If you're worried about running in the heat, especially if you have a spring race and you live in a cold climate, consider running most of your workouts with more clothes than you need. Wear a hat, even when it's a beautiful 65-degree day.
If you're worried about weaving through the crowds at a big race like NYC or Chicago, run a very low-key tune-up race as a long run, and start in the back of the field. Practice working your way up through the field patiently and wasting as little energy as possible. These are just a few ways you can prepare yourself to handle missteps on race day. Write down some of the fears you have (or issues that have plagued you or your running friends), and devise unique strategies to practice them during your training segment.
The best way to prepare mentally for something going wrong in a race is to use visualization techniques in the weeks leading up to the race. When visualizing your race, be as specific and detailed as possible. Imagine yourself at the starting line, surrounded by thousands of other high-strung runners. Is it hot; is it cold; what are you wearing? When the gun sounds, envision the acceleration in your heart rate and the claustrophobic feeling as the stampede begins. By conjuring up these emotions, sights, and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm, collected, and execute your race plan in a chaotic environment. The more specific you can be with the sites, sounds and emotions, the more calm and confident you'll be on race day.
More importantly, visualize positive and negative scenarios. Create a specific plan and visualize what you'll do and how you will feel should something go wrong. What if your shoe comes untied or you have to go the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you'll have a specific plan in place and, instead of panicking, you'll be calm, cool and collected.
How to Adjust During a Race
Now that you've prepared in your training for things to go wrong, it's time to execute on race day. Here are some helpful tips to deal with unexpected issues on race day.
1. Adjust Expectations and Have a Back-up Plan in Place
As mentioned above, you should have already created and visualized a back-up plan during your training. When things go wrong, adjust your expectations and fall back to your back-up race plan. For example, if you went out too slow because you got caught in the crowds, begin to execute your back-up plan and slowly start making up the time.
I advise runners to have three target splits at 10 miles of a marathon (fast, perfect, slow) and a specific plan in place for the second two-thirds of the race should they hit either one. Likewise, if it's hot, try using a temperature calculator to help you adjust your pace to account for the heat and humidity.
2. Turn off Your Watch
In 2007, I ran in the very hot and infamous Twin Cities Marathon (the same year they closed Chicago because of the heat). The biggest mistake I made in that race was getting frustrated—I kept looking at my watch and didn't have a back-up plan. I was running slower and slower every mile because of the heat, but I was actually gaining on the entire field (which is a good reference point for your performance when time is out the window). However, because I was so stuck on my watch and my paces, I defeated myself mentally and forgot to just compete and run to the best of my ability.
Be patient and don't freak out. Don't overcompensate and be patient if something goes wrong during a race. If you have to stop and go to the bathroom, your shoe comes untied, or you have to stop to take extra fluids, don't try to make up all the time you lost in one mile. Spread out the time you need to make up over the course of the remaining distance. By sprinting and trying to make up all the time (or more than 10 to 15 seconds per mile) at once, you run the risk of changing your energy system (for the marathon) or burning yourself out so you fade badly over the last 3 to 4 miles.
3. How to Cope With Bad Weather
Rain: If it's raining, take a trash bag, cut a hole for your head, and wear it while you wait at the starting line. Do not run with the trash bag on for any distance; use it to keep yourself dry at the start. More than likely, you'll be standing in the starting corral for a long period of time before the race with little shelter.
If you have friends/family on the course, give them a dry shirt or socks that you can swap at 16 or 20 miles to get a nice, fresh feeling and get rid of any soggy clothing or shoes that are holding you back. If it's a very cold rain, using Vaseline on exposed body portions will help keep you warm. Vaseline is waterproof, which will help keep your hands and lower legs from getting too cold. One caution: Vaseline does not allow your body to sweat efficiently, so don't put in on your head and neck. You want excess heat (yes, there will be some even in such cold temperatures) to dissipate as needed.