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Saucony 26 Strong: Race-Day Strategy

Cathy Shaw1
Cathy Shaw and her daughter

Cathy Shaw has been a runner for years. The 43-year-old from Annapolis, Md., has found success at the half marathon and shorter distances—often placing in her age-group at local events—but whenever she tried to increase her training for the marathon, something would go wrong.

“I struggled with multiple injuries prior to training (this year), and I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to handle the longer miles,” she says. “But my knees and back have been hanging in there.”

Shaw is part of the Saucony 26 Strong project, a collaboration between Competitor and Saucony that pairs a veteran runner with a first-timer to train for a fall marathon. She and her partner, veteran Lauren Colvin, 38, also from Annapolis, are training for the Marine Corps Marathon.

While she’s comfortable racing, Shaw—like many first-time marathoners—is figuring out how to take what works for her in shorter races and apply it to a full marathon. As a vegetarian, she’s has also worked on getting enough protein into her diet and designing a nutrition plan for race day.

“I’m a very clean eater, so I’ve shied away from simple carbs and sugars,” she says. “But I realize that a certain amount of those will fuel me on my long runs. I’ve been experimenting with some natural/organic versions (of energy gels) to find out what works best.”

Regardless of what she ends up choosing, Shaw’s taking an important final step in marathon preparation: creating a race-day plan.

“I think its very important to have a plan for race day while also being prepared to adjust that plan if the race doesn’t go as you may have hoped,” says Laura Dempsey, a Saucony 26 Strong veteran racer from Watertown, Mass.

A good race-day plan should be specific in terms of what you want to accomplish, but flexible to account for all the thing that can go differently than expected. Veteran Sean Walsh, 51, from St. Louis, Mo., breaks the race up into the first 20 miles and then a final 10K.

“My goal is to get to 20 miles on pace and with enough physical and mental energy to run hard for the next 45 minutes to achieve my goal,” he says. “As a mental tool I always remind myself during the last 6.2 miles at each mile marker exactly how much time is left. For example, running at a 7:30 pace and crossing mile 22 I would tell myself, ‘You have 32 minutes left—after 18 weeks of training you can keep this up for 32 minutes more!’”

While having a goal pace in mind is certainly expected, many veterans advised their first timers to be flexible once the race began.

“It’s very hard to find a flat race here in Colorado, so unless you know the race course, it’s nearly impossible to have a pace-per-mile type of strategy,” says Katie Oglesby, 41, of Littleton, Colo. “I always try to have three goals for an important race: my A goal—what I know I’m capable of if all the stars are properly aligned; my B goal—what I know I can most likely pull off under most circumstances; and my C goal—a rainy-day-everything’s-falling-apart plan.

“Fortunately, in my 20 plus years of running, I’ve met my A or B goals 90 percent of the time,” she says.

Other veterans offered this tips for creating a race-day plan:

Know your nutrition. Be familiar with what food and drinks will be on the race course and test them before the race. Have a plan for how many calories you expect to eat, and adjust if necessary. A timer on your watch is a good way to remind yourself to eat and drink.

Start slow. With the adrenaline pumping, it’s easy to start the race well ahead of your goal pace. “I typically start out my races a minute to minute and a half slower than my ending race pace,” says Melissa Simonds-Williams, 31, of Sacramento, Calif. Walsh suggested a warm-up mile about 30 seconds slower than race pace.

Be flexible. “I always have contingency plans B and C since you can’t control everything on race day,” says veteran Gael Henville, 43, of Boston. “There are always variables. You have to be flexible—weather, cramps, injuries and that dreaded mental demon.”