Running & Fitness

Learn From Your Race Mistakes

Matt Orlando
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Having just come off a very disappointing debut (and to date, only) marathon at the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2008, I poured my heart and soul into training for my next race. When race day arrived four months later, I was ready. I had a great pacing partner, the weather was ideal, and I had miraculously stayed injury free throughout my training. This race, I felt, would be perfect.

The race started off really well. My pacing partner and I were on pace to easily PR, and we both felt great. Our breathing was even, our strides were smooth, and the energy we were getting from the runners and crowds around us was uplifting. Things could not have been better.

That is when I made my first mistake. In the zone, I had not noticed that my pacing partner was no longer beside me. I looked around and realized he was now about 100 or so yards back. Rather than stay focused on my goal, I instead jogged back to rejoin him. This, of course, equated to precious time and energy lost. It was okay though, I told myself. I felt that we could pick it back up and finish strong together. Instead, he urged me to go on without him to try to hit my PR. On I went.

Mistake two came right around the 15K mark. I had just passed over a timing pad, when I saw people giving out food to eat. I felt like I needed some extra energy, so I grabbed the first thing that was given to me and tossed it in my mouth. Not only is this a violation of Racing 101 (do not try anything on race day you have not already tested in training), it is really just a bad idea in general to just eat anything given to you. My advice to you: do not eat Skittles during a race. Sure, the sugar boost might help, but because of their consistency you easily get phlegmy and can choke. This required a full-out stop, which again wasted precious time.

My final mistake came around 12 miles. I was struggling energy wise and just wanted the race to be over. I thought, incorrectly, that taking one more energy gel would help give me the boost I needed to cross the finish line in style. I was wrong. Just yards from the finish line, I had to stop and throw up…not once, but three times. I then light-headedly staggered across the finish line in a very embarrassed fashion. It was not a photogenic finish.

While I did end up running a PR, it was not the race I had hoped it would be. To this day, almost six years later, I still look back on that race and think “if I had only done this” or “if I hadn’t done that.” The past is the past, however, and what is important is what you take away from the experience.

Here are some takeaways I had from the race, which have helped me over the years and I hope will also help you in future races.

  • Stick to your plan. Before your race, you should have plan laid out as to the pace you want to hit, when you will be refueling and with what, and what goals you are trying to achieve. You should never eat or drink something during a race you have not taken before, nor should you throw your pacing guide out just because you are feeling particularly good. Stick to the plan, and you have a much better chance of meeting your expectations.
  • Expect the unexpected. As much as we would like to control everything, the fact of the matter is anything can happen on race day. From unexpected weather to stomach issues to cramps and injuries, things may not go the way you hope. However, you should do your best to include contingencies in your race day planning so that no matter what gets thrown at you, you will know how to react.
  • Have multiple goals. No matter how well you prepare, it is always a possibility that you will not hit your primary goal. It is rare that we have a perfect race. Having multiple “tiered” goals will help you to make adjustments mid-race and still have a successful day. I try to have at least 3: my ultimate goal (usually a PR), my “I’d be happy with this time” goal, and finishing.
  • There is always another race. As hard as it is to get over a bad race, it is important to remember that there is always another one down the road. Whether it is a few weeks from now or even a few years from now, you will have a chance to redeem yourself and chase after that goal again, whatever it may be. You may even come back stronger and more determined than ever!

So just remember, it is important to learn from your mistakes, and remember that one bad race does not a running career define. Stay strong and run on.

Have any bad race stories and/or great lessons learned? Share below!


3 thoughts on “Learn From Your Race Mistakes

  1. Matt, I’ve had too many bad race experiences to go into all of them. Most of my bad races have usually been because of 3 things: 1) pacing too fast and crashing at the end of the race (many times) – even pacing is the key, 2) the weather and you can’t control it – I’ve trained in winter and left for a race in snow and arrived to 80 degree temps for a marathon (needless to say it did not go well for me – missed my goal time by 25 minutes and was cramping at the end, and 3) hydration – this has been one of my biggest obstacles because I cramp easily if I don’t stay hydrated. Because of this I have had times I have overhydrated and had to make many pit stops (wasted time). Trying to find a balance has been key. I also agree with the 3 goals for a race. That helps me keep my sanity when I don’t have my best race!

  2. Hi Matt, great tips on race day! It’s always a good idea to keep 2-3 goals in mind because you don’t want to feel like a failure if you don’t accomplish your primary goal.

    One lesson I learned was when I ran my first half marathon in San Francisco. I didn’t realize how cold the Bay Area is at 5am and I just had shorts and a cutoff shirt so I was freezing my tail off at the starting line!! I tried to warm up by jogging before the start, and I think I expended more energy than what I would’ve liked just to stay warm. Lesson learned and I always bring an old sweater to keep me warm before the races!!

    1. This is great advice! I ran the Detroit Marathon in October as Fall “race” and, unlike other races, decided upon 2 goals. About mile 16 I knew that if I continued to chase my “A” goal then I would quickly blow up and my day would be done. So I adjusted my pace and focused on my “B” goal which I’m delighted to say I achieved.

      Great advice on the apparel too. I always pack throw away clothes for the start line – even cheapo gloves. I warm up pretty quickly so arm warmers have a limited life for me but I never want to throw away a $30 pair of them. My improvisation is to take old soccer socks, cut the feet part out and use them instead. Then around mile 7 when I’m toasty warm I have no issues tossing them.

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