RACE AN UNUSUAL DISTANCE
You’ll develop pace awareness and escape your comfort zone.
If you’ve raced distances like the 5K or half-marathon many times, you probably know exactly what per-mile pace you’d consider good, better, and best—and what you’d consider bad, worse, and downright embarrassing. And many runners have run those races. In 2018, 65 percent of runners surveyed ran at least one half-marathon while 64 percent ran at least one 5K, according to Running USA.
Many athletes don’t adequately adjust their expectations in an oft-raced distance to account for factors like aging, coming back from an injury, or recovering after giving birth, which can be a recipe for disappointment and frustration.
Perhaps that’s why people are turning to less-conventional race distances. Thirty-one percent of runners surveyed by Running USA ran a 12K, 15K, or 10-miler in 2018. That’s up from just six percent in 2017. Choosing an “odd ball” is a nice reprieve from working towards a goal you’ve tried (and failed) to achieve more than once.
“If you ever start to lose your love of a race, do something different, and then go back to your favorite distance,” says David Siik, LA-based senior manager of running for Equinox and creator of Precision Running. “Distance (pun intended) always makes the heart grow fonder.”
This category of races can also be used to bridge the gap between a 10K and half-marathon or a half-marathon and a full marathon. “There are so many factors that go into a race that don’t necessarily present themselves during a training run, like fighting start-line adrenaline, dealing with crowds, and taking in fuel at aid stations,” says coach Janet Hamilton, Atlanta-based owner of Running Strong. “It’s preferable to make (and learn from) any mistakes in a tune-up race instead of in the goal event.”
Choose Your Goal
Those pursuing an odd distance out of frustration with their current fitness level should dedicate a whole training cycle to the pursuit. Some spring options include the Marine Corps 17.75K (March 23, Triangle, Virginia), Chicago’s 8K Shamrock Shuffle (March 24), and the 4.2-mile Pat’s Run (April 27, Tempe, Arizona). How long (or short and fast) you go is up to you, but the idea is to get out of your comfort zone, Siik says.
“Throwing in a two-mile speed race (they do exist) can feel a little shocking and often exhilarating, and if all you had been doing were 10Ks or higher, you’ll likely be shaking the dust off some faster-twitch muscles,” he adds.
If, however, you’re using the odd distance as a stepping stone to something longer, you may schedule it as a tune-up about three or four weeks out from that longer goal.
Adapt Your Training
Your key workouts will be all about learning to hold a new-to-you race pace. To determine an appropriate target, plug a recent finishing time into a race-time predictor and do some math: Most predictors don’t include odd distances, so you’ll need to choose a pace between your estimated paces for a slightly longer and a slightly shorter distance.
Once you have a goal pace, learn it: Hamilton’s athletes spend eight to 10 weeks doing weekly workouts in which the only objective is being within two to five seconds of race pace. Half marathoners, for example, would start with about two miles of 800-meter repeats at pace and work up to six or seven miles at pace in the middle of a mid-distance run—a progression that would also work for runners targeting a 15K, 10-miler, or 20K.
Execute on Race Day
If you’re using an unusual distance race as a pace run en route to something longer, do it right or don’t do it at all: “Most people, when they get that race number pinned to their chest, their evil twin comes out and says, ‘You can run faster than this,’” Hamilton says. “They race the race on the way to their race,” which can require a recovery period that interrupts your training and can lead to injury.
If the odd distance is the goal, however, you’ll want to run on the autopilot you set in training—and to bask in the glow of an automatic personal best.