I've got into the habit of keeping my race bib numbers to pin up at my desk at work over the past six months. It's a talisman of my running life and future race goals.
The space is filling up quickly with numbers from 5k to half-marathon distance, some of which I have raced as a murderous hoedown (the Kaiser half-marathon; the Rodeo Beach trail 20k); others have been a quality workout with an excuse to gather with friends afterwards.
Incorporating a race into your training is a great way of getting some speed work or quality long miles in while having some fun, as you can treat it like a fast-finish long run. For example, a 16-mile long run could be broken down into eight miles at your normal long run pace, incorporating a 10k race as your fast finish (allowing for the fact that this will not be at your normal 10k pace), then a two mile cool-down.
The trick is timing it so that you get the warm-up miles in as close to the race start as possible, which makes this an ideal strategy for small, local low-key races, where you can roll up to the start line 10 minutes before the gun. Many of my Galway running club mates employ this tactic during marathon training season, by simply running from home to the race start – nice as long as you remember to plan a lift home.
One of the advantages of running a race as training is that you can practise fuelling while running a bit harder.
It also takes a lot of the work out of long run planning, as there are jolly people at aid stations waiting to hand you paper cups of water, slices of orange and the odd gel if you're lucky. No driving around dropping mid-run bottles of water off at Barna Golf Club.
The mental effort of a tough, long run is also lessened by running within a race, as while I am working hard at keeping up my goal run pace I am not running at the kind of effort required to race, say, a standalone half-marathon, while other people huff and puff beside me.
Of course, if you're the type of person for whom the sound of a race gun is like the proverbial red rag, if you end up running far too hard for the intended workout or you cannot bear the thought of having a less-than-record race time recorded forever on the web, then this strategy may not be for you.
With a little planning, you can break up the challenge of your long run workout by having some fun at local races, while keeping your eye on the prize – the A race where you get to put all that training into practice.
The 20-mile fast-pace run on my Boston marathon training plan loomed large this weekend. My goal pace was 19 seconds per km slower than marathon pace, which would be tough.
I convinced my friend Gemma (training for the London marathon and following a similar pace plan) that we should run a half-marathon in Hellyer Park, San Jose, as a quality long run, with some warm-up miles to make up the distance.
We arrived into a wet park early in the morning for some quick pre-race miles, getting back just in time for the official start. Cumulative fatigue from a few weeks' hard training and a rainy, windy morning meant my goal run pace felt tough, but I was able to use the carrot of chasing other runners to keep me keen.
I felt a bit down close to the turnaround when I saw the lead women (wishing I was in the race mix) but running at a slower pace gave me a chance to enjoy people watching and to race without worrying about peak performance. You can't beat going home from a 20-mile training run with a medal, T-shirt and some red velvet cake for recovery.