Stepping Into the Unknown

I started writing this post back in January. But the challenges of training a full marathon in the dead of winter in the Midwest took away most of my mental and physical energy. I had an internal fight with myself every day about how I would feel bad if I missed a run, but the freezing cold and lack of sunshine placed a challenge for my motivation. “I am strong, I am tough. I can do hard things”, I don’t remember how many times I said these cheesy phrases to myself to hype myself up for runs. Anyway, now that the days are longer, the sun is brighter, and the temp is warmer, I am finally back to pick up what I left off! 

Winter training is in full swing (well, it is almost spring now…). It’s always fun to meet the new faces on the team at the beginning of every training season (I run with Fleet Feet x New Balance Racing Team, and Chicago Endurance Sports. I will share how I got involved in these running groups, and why do I think having such running communities is useful in my next post!). I love getting to know how the runners got here, what’s their favorite pre/post-run food, and what keeps them motivated. Let’s be honest, most “sane” people don’t run outside in Midwest winters. Most people join the team because they are training for a specific race. And there is always someone whose goal race is a distance that they have never run or raced before. I can see the hesitation on their faces when others ask the question, “what’s your goal time?” since there is not always a benchmark for them to measure against. 

I still find myself in that situation sometimes. I am not a middle-distance runner. After I signed up for a 5k race last minute in the fall, I stared at a pace chart long and hard trying to figure out what’s a reasonable pace that I can hold over a 5k distance without busting. It felt more stressful than putting together a race day plan for a marathon. The unknown was scary. 

That’s what I am here to talk about today – the unknown

For a good 3 years, for some personal reasons, I didn’t know where I would be living in the following quarter. No, I didn’t grow to love the unknown. But I have lived in the unknown for so long that I figured out ways to eliminate the variables and always prepare myself for plan b, plan c, and plan d. It allowed me to make the best of the situation, and not be fully in the dark. The same kind of mindset can be applied to running. 

Here are a couple of situations in running where you may encounter unknown:

Unknown pace

As Robin Arzon (@robinnyc), the VP of programming for Peloton, said, it doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. Running doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger and faster. For me, the potential of testing my physical limits is the beauty of racing. However, I have to admit that it is always intimidating whenever I attempt a new distance PR. Or worst, trying to come up with a pace for a distance that I never raced in. Honestly, since the marathon is the only distance that I regularly train for and race in, I do not have a good grasp of my capability in the other distances. 

Here are the steps I use to determine my goal pace:

  • Do a 1-mile time trial to figure out my fitness level, or if I ran a race within the past month, I would use that time as a benchmark 
  • Use a pace calculator to understand how this pace translates to other distances (with Jack Daniels’ calculator, you can put in your pace for a certain distance on top, and then click the “equivalent” to see what that pace means for other distances.)
  • Running goal pace during your training runs. No, not all of your runs should be at your goal pace (I absolutely did that before, and ended up with an angry Achilles tendon.) But you should have some goal race pace miles built-in for your speed training, tempo runs, or long runs. Personally, this was one of the most helpful things that my training plan had during my last marathon cycle. For example, we had an 18-mile run that consisted of warm-up miles, 3 sets of 3 miles at marathon pace with 1 mile of recovery between working sets, and cool-down miles after the programmed sets. Runs like this helped me to get an idea of what it feels like to hold my goal pace and to determine whether or not my goal pace was realistic. Since we had multiple runs that were similar to this one, I tried a couple of different paces before picking a pace that was challenging but not too aggressive. 

Unknown distance

It feels scary running or even racing a distance that you have never done before. For most people who are training for their first half-marathon, full marathon, or ultra, almost every long run would likely be the longest distance you have ever run. I totally understand the uneasy feeling of seeing a big number for the long run. What helped me during my first marathon training was counting up to halfway, then counting down for the rest of the run. For example, for an 18-miler, once I get to 9 miles I would start counting down. I would tell myself, I have done 9 miles before, I can do this. I have also broken down the long runs into 3-5 sections of 3-6 miles and tell myself I only have less than 5k or 10k to go! It’s the small mental tricks like this that helped me push away the iffy feeling when tackling long distances. 

What about a distance that you have run before, but never raced? This is when all the things mentioned before for dealing with unknown pace come into play. Figuring out the pace that you could potentially hold for that distance, and practicing running at that pace during your training runs to get used to what the pace feels like.

Unknown condition

Your obsession over the weather app a few weeks before the race can’t change the weather. I have to tell myself this every time before a big race. But luckily it doesn’t bother me as much as it may others. Part of it is because my team trains in ALL CONDITIONS (it was just hailing during one of our speed training sessions…it hurt, but it didn’t stop us!). I know whatever the condition is, I experienced it and I am prepared for it. 

Next time when it’s raining or snowing or super hot and humid, and you are hesitant to go for a run, just remind yourself that the race would happen rain or shine. It’s better to experience it now, figure out the best way to dress for it and fuel during it than experiencing it for the first time on race day. 

Unknown course

Compared to the rest, this is the most exciting unknown factor! 

New routes and new scenery can be fun, but they can also be stressful on a race day. The best thing that I have done to prepare for an unknown course was the “last 10k course visualization run” that I did with my team for Chicago Marathon last year. I mentioned how much it helped me when things got tough in my race recap post. However, I understand that not everyone has the privilege to run the last portion of the course before race day due to travel or time constraints. Here are some other ways to prepare for an unknown course:

  • Studying the course map/elevation map

It might seem trivial, but this is something that I had done for most of my races before and I have had success with. Knowing when to expect a turn and when a hill is coming allows me to mentally psych myself up for the miles ahead, and it also helps break down a long-distance course into smaller bite-size sections. 

  • Watch a video of the course

If you are running a big race, for example a major marathon, you can probably find video footage of the course on YouTube. Watch it, visualize it, and memorize it! Ok, maybe not exactly memorize it, but you get the idea. This could go a long way come race day! 

  • Drive the course

Not every race will have resources like a course video. And if you don’t have the time to run the last portion of the course before the race day, maybe you could drive through it, and pay close attention to the surroundings and bumps on the road. The idea is to “plant seeds of positivity” as my coach said during our course visualization run last year.

That’s all for today! 

For runners in Chicago, this weekend is the start of the race season. Whether you are tackling an unknown pace, unknown distance, unknown conditions (weather looks good for now!), or unknown course, know that you are not alone, and there are ways to fight the anxious voice in your head.

Good luck and have fun! Yeah running 🙂

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