It has been said that visualizing your race before you actually run it has benefits to mental preparation and emotional confidence that are comparable (as a positive reward value) to actually running real kilometres in training. I don’t have any evidence of that, but it seems like a good idea anyhow.
With a little more that two weeks until the Edmonton Marathon, I thought I would dissect the route plan and take all you runners (and non-runners alike) through the process of mentally preparing for a race. How? By imagining the highs and lows of actually running it.
I’ve (arbitrarily) chunked it into five kilometer bits, so let’s race up our imaginary running shoes and get out on the course, shall we?
Leg 1: Start – 5 km
The crowds are milling.
It’s nearly 0730 on a sunny Sunday morning. Everyone has been up for hours: preparing gear, pinning bibs, lacing and re-lacing shoes, carb-loading, caffeine-loading, peeing, gelling, generously applying various products to their bodies to avoid chafing, sunburn, mosquitoes, or sun-glare, adjusting packs, hitching shorts, waiting in lines, stretching, hopping, prodding, poking, or simply standing in quiet meditative contemplation.
The announcer has been prodding people into the corral for a few minutes now, and as the clock ticks down he (or maybe she) asks everyone to remove their hats and sing the anthem. There is confusion. The sound system is mediocre, and everyone is too busy chatting with nervous tension to really pay attention.
But then a crack, and those meandering attentions all suddenly focus towards the starting gate and in an instant the clock is running and the throng is generally shuffling in the direction of crossing the start line.
A fast, stumbling shuffle turns into a gentle, plodding run. A few “good luck” or “have good race” shouts are heard, and a moment later the singing, howling, yelping beep of hundreds of RFIDs crossing the sensor is undoubtedly one of yours, and the race has begun.
For the first kilometer, maybe two, there is no room to manuever. Every step is a careful step, passing, being passed, dodging around slower runners, people adjusting iPods and water belts. A bottle of orange Gatorade thunks to the asphalt and someone accidentally kicks it into oblivion: lost.
Things begin to balance, warm up, muscles loosen, and the daunting task ahead looms with absolute crystal clarity in the morning sun.
Leg 2: 5 km – 10 km
The first time you look down at your watch ten minutes has gone by, then twenty. And suddenly it’s thirty minutes into the race and it’s eight in the morning.
The crowds that were thick at starting line, the same crowds that you barely even noticed as you concentrated on your one-foot-after-another, checking-your-pace, stick-to-your plan mantra, the thoughts running through your head in anxious anticipation of the upcoming distance, those crowds have thinned as the race wends its way through the East side of down town.
But as you approached 5 km, the familiar skyscrapers of down town were suddenly filling the space above the streets and besides the uniformed cops holding back angry drivers as you plod through otherwise busy intersections, the crowds are thickening up too.
By six klicks in you’ve entered Oliver and the locals are out in force with signs, cheering you on and yelling your name, which was printed on your bib — but the effect still throws you a little because you’re not even thinking about that now.
At seven you pass a cluster of girls from some local yoga studio, and you nod a sheepish acknowledgement of their cheers and signs. At seven-point-five klicks, a kid of maybe six or seven reaches out for a high five, his mother holding a sign to cheer on her husband with one hand, holding the kid back from certain trampling with the other.
One eye is forever checking and rechecking your watch, gauging your pace against the balance of running too fast or running too slow, calculating your finish time less than a quarter of the way through.
And weaving through the neighbourhood, passing through quiet residential streets, a sign up ahead hearkens the first sign of Oz: “Half Marathon Turnaround Ahead”
Leg 3: 10 km – 15 km
By now a few of the strong and fast — the elites — half-marathoners have blown by you: you’re fast, but not that fast, but they disappear into the return loop as you plod by, passing the 10.5 km checkpoint adorned with bright orange pylons and orange-vested race officials kicking up their outside voices and aggressively gesturing the people into the correct lanes based on their bib colours. This signals the out-and-back turnaround for the halves. Well.. falf for them. One quarter for you.
By eleven and twelve klicks you’ve left the chaos of the soon-to-be-mixing distance categories behind you, and you’re running South through a west-end neighbourhood in a group of no more than a dozen people. You came out the gate strong and you’ve kept your cool and your pace, but it’s at about fourteen kilometers in — rolling up towards nine o’clock — when the glycogen in your blood, all that delicious energy you’ve put into reserve for the last week, is reaching a balance with the lactic acid being frantically pumped by the same.
It’s not burning, not yet, but the pain is on the horizon.
You weave through a few more neighbourhoods, passing a gel station where some volunteer shoves a plastic sleeve of energy-goop into your hand. You contemplate ripping it open and gulping it down, but it’s not your flavour — and you’re not desperate enough yet. You do convince yourself to stop for a quick water-break at thirteen, however, and it takes you an extra few seconds and a deep breath to roll it back onto the asphalt.
At fourteen someone crouched at the side of the road snaps your photo with a giant-lensed SLR, but you forget to smile, a look of focus and concentration baked across your face. And you run on.
Leg 4: 15 km – 20 km
It almost — almost, the deception is tempting — seems like you are on the home stretch, as you pass fifteen and start looping back into familiar territory. After all, you’ve been here before, about half an hour ago if you’ve held a steady pace. As you roll up towards sixteen klicks you start passing groups of slower runners travelling in the opposite direction, and you find yourself counting, measuring, comparing, relating. They are five kilometres behind you. A fraction of your pain, but you’re so much further ahead. Those are the five-plus hour runners. A few of them are walking already.
The next five kilometers is a monotonous slog. You are seemingly returning, but being passed by the semi-elite half-marathoners, folks who are just slightly faster than you, who have actually logged six klicks less distance than you, and a half an hour less time than you. People who really are on the home stretch and pushing it towards the finish line.
But you plod along. You’ve got a long race ahead of you yet as down town looms larger and larger on the horizon.
Leg 5: 20 km – 25 km
The first hump arrives as you enter once again into the urban jungle that is down town. As you pass twenty-one-point one kilometres you are rolling through the hot-and-dry pavement. The crowd has thinned dramatically. Those same cops are holding back what seems like those same cars. You ignore them, catch a serious sort-of glaring smirk of approval from the uniformed officer. “Thanks.” You mumble because it’s the best you can mutter right then.
You’re at least two hours into your run and you see the little sign on the edge of the road, propped up by a rock and reading 21.1 km. Half way.
A volunteer sits indifferent in a fold-away lawn chair, a water bottle dangling from one hand. He’s already seen thousands of people run by today. He’s almost done his shift.
Another road. Another intersection. Another road. Another intersection.
You swing by Churchill Square, the heart of down town and for a moment you think maybe the crowds are revived. But their cheers and their signs dwindle behind you as you swing away into the urban sprawl once more. It was only temporary. A convenient location.
A girl in a bright shirt and fitted-shorts is stretching her calves against a light post, and you find yourself shouting a another mumbled bark, this one of random encouragement in her direction as you hobble by.
The down town gives way to the scenic view along the river, Jasper Avenue is mostly clear of traffic and belonging to no one else but you and a the half-dozen now-familiar strangers who have shared your pace for the last hour, maybe more.
The half-marathoners are in force now, and you can’t tell the difference other than that they sometimes look more bagged, less practised, ready to give it in because they only have a couple klicks left to run.
You break for water and your legs blur with the weight of the distance reminding you not to dawdle.
Leg 6: 25 km – 30 km
Half marathoners are sprinting by you as you pass the twenty-five kilometer marker. They have a short block and a half to their finish. They are almost done. You? Not so much.
Twenty six looms and another checkpoint of pylons and orange-vested volunteers are anxiously directing delirious runners through the traffic switch, left, right, left, left, right: you go right, and onto sixteen more kilometers of pain.
There is lead in your legs now. And you’re making promises to yourself: reaching out to water stations in your mind, and vowing never to do this race again despite knowing full well you will, forgetting the haze and the pain, and plunking your credit card into the registration site for another race oh-too-soon, probably next week.
And you run on.
Leg 7: 30 km – 35 km
The second hump emerges herein. Your running companions have thinned to a staggered few. The marathoners have stretched themselves across 42 kilometers of distance and three hours on you are fully aware that the elite runners are already back home, sipping fresh cold water and snapping photos with loved ones at the finish line.
You’ve got a long way to go, kid.
Your training rarely, if ever, took you past this distance. This was an epic distance in your head. This was deliberate, but you’ve picked up your pace for the actual race which means those few gathered seconds have compounded into a measurable chunk of time difference between training and racing. Part of you cannot fathom how this is even possible. Part of you is ready to collapse into the nearby bushes.
At what would have been your longest training distance ever you encounter a water station and more encouragement, but you walk through it, stumbling a little, your feet scuffing on asphalt, just a few seconds longer than you probably should, but your will is driving you towards just packing it all in even though every piece of you that is still rational knows that regret would hang like a heavy cloud for the months and years to follow.
Focus. You kick it up again, take a deep breath, and resolve to measure it from here on in by small chunks. A kilometer here. A street post there. The next sign. The next turn.
The math in your head, clouded by heat and pain computes in a flash of clarity: single digits. Less than ten kilometers: Somehow distances have more meaning now than they ever have before in your life, every step laid bare in front of you on the street.
Leg 8: 35 km – 40 km
You trace back along the familiar path, the route swinging back along the same route you’d run six, seven, eight kilometers previously on this add-on loop: why, oh why did I add on this loop. You are suddenly questioning the insane irrationality of it all and a, then, in a shake of the head, a wipe of salty sweat from your face there you are: You start counting runners again, passing folks on their still-outward journey, walking, looking bagged and defeated, or plodding along with a focus and resolve. You realized you barely noticed the people in your position when you were in their position. Little things like the blur of the day and the haze of your mind make you giggle to yourself, and you realize you haven’t eaten any of your carefully measured fuel in nearly half an hour.
Beep. Beep. Beep. A short walk break. Nirvana.
You slow for a bit. Run for a bit. Take a sip of water, painfully aware of the unquenchable thirst, but knowing what a stomach full of water would feel like at this moment, how it would have you rolling in the bushes just a few meters away.
You pass the markers and every step is suddenly more earned than the last. Every kilometer is a monumental achievement worthy of celebration. A voice creeps into your head to convince you to walk a bit more, to give into the aches and pains now numbing your legs, but you push through, grunting aloud and — for a brief moment — realizing that you’re talking to yourself, actually talking, aloud, to your other self, as you keep plodding along the hot streets at nearly eleven in the morning.
And there it is, meaningful for some reason: Forty kilometers. Four. Oh.
Leg 9: 40 km – Finish Line
You slip between moments of clarity and resolve… and borderline defeat. “What’s two kilometers?” You ask yourself. Nothing.
The asphalt is burning. You’ve been on your feet running for well over four hours now. Your goal time seems not so much a plan or a clear training target as it does a vague puddle with ripples of anticipation. Wherever the arrow lands, the waves radiate outward. “I’ll be happy to just be done.”
The second-to-last marker creeps into view and rolls by: 41. So close. Oh, so close.
The crowds have started to build again. This is the anticipation point. This is where people fall apart. The scattered collection of runners around you is evolving before your eyes. The guy who literally ripped his shirt off at thirty three klicks is now a sprinter. The girl with the red headphones is crying, wailing actually. You recognize faces in the sidelines, watching, cheering. The street turns into a funnelling corral of steel gates and wandering, now-finished racers with ribbons of brass and victory dangling around sweaty necks as they meander back along the route to watch. All eyes are on you for a few fleeting seconds of glory.
You are simply putting one foot in front of the other as the finish line is suddenly under your feet, you barely able to lift it over the pebbled plastic hump of the sensor, and someone is announcing your name… and your legs, uncertain, slow to a walk pace. A medal is strung over your neck. A bottle of icy water is shoved into your hand. And you are hustled out of the finishing corral and back into the anonymity of being just-another-spectator.
Marathon, completed… for now.
All images borrowed from the Edmonton Marathon 2013 Route Map.