My first open half marathon was the Calgary Police Half Marathon which I did a few months prior to Calgary 70.3 last year in the interests of actually having run the distance before showing up to a Half Ironman. My comfort zone is on the bike, not on feet, so as with any rookie runner my primary goal was to finish the race, my secondary goal was to finish the race in under two hours. I was successful after completing both goals and went on to have a great year of racing.
This year was a complete 180 from that strategy. After ruining my headphones in the washing machine (not as bad as when I ruined my passport in the washing machine) I started running without music. It was boring at first but after a while it allowed me to place a lot more focus on how my body felt, and when I wasn't thinking about that, I was actually making use of my other senses. I became acutely aware of how hard my foot was striking the ground from the sound of the pavement, how hard I was breathing, how my joints were feeling, and where my muscles were at. But in addition to that I also came to appreciate the birds, the wind, the other runners, the crispness of the air, and the warmth of the sun. Its a little like doing yoga versus going to a club, you can enjoy both, they're just different.
So when I showed up at the race this year I was prepared to utilize all the information that my body was designed to provide me. By choosing to focus on associating with internal stimuli such as perceived exertion and how my body felt, balanced with external stimuli such as other racers, the varying terrain conditions, and the people there cheering me on, I was able push harder and this actually made the race go by faster. This is in stark contrast with my first go at the Police Half where I was listening to music to actually tune out what was going on both internally and externally. This time I was able to go beyond that comfortable running zone and actually "race the half marathon", rather than just "run the half marathon".
A number of studies conducted on endurance athletes have supported this approach. A study conducted at the 1989 US Olympic Marathon trial, Silva and Appelbaum (1989), found that elite marathon runners who paced and focused on other runners as a part of their race strategy faired better than runners who tended to adopt a dissociative mental strategy during the marathon.
Similarly, a study conducted at the 1996 London Marathon found that racers who relied on a dissociative internal mental race strategy (ie; doing anything to keep you mind off the hurt in your legs) were more likely to hit the wall/bonk, than other racers. The study ultimately leads to a conclusion that would suggest it may be ideal balance internal associative check ins on your body, with an overall external focus on race day.
So what does this mean in short? When you go out on race day, listen to your body, and enjoy the race that is going on around you. Humans are incredible complex organisms that were designed to run, we have built in feedback systems that allow us to measure things like how much energy we have left, how much harder can we go, how much water do we need, and so on. We just need to choose to listen to them. Beyond that, build off the crowd cheering for you, encourage other athletes, and smile when people watch you go by and clap or call your name. Take it all in.