Thanksgiving is the busiest racing day of the year. Kicking off the holiday with a family 5K is as much a part of the tradition as Aunt Patty bringing the sweet potatoes to a three o'clock dinner.
Because of the race day’s popularity, the Turkey Trot is probably the most crowded 5K many of us will ever race. Sure, we’re used to handling the masses in a half marathon. But with thirteen miles to sort things out, dealing with the pack isn’t that big of a deal. Working your way through the masses at a large 5K, however, can be an entirely different matter. Here are some quick, easy tips to help you successfully navigate the hordes of Turkey Trotters.
If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll End Up Someplace Else
Sure, you don’t need to know the course; if you just follow the person in front of you, chances are you won’t get lost. But a fast and fun race often requires more than just avoiding a wrong turn. Check out the course map beforehand to get a feel for the flow of the course. Think of the course like a river with runners the current navigating the terrain. Uphills, bottlnecks, and U-turns are some of the most common areas for a major traffic jam. If you know where those potential hazard areas are, you can plan ahead by placing yourself towards the front of the group you’re racing with—and avoid getting packed in like a sardine.
Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss
The good news: Everyone runs on Thanksgiving! The bad news: Everyone runs on Thanksgiving. The fast 5K guys. The marathoners in recovery mode. College kids who are half awake. The infamous weekend warriors. And random out-of-towners visiting family. Such a motley assortment of runners means you’ll see some of the craziest racing strategies you’ve ever encountered in a single race. Watch out for Uncle Mike, who claims to have run a 4.2 forty back in his football days. He’ll take off like his hair is on fire. Oh, and the little kids who line up at the very front of the race; they’ll sprint for all they’re worth for the first quarter mile or so. The parade of people running suicide pace at the beginning of a Turkey Trot is a sight to behold—but not copy. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience while you take a calmer, wise approach to your happy pace.
Patience is a Virtue
Exercise a bit of restraint early on and remember that it's a 5K. Don't participate in the hive mentality that draws everyone out at crazy speeds. Chances are you’ll find yourself surrounded by quite a few novice runners hell-bent on going into oxygen debt faster than you can say tryptophan. Focus on staying relaxed and patient. If you are running in a pack that went out too fast and you notice that they are beginning to fade, “read the book.” In other words, keep your eyes up and pay attention to body language. If you see shoulders start to come up, hear breathing that’s turning into wheezing, or notice the feet in front of you are starting to look increasingly sluggish, you need to pull ahead and float on by them before you get trapped in the slow lane. Being a patient runner early will pay huge dividends later when reality sets in for the uneducated.
Pick It and Stick It
Much of the first mile or so will be congested with runners until the paces begin to sift out. As stated above, patience is a virtue. The biggest mistake many of us make is that we waste too much energy early on bobbing and weaving more than a loom in sweater season. I tell athletes that, at the beginning of a race, they should “pick it and stick it.” Stay to the edge of the pack so there is less congestion. Then gradually work your way up through the mayhem. Constantly maneuvering to find the shortest route can turn your first mile into a 2K. Speeding up, slowing down, and darting side to side does nothing but wear us out, frustrate us, and cost us valuable time in the end. When you review the race course, determine which side of the pack will be the best for the first mile. Then pick it and stick it until the field thins out for smoother running.
Along the lines of surveying the course map and determining which side you’ll run, the fastest, smoothest route is not always the shortest. When racing, there is a negotiation of sorts on how to ration our energy as wisely as possible. When running a crowded race, ask yourself, “What will cost me the least amount of energy and time?” One of the most common mistakes I see is that everyone tries to run the inside of a turn—no matter what. Is the inside of the turn the shortest distance? Yes. But is the inside of the turn the fastest when you have several hundred people all trying to occupy that space at the same time? No. It sounds more like the definition of a crash. When you’re approaching a turn early in a big race, staying to the outside is often the fastest route. While everyone else is stopping, walking, and lurching around a jam-packed turn, you'll be smoothly flying by them on the outside.
Use these tricks in the upcoming Turkey Trot STL races, and you’ll not only enjoy all the festive fun, but you’ll also rock out an awesome performance. Remember: just because there’s a big pack doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice speed. We just have to become more savvy, which in the end makes us better runners. We look forward to seeing you out there polishing up those racing skills while enjoying Thanksgiving with several thousand of your closest friends.
Tim Cary is Head Track & Field and Cross Country for Lindenwood University at Belleville and the former Fleet Feet Assistant Training Manager. Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors. Click here to subscribe to our blog.