When you read back over the countless race reports written by any athlete, you usually can summarize them under one of two buckets: 1) I PR'd the race and it was all rainbows and unicorns; or 2) I didn't have the ideal race because...
For anyone new to racing, PRs are relatively easy to obtain, since you only have a limited number of attempts and background at the event. But for those who have been racing for some time, PRs just don't happen every race. In fact, some people may go seasons without a single PR. Once you have put it all out there, you move into a phase where a new PR is typically just a small chip off the old one, not a major breakthrough, although breakthroughs can still happen even for the veteran racer.
So what does it take typically for one to PR? Well great, consistent training leading up to a race for one. But also equally important (if not more), is the ability to execute your race with ninja like precision based on your fitness. The bottom line is that you can be super fit and race ready, but if you fail to execute your race to your fitness, odds are you won't have a great race. And for the most part, that is why people fall into the second bucket. Whether you got super excited early into the race and went out too fast only to fade later, or simply threw your plan out the window once the gun went off, a bad race is a bad race. At the end of the day, all that hard training gave you a sub-optimal result. And while the eternal optimist will find small victories along the way through accomplishments in training, the sad fact is that the majority of people are wired to see success in the result, not the process. There is extreme value in honoring both, but the result is what people see, which is why it typically matters most.
So what I try to instill in anyone training for a race (no matter the distance), is to go into the race knowing what your plan is. You know your plan by writing it out in advance, and practicing it in your training . I've provided a number of examples of how I've been doing this to ensure my plan matches my fitness. If your workouts in training aren't giving you confidence leading up to your race, you need to scale back your pacing plans. These workouts should be relatively easy (compared to the race), since they are only a fraction of your actual race.
So once you've found your pace and practiced it in training to confirm it is appropriate, its time to create your plan. The reasons for writing a plan are not simply to document everything. It is also a mental checklist to make sure you figure things out in advance, so you don't have to worry and stress about it later when you may not have the same flexibility. With all the nervous energy we bring to a race, the goal is to channel that toward the actual race, not some outside stressor you could have resolved with a little bit of planning. Let's look at some key elements of what a race plan should include
Logistics - Whether the race is local or you have to travel, every race requires some logistical planning for both packet pickup and for the race itself. When are you going to do each of these activities? How does that align with your family's/friend's plans? Do you know exactly where you are going and planning to park? What about where you are going to meet after the race?
Running Plans Before Race - Obviously your race plan should include your running plans, but I like to write out the day before, and warm up plans as well. As part of my visualization before races, I go through this routine in my head, so if it is in my race plan, it is part of what I visualize.
Nutrition - Again, think about not just race nutrition, but anything you'll need before, during, and after your race. Depending on the logistics of your race, you may not have easy access to everything, so if you need to plan accordingly, write it down. Are you planning to take on course nutrition or bring your own? How frequently? Where are the water stops on the course and how do they line up to your nutrition plan.
Race Specifics - This is your actual race plan, where you outline what you will do in your race. As with any distance, you want to ease into your pacing, so make sure that your pace plan reflects both a gradual transition to your goal race pace, as well as the particular uniqueness of the race course. For example, is there a big hill early on or later in the race that you know will force slower splits to keep an even effort? How will your pacing address this? Is the weather (heat, humidity, wind, rain, etc) going to impact your pacing?
Emergency Kit - I like to call this section the "What Ifs". What if...you drop your nutrition, have to go to the bathroom, forget your trusty Garmin, the weather is completely different than forecast, etc. You want to try and cover it all here so you can plan for the unexpected, so that if it happens to you, you have a plan to address the issue.
So with a little bit of planning and putting it out there in advance, you can save yourself the potential for things to go awry on race day. Success doesn't just happen. It happens when you create situations that present opportunities for greatness. And in order to maximize those opportunities and minimize the likelihood of a negative experience, developing a race plan is strongly recommended.
As the saying goes - "Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance"!