Race Recon: Secret to a Great Race



It had been 10 years since I ran the local race series but I was excited to pin on the bib number and challenge myself. The series featured 7 (mostly trail) races of distances as short as one mile and as long as a half-marathon.

As the first race approached, I automatically began my race reconnaissance and it dawned on me that how to properly recon a race isn’t something you read much about. So, here are the ways to recon your races. It certainly relieves race day tension and definitely can help you perform better in the race.


For short races in your area, the best recon is to simply run the course. That’s what I did for my race. Even though I had raced the course before, I took an easy run day and went and ran the entire 10K loop. It jogged my memory of all the hills and features that are important to know, especially when racing on trails at altitude like here in Flagstaff. I was reminded of the steepness and length of the hills. I was reminded of the really rocky and technical sections. I was reminded of the flat, fast sections. And I was reminded of the final incline before the final push to the finish line.

As I tour a course, I’m thinking about how I’ll run each section and how I want to feel. If there are any features of the course that might adjust my normal racing strategy, I make note. For example, my race started with a flat half mile on the roads before turning onto single track. I knew I could get stuck if I was behind a pack as we hit the single track, so I made a mental note to make sure in the race that I was in a good position as we hit the single track.

Next, and I remembered from the last time I ran this race, the trail is tough between miles 2 and 3 – more technical trail and grinding climbs (which are very challenging at altitude). I made a mental note that I would need to be extra careful to not go out too fast as I probably wouldn’t recover over the last half of the race if I went too fast too early.

Comparatively, the remaining parts of the race are easier so I knew that I could push the pace (using my Go Zone Strategy) in the latter half because I didn’t have to worry about any major climbs or other dangers of pushing hard.

For short races like a 5K, you can even run the course the morning of the race as your warm-up. This serves the same purpose and certainly keeps your thoughts front and center as you line up to race.

If you can’t run the full course, I recommend you at least run the last part of the race (start at the finish line and run out and back on the course) so you get a feel for how the last part of the race is when you are suffering the most. This can greatly help you know when to start your final big push to the finish.

Another great strategy is to not just run the course in the days/weeks ahead of the race but to also do workouts on the course. When I coached the pros, we’d even fly to the race course (like Boston) and do runs and workouts on the key parts of the course. I wanted the athletes to know exactly how the course felt at race speed (or faster) so they’d be better able to dole out their effort for best results.

All of these strategies help you mentally prepare for the race and I find that the best athletes have the ability to dissect each race and come up with a strategy that suits their unique strengths and weaknesses so they can have their best race on each type of course.


Small races may not have course maps available online (mine didn’t) but most races now have course maps (including elevation) on their websites. And if they don’t, you can usually do a quick online search and find someone who has run the course and uploaded their GPS file.

Study the maps carefully and again, think about the best race strategy for the course and your current fitness level. As I mentioned, I knew the first part of my 10K had some challenging hills so I modified my normal starting pace to be a little slower early so I would have more energy for the hills and not be too tired after the hills when I wanted to really push the pace. My big goal was to finish strong and I wanted to be the passer not passee over the last 2 miles.

One note: Always make sure to look at the scale on elevation charts. Some races (particularly hilly ones) try to make their race course look flatter by changing the scale and stretching the elevation chart. Make sure you look at the exact elevation change to determine just how steep the uphills and downhills are.


One of the nice things about chip timing is that it’s easy to look at past year’s results online. And for many races, you can even see intermediate splits for runners. This allows you to look up runners you know who have raced successfully (and unsuccessfully) at the event and see how they ran the race.

Did they run a negative, even or positive split? Was there a section that was markedly faster or slower than expected? If so, why? (See course map for possible terrain challenges.) How did their time compare to their times on other courses, particularly courses you’ve run before? This info really helps you wrap your head around a goal finish time for the race, especially on challenging courses where you know you can’t run your fastest time but want to run your best time for that course.

For my race, past results indicated that successful runners ran about a minute slower than they could at sea level on a paved course. This helped me adjust my predicted 10K shape to account for the trails and altitude and was essential to coming up with the best pacing strategy.


Online logs are another great source for information on successful racers in your event. While chip timing offers some splits along the route, a runner’s GPS watch data gives you every mile (or kilometer). This gives you even more detailed information on best pacing strategies for a successful race.

This can be especially helpful on unfamiliar courses or courses with unique characteristics. I know that ultra guru Ian Torrence often studies Strava data to learn best pacing strategies for grueling ultra races. Routes from aid station to aid station become mini-events in and of themselves and knowing how others have tackled those sections can inform your own pacing strategy.


Lastly, online blogs and race reports are plentiful as more and more runners share their race experiences. Read these race reports and you’ll learn first hand knowledge of your race and the “would of, should of” info that only experience can tell you.


Put together, these strategies are like a short cut to success. You can learn the best strategy to use for your best race. It sure works for me. I ran a great race in my 10K. I was very controlled the first mile then divvied out my effort appropriately through the tough second mile and from there on out, I ran very strong and achieved my goal. I hope with these strategies, you are set up to do the same on your race day.


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“I got my first Boston Qualifier today with a 21 personal record!”

– Ramona M.