Time flies much faster than I can run, and now my half marathon is, as I write this, a mere 6 days away! This is the first time I've really put a lot of effort into preparing for a race. I've always trained (and by training, I mean running a few times a week with no prescribed schedule) and each time I've managed to pull off a respectable, middle of the pack finishing time. But it was always a huge struggle to finish each race, and I always ran the last quarter feeling depleted and too exhausted to enjoy the finish. But this race is different. I want this race to be BETTER! As I've mentioned before, I'm really not expecting a PR in this race, but I am expecting to run a BETTER race. I expect to run mindfully, maintaining good form. I expect to run a negative split, paying attention to my pace and how my body feels. Although a half marathon is difficult, I expect to finish without a struggle, and with enough energy to enjoy the race, and savor my finish (not to mention my post-race brunch!)
I've already talked about how I've been training for this race with a combination of speed work and distance runs. I am confident that my endurance has increased dramatically since I began incorporating speed work into my regime. If I'm able to pace myself well during the first half of the race, I will be able to draw on this power of endurance to run the last half strong, and pour on the speed in the last few kilometers.
Now that the race is less than a week away, my entire regime has changed dramatically. All the training guides and forums I've read agree on one thing: what you do the week before a race will have almost as significant an impact as what you do in the weeks and months of training. With this idea in mind, I put a lot of thought into how to spend my last week in order to make this race better than any that came before.
THE TAPER: I started tapering last week. My longest distance run, 18 km, was last Monday. It felt good, and I wanted to do another one this weekend, but I resisted the temptation and spent a day with my much neglected road bike instead. I ran my speed workout in a lower pace group. It was still challenging, but it didn't reduce me to my usual quivering, sweat soaked state of collapse. Yesterday's work out was an intense (VERY intense) session of hill repeats that left me feeling limp, but confident. That was my last hard session, and I went full out, but kept it short. I plan to fit in a relatively short tempo session on Wednesday or Thursday, mainly to maintain a good sense of pace, and to keep myself sharp. Friday will be a rest day, with, at most, a brisk walk at lunch to keep the blood moving, and Saturday evening will include a 2-3 km easy run to keep my muscles warm, loosen everything up, and calm my nerves. Many training programs advise a longer period of tapering, especially when training for a full marathon. Unfortunately, because my training season was cut short, I simply didn't have time for a longer taper. My main concern and objective is simply to be warm and limber, but also well rested and ready to run hard.
EATING (and eating and eating): I've read a LOT of conflicting information on carbo loading leading up to a race or long run, and everyone seems to have a differing opinion. Some advise not to bother carbo loading at all. Some say you should eat as per usual for the last week, and only carbo load the day before the race. Others recommend increasing carb intake by a significant amount for the entire week leading up to the race. Not being an athletic trainer or a nutritionist, I'm really not qualified to venture an opinion this subject. As with most aspects of my training, I've done what feels best for me. For the most part, I tend to follow a relatively low calorie, balanced diet. Most of my meals are pretty light, and I tend to eat frequently. This week, I've continued to eat frequently, but increased the amount I intake during each meal. I'm still taking in plenty of protein and veg, but I'm eating a lot more carbs than is normal for me. I'm not eating more than I feel is healthy, or more than is comfortable. My aim is to feel full and satisfied, and give myself enough energy to fall back on during my run. I'll also admit that I love to eat, and carbo loading is a great excuse to do so with relative abandon. Favorite meals include whole grain bagels with cream cheese, yogurt with berries, honey and oats, kamut pasta with tomato sauce, and open face beef fajitas with low fat refried beans. I'm going to enjoy it all while I can!
Sleep: As much as possible. That's all I have to say about that.
The Mental Side: For me, running is at least 50% mental. I like to prepare myself mentally for a long run at least a day ahead. I decide ahead of time that I'm going to run a certain distance, visualize the route, how I'm going to feel at certain stages, and how i will overcome any challenges such as fatigue, boredom or bad weather. If I have any doubts in my mind when I start out, they seem to magnify as I go along, and can actually derail my run. It's crucial for my performance that I BELIEVE my run is going to go well, and I really have to focus on maintaining this belief leading up to the run. I've spent this week focusing on building and maintaining confidence in my endurance, and an optimistic and positive outlook, which can be challenging when you're tired, sore, crabby and anxious. I visualize the excitement of lining up in the corral with hundreds of other runners, that amazing moment when I find my pace, slip into my stride, and become one with the pavement. Most of all, I visualize that magic moment when I cross the finish line, beat up and exhausted, but in possession of a personal triumph that no one can ever take away from me. Oh, and of course I visualize the delicious, ridiculously oversized brunch that I insist will be waiting for me after my triumphant finish!
When my energy really starts to flag during a long distance, I find it extremely helpful to have a mantra to repeat over and over. Just a few positive words that I need to remind myself of, and that I can focus on to the exclusion of everything else. For this race, I'm going to go with "I'm ready, I'm strong, I can, I will". Cheesy? Perhaps. Effective? For me, most definitely.
Everything else: Logistically, there are a thousand tiny details that go into preparing for a run in another city. What to pack, what to wear on race day, transportation, picking up the race package, what to eat before the race, where to meet friends and family after the finish line, and NOT forgetting your running shoes (as I managed to do for my first half marathon). My philosophy regarding logistics is simple. Prepare as much as you can as far ahead as possible. Then stop worrying, because the rest will fall into place eventually. And so far, it always has!
In the end, only time will tell if all of this preparation will prove to be beneficial. My methods are far from scientific. Some of it may help, some may have little to no impact. However, despite the fact that I anticipate a slower finishing time than my last half marathon, I know deep down that this race will be better, because I've done what I need to do to achieve the goal I set for this race; to run a strong half marathon, and enjoy every second of the experience.