Stacking the Odds

Most of us truly want to succeed at whatever we attempt to do.  We study maps before we go on a trip to a place we’ve never been; we ask friends for advice before buying a new car; we spend hours studying for an exam; and we train diligently for our race.

Gamblers call it “stacking the odds,” literally arranging the cards in a deck so that the chances, or odds, of winning are in one’s favor. In gambling, stacking the deck is considered cheating, because the odds of winning are not left to chance. However, in everyday life, it would be considered foolhardy to leave most things to chance. As a runner, and especially a new runner, you want to leave very few things to “chance.”

Yes, there are some runners who never train a single day, enter a race and finish it.  They didn’t exactly stack the odds in their favor, but still managed to succeed. However, it is extremely rare for someone to have never run a single step to enter a race and win it.  And if you ask that person who didn’t train but decided to race anyway, most likely they will say they would prefer to not repeat the experience. In fact, there are many of these runners in our Galloway group; they decided they would prefer “stacking the odds” for a successful race by training for their next one.

So how can you, as a runner, stack the odds in favor of finishing your first (or even your second or 100th) race?

Find the RIGHT race.

There are three very important criteria for choosing the right race:

  • Overall distance,
  • Elevation and
  • Time limitations.

There are thousands of races held every year for all kinds of distances, from one mile to over 300 miles.  Each distance requires a different level of training.

The minimum amount of training needed to complete a half is two midweek training days and one weekend long run for a minimum of 10 weeks. For a full, it is advised to do three midweek runs in addition to your long run and to give yourself at least 18 weeks to train. The longer the run, the more training time you will need between when you start running and when you do your race.  But again, these are just guides; I am sure there are always exceptions.

If you are committed to training diligently and you schedule enough training time, any distance is possible. However, if you constantly find yourself making excuses for why you missed your training runs, you might want to reconsider the distance you are training to run. Increase your odds for success by choosing a race distance that fits your life at this moment and save the longer, harder challenges for when you can commit the training time to them.

Another way to stack the odds is to run shorter races (5K to 10K) until you can complete the races within the time limits. If you successfully complete a 5k, move up to training for a 10K, and so on. Being successful at completing a distance is a great encouragement to train more diligently. A great tool is Jeff Galloway’s race calculator. You can enter your 5K time and it will tell you what your PREDICTED time will be for a half.

After you’ve chosen a distance, consider the elevation. A hilly race of any distance will be a bigger challenge than a race that is flat. It is easy to find out which races are hilly; almost all races will publish an “elevation” view of the course. Study the scale carefully, as it is easy for a very hilly race to appear not very hilly if the scale is not accurate.  Some races may publish what they call the “Total Elevation Gain” for their course. This means that this is the sum of ALL uphill travel for their race. So if you go up 200 feet then down 300 and back up 400 feet? That is a total of 600 feet elevation gain.

A very flat race may present its own problems. You never get any advantage of a down hill and often, what might be flat could very well be a long hill climb.

A downhill race is often chosen to help people get PRs and qualify for Boston. However, unless you have trained for this type of race, it’s easy to get injured. If you are willing to learn specific techniques for running downhill, you might find the experience exhilarating.

Two more tips in regards to distance:
Ask around and find someone else, especially if they are similar to you in speed, who has run a race you are interested in and if the race is within a few hours drive or closer? Go check out the terrain for yourself.

Time Limitations
If you are in the Penguins, let’s face it; this is probably one of the biggest considerations you need to make. Do not enter a race that has a time limit shorter than you think you can finish within. Of course, if a race has a four-hour time limit and it takes you five hours to run a half marathon (based on your magic mile and your current training pace), you run the risk of getting swept up.  You are setting the odds against you right from the start. However, if you know you can finish in 4 hours, go for it!

Most, if not all, races state their required time limits up front. If not, write to the race director. Ask them about their policies and tell them you might not finish on time. Some directors will do whatever they can to help you finish.

The reasons for time limits are NOT to prevent you from completing your race; they are there because many races have to hire police and block roads to keep runners safe. Water stop volunteers often schedule a specific time to do water duty and may not be able to stay out there to make sure you have water. Races also have contracts with timing companies-and these contracts may be based on the predicted closing time for the race.

Most race officials cannot remove you from the course without your permission; however, they can choose to not give you a finish time or a medal if you complete outside the finish time. It happens. I’ve had it happen to me.

So how can you, a slower runner, stack the odds in your favor? Choose a race that includes other races of longer distances. If you want to run a half, run a race that includes a full marathon.  Even better is to pick a half that ends at the same place the full ends. This will often give you the best advantage for time: most fulls stay open for at least 6 hours. The OBX half is one such race. However, please be aware that even the OBX race is starting to put limits on how long you can take to finish the half. Again, RESEARCH ANY RACE THOROUGHLY before entering it and leave no questions unanswered.

Another option is to choose a “walker-friendly” race. These are typically open for hours longer than many races. The Portland Marathon closes at 8 hours. Some races, such as the Hatfield and McCoy, have no cut-off time at all.

I recently entered a race with a 6-hour finish time. As I trained for it, I realized that it would be tough for me to finish in this time. I based this on my recent race history, my speed work and my physical condition (20 pounds heavier than my PR weight). I trained diligently and accepted the fact that I may not finish with a medal or a time. I finished 23 minutes after the official end of the race, received a medal and a finishing time, but would not have complained if they had decided to disqualify me.

Other limitations
Some races have PHYSICAL OBSTACLES you have to pass to finish the race, but these are always time-based obstacles. These can be bridges, time check zones, and cut offs. The Marine Corps has a series of things they call the Gauntlet: you have 3 areas where your mileage will be reduced so you can get to the finish line before the bridge has to close. OBX may stay open for 8 hours, but the bridge at mile 19 closes at around 6 hours (and they are aggressive about this closing). I consider OBX a six-hour race for that very reason.  Again, research ANY race you choose carefully!

Train. Consistently.
It is one thing to train for a race; it is another to train for it consistently. By consistently, this means you stick to your plan and you don’t skip your long runs or your midweek training runs. Of course, life gets in the way: you get sick, you get injured, you get too busy. There are hundreds of excuses for not training consistently.

If you have chosen a specific distance race, train for it. However, if you find you can’t fit the training into your lifestyle at the moment, reconsider the distance. Many races will let you switch distances if you have over-estimated your abilities. Read the rules for your race carefully. There may be a time limit for when you can switch without incurring additional costs. Some races will even let you defer a year if you get injured and cannot possibly heal in time to do the race.

Again, I’ll repeat myself. If you want to SUCCEED at your race, you HAVE to TRAIN CONSISTENTLY. You cannot skip several weeks and then expect to miraculously get faster. You cannot skip your midweek runs and then expect your weekend long run to be easy.

At the back of the pack, where we run, you can cheat every now and then on your training-but eventually, with a lack of consistent training, you will struggle, no matter what, during a race. Unlike faster runners, we don’t have the luxury of “going slower.” We are already at the limits of most race cut-off times. We run at a 20 to 22 minute pace on the weekend, but that is rarely fast enough to make it through a race, at any distance. In order to meet the minimum speed requirement for your race, you HAVE to train at the maximum race pace for your race during your midweek training runs.

Calculate the maximum pace the race closure time allows-then practice that pace. Practice it at least once a week.  Do not wait until a month before the race to suddenly ramp up your pacing. Give yourself a lot of time to prepare!

Listen to Your Body
If you are running an endurance distance for the first time, your body will go through a lot of changes. Don’t ignore them, but don’t be afraid of them either. Pain is a very important signal and should never be ignored. Pay attention to any pain that occurs suddenly. Any joint pain that doesn’t go away after you run should be of concern. Muscle soreness is not necessarily bad-it often indicates that you are using muscles that have not been pushed lately. However, keep an eye on your urine color to make sure that it isn’t dark days after a particularly hard run-this can indicate serious muscle tissue problems. And ALWAYS consult your physician if you think something is “not quite right.”

Staying healthy and injury-free is a surefire way to guarantee the odds will favor you.

In the next few weeks, we will discuss more tricks and tips to help you be successful. I firmly believe we all can run a half marathon and even a full if we plan carefully and train consistently.


Pick the right race.

Consider: Distance, Elevation, Limitations

Train Consistently

Listen to Your Body


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