Clear Eyes – Pre-Race Self Check-in

Along with a couple hundred other Americans, I am 9 days out from a race I have been preparing for for the last 4 years.

No pressure.

The week of the 2014 US Marathon Championships at Twin Cities Marathon, I was super nervous. I knew I had to win in order to achieve my goal of qualifying for the 2015 World Team, but I also knew that there were other excellent women in the race, and after all, as we know, anything can happen in a marathon.

Pre-Race photo with Jeannette Faber and Sheri Piers before Twin Cities 2014. Lots of jitters!

Pre-Race photo with Jeannette Faber and Sheri Piers before Twin Cities 2014. Lots of jitters!

With all that nervous energy, it was difficult for me to focus on anything at work, so I just opened up a new word document and started writing.

It was an extremely helpful exercise for me then, and it became one that I have practiced ever since. These self check-in writing sessions have resulted in varying degrees of success come race day, but one thing is for sure, it definitely made me feel more prepared and therefore more relaxed going into the race.

A lot of people prefer for their coach to do this work and then tell them what they need to know. Others just prefer to wing it. I am an extremely analytical type, so this might not be for everyone, but if anyone else out there is like me, both of you should give it a try!


When you’re ready, go ahead and get out a pen and paper or open up a document and answer these four questions:


1) What are you afraid of? Write out all your fears. Then address each fear. Think of the things that you can control to help you avoid or handle your fears.

A great depiction of what we think can happen in a race. (Photo Cred SF Marathon)

What we think can happen in a race. (Photo Cred SF Marathon)

Since I’m a numbers person, this often involves doing research. For instance at the Olympic Trials next week, my goal is entirely place-based, which means I need to understand my competition, so I have been pouring though the list of declared runners trying to imagine how I think many of them will run their race, and where that puts me in their midst.

But more often we are chasing a time goal, and our biggest fear is not being able to achieve those goals. In that case, I like to break down the time into pace per mile, and then play with those numbers a bit. I’ll study the course map and give reasonable estimates for what I will run each mile given the terrain. Then I will put that all together and check it against my goal time. (For those of you running Boston, this tool from Runners Connect made Boston my PR course, so try it out!)

If your fears are related to apparel issues or weather, start making decisions about what you are going to do given any particular situation. “If it is hot, I will run x seconds slower per mile.” “If it is raining, I will be cautious of…”


2) How do you know you are fit? Go through your training log and look at some of your best workouts and your total training volume for the build-up. Remember how those top workouts felt and imagine yourself feeling that way on the marathon course.

You don't have to write it all on your arm, but putting it on paper will help! (Photo Cred: Pace Tat)

You don’t have to write it all on your arm, but putting it on paper will help! (Photo Cred: Pace Tat)

Based on how you felt at given paces during your workouts, find your bottom limit of what mile pace you think you can run 26.2 times and then extrapolate out to what your total time would be. Then maybe remember how you felt on some of your worse workouts and calculate your pace if that’s how you end up feeling on race day to give you your “worst-case scenario.”


3) Now that all your training is done, what are your A, B, and C goals? Once all the training is done, these are often different from what you may have set out to do at the beginning of the cycle. It is important to check back in with your current fitness and make sure that your will and your body are roughly on the same page. And to account for whatever the day might throw at you, I always have 3 goals for a marathon that span roughly 3-6 minutes from A to C.

Goal Target (1)

As Becki Spellman can tell you in her account of qualifying for the trials months after her failed trials attempt, it is very important to have a back-up goal to keep you motivated just in case your main goal becomes unobtainable at any point in the race.

A Goal: Dream big. This is the goal I never tell anybody because people would look at me like I’m crazy. It should be something that is within the realm of possibility, but might require a little magic. I have achieved my A goal twice that I can remember, and both times were definitely magical.

B Goal: This goal is the one you probably tell people (unless you’re a sandbagger and then you only tell people your C goal :-P). It is ambitious but realistic. You would be very very happy achieving this goal.

C Goal: This is kind of that bottom limit. Sometimes your C goal is just to finish the race, and that in itself can be very motivating. Usually this goal is what you would need to achieve in order to not be disappointed. It needs to be something you’ve already done before and you know you are in shape to do again. If it’s much harder than that, then it’s not a proper C goal. (And if you often have C goals that are too hard, you probably don’t enjoy racing that much as a result.)


4) How will you maintain motivation when it gets hard? In addition to my goals, for most of my best races, I’ve had a few songs and a few mantras in my tool belt before the race.

One of my go-to favorite mantras. (Photo Cred: Living In Yogadise, Mantra Cred: Brené Brown)

One of my go-to favorite mantras. (Photo Cred: Living In Yogadise, Mantra Cred: Brené Brown)

Think about current events in your life that will motivate you. Is there someone you love who is particularly inspirational right now? Maybe there are 4 or 5 people (it’s dangerous to only focus on 1 or 2) in the race who are in great shape, but you know you can beat them. Maybe your goal is just to enjoy the entire experience, so remembering that might be enough.

Go through your music library and find your most recent favorite pump-up songs, and then make sure that you have those songs on your phone or iPod so that you can listen to them on race morning and prime your brain to get those songs stuck in your head.

Find quotes that have stuck with you recently. Write them down and condense them to a phrase of 4 words or less, and then practice repeating them on your final training runs. I find that actually pairing the mantras and songs with the act of running will mean that they will more likely be available to you on race day when the going gets tough.


That’s it! That’s the whole Self Check-in process! Yes, a lot of it is numbers-focused, but the touchy-feely aspect is equally important.

Growing up, my mom always quoted a Russian pianist (who apparently stole his line from Vladimir Lenin) who said that in order to perform well, you have to have these two things:

Head of ice; heart of fire.

I have applied that concept to all of my best marathons, and this self check-in writing exercise has helped me to even better prepare to race in that state.

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