It's finally here. Three months of arduous training have flown by, and on Sunday, I will run the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon. It will be my first 42 kilometre road race. To keep the nerves at bay and put my mind at ease, I sought advice from seasoned professionals to help me prepare for the big day.
The best way to beat the butterflies is to begin preparations early, says Alison Chow Chi-ngan, one of Hong Kong's top female distance runners
Chow, 32, who will be competing in her fourth Hong Kong Marathon, recommends getting plenty of sleep in the days before the race. "I will get at least eight hours sleep a night from Thursday," she says. She will also sneak in a few afternoon naps where possible.
Eating sensibly is also essential to ensure I have enough energy on the day. The night before the race, Chow has a ritual of consuming five bowls of rice with vegetables, and heading to bed by 8pm.
Prepare your race kit the night before (see checklist ) and plan your race morning schedule.
Keep it simple
Resist the urge to bring too much. "Keeping it simple is most important," says Chow. She will run in comfortable shorts and a singlet, wear a watch, and carry a few energy gels for sustenance.
As the weather on the day can get cold, Chow suggests arm sleeves and gloves to keep warm. Chan Ka-ho, another top Hong Kong runner who will compete in the 10-kilometre event, suggests packing a disposable raincoat in case of foul weather. Use it to keep warm before the race.
Mind over muscle
If I start feeling pain during the run, Chow says, I should engage in positive self-talk. "When I'm hurting, I just keep encouraging myself to keep going," she says. "If the pain is really bad, then I will stop. Of course, you need to listen to your body, but believe in your ability."
I confess that my biggest concern is boredom, particularly during the lengthy Western Tunnel section. Yiu Kit-ching, who ran last year's half marathon in 81 minutes and 31 seconds, staves off monotony by invoking her competitive streak. "Locate another runner as a target to motivate you," she says. Her other tactic is to constantly look at her watch and ensure she stays on pace.
But what if I am seized by the temptation to quit? "Think about all your training. You can't give up," says Chow. "Because if you do, all your training will go to waste."
Eat, drink and be merry
Eating and drinking on the run is essential to keep your energy levels up over the distance. Chow's nutrition plan: she has a gel 15 minutes before the race, at 15 kilometres, and at 30 kilometres. But everyone is different, she cautions. Clinton Mackevicius, my trainer, suggests I should aim to take a gel every 45 minutes.
Hydration is also a key factor. "You must drink at least one cup at every water station, even if you don't feel thirsty," says Chow.
Have a course strategy
The Hong Kong Marathon was described by 2011 winner Nelson Rotich as the world's toughest marathon due to its hills. Chow agrees. Her advice: it's all in your head. "Say to yourself, 'It's not too hard for me, I can fight for it.' Even if you are tired, just run a little bit slower and then run at your faster pace after that."
The course becomes very windy around Tsing Ma Bridge at the turnaround point, so Chow recommends safety in numbers. "Find someone or a group to run behind, to shield you from the wind. Don't lead them, let them lead you."
Lastly, she urges the importance of pace flexibility, but always staying within a certain range over the distance. Due to the changing terrain, it's difficult to run at a constant speed, so Chow suggests running up to 10 seconds per kilometre slower in the tougher sections, and offsetting it by going 10 seconds per kilometre faster in the flatter sections.
But if you start to fall behind, don't overcompensate and run too fast. "Just let it go," she says. It's more important to stick to your race plan and avoid exhaustion.
Believe in yourself
Chow says I need to give myself a reality check. "Personally, I just remember that I have trained enough and have confidence in my ability." But as I have skipped a few training sessions due to ongoing niggles, I begin to wonder if I've done enough
Mackevicius tells me not to be concerned. "Once you toe the line, there's nothing more you can do to increase your fitness. There's no need to worry about what you haven't done. Instead, concentrate on what you can do," he says.
He also suggests I turn my nervous energy into a challenge. "Think of it as putting your training to the test," he says. By focusing on my race strategy, I will keep my restless mind at ease. "The marathon demands a calculated approach to pacing, nutrition and hydration. It's a game of numbers: knowing when to increase or decrease pace, but not to overdo it in order to finish strong."
Finally, keep it in perspective, says Chow. It's just a race. "Whatever the result, I just remember that I have tried my best."
Getting to the start line is an achievement in itself, Chow adds. "I know I've done the hard work, [so] the rest will be easy."
Let's hope she's right.