How to pace a race: Surf City race report

In December I wrote a blog about number anxiety and pacing. The post focused on managing the numbers and not letting them mentally rule you during training or racing. There are often situations where you come up with a perfectly reasonable plan where the numbers (i.e. pace or watts) align with your training but for whatever reason when you get to the race you are unable to execute the plan. In this instance, you have to throw the numbers out the window. This happened to me yesterday at the Surf City half marathon.

Several athletes I coach also ran the race. I gave everyone this advice: run your goal pace through 5k and at that point re-evaluate how you feel. If things are going well, you can maintain the pace. If it feels too hard, back off.

I am usually terrible at heeding my own instructions, but yesterday, at 5k I heard myself loud and clear: BACK OFF, BACK OFF.

My goal for the race was to dip under 1:18. My main concern was that the bronchitis I had been dealing with for four weeks might have an effect on my race. The constant coughing irritated my lungs exacerbating my asthma symptoms and my diaphragm and abdominal muscles have been incredibly sore making breathing hard quite uncomfortable. I optimistically imagined that sea level would magically make all of those things non-issues and I would run the race as if I was floating through the oxygen-rich air.

During my warm-up run I knew I was in for a tough day. I felt like crap had just crapped on crap. My breathing was already labored making me feel sluggish. I opted to stick to my plan, though, so when the gun fired, I set off at 5:55 pace. I continued with that pace through 5k at which point I knew I was running too fast. I was wheezing terribly and I had a sharp pain in my abdomen.

Making a concerted pacing change in the middle of race is not an easy task because it is not something we do on a regular basis.  Normally a pacing change occurs un-willfully – you’ve gone too hard and you blow up and end up in survival mode just putting one foot in front of the other. Yesterday, I was in the rare situation of deciding on the fly, what pace should I run? Did I want to back off 5 seconds per mile? 10? 20? Just cruise it in?

Ultimately, I decided to back off 10 -15 seconds/mile and try to maintain that through the halfway point and then back way off and finish the race comfortably without further taxing my lungs. I went through the halfway in 39 minutes, and then I slowed dramatically to 6:25 pace for the next 3 miles. This allowed me to regroup and get my breathing under control.

By slowing down for those few miles I was able to drop the pace the last few miles and salvage the race with a second place and a 1:20.14. While I missed my goal by a lot, I learned a very important lesson about pacing and making changes to the race plan during the race: it is far better to consciously alter the pacing when not feeling good then trying to push through it and having a very negative outcome. By making the decision to back off, I was still in control of the pacing and ultimately I was able to pick up the pace again.

Think about a longer race – a marathon, half Ironman or Ironman. Making pacing changes in a race of that duration can have huge repercussions on the outcome of the race. If you are struggling at some point and slow the pace to recover, you may add only 5 minutes or even 10 minutes to your time. If it is a particularly bad day, you may never bring the pace back down, but at least you can race more comfortably. But, if you keep pushing until you blow up, you can easily add an hour or even worse you may not finish.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between “Gee, I hurt, but I can keep pushing” and “Gee, I hurt, I need to back off.” In both instances, give yourself a small break and then reassess whether you can go back to goal pace. Endurance racing is more than just a physical challenge. Being able to think quickly and make adjustments under pressure are also important for success.

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5 Responses

  1. Terzah says:

    That sounds like sensible advice. How would it scale to the marathon? Go at goal pace and see how you feel at 10K? Or does the 5K check still apply? I’ve done six marathons and even in the “good” ones I’ve inadvertently slowed at the end–would like to avoid that in number seven.

  2. Even in a marathon a check at 5k is still a good idea. If it feels hard a 5k, you are going too fast. But, check back in at 10k as well. If you have slowed in all of your marathons though, perhaps you need to go out slower right from the start. Good luck!

  3. don says:

    I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blogs and also the videos that you produce with Brandon. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

  4. Thanks for reading. And watching.

  5. Terzah says:

    Thanks for this reply!