By John Horton, Special to The Plain Dealer
MIAMI BEACH, Florida – Palm trees waved me ahead toward the Julia Tuttle Causeway as I quickly glanced at my beeping GPS watch. Two miles into the Michelob Ultra Miami Beach 13.1 half marathon, my pace looked perfect.
A new PR – that’s short for “personal record” in runner lingo – seemed certain. The early morning sky burned a brilliant orange as Miami’s downtown skyline beckoned across the bay.
It was 6:30 a.m. My meltdown began minutes later.
The triumphant experience I expected from my first travel race faded by the time the sun rose high enough to reveal my staggering shadow. Miles of misery followed. Dreams of a PR quickly crashed into a PW — or “personal worst” in runner lingo.
What happened? Well aside from remembering to bring my running shoes, I did almost everything else wrong while heading south to the starting line for a winter getaway.
Let’s start with my something simple: The reason why I was there that March morning in 2015. When I booked the trip months earlier, my focus centered completely on running that half marathon. Thoughts of the race carried me through countless hours on the treadmill.
But I underestimated the lure of the “vacation” side of a race-cation. The temptation of a little fun in the sun while escaping Northeast Ohio’s cold and snow proved too much to overcome for this destination race newbie.
Things I’d never dream of doing at home a day or so before the Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon seemed like a dandy idea a thousand miles away. Enjoy a lunchtime mojito served in a fishbowl-sized glass? Why not? It’s vacation!
That thirst for a good time also led me to Miami’s emerging craft beer scene, which explains how I was tipping back glasses with hipsters at the funky Wynwood Brewing Co. a mere 12 hours before the start of the race.
For the record, LaRubia Blonde Ale is tasty but not the ideal way to carbo load before taking on the physical rigors of a half marathon.
That thought and others crossed my mind while struggling to run from Miami Beach to Miami and back again. That on-foot journey gave me ample time to ponder mistakes and misjudgments leading to race day.
So let my pain by your gain. Here are 13 tips – one for each agonizing mile – for anyone planning their first destination race trip.
Mile 1, Travel Speed: Leaving Ohio won’t suddenly make you a faster runner. Don’t expect to crank out a PR just because you packed a bag and jetted south. Set a realistic goal that reflects your ability and takes into account the learning curve of a new experience.
Mile 2, Do Your Homework: Study past race results to gauge whether the course runs fast or slow before setting a goal. My targeted time at Miami Beach would have been in the top 10 percent — a fast crowd I had never mixed with in previous half marathons.
Mile 3, Be Willing to Adjust: Four days before the Miami Beach race, I spent hours on an emergency room bed gaining firsthand knowledge of the pain inflicted by a kidney stone. Did I let that alter my running plans? Nope… and that was my worst mistake of many.
Mile 4, Overpack: Lay out your entire race attire – headwear to footwear — while packing. Select a backup outfit, too, just in case your lucky shirt doesn’t feel quite right when you put it on the morning of the race. Remember, it’s better to have something and not need it than need it and not have it.
Mile 5, Hydrate Early: Did you know that the air on an airplane is typically drier than in the Sahara Desert? Air travel can dehydrate travelers, so train for your flight like you would a race and drink plenty of fluids in advance. Those extra trips to the bathroom will help keep your legs loose, too.
Mile 6, Hydrate Properly: Save beer and umbrella drinks for post-race revelry. They’ll taste even better after you build up a thirst.
Mile 7, Dinner Reservations: Meaty claws from Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach sure seemed like a tasty treat the night before the race. Instead, the meal left me shuffling like a… well, my dinner before it hit the plate. Stick to the traditional pasta meal and save the local fare for a celebratory meal after the race.
Mile 8, Heat Check: Don’t underestimate the impact of suddenly running in summer weather. The temperature at the starting line in Miami Beach checked in at a balmy 70 degrees – or 50 degrees warmer than my last training run in Northeast Ohio. I melted like a snowman.
Mile 9, Did I Mention Hydration? Drink plenty of water two days before the race. Drink plenty of water the day before the race. Drink plenty of water the night before the race. Drink plenty of water the morning of the race. Basically, drink, drink and drink some more.
Mile 10, Zzzzzzzzzz: No sleep equals a slow creep, so get to bed at a decent hour the night before the race. If you want a taste of the town’s nightlife, extend your stay after the race.
Mile 11, Breakfast of Champions: Being away from home is no reason to abandon your normal race morning meal. Pack what you normally eat in your carry-on bag. If that’s not possible, stop at a local grocery store and buy what you need.
Mile 12, Morning Commute: The most important miles traveled during the trip come the morning of the race. Know your route to the starting line and leave ample time to navigate unfamiliar streets.
Mile 13, Savor the Moment: In all the race prep, it’s easy to overlook one key point: This is supposed to be fun. Take the time to enjoy the experience. Smile, too — even if it hurts.
Horton returned to Miami in search of redemption a year after his disastrous first travel race. He improved his time by more than 27 minutes while beating his goal. Since then, he has traveled to run half marathons in five other states.
Warm weather winter races: If you go
Want to run away and escape the snow? Here are a few sun-and-fun races to consider to beat the winter blahs.
Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend: Orlando, Florida
Jan. 3-7, 2018: The happiest place on Earth offers a variety of running distances. Like everything at Disney, however, there is a wait. The races sold out and registration is closed for 2018, so look to 2019 if you want to run through the mouse kingdom.
Synchrony Financial Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona: Tempe, Arizona
Jan. 13-14, 2018: With promises of stunning mountain and desert views, the race weekend attracts nearly 30,000 runners to the Valley of the Sun for a marathon, half marathon and other race distances.
Miami Marathon & Half Marathon: Miami, Florida
Jan. 28, 2018: Runners from more than 50 countries make their way to South Florida for these races, giving it the atmosphere of an international competition. It may be as close to an Olympic feeling as a huffer-and-puffer runner can experience.
Daytona Beach Half Marathon: Dayton Beach, Florida
Feb. 4, 2018: Ever dream of racing at the famed Dayton International Speedway, home of the Dayton 500? Here’s your chance, as the race starts on the oval before heading to the beach and back.
Surf City Marathon & Half Marathon: Huntington Beach, California
Feb. 4, 2018: Run with the Pacific Ocean as a constant companion in a race that lives up to its name.
Publix Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon & Half Marathon: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Feb. 18, 2018: This is your race if bling is your thing. Year after year, no race rewards finishers with better medals.
The Cowtown: Forth Worth, Texas
Feb. 24-25, 2018: Join the stampede in Texas by running in this popular event, which offers distances ranging from a 5K to a 50K Ultra.
Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans: New Orleans, Louisiana
March 3-4, 2018: A fun and flat course must give the city its “Big Easy” name. Distances include a marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K.
Horton, a former Plain Dealer reporter, is a freelance writer in Chardon.