Whether it's a weekend long-run, a longer bike ride, or a long-distance race, a useful tactic is to "chunk" the course into smaller segments, which is likely a strategy that you’ve heard before. Chunking helps you keep your focus because the carrot you’re chasing stays much closer in front of your face, as opposed to thinking about the finish line when you still have 90 minutes to go. The research on goal setting and visualization also supports this notion that focusing on the next immediate step in front of you facilitates task success.
I talk about focus and composure in chapter 6 of my book, and a useful tip was given to me when I met 6x Hawaii Ironman champ Dave Scott back in 2007. I asked him "What one piece of racing advice would you give to endurance athletes?" and he answered, "Teach them how to cut the race course into chunks so that it's mentally more manageable, and make sure they think about the toughest section of the upcoming race while they're still in training." A side note here is that he was racing for a world championship, so he needed to be laser-focused with whatever part of the Hawaii course that was, so this advice might not apply to everyone if you’re not truly in “race mode.”
Back to the main point, I'm sure you all have your go-to route for long runs. Let's call it 90 minutes (for conversation), and even if it's out-and-back, there's usually enough miles on your course for the terrain and scenery to change, which is great…keeps it "fun"! And with this in mind, each chunk/segment might have it's own "character" to it, where your thoughts naturally land on certain aspects of your training or even who you are as a runner, etc.
For example, one of my more common routes in DC was from my apartment to the Lincoln Memorial and back, and it had 5 chunks to it, and each with their own vibe. 1) Straight down Connecticut Ave to Rock Creek Park (RCP) = collecting my thoughts for the day, 2) the long RCP trail, over the Memorial Bridge, where I tapped the lamp post on the other side each time for a "Pac-Man power pellet" = another tactic you can use, 3) the shorter segment coming back over the bridge and onto the National Mall = people watching, 4) zigzagging through downtown = sometimes using different streets to mix it up = city running, and 5) The final straight shot on Conn Ave back to my apartment.
The possibilities are endless, and if you can encourage yourself to stay strong through a certain chunk even if you're not on your A-game, then it'll keep you chuggin' along. You can obviously see how this relates to race day, so keep this chunking tactic in mind the next time you preview a course map!
Train Smarter, Not Harder.