Don’t Let This Mental Mistake Ruin Your Race

Today I want to talk to you about goals.

No, not life goals and all that self-improvement stuff (though I must say I’m still enjoying the taste of all the Tony Robbins Kool-Aid I drank at a fantastic seminar this weekend).  Instead, I’m talking about the goals you bring into a race, particularly a marathon or half.  And sometimes, the goals you invent during that race.

A Sure-Fire Way to Ruin a Race

Being old is cool, but finishing like this is not

Ever wonder how to wreck a perfectly good race, and make a day that could have been wonderful turn out to be miserable?

Easy. Here’s how.

  1. Start with a reasonable time goal in mind.
  2. Get all pumped up when your adrenaline surges a few miles into the race.
  3. Change your well-thought-out goal to a new, faster one, based on the fact that you “feel good today.”
  4. Crash and burn, shuffle/walk the last few miles, miss your original goal, and have a terrible memory of the day.

Seriously, I’ve done that so many times.  And I bet most of you have too.

A Rule of Thumb Worth Remembering

I learned something interesting while reading Run Less, Run Faster that’s helpful in combating this all-too-common occurrence.

Here’s the idea.  Imagine that on race day, all your training has resulted in a single race time you have inside of you that you’re capable of running, if you pace yourself perfectly and nothing goes wrong.  Let’s say, for example, that you’re running a marathon and your true (but unobservable) ability is a 3:28:00.

Here’s the interesting thing.  According to Run Less, Run Faster, for every minute you run the first half of your marathon faster than that pace, you’ll lose two minutes in the second half.

Let’s put this in terms of a real race. (Any similarities to the Marine Corps Marathon I just ran are entirely coincidental.  Really.)

So we’re saying your true ability on a given day is a 3:28, but you don’t know it.  You just know you have a goal of 3:30.   Let’s say the first few miles of the race go well, and your adrenaline convinces you to that you’re far more awesome than your “modest” 3:30 goal would indicate, so you decide that today is your day to run a 3:20.  You run that pace for a while, and hit the halfway point at 1:40 (four minutes faster than the 1:44 you should have run it in based on your true ability).

In these terms, the two-minutes-slow-for-every-minute-fast rule means you can plan on running the second half in 1:52, eight minutes slower than your ideal 1:44 pace.

The result?  You hate yourself as you shuffle/walk/limp/crawl through the second half, crossing the finish line in 3:32 (missing your original “modest” goal) and kicking yourself for letting your adrenaline get the best of you like that.  Oh yeah, and your whole day sucks.

One Goal and One Goal Only

I have no idea how many people’s races, especially first ones, are ruined this way.  Even with some experience, I still do it, almost every time I race.  The one time that sticks out in my mind where I didn’t make this mistake was when I qualified for Boston.

Why?  Because on that day, qualifying for Boston with a 3:10 was the only thing I cared about.

I couldn’t have cared less that day if I ran a 3:05 or even broke three hours entirely; that wasn’t why I was there.  If my head were some kind of weird video game where qualifying for Boston was worth 100 points, then running a 3:05 would have been worth 101 points.  Almost no difference.

But a 3:11 would have been worth absolute zilch, and that’s why there wasn’t even a hint of temptation to run faster than my goal pace.  My half splits were almost identical, and I crossed the line in 3:09:59.

So that’s your solution: Pick one goal.

Pick one goal and care enough about it that there’s zero temptation to go faster and risk f’ing it all up because you get swept up in the excitement of race day.

Pick a time that matters to you, and that you think you’re capable of, and just stick to it.  It’s so funny how easily convinced we are to run faster on race day when we’ve been planning on something else for months.

If it’s your first race and all you want to do is finish, a time goal is a pretty terrible idea.  (That’s how I ended up walking the last eight miles of my first marathon.)  Make finishing your goal, take it easy, and if you have a bunch of energy left to sprint the last three miles, well, you’ll be one of a select few whose first marathon ends that comfortably.

If it’s not your first race and you have a time in mind, but there’s nothing exceptionally meaningful about it, then think ahead about how much risk you want to take.  If you think you can run a 4:05, but breaking four hours would mean the world to you, then trying it might be worth the risk, if the idea of bonking and running a 4:20 doesn’t sound all that much worse than a 4:05.

But in most cases, I’d say err on the side of slowness in the first half of the race.  Think about it: Knowing you held back too much early on is still a pretty good day.  You finish strong, kick the ass of the last few miles, and can’t wait to get back out there and see what you’re really capable of.  When you consider the alternative of going out too fast and hating every minute of the last six miles of your marathon, even if these two strategies happen to result in the same finish time, the choice is pretty clear.

What do you think?  Do you play it safe, or always push it no matter what you decided going into the race?

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!



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  1. This was a great reminder for me. I have a marathon on Saturday and it’s always good for me to think about pace and my ultimate goal. I ran a marathon back in June using the “bad” strategy – felt awesome so I pushed it. And ended up with heat exhaustion, vomiting, and lots and lots of walking.

    Thanks for this post!!

  2. The scenario you’ve depicted in this blog post is so similar to the race I ran in NYC this last weekend that it’s almost a little creepy. I came through the half in 1:41 and then finished in 3:34…because I crashed and burned. Were you tracking me on race day? Haha just kidding. Great advice though – only wished you had posted it on Saturday 😉

  3. Great timing on this post! I have a marathon in Tulsa next Sunday that I hope to BQ at. I just need to focus on that and not let other things psych me out.

  4. Yep, this is exactly what happened at my last half and I completely missed my goal. When I saw the pace group (that I felt great being in front of) pass me, my heart just sunk. I knew I would not be able to catch them. Such an important lesson and I will be sticking with holding back on the front end going forward.

    Steady eddy is my new mantra.

  5. Thanks, Matt! I’ll keep it in mind this weekend!

  6. Great tip. Save the go for the end 🙂

  7. That is exactly what happened in my last half marathon. We went way faster than goal pace and kept slowing down and slowing down until we crawled over the finish line. Well, nearly crawled. And my partner fainted as soon as she crossed. We had trained, there was no reason except getting gung ho in the first half of the half.

  8. I live and die by that Run Less Run Faster rule. I think the way the say it in the book is that if at the half-way point you’re more than 2 minutes ahead of your planned pace, you’ve blown your marathon.

    I typically keep about a minute and thirty-seconds banked for most of the race. I’ve done this both times I ran using the Furman plan and BQ’d both times.

  9. I think there is a similar problem that many run in to. You go in to a race, with a person or people as targets, more so than any specific time. The last 5K I did, my goal was to win, period. I didn’t care if that was in 15 or 20 minutes. So I toed the line, right at the front, and sprinted out with the other guy who seemed intent on finishing first. At the mile marker, I realized I had run the fastest mile of my life – which was pretty cool. The problem was, I had two more to go. I gassed, and struggled to a 4th place finish, a good 2 minutes back from the winner. The thing is, I’ve run faster times than the one he won with before. Had I ran my race, I may have won – but maybe not, of course. But I certainly would have run better.

  10. Adrenalin Runner says:


    I enjoyed your comment and evident of what you are saying, my fastest marathon to date in South Africa @ altitude (+1500m above sea level) was 4H06 and for the life of me the last 4 years I could not better it.

    Recently (about 1 week) ago, I managed to hit my first sub 4 hour marathon… a whopping 3h59:50, I nearly had to dive over the line to make it… now I am happy about my PB, but hears the laugh… Race started and I did a very fast 3m43sec / km first km… I seanked in at 47minutes for 10km and I managed the 21km in 1h48… bare in mind that I said I wanted to do the marathon under 4 hours… I folded the second half… I was left with 2 km to do in 15minutes… silly little hill and I nearly botched it…

    How do I train my brain to stop or to slow down in the first half??? Thank you


  11. On my last 2k test (a 2000 meter test on a rowing machine, it’s a really commonly used measure of athletic ability in the rowing community) this is EXACTLY the mistake I made. I didn’t process exactly how it went wrong but this post pretty much hit the nail on the head. During my warm up I was feeling good so I bumped my goal time down 15 seconds right before I started. I flied, I died and that was that.

  12. Mariah Rose Crump says:

    I love everything about this BLOG! As a lover of distance running I am stoked to read such a fun, inspiring, honest blog! Thank you so much!

  13. David Says

    I love running and have run for 7 years even doing 21km half marathons in 1h.52mins having gone to fast in the beginning .
    I have a 42km marathon this weekend my 1st which I believe is fairly flat .
    Having said this and what my time is in half marathons ,how do I pace myself in this race.
    Also bare in mind that this is a qualifying race for comrades Marathon.
    Can I still do under 4 hours?

    • Good Morning David

      My name is also David by the way.
      There is a motto start slow and finish strong ,going slower in the beginning and I know this is going to frustrate you but in the end it pays off dividends .For every 7 kilometers you run,walk for 2 minutes,then carry on running.So in other words for every 7 kilometers you walk 2 minutes and then carry on running and rehydrate yourself but don”t over drink at water stops as this can cause cramping .This means 7×5 equals 35 kilometers ;then run the rest and I promise you that you will finish strong.David I can assure you that if you do this you will finish stronger in the 2nd half of the race providing you do not outpace yourself.I also learnt the hard way starting to quickly and cramping 2nd half of the race which not worth it;having to walk the last 8 kilometers of the race cramping.A friend of mine suggested this and I was surprised .I saved myself 26 minutes and went from a time of 4:13 to 3:48.So just think walking 2 minutes x 5 equals 10 minutes can save you a lot of time when you see my times not boasting just making a point .Good luck


  14. Good luck and run well.Remember its on the day what your body tells you.

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