Running or walking your first road race can be intimidating, especially if you have never been to a race before and don’t know what to expect. I’ve been running races for a couple of years now, everything from 5K’s and 10K's, to half- and full-marathons, and I still get nervous about each one of them! But there really is no reason to worry. I will (hopefully) ease your mind about your first race.
Choosing a race—I had no idea how to go about looking for a race at first. Now, I like to go to Active.com to search for races near me. I look at the location and date, obviously; but I also look to see if the race is timed (“chip timed” means that you wear a chip on your shoe or bib to determine your exact racing time), if there are t-shirts and/or medals included, and what the course looks like (Hilly? Flat? Dirt trails? Closed roads? Etc.) These are all personal preferences, but I always like to make sure the race is timed and that I get at least a t-shirt for my race fee. Once you have chosen a race, you can usually take advantage of “early bird” specials, which means the cost is cheaper if you sign up further in advance.
The Expo/Packet pick-up—Depending on how large your chosen race is, there may be an Expo you can attend. This is where you will pick up your “packet” (bib with your number on it, race shirt, and anything else the race wants to give you); there are also vendors from running –related companies that have booths set up where you can shop. You can find everything from GU gel packets to running clothes and shoes to headbands and bumper stickers. Usually the Expo will be the day before the race.
Preparing for race day—I like to get my outfit laid out and ready to throw on the morning of the race. You may want to pin your bib to your shirt; charge your iPod and/or running watch; lay out your shirt, pants/shorts, socks, shoes, hat, etc; and double check to make sure you have everything. I also like to make sure I drink plenty of water the day before a race so that I am well-hydrated. If you’re doing a longer race, then you may want to eat more carbs than usual for a few days leading up to the race. You also will want to make sure you know where to go on race day—where to park, how to get to the starting line, etc.
The morning of the race—I set my alarm to wake me up about an hour and a half before I have to leave, so there isn’t any rushing around last-minute. I leave early enough so that if there is traffic, I won’t be late. Sometimes I get to races much too early, but I’d rather be early than late. Once you park, you can go use the bathroom, walk off nerves, or stand around at the starting line.
The race itself—Larger races will usually assign you a “corral” at the starting line, based on your projected finish time. The faster people in the front, slower people in the back. If there aren’t corrals, you should try and put yourself where you think you may line up (if you’re running five minute miles, go to the front; if you’re walking, go to the back; somewhere in-between, just try and make your best guess). The announcer will usually tell you how many minutes until the start. When the gun sounds, it may take a couple of minutes to get to the actual starting line (it has taken me anywhere from one minute to 30 minutes to get to the starting line—depending on how big the race is). Once you cross that line, your “chip” will start your personal timer, and you can go!
The most important advice I can give you is to not start out too fast. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, and feel like everyone is passing you, but just stick with what you’re comfortable with. At my first race, I could have sworn that I saw thousands of people passing me, and I felt panicked. But chances are, you will not be last—and even if you are, so what? You’re doing a race, which is a fantastic accomplishment!
During the race, there will be water stations with volunteers handing out water or sports drinks. It’s up to you whether to walk through them, run through them, or not stop at all. I can’t drink from a tiny cup and run at the same time, so I walk for about five seconds and throw it back, then start running again. I always make sure to say “thank you” to the volunteers.
When you get to the finisher’s “chute” (the last part of the race before the finish line), make sure you look up and smile, because there will usually be a photographer taking photos as you cross. Once you cross the finish line, there will probably be water and snacks for you to grab, and possibly a spot to get your photo taken. And that’s it—congratulations! I can almost guarantee that you’ll be looking up your second race as soon as you get home.