How to Handle Race Day

Martin Yelling

What to expect on race morning, at the start, during the race, and how to run and win your own race.

Here. We. Go. This is it. Race Week is almost here. How can something feel so amazing, empowering and exciting yet at the same time be petrifying, nerve-wracking and full of so much uncertainty? Let’s be clear, it’s totally normal at this time to doubt yourself, question your sanity, pull on your panic trousers and worry about whether you can do it. Focus from now on turning your ‘maranoia’ – your marathon over-analysis paralysis – on its head and instead taking control, boosting your confidence and reassuring yourself that you’ve done all you can to make the Finish Line.

My confidence that you can do it is greater than your fear and doubt that you can’t.

Race Week Countdown

Being planned and organised helps reduce potential panic and anxiety.

  • Write a kit inventory and tick off everything you need to take with you.
  • If you need to buy anything then do it now (not trainers – you should have these!)
  • Read your Race Day Final Instructions magazine carefully.
  • Do a very short, very easy paced run or rest up. Remember, Race Week is not the time for last-minute miles. You won’t get any fitter now so tick over.
  • Write a timeline schedule of where you need to be and when you need to be there, from leaving home to standing on the Start Line.
  • If you’re staying in London, check your travel and accommodation plans.
  • Do a short marathon-paced run; just three miles where you lock into your marathon race pace effort. Practice some of your key psychological strategies for keeping going when things get rough whilst on this run.
  • Write down your race plan. Make notes of key checkpoints and times you’re hoping to reach them. (For example, 1 mile, 6 miles, halfway, 20 miles).
  • Write down three amazing personal experiences you’ve had in your marathon build up. Feel good about what you’ve achieved so far.
  • Rest, relax, make a little time for you.
  • Using your kit inventory from Monday, pack all your kit. Lay it out, remember your Virgin Money London Marathon Registration confirmation letter to take to the London Marathon Expo to collect your race number.
  • Do a short, easy-paced run. Just run. Don’t think; don’t stress; don’t analyse. Just run.
  • Know your marathon Race Day mantra.
  • Eat well – be fueled and hydrated.  There is no need to over eat, nosh your way through a pasta mountain or drink a small ocean.  
  • Rest up! You’re going to need your energy.
  • Remind yourself of your #ReasontoRun. You know, ‘that thing’ you are going to use on Sunday when the going gets tough.
  • If you haven’t been already, go to the Expo today or tomorrow to collect your number.
  • Lay your kit out and proudly pin your number on your running vest. Smile to yourself. The 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon is happening!
  • Think about one person that has inspired you in your marathon journey.
  • Relax, focus and remind yourself of the wonderful journey you’ve been on and the amazing one you’re about to take.

Race Day Success Planner

The Start

It’s natural to feel nervous – everyone does. Don’t lose it now!  Relax. Take a moment to stand confidently on the Start Line; look around, you’ve made it. Reflect on how far you’ve come in your marathon journey, close your eyes, breathe deeply, exhale slowly and get ready for one of the best days of your life.

The First Few Miles

Once the gun actually goes and the race starts it may be at least 15 minutes or more before some of you cross over the Start Line. If you’re in one of the front pens, be ready to control your pace. Once the race is underway and you start moving forwards, use this time to stay calm and relaxed and don’t worry.

Start your own watch when you cross the Start Line and not when the start signal goes. That way you’ll be able to keep a track of your actual run time throughout the race.

Be disciplined at the start and especially in the first few miles. It’s going to be busy with runners all around you. You might be tempted to go out a little harder than planned. Don’t: hang back and conserve your energy. It should feel easy at the start. If it doesn’t, you’re working too hard, so slow down. Poor pace control at the start of your race can bring about a tough final third of the race. Be patient. The most common mistake made by novice (and even experienced marathon runners) is that they start too fast. Your pace at the start of the race directly impacts upon your pace at the finish of the race. Give yourself the best chance to run the second strongly by starting off disciplined, relaxed and in control.

Settle In

Know your mile one and mile three splits and have a personal pace checkpoint at both of these points. Allow your pace, breathing and stride pattern to settle down. Just tick the first few miles of the race off in a consistent, metronomic style. Use as little energy as you can as the race unfolds. Feel yourself get into your running and allow your body and mind to settle down. Once you’ve got the first few miles under your belt you’ll ease into things, the nerves will pass and you’ll find yourself flowing and ready to tackle the full distance.

Reach Halfway Cruising

Before Race Day, review the route and course and know how it’s going to unfold. Break it up into landmarks, features on route, mile markers, points of interest, or where family of friends will be stood cheering. Once you go through mile eight, celebrate the fact that you’ll have covered the first third of the race. The first third of the marathon sets you up for the final third of the race. At this point you should still be feeling comfortable and in control. Another key stepping stone for your finish is the halfway point. As you cross Tower Bridge and approach halfway, hit cruise control. Your goal is to reach halfway (13.1 miles) feeling as fresh as you can and really ready to tackle the second half. Your marathon really begins here.

Off Pace? Don’t Panic

It’s really important to be disciplined and controlled but it doesn’t always go to plan. What happens if you feel good but are minutes down on your target time at halfway? Don't try and play catch up and smash out the next couple of miles to pull yourself quickly back on track. The best marathons are run with even splits and controlled pacing throughout the entire race so take your time to claw back those valuable seconds mile by mile as the second half progresses.

This is also a good time to pay extra attention to relaxing as you progress from miles 13 to 16. Tune in to your body. Take time to relax your form, run smoothly and enjoy the moment. Remind yourself how far you’ve come on your journey. Think about how you started your marathon campaign and enjoy the fact that you are actually doing it. Compose yourself and get yourself ready for the final third of the race – without doubt the toughest part.

The Final Push

You need to be physically and mentally braced for the battle with yourself that lies ahead in the final few miles. Although your effort level will be higher, your fatigue greater and the pain more intense you’ve got to keep moving and keep striving to hold your even pace. This is the part of the marathon that physically and psychologically can be very tough. The roads seem long, the surface hard and the finish still some way off. You really have to dig deep. But know that everyone else with you is also sharing the same physical and psychological space as you. You’re in it together.

No Room For Negatives

Everyone experiences tough moments in a marathon. It’s how you respond and react to these that will ensure your finish. It’s perfectly normal to think to yourself plenty of times before and during the race that you can’t do it. You’ll have many doubts and anxieties. On Race Day and throughout the race, keep asking yourself how you’re feeling. At regular intervals ask yourself: how are my energy levels? How do my muscles feel? Do I feel on track? Do regular form checks, relax your arms, run tall, stretch your spine up, lift your knees. Use this self-questioning as a mental checklist to stay on track.

The choices you make when it hurts in the later stages of the race to focus and keep moving will help you believe you can achieve anything. Think beyond what you think is possible. When you started your marathon journey you may have struggled to run just a few miles. Now you’re passing mile after mile, your improvement, strength and courage will take you to the finish. Never stop moving forwards. When you’re feeling rough and questioning if you can do it, remind yourself of how far you’ve come, how much you’ve invested to reach this point and how much you want that finishers' medal at the end! Lock into that feeling of success and keep running.

At points in the race, everything is going to hurt and you are going to want to slow down, stop, cry, and go home. There I said it. At times like these draw on your reason for running. What’s the personal reason that you're going to complete the marathon? What drives you? What got you out training on those cold, wet winter nights? Whatever your reason, focus on it. Never give up until you reach the Finish Line!

The Wall?

Runners struggle in the later stages of the marathon, typically because they’ve got something wrong. They either haven't trained adequately or appropriately for the demands of the event, they started off way too fast and failed to distribute their effort economically and effectively throughout the entire race, or they failed to be sufficiently fueled and hydrated before and during the marathon and have run out of energy, or perhaps a combination of these.

The best way to avoid the wall is to prepare for it not to be there.

If on the day, however, you do find yourself significantly struggling in the later stages, you’ll need to slow down (you’ll probably have no choice). Drop your pace and allow yourself to find a new rhythm and get things under control. This might mean walking more than you had planned or expected. This is just fine. Focus on getting some fluids and fuel on board, cooling and calming down, composing yourself, breathing and relaxing, then continue putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the Finish Line.

Running the London Marathon is all about you and your race. Everyone on the day is on the same 26.2-mile journey. Be proud of yourself and those around you. Draw on the energy of your fellow runners, your family and friends and those you know supporting you and the passion and excitement of strangers who will help you all the way to The Mall.

Celebrate In Style

As the end of the race approaches you’ll think you’ve drawn every ounce of strength from your body and mind. But you haven’t. Devote each single mile from mile 24, 25 and 26 to someone or something that has helped you on your marathon journey. Run this single mile with them (or that) in mind. Be inspired and you will do it.

Compose yourself when you turn and see the Finish Line. This is it. Everything you’ve worked for right there. Run tall. Run strong. Relax. Smile. Lift your spirits for one final push across the line. Raise your arms and celebrate!

You’ve got this. See you at the finish.