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Joe’s Top Five: Racing lessons I’ve learned (and one I haven’t)

With almost 35 years of running and an untold number of races under my belt, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. I’m not always a quick learner, and I’m sure I’m still awaiting some lessons yet to be taught, but here are five solid pillars of wisdom I have come to live by when it comes to racing:

1. Take extra safety pins to every race, just in case. I have a drawer full of pins that I have accumulated over the years, carefully linked in groups of four, so it seems counterintuitive to take pins to a race when I usually come home with more than I need. But, every once in a rare while a race will run out, and you’ll wish you had some extra on hand to secure your bib number to your shirt.

How I learned this lesson: Once, at a race I won’t embarrass by mentioning, I grabbed the last pin at the registration table and to my chagrin realized I didn’t have any extra pins in my running bag or car. I ended up pinning my number to my shirt right through the middle with my lone pin. My number fluttered and sagged distractingly throughout the race, but it stayed on. Other runners with no pins at all were left to carry their numbers in their hands. Admittedly, it’s a classic first world problem, but ever since, I’ve kept extra sets of pins in my glove compartment and pinned to my running bags so I never again have to run with my bib number hanging at half mast.

2. Always double-knot your shoelaces. In the first race I ever ran, the all-school cross-country race in 7th grade, my shoe came off when I caught the heel on a stair step. I shoved it back on and immediately lost it again in a patch of thick mud. I finally got it back on and re-tied it, but only after several runners went streaming past me.

There is no worse feeling in the middle of a race than seeing your shoelaces suddenly flapping loose. You have two choices, neither of them good: You can just keep running, trying to avoid stepping on the loose laces and tripping head over heels, or you can stop and take the time to re-tie them as runner after runner flies by. Consistent pre-race double-knotting will put an end to this potential racing snafu and provide peace of mind.

How I learned this lesson: You might think I discovered the wonders of double-knotting immediately after that 7th grade race… but noooo! I finally wised up many years later, sometime in the late 90s, during the Oregon Road Runners Club’s New Year’s race in Forest Grove. With around a mile to go, I was running across the valley when my laces came untied. This time I was having a very good race, running a solid time, and unwilling to concede my place, so I decided to keep running, careful not to step on the laces. As I adjusted my motion to sweep the loose laces away from my shoe with every stride, I vowed to double-knot my laces without fail from that day forward.

3. Don’t eat a tall stack of pancakes on race morning. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and I only had to learn this one once.

How I learned this lesson: For one of my first road races as a high school sophomore, my mother and I thought a big hearty, gluten filled breakfast would be just the thing to propel me through the 6.2 miles. Instead of the flapjacks propelling me, I propelled said pancakes onto the pavement about a half-mile into the race. From then on I eat very little, if anything, before any race shorter than a half marathon.

4. Make absolutely sure your running gloves are completely dry between back-to-back cold, rainy races. It’s a terrible feeling to take off on a chilly, soggy race only to discover your gloves are still damp and your hands aren’t getting any warmer any time soon.

How I learned this lesson: This is my most-recently learned lesson, just getting through to me this January. I ran a frigid, soaking race on a Saturday, and laid out my gloves to dry on the kitchen counter when I got home. The next morning I got up early, packed my running gloves in my bag and drove off into the dark toward my Sunday race. The relatively mild, dry morning turned chilly, windy, and wet a few minutes before the start, and I found out too late that my gloves were still damp. D’oh!

5. Don’t judge the competitiveness of the field with a cursory glance at the starting line crowd. That kid in the basketball shorts might actually know what he’s doing. The guy in the cotton T-shirt might be faster than you think. And the tall, lanky runner in the latest high-tech racing flats and fluorescent singlet may have a better fashion sense than race pace. Usually you can get a pretty good idea of how a race will go by assessing the folks at the front of the pack, but there are no guarantees.

How I learned this lesson: There was no single incident that brought this one home to me; rather, this is something I learned from experience over the years. The best race strategy is to run your own race and not worry about how other people look at the starting line.

One lesson I still haven’t learned: Don’t go out too fast. Every runner knows the old trope about pacing a race well and running negative splits, but it’s often easier said than done. I usually feel great for the first mile of a race. Everything seems smooth and easy, and it sure doesn’t feel like I’m running too hard. Then somewhere around the third mile reality sets in and the pace catches up with me.

That’s just the way it goes. In some of my fastest races, I went through the first mile with a completely inadvisable – sometimes terrifying – split, but somehow I managed to remain upright and moving forward all the way through the finish line. They weren’t textbook races, they hurt like hell, and my splits were “positively” ugly, but my final times were among my best. I didn’t plan to run them that way, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything, and despite my best intentions I still run a lot of races like that. As I said, I’m a slow learner!

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