Get out your IPOD running list, suck down a GU packet, hydrate with water or electrolyte beverages and pump up those endorphins. That’s right folks – this Sunday July 25th is the SF Marathon and Half Marathon, one of the biggest races of the year for runners. 2010 is a record year for enrollment, with 24,000 participants ready to wake up early and put their bodies to the test.
Options include the full marathon, two courses for the half-marathon distance, a 5K, and a “progressive” marathon – 23.1 miles that are accumulated up to the start of the race. A few girlfriends and I will be running the first course which starts at butt crack (5:32AM for our heat to be exact) right at Mission/Embarcadero. The race continues down Embarcadero, passing the tourist nightmare of Fisherman’s Wharf, then on to Marina Green. One of the best parts of the SF marathon/half marathon is that participants get to run across the GG Bridge. Runners do an out-and-back across this 1.7 mile long icon of San Francisco. Afterwards we’ll down Lincoln, with Baker Beach and the blue Pacific Ocean to the right. The course continues through Seacliff to 27th St, which we’ll take all the way to Golden Gate Park, ending right by the Rose Garden and Stowe Lake.
This is not my first time doing the SF Half. Three years ago I did the first half course and finished in 1:41:33. I remember the day well as it was the morning after I messed up my pirformis and hamstring muscles in a Mission hip hop class. That injury is still present after sessions at three different physical therapy spots and the accompanying chronic tightness will be my dutiful companion at Sunday’s race.
Nevertheless, I am still very excited for what will be my 9th half marathon in the last 3 years. Race day is one of my favorite experiences. There is an energy in the air, an excitement that overtakes your body as you see thousands of other athletically-minded individuals showing up to face down the challenge, run hard, and leave their excuses at the start line. You’ll probably experience additional endorphins that help propel you beyond your personal record (PR). I’ve had friends and a number of runners ask me what to do to prep for the race and then be ready on race day.
Here are a couple tips I’ve gathered. Feel free to take what fits with your own personal approach, or offer up other ideas that have worked for you on race day. Good luck to all runners this Sunday!
1) Train well and consistently: It may be a little late for this since the race is on Sunday but hopefully you’ve mapped out a training plan. This does not have to be an agro, Type-A training plan where you micromanage every day of activity. The important part is to get out and run, and to do so frequently.
I advise runners to start training at least 2 months prior and best case, 3 months. I never run less than 4 miles on a run, so my first few weeks usually involve running 3 times a week with distances varying between 4 and 6. Every week thereafter I ramp up a couple miles on at least one run per week (example 6, 8, or 10). By start of the second month of training I’ve transitioned to longer runs, and by longer I mean 10 miles or more once per week. My 2-3 other runs are shorter, just meant to keep you in shape and your muscles moving. These runs usually range from 4-7 miles each. You don’t want to experience what I did at the Kaiser half a year and a half ago. I had only run 9 miles prior to race day. The first 9 were great; I was coming in at a 7 minute pace. Then I bonked at mile 10 and dropped 1:30 in pace the last 4. It was brutal and although I finished with a 7:45 average pace, the end of the race was a bit demoralizing. I advise trying to do at three to four 10-13 mile runs before actual race day so you’re appropriately prepared.
2) Taper the last 1-2 weeks: It is very important to taper so that your body is not exhausted on race day. Rest is key, so the last 2 weeks cut down on distance or more intense workouts so your muscles have time to heal. This does not mean to completely eliminate running. You still need to stay in shape. For example this last week I’ve had the following schedule: last Sunday – final longer run, Tuesday – 4 mile run at decent pace, slightly slower than race day. Friday – 3 mile easy run planned. Saturday – rest day.
3) Cross Train and STRETCH: Yes, running will be your main physical activity but cross training and STRETCHING is key. I do yoga at least once a week to stretch my muscles and feet (believe me, Plantar Fasciitis is not something you want to experience). Other helpful cross training exercises include track workouts, sprint workouts, hill work, hikes and strengthening (weights).
4) Have a good playlist: I have a go-to “running playlist” that helps keep me pumped and motivated. Check it out HERE. There are a couple songs that are my “sprint” songs, and I associate them so much with sprinting now that whenever I hear them in the car, I feel motivated to run. That is what you want on your playlist – something that inspires you to push through the pain.
5) Know your pacing style: This will come with time as you figure out what type of runner you are. I tend to be a “come from behind” half marathoner, with negative splits – which means my last 6 miles are generally faster than my first 6. It’s good to know your body and what type of runner you are so you don’t go out too hard in the beginning and then bonk later. Maybe you are an even paced runner – in which case having a watch or Garmin will be a good idea to keep you on track.
6) Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: I cannot stress how important it is to stay hydrated, not just on race day, but for the week prior as well. Hydration not only helps with energy levels, it also helps manage your metabolism, which can prevent untimely bathroom breaks during the race. Try and also to cut out alcohol the last week to two weeks before your race.
7) Eat breakfast on race day: You are going to be running 13 miles so you want to make sure you’ve had sufficient nutrition in the morning. This does not mean a cracker. Eat a bowl of oatmeal, or some eggs and a banana. More importantly, make sure you get up 1.5 hours before race start and eat right away so you have time to digest and take a trip to the baño before you begin. I recommend testing out what breakfast works for you and understanding your digestion time before race day, maybe on one of those longer runs.
8) What do I eat week prior?: There are varying opinions about this. Yes, carbs are important but I don’t think you should completely change your eating habits. Many people carbo load with pizzas, pastas and bread in an unprecedented way the week prior to race day. Yet, protein and vegetables are also important. My best advice is to not dramatically change your eating habits, because your body will have a reaction. It is good to have more carbs, but not in an overwhelming way, especially because sugar high also may imply a sugar crash. I always host a potluck the night before the half marathon at my house – which includes a balanced offering of food – usually a pasta dish or two, protein dish, salad and a side or two. You really should personalize your eating to how your body works and only you know this for sure. Some people have to have carbs or running is not an option. I know my body works most efficiently with lots of meat and vegetables – so I stick to that for the most part and intersperse a bit of pasta the week prior to racing.
9) What do I wear?: San Francisco weather can be unpredictable and in July it’s like the Mark Twain line, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” For an early race like the SF Half, it will most definitely be cold, a bit windy and maybe even slightly misty. I was pretty cold the last time I did the race and wore gloves, which I breathed into as sideways wind whipped me across the GG Bridge. I usually wear tight, non-cotton, breathable capri running pants. Since the race will probably be over by 7:30AM, I advise a light, fast-wicking long sleeve shirt.
10) Shoes matter: Make sure you have shoes that are worn-in. Brand new shoes on race day have a high probability of causing blisters. Do not use shoes that are too old. I generally get a new pair every 6 to 8 months since I run a decent amount, and definitely within a year. Wearing old shoes puts you at risk for plantar fasciitis – and believe me, you want to avoid this at all costs unless heel pain is your cup of tea.
11) Form a running group: The hardest part of training for a half marathon, especially in a city with as many plentiful distractions in San Francisco, is staying focused on the task at hand. To stay committed, I recommend getting a buddy, or two, or fifteen (yes, we had team Kaiser Chiefs in last year’s Kaiser half marathon) to do the race with you. This does not mean you have to run the entire course together. It is just someone with whom you can train, brave challenges, and celebrate victories. Believe me, receiving a welcome dose of encouragement when you’re on the final stretch from a teammate, or just knowing a buddy is also out there pushing through will help to motivate you to the finish. And make sure you sprint the last yards to the finish line. You can rest and make up excuses tomorrow. Today – you’re here to run.