The Big Event

When your workouts are lagging, nothing can get you charged up quite like registering for a really big race.

Kyle Hastings, 29, thought he had it pretty good when he stepped into his doctor’s office on March 12, 2007. He enjoyed his work as a Will County, Ill., sheriff’s deputy and he was engaged to be married. But while his fiancée had kept in shape after playing college basketball, Hastings stopped exercising altogether after his last college football practice. In five years his 6-foot-3-inch frame had morphed from a muscular 315 pounds to a flabby 365. “That morning my doctor told me I had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and that I was a borderline type 2 diabetic,” Hastings recalls. “He said if I didn’t shape up, I’d be shipping out.”

The grim warning jolted him into action. For five years he had joked with a cousin about doing a triathlon one day, but now the day had come to get serious. Although they had no triathlon experience, Hastings and his fiancée signed up for the Accenture Chicago Triathlon — America’s most popular international-distance triathlon — and a Team In Training group. He felt he needed a big goal to make big changes in his fitness level.

Sometimes choosing a big event that’s months away is just the kick in the proverbial XL pants you need to get moving. “A big race gives meaning to your training and sharpens your daily focus and motivation,” says Kay Porter, PhD, author of The Mental Athlete (Human Kinetics, 2003) and coach of the Spirited Walkers, who compete in the Portland Marathon in Oregon each year. “There’s an excitement to working toward a challenging goal.”

Excitement carried Hastings toward his goal even though he couldn’t run one lap of the track, swim one length of the pool or pedal for a half-hour when he started. Five months later, he stood at the starting line at 285 pounds — his lightest weight since he was a teenager.

A big event can push you to train longer, more often and more consistently. The rewards can range from losing weight and gaining training-program friends to the fun of traveling to a “destination race” and the deep satisfaction of achieving something that seemed out of reach. Most importantly, it lets you see each day’s workout in a new light: as one small step toward a big goal.

Choose an Event

Before deciding on a big event, decide what “big” means to you. If you dream of crossing the finish line in front of thousands of cheering fans, there are plenty of marquee events to consider (see “A Few Great Big Races,” below). But the hometown 10K your friends run each year can seem “big” if you’ve never run more than a mile. The event you choose should inspire you.

Don’t jump online to register for the Boston Marathon or Hawaii Ironman Triathlon just yet, however. Many prestigious races fill their entry quota very quickly (some within hours), others use a lottery or, in the case of Boston, require qualifying times from other races, so check the entry rules on event Web sites. All Ironman-distance triathlons, many major marathons and many bike centuries limit entries. Half-Ironmans, half-marathons and half-centuries are easier to enter and the training demands aren’t as draining.

Pick a race that’s four to 12 months off — closer to four months if you’re in decent shape and impatient, closer to 12 months if your conditioning is shaky and you have the patience to work toward a distant goal.

Make a Plan

If you’re self-disciplined, you can train for that big event without joining a training group. Training schedules are easy to find in books, magazines and on Web sites, although designing your own schedule is fairly simple. To build up to an endurance event, gradually add to your mileage (experts recommend bumping it up no more than 10 percent per week), and be sure to cushion long workouts with easy days and rest days.

Map out the schedule by working backward from the race date. Think small steps, which allow your body to comfortably acclimate to the increasingly higher mileage. Shorter-term goals involve finishing one or more shorter “practice races” as you build up to the big race. These events make it easier to stay motivated and serve as rehearsals for the big race.

“Practice races get beginners comfortable with things like warming up, drinking at aid stations and even pacing,” says professional coach James Sheremeta. He and his wife, Cheryl, coach one of four Team In Training groups that do San Diego’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and an 8K practice race one month earlier.

Group training — whether it’s a charity program like Team In Training or the local running, bike or triathlon club — offers numerous advantages over flying solo. Accountability is No. 1. “You’re accountable to those who are working toward the same goal, as well as to the coach,” Sheremeta explains. Many who join charity programs also feel personally accountable to the cause. Says Hastings, whose uncle had lymphoma: “When I hit some rough days in training, I asked myself, ‘What would Uncle John give to be out here running instead of getting a blood transfusion?’”

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (www.teamintraining.org) trains people for walking, running, cycling, triathlon and Nordic-ski events, but it’s not the only such program. Others that prepare you for walking or running a half-marathon or marathon include Joints in Motion (www.arthritis.org/joints-in-motion), the National AIDS Marathon Training Program (www.aidsmarathon.com) and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Team Challenge (www.ccteamchallenge.org). Besides coaching, some charity programs host guest speakers, training clinics and even post-race team parties.

Stay on Track

Just as it’s easy to get married but harder to stay married, picking a big event is easier than sticking with a training plan. Don’t worry if you slip from time to time, however, as long as you don’t quit.

“Don’t dwell on setbacks,” says Porter. “When they occur, analyze what happened, make the necessary changes and then move on.” A temporary setback won’t derail all the progress you’ve gained, she says. Porter once coached a runner who needed emergency gall bladder surgery five weeks before the big race — but she still beat her time goal because the earlier months of training carried her through.

“The biggest mistake people make is to take on too much, too soon,” says Sheremeta. “This leads to fatigue, burnout or injury. Take baby steps, with very gradual training increases.”

Heather Fink, who coaches 500 Festival Mini-Marathon runners in Indiana for the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, had one runner who could walk only 15-minute miles the first year he did it. “It took him several years to progress, but he now runs the race in 7 1/2-minute miles.”

Enjoy the Big Day

Hastings not only finished the 2007 Chicago Triathlon, but the newlywed finished ahead of his wife and waited to drape the finisher’s medal around her neck. “That was an emotional moment,” he says.

Hastings was sky-high for weeks — he didn’t take off his medal for two days — but not everyone fares as well. It’s possible you won’t finish the big race because of illness, injury or inclement weather, and even if you do, there’s a natural letdown because the big goal is no longer there. What to do? “Play tourist afterward, if you’ve traveled to the race, and then reward yourself with some downtime,” says Porter. “Get massages, don’t train at all for a week, then stick to cross-training for the next few weeks to get ‘hungry’ again before returning to serious training.”

And when you’re ready to dive back into your workouts, says Sheremeta, you might be surprised how you feel. “People who do something they thought impossible feel empowered to take on all sorts of challenges,” he says. “They think, ‘If I can finish this race, I can do anything.’ It can be life-altering. And it’s very common for runners to maintain the lifestyle changes they picked up during the training: consistent exercise, good nutrition and better stress management.”

That’s certainly been true for Hastings, whose days of sloth are now ancient history. Since last year’s Chicago Triathlon, he’s set out to drop below 250 pounds and compete in an entire season of triathlons in 2009. “I’ve even cut out beer,” he says, “except at Bears and White Sox games.”

Bob Cooper is a contributing editor for Runner’s World. He made his first big-race attempt, a marathon, after only five months of running and dropped out. Since that “big mistake,” he’s gone on to finish hundreds of running, cycling and kayaking races.

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