What to Do When Everything Falls Apart on Race Day

Photo: Getty/ Betsie Van Der Meer
Running: It’s fun, challenging, and a great way to stay healthy. Whether you are on-road or trail, running takes practice, it takes effort and training schedules vary depending on the kind of race you’re tackling. As a runner, you can only control so much. You can choose your shoes, your outfit, your nutrition, and the route you run—but there are also things you can’t control. What do you do if everything falls apart on race day with intense weather changes, a course change, or even a distance change? This happened to me recently and it taught me a lot about myself, as a runner.

A few weeks ago I took off for Jackson, Wyoming against a sherbet sunrise over Newark airport. The excitement and nerves left me fidgety on the flight (the three shots of espresso I consumed before boarding probably didn't help). I was headed west to tackle my second ultra distance on the crest trail: 28 miles at an elevation of 11,000 feet, and the nerves surround the altitude, the weather, the mentality I'd have that day had me nerve-wracked. In the end, none of this would matter so much, because we didn't end up running the 28 miler as planned.

Upon landing in Wyoming, our group learned that several feet of snow had fallen on the trail and we would have to play it by ear. While this news was slightly difficult to absorb—we all had trained well up to 26 miles in preparation for this ultra distance—it was out of our control. Above all else, as a runner, it’s important to put safety first. There was a backup plan, of course. We would have two options: a 21 miler at 7,000 feet or a 16 miler at 7,000 feet around Jenny Lake. Both routes were challenging and with well over a 2,000 feet vertical change. Like most runners, I went to bed that night consumed with pre-race jitters. Would we run the full distance? Would we have to resort to plan B?

The morning of our scheduled run we woke up to the news we all had feared—the ultra run was cancelled. Five-plus feet of snow had fallen on the mountain overnight and it was not runnable. My heart sank, but I also felt relieved that we would run at lower elevation, with slightly warmer temps. This experience was a clear example of a race day falling apart but it’s how you handle it that matters.

While complete and utter disappointment are natural feelings, letting go of the things you can’t control almost always helps the letdown. So, what to do when race day falls apart? Step one: Take a deep breath. Then, remind yourself that you can’t control the things you can’t control. It sounds so basic, but thinking positively about the situation can be game-changing. Remind yourself there will be another opportunity to try again. And lastly: Make the best of the situation, even if that means changing distance or route.

These coping skills are directly transferable to most situations that cause a race day to fall apart. Anything can happen. You may fall sick, cramp on the course, have a sneaker malfunction, aren’t mentally “all there” that day. Whatever the case, there will always be another race, another distance, another challenge. It’s all about taking things as they come and in stride.

BTW: Here's the difference between road running and trail running, and if you're ready to start running but haven't in a while, then here's how to get back into it.

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