With the glut of Thanksgiving Day road races almost upon us, I thought I’d have a go at putting together a guide for runners taking on their first road race. I’m going to focus on race day (and logistics leading up to it), as opposed to training, as the ins and outs of training can vary so greatly for various abilities and race distances. So, here goes!
Leading up to race day, do as much reconnaissance on the race itself as you can, particularly what the course will be like and the logistics for getting there. You also should check on important details such as when and where packet pick-up is and whether or not you’ll be able to check a bag somewhere. Just recently I had to have a forced 1 mile warm-up run/jog when I found out I couldn’t check my bag at a race and had to get back to my car to drop it off then run back to the start with about 2 minutes to spare. Not the way to start a race calmly!
Most races will post some sort of course description on their web sites. Sometimes this just means fairly generic description like “loop course with rolling hills” or “flat and fast out and back.” Other races may post a map showing where the race goes, and the most helpful races will post an elevation profile showing where any hills are on the course and what they look like. There are 4 basic types of race course descriptions that may be used:
1. Loop – These races start and finish at the same location without covering the same ground at any point during the race.
2. Out and Back – Pretty much what it sounds like. Run a set course out to a given point, usually a cone, turn around the cone and head back in.
3. Lollipop – A combination of the loop and out and back. Picture running a straight path to a point, and then doing a separate loop that brings you back to that point, and then running back along the first stretch.
In your training before the race, take the time to try out anything you think you might want to do on race do, including the shoes and clothes you’ll wear, fueling devices you might use (e.g. handheld water bottle) and actual fuel (Gels? bites? water? sports drink?). Not that I always adhere to it, but the familiar adage is “Never try anything new on race day.”
The night before your race, there are things you can do to try to alleviate the stress of race day. I always make sure to lay out the clothes I both want to wear for the race and the clothes I want to wear before and after. If the weather looks uncertain, I’ll give myself multiple options. If I have it already, I’ll make sure I know where my bib is and make sure I have safety pins as well. Next, I pack my race bag. Depending on your personal preferences, and the weather, your bag might/should include:
- Post-race clothes (if different from pre-race)
- Bib – Make sure to check the timing device, if there is one, on the bib, it may be very important that it not be folded!
- Safety pins
- Anti-chafe stuff (Body Glide, NipGuards, etc.)
- Phone arm band/holder
- Headphones – Make sure you find out whether your race allows headphones, an increasing number of races do not.
- Arm sleeves
- Compression socks/sleeves
- Energy food
- Bib, double check this one. You do not want to forget it!
Get a good night’s sleep, imbibe if you will, but make sure to drink water the night before. You don’t want to wake up dehydrated!
Set an alarm. Set multiple alarms if you need to. Everyone has their own morning routines, of course, and foods they like to eat before running. This is one of those things you want to practice before the race. There’s a big difference in what you’ll want to eat before a run at 6 pm versus one at 8 am. Some like oatmeal, some toast and peanut butter. Find out what works for you while trying to avoid too much fiber, fat, and dairy, which could cause an upset stomach. Personally, I’ll have something like a pack of Honey Stinger energy chews or Honey Stinger Waffle. I also like to give myself lots of time to enjoy a cup of coffee or two and take a shower to wake myself up some.
If a Turkey Trot is indeed your first race, give yourself PLENTY of time to get there and park, as many tend to draw large crowds, particularly a race like the Feaster Five or Manchester Road Race. There’s nothing worse than the stress of parking the car and racing to the start line. If you haven’t done packet pick-up yet, go do it then check your bag if possible or stash it in your car. Because I said I wouldn’t comment on the actual running part, I won’t opine on the merits of a warm-up, but if you find you like to do one for your training runs, make sure you leave yourself time for it before your race. Oh, and give yourself plenty of “facilities” time.
There will generally be a call for runners to start heading to the start line about 15 minutes or so before the race, or you may just notice a herd of people heading in one direction. Generally speaking, it’s safe to follow that crowd, unless they’re all muttering “I’m not doing this race! I’m going home!” Then, don’t follow them. Some races will have corrals set up for different anticipated paces; others just rely on you to place yourself where you think you should be. I highly encourage you to place yourself in the right pace area, though a little optimism is okay there. If you’re nervous about the mass start, place yourself farther back in the field. Of course, the closer to the front you are the fewer people you’ll have to navigate through. If the race is chip timed, make sure to start your watch when you cross the chip mat, not when the gun goes off.
During the Race
I’m not going to cover race/pace strategy here, sticking to my promise not to address the actual running. But there are some things you’ll want to be aware of for the actual race. Nearly every race longer than a mile will have water stops. How many they have can vary widely with the distance. Some 5Ks have a stop every mile; some will only have one halfway through the race. Find out if you can before you start running so you can manage your hydration properly. Most races will also have mile markers on the course so you can gauge where you are, some will even have clocks at certain intervals showing the race time. As you go through water stops, try to grab water from the last volunteers, as it’s usually less crowded at that end. Also, be sure you know what you’re drinking as some races will offer both water and sports drink at the same stop. If you are going to walk while drinking, step to the side of the race course so you don’t hold up other runners. If you plan to drink on the run, pinching the cup to form a spout can make it easier to get liquid down, rather than spilling it all over yourself.
Most of all, enjoy the race. Racing hurts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it! Give a high 5 to a little kid, thank volunteers and spectators for being there. If there are photographers on the course, don’t be afraid to give a smile! Make the race your own!
Tired though you may be, try to keep walking after the race, especially in crowded races where a backup could develop at the finish line. There will almost certainly be water available at or near the finish line and, often, some food as well such as bagels and bananas. Though you might not feel like eating immediately, be sure to grab the food anyway for later.
Technology has made it easier than ever to get your race results. Some even have them posted immediately through computers at the course, some will send you email/text alert with your time and placing. If in doubt, Google something like “Manchester Road Race 2013 results” after the race and you may hit on a coolrunning.com link or something along those lines. Pictures usually take longer to be posted on commercial sites, but typically are available within a week of the race.
Now, all you have to do is relax and enjoy the feeling of having completed your first road race!
Do you have any helpful advice for first-time racers? Did you use this advice and find it helpful/unhelpful? Leave a comment and let me know!