Running Pro/Con: Knowing A Race Course Before Race Day 

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The past few years, I’ve run the Oakland Marathon and have been a pacer for an Oakland Marathon training group. The Oakland course has one long uphill section. It’s really the only hill on the course, but it goes on and on (and on) for about 5 miles.

As part of the training group, we do three or four training runs on the hilliest, hardest part of the course.

During our latest outing on ‘the hill,’ it sparked a discussion in my group: which is better, to know the course in advance or be surprised on race day?

[Update as of 2018, the Oakland Marathon has changed its course – boo – to remove the hill entirely]

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The Common Advice

A common piece of advice for marathoners is to know the course in advance of the race.

Review course maps, run part of the course if you can. Some races have bus tours or virtual course tours.

But just because its ‘common wisdom’ doesn’t make it right.

The Arguments Pro

There are (of course) upsides to knowing the course in advance.

You Can Train The Course

The more you know about a course, the more you can train specifically for that course.

If you know a race has a big hill right at the end, you can work that into your training so your body is ready for a late uphill surge.

If the course has lots of little hills, you can train accordingly, working in appropriate exercises and drills to your training so you will be more physically ready for the course.

Exposure Therapy

The first time we run the Oakland Marathon hill in training, it seems endless. A half mile in, I’m dead.

The second time I run it, it still seems endless, but it isn’t as bad.

By the third or fourth time, it’s just ‘that hill.’

I’m sure I’ve also made physical gains in the meantime that actually made the hill easier, but I’m convinced it’s as much (if not) more mental.

My brain got used to it.

The Devil You Know

It’s common to hear stories about marathon courses, but everyone’s experience with a course is different and everyone’s skill set is different.

I always hear people talk about the Hurricane Point hill on the Big Sur Marathon course being sooooo terrible and impossible and scary. For some people maybe it is. But when I became familiar with the Big Sur course I learned that while Hurricane Point is a big hill (and is something to be taken seriously), it wasn’t nearly as terrifying and impossible as some people say.

When you know what’s coming, even if it’s hard, you can mentally prepare for it. Visualization techniques can go a long way to help you overcome the worst of your race day course fears.

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The Arguments: Con

There are some reasons why you may not want to know.


When you know in advance what’s coming, especially if it’s something hard or intimidating, it can impact your thinking and you can build up the boogyman to be so much worse than it is.

This can be a big factor for me. I strive towards positive visualization, but I’m not always successful. While I do my best to keep my thinking in check while doing a race, if I know something horrible is coming, I know I’m going to dwell on it (at least a little).

This is especially true if I didn’t have the chance to train on the course.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Every marathon course has boring bits.

The amazing bits of the Disney Marathon are amazing. Running through the parks on race day is unforgettable, but there are also REALLY long stretches on generic highways between parks. I’m really glad I remained ignorant of those boring bits while in training. (BTW- I did Disney nearly 10 years ago, the course may have changed). I’m glad I spent the months of preparation thinking the race was going to be 100% amazing.

It can also be fun to be pleasantly surprised by the scenery and sights on race day.

Some courses I know are going to be amazing, others have surprised me. I knew the Black Hills of South Dakota were pretty, but the Deadwood Mickelson Marathon was way prettier than I expected. What a nice race day surprise.

Make Your First Time Special

It can also be fun to see the sights of the course for the very first time on race day.

I love that the first time I saw the major Washington DC monuments was on the course during the Marine Corps Marathon – it makes both the course and the monuments even more memorable.

Where I Come Out

Everyone needs to decide for themselves how much they want to know about a course before they run.

But for me, this is where I come out:

I always want to know the basics of the course and the elevation profile as soon as possible, usually before I register. I can always work that general elevation profile into my training.

Anything more than that depends on the timing and location. If I can train on the course, I want to know ASAP so I can work the hard bits into my training.

But if I’m doing a racecation and I’ll be new in town, arriving only a few days before a race, I don’t want to take a tour of the course – I don’t want to know.

At that point, I can’t change anything, my training is done. I’ll want to be surprised by the good bits and there is nothing I can do about the bad bits but worry.

Learning anything new about the course at that point (for me) will only create/enhance my pre-race anxiety.


What about you? Do you have a preference?

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