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How runners plan for the unexpected on race day

You wake up feeling burned out. It's race day and the thermometer reads 35C. It's pouring outside. You didn't prepare for this, not even after months of diligent training. This race is not going to go as planned.

Even Paul Williams, a long distance runner who represented Canada at three Summer Olympics, had such races "all the time."

"You might have had a race where you were supposed to be up at the front pushing the pace and get three laps in and realize it's not happening today, so you fall to the back of the pack and see if you start feeling better," says Mr. Williams, founder of Peninsula Runners, a chain of running stores in British Columbia. "You have to race for the day."

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Changing your race-day expectations at the last minute is not easy. Most runners train for months prior to competing in half or full marathons, almost always with a single goal in mind. Facing the fact that the goal cannot be met, whether it is because of weather or simply that they are feeling off that day, is difficult. But running coaches say it is important for runners to realize that so much about a race is out of their control, and being able to revise your expectations is essential to maintaining a positive attitude and avoiding injury.

"It's actually one of the most important things you can do," says Stephen Adams, a coach with the Calgary Spartans Track and Field Club. "You have to understand that so many different things are out of your control, from weather to delayed starts, and you need to be able to have the mindset that is prepared for that. And if you're not prepared for that, you're in trouble."

Weather is perhaps the greatest factor to compel a runner to change the game plan on race day. On a cooler day than a runner is used to training in, it is important to arrive early and have a long warm up and have extra time for stretching, Mr. Adams says.

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And if the race is on a sweltering day, runners who set aggressive finishing times may need to lower their expectations in order to avoid pushing themselves too hard and succumbing to injury, Mr. Williams says. "If it's hot and humid and you try and go out on a pace that was set for cool conditions, you're probably going to get in big trouble," he says.

Runners can also simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed on race day. They may feel full of energy in the days leading up to the event but feel lethargic on the big day for reasons no one can explain. Should that happen, it is important to accept that you're not going to record a personal best, Mr. Williams says. "Sometimes you have days where it just doesn't feel right," he says. "You have to prepare for a less than ideal day and not get too bummed out."

Dale Bell has been running for 12 years. But the 51-year-old from Toronto has only recently realized the importance of preparing for race conditions that are out of his control. "It's really trying to plan for the unexpected," he says. While training, Mr. Bell considers all the possible race-day hurdles he might face so that he can deal with adversity.

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It is an approach he recommends all runners adopt. "Try to go through a lot of those scenarios in your mind and try to put yourself at ease and try to be prepared for those inevitable curveballs," he says.

Doug Russell, volunteer race director of the Queen City Marathon in Regina, compares races to another major personal event. "The race day itself becomes for many people like a wedding day. You're going to plan and plan and plan that you're going to have this absolutely perfect day, and then you get up the day of your wedding and it's raining, or it's snowing, or something else goes wrong. And if you haven't managed your expectations, you're just going to be crushed," he says.

Refuse to revise your race-day expectations and you may be putting your next event in jeopardy, Mr. Russell says. "If you push yourself beyond your limits, you're risking an injury that could take you away from running for several months," he adds. "And you're going to be further behind [in the race]than if you had just slowed down a bit and decided, 'Today's not the day I'm going to set the record. Today's not the day I'm going to qualify for Boston.'"

While it's important not to allow outside factors to stop you from trying your best, it is important to know that sometimes those factors redefine what your best is going to be, Mr. Russell says.

"The day could bring anything," he says, "so you really just have to take what the day gives you."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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