on my room like the introvert I am) in order to wake up early and hit the gym. I felt confident planning to only do one real race this year because, well, I had planned it out so well. 

And then my plans got hit by this:

  
That, my friends, is a snowy Sunday forecast. I’ve been running in shorts for weeks, but of course race day looms and there’s a freaking nor’easter on the horizon!

But as annoyed as I am, there’s not much I can do about the weather. So I guess I’ll do what I’ll do best: plan. I’ll plan to dress warmly, I’ll plan to take it slow if there’s ice, and — if I totally bomb — I’ll plan to do another race this year for redemption. Probably another half, since I’m not planning to run a full marathon this year, but who knows? Plans change. 

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Don’t Leave Home Without

I may not be a minimalist when it comes to almond-butter consumption or running-shoe ownership or the number of dog adoption websites I peruse on an hourly basis, but I’m undeniably a purist when it comes to at least one thing: my daily run.

While some runners would never step foot outside their apartments without their iPhones or iPods or iWatches or iWater*, I pride myself in needing little more than a sports bra and my Asics to get me out the door. Oh right, and pants. (Sorry, NYPD, it won’t happen again.)

*not yet an Apple product

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing inherently bad about bringing some comforts of home along for your daily workout if that’s your thing, and some blistered days I’m actually quite jealous of my forward-thinking peers who filled their pockets with band-aids and tissues before heading out the door. But for me personally, I prefer the freedom of running with empty pockets, primarily because it allows me to get out the door quickly before I come up with a reason to delay my run. I may love running, but I can always find a reason to put it off if you tempt me, and realizing my ipod isn’t charged would be too strong a temptation indeed.

But while you’d be hard pressed to find me carrying much more than my body weight on most of my workouts, there are nonetheless three (small) things I’d never leave home without. They don’t add much bulk, but even this minimalist runner can make an exception for these three items:

  • A $20 bill. It can be folded to the size of a quarter, vendors will still accept it if it’s sweaty (sorry, vendors) and it’s enough money to cover any basic need but not so much that you’d be financially devastated if it accidentally slipped out of your shorts. By carrying a single Andrew Jackson, I always have enough currency to buy a bottle of water if the fountains are off, or a Gatorade if I need some sugar, or a taxi cab home if my run didn’t go as planned. Expert tip: buy your water from a Central Park tourist cart, not a Duane Reade, so you aren’t left paying tax and carrying around nickels and dimes for the rest of your run.
  • Chapstick. If you’ve known the agony of realizing you need chapstick when you’re already three miles from home, you’ll understand why this is a non-negotiable. Opt for a moisturizing variety with SPF. Expert tip: make sure it’s clear, not red or pink, so it can double as body glide if you start chaffing. Sure, you’ll look a little crazy when you start to apply chapstick to your underarms or between your thighs in public, but you’ll thank yourself when you can later step into the hot shower without screaming in post-chafe agony.
  • An extra hair thing. If you’re rocking a crew cut like my brother, you can skip this one. For those of us with flowing locks who need a ponytail in order to function, a snapped hair tie mid-run is absolute devastation. Carry one with you and you’ll never look like an 80s head-banger as you cross the finish line. Expert tip: Keep one looped into your laces at all times so you don’t even have to think about it. I don’t remember who taught me this trick, but it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard — and I’ve heard of Magic Mike 3. 

 
What do you never leave home without?