Whether you’re new to running or have simply never run a sanctioned road race, it can be a daunting experience! Most of us don’t often undertake new challenges without a bit of knowledge or at least a partner in crime to help offset the nerves of not knowing what to do. Got some jitters? Fear not, newbie!
You Can’t Run if you Don’t Sign Up
The first thing you need to do to run a race is sign up! In the olden days, you’d find out about races through flyers, published magazines listing local races, or word of mouth. Nowadays, the World Wide Web has your back. Most races — even smaller, local ones — will have a website, or at least a link to a registration site, like Active.com. Military spouses have the added bonus of on-base events sponsored by Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) or outside groups with military affiliations. Many of those races will be cheap or free, so take advantage!
The only guideline for choosing your inaugural race is to pick one you’re excited about. Find a destination race, and make a trip out of it. Look for a race with a fun-run vibe, like a color run, a bubble run, or an inflatable run. Snag a friend and choose a themed race — a holiday run, a race through a winery, or a costumed run. If you’re already looking forward to it, race day is that much easier to manage!
Once you know what to look for, be sure to pick your race and sign up early enough to give yourself time to train. If you’re a new runner looking to run your first 5K (3.1 miles), be sure you can work your way up to at least one or two three-mile runs before race day, regardless of whether you’re going to run the whole way or use a run-walk program. The longer the distance, the more time you’ll need to train.
As you gear up for race day, you’ll get emails or — at the very least — a schedule for race day. It might include terms or topics you’re unfamiliar with. Here are a few common things to know about for race day:
Packet Pickup or Race Expo
At packet pickup, you’ll pick up your race number, your t-shirt, and any other freebies or swag that the race provides. The bigger the race, the more stuff you get! (Yes, you sort of pay for it, so if you see a heavy registration fee, expect a pretty topnotch event!)
Smaller races, especially local, fundraiser, or MWR races, may only have a packet pickup the morning of the race, or you can stop by the day before and snag your stuff. Bigger races might have a whole weekend dedicated to the festivities, with a much bigger packet pickup, known as a race expo. This is exactly what it sounds like — an exposition venue full of folks who sell products you as a runner might find useful. The biggest race expos will often have tons of freebies and you might walk out of the Expo with a whole bag filled with goodies you may or may not ever use — but, they were free!
A pace group is a group of runners who will be running a specific pace throughout the race to help runners achieve their finish-time goal. They are led by an experienced runner — a pacer — who will keep everyone on track and will be holding a sign or balloon or something to set them apart from other runners. They aren’t very common in shorter-distance races, like a 5K, and you likely won’t find pacers in smaller races, but if you register for a bigger race, like a national race series or a half or full marathon, you’re sure to see this. Pace groups are free to join, and, should you feel slower or faster on race day, you can move back or forward on your own.
This is your preview of the course. Again, smaller races may not have the budget for this, but bigger races will give you a map of the course, along with water stops, porta-potties, or fuel stops in longer-distance races. You might even get yourself a virtual tour of the course with bigger, popular races! With a GoPro camera, anyone can show you where you’re going to run these days!
On race day, some races give you a place to store your stuff while you’re running. Give yourself extra time to stand in potential lines if you choose to bring your gear with you instead of leaving it in your car.
Rules of the Road
Before the starting gun goes off, be sure you know a few simple bits of etiquette so you don’t anger the running snobs!
First, slower runners need to line up toward the back of the starting group. This is for everyone’s safety, and a common source of griping for experienced racers. If you plan to run a 12-minute mile average pace, you don’t want to start in front of the six-minute milers. You might get trampled; the faster runners might have to bob and weave to get around you, which impacts their race. At the very least, you’ll get a few dirty looks. A runner heading out for a race win won’t appreciate getting stuck behind someone who’s already walking two blocks from the start. If you don’t know what pace you run, pay attention to your watch in your training runs and line up accordingly.
If you plan on walking during a race — either as a planned run-walk program or because you’re running out of gas and need to regroup, there’s no need to be self-conscious. You do, however, need to be considerate. If you need to walk, move to the side of the road before you slow down. Don’t be that guy who stopped abruptly in the middle of a crowded race and caused a viral-video-worthy pileup at mile marker six!
Similarly, another pet peeve of experienced runners is having to navigate around packs of newbies walking or running three or four across in the middle of the road. Yes, you’ve signed up with your friends and are having an epic weekend! You’re all in this together! But make sure it’s a figurative together, not literal. Some stretches of a race course might be narrow or crowded, and this makes it difficult for a faster runner to pass a group.
Some folks claim to be racing purists and don’t wear the race shirt for the actual race. The only reason not to wear the shirt is if it’s a cotton t-shirt. Cotton isn’t a great material for running, but otherwise, wear that shirt proudly!!
Some race rules are enforced more strictly than others. Read through the race guidelines (if there are any). If it says “no headphones,” that’s usually only applied to runners in the competitive levels. Other rules are more important. If it says “no dogs,” you probably shouldn’t bring Fido. Strollers can also be strictly or loosely enforced, depending on the size of the race crowd. Ask others who have run the race, if possible. After all the buildup, you don’t want to be disqualified!
Be Race-Day Ready
After all that, you’ve made it! You’re at the race venue and getting nervous because you’re actually running your first race. Here’s what you need to know to kick asphalt like a pro.
Don’t do anything new or crazy on race day. Don’t skip your usual morning bagel for eggs benedict. And don’t pick race day to break in brand new shoes! Stick with what you’ve done on all your other training runs, and keep your body status quo.
Give yourself enough time before the gun goes off to walk around — especially if it’s a long walk from where you park or it’s a big race with big crowds. Porta-potty lines are notoriously long, even at small races. Plan for that! Pro tip: Bring a little toilet paper with you for more popular races. You never know, sister — better safe than sorry!
Dress for success! Remember that your rule of thumb is to dress as if it’s going to be about 15 degrees warmer than it really is. Bring warmer layers or throw-away layers to keep you warm before the race starts, or just keep moving and know you’ll warm up when the gun goes off. You might feel ridiculous, but those big black yard trash bags make great pre-race warmers, and there’s no guilt when you ditch it a few blocks in!
When the gun goes off, your adrenaline will skyrocket (true of newbies and experienced runners). Don’t get carried away! Check your watch — if you wear one. Stay in your comfort zone. Remember the talk test (if you can’t talk without wheezing you’re already too fast). Save the harder push for the halfway point and beyond. Instead, pace yourself so you can finish strong!
Have Fun Out There, Kid
Finally, no matter which tips you take and which tips you toss, your first race is an opportunity to have fun! If you’re out there to win, push hard and go for it. But don’t forget to soak up the atmosphere, too! You’re in the company of dozens or hundreds of others who have something in common with you, and it’s a fun feeling. And, absolutely enjoy your newbie status because, once you finish running your first race, you’ll be the one doling out advice.
Photo Credits: Nerissa Alford