The first race I took part in was the Marlow 5 – a local 5 mile race. Despite many of my Running Sister friends taking part I was terrified that I would come last, or that the “real” runners would laugh at me. As it turned out, taking part in a race is nothing like school sports day, and is actually really good fun. Since then I have taken part in lots of races from 5k to half marathon, and I really enjoy them. When else do grown-ups get a medal just for taking part?!
If you are new to running, entering a race can seem a bit daunting. Here is my guide to racing for those of us who finish near the back.
Finding a race
If you can run 5K, perhaps after doing the Couch 2 5K programme, then you will find that there are lots of races at that distance, as we head into the summer you will probably find something happening somewhere reasonably local every weekend.
I’m in the UK and the Runners World website is a good source of race listings, or just search for your town/area name and 5k race on Google.
If you are worried that you might come last then this is my top tip. Once you have found a race, in most cases on the race website there will be the results from the previous year. Have a look at the slowest people to finish. If there are times listed there around your speed or slower then you will be just fine! If you are really worried look for “fun runs” and things that mention runners OR walkers.
In addition to listing races, sites such as the Runners World website allows people to post reviews, and these can be really helpful. People mention everything from how hilly the course is, to the quantity and quality of portaloos, to whether it is difficult to park your car.
Booking your place
Some races have online entry and other require you to print out and send off a form with a cheque. Sometimes the form will ask you how long you think it will take you to complete the race. If the distance is further than you have run yet then you might need to make a bit of a guess, which is fine. There are race time calculators that allow you to put in your time for a distance you have run to get a prediction for a longer race. That would give you enough of an idea for race entry.
When booking check to see if race packs and numbers and being mailed out or if you need to collect them on the day. You can then contact the race organisers if your pack does not arrive when they state it should.
At some point prior to the race you will get a race information pack either via email or through the post. Much of this information may already be on the race website. Read it carefully. Things to take particular note of are:
- parking or travel information
- what time you should arrive – for example is there a 10 minute walk from the parking to the race start?
- whether your race number and timing chip (if the race is timed) are in your pack or if you should collect them on the day
- whether there are water stations on the course and how many
- whether this race has banned or advises against wearing headphones
If you are thinking of running while carrying a phone, water bottles, sports nutrition etc. then practice with these things while training.
I’m not going to cover training here, as I’m assuming you are doing that bit already!
The night before
Races tend to start early in the morning so I like to have everything ready the night before, in addition to the running clothes I am going to wear I usually take.
- Race number and timing chip (or confirmation email/letter)
- Print out of travel and parking instructions
- A banana to eat before the race and something quick to eat after such as a cereal bar
- Something warm to put on for the drive home
- Any drinks/jelly beans I need for the race itself
- Baby wipes and hand sanitizer. I ran my first Reading Half trying not to claw the skin off my hands as I was allergic to the gel in the portaloos, so I take my own!
- a bit of cash and a card I can tuck somewhere in case of problems
With everything ready you just need to try and get a good sleep!
I generally try and arrive at a race about an hour before it starts. The main reason being that I need to participate in the pre-race ritual of standing for 30 minutes in a queue for a portaloo. If you have limited experience of portaloos until now, take it from me, you will soon be an expert on the things. The quality of race toilet facilities is a top topic of conversation among runners. If you have travelled to the race you probably will want to go before the start, so make sure you leave time.
Depending on where you park your car you might have to hang around for a while before the start of the race. Most races have baggage storage. This ranges from well organised areas where volunteers take your bag – race number affixed – and hand it back to you at the end, to a heap of bags in the corner of a tent. Assume the storage is not secure and don’t leave valuables there.
I pack a bag with pre and post race food, space to put my warm clothes in, hand sanitizer and a small amount of change. Before going to the start line I stick my warm clothes into it and drop it off.
My running tights have a tiny little back pocket and in there I keep my car key. Make sure you have your car key/train ticket etc. somewhere safe! If I want to take my phone with me – for example on big races where I am meeting up with people afterwards – I carry it in an armband. You can also get waist belts that give you a bit of extra storage. On longer races I take a packet of sport jelly beans, I’m afraid I just tuck those into my bra strap!
I tend to only carry water if the weather is very hot. The race water stations are normally enough for me. If you like to have ready access to a drink or want to drink something other than water (gin is not recommended, I did once see someone get passed a cup of Costa coffee by a friend en route) then you can carry a bottle or wear a belt with bottle holder.
Some races provide sports drinks and gels. I have an iron stomach but many people are sensitive to these things and they can make people feel sick. The general advice is not to be tempted to eat or drink things en route that you are not used to having in training.
At the start line
Large races may have start pens, if you had to give an estimated time then you may have been assigned a pen, otherwise look for the one that matches the time you think you will take. Start too far forward and you will be in the way of faster runners, or tempted to start too fast to keep up. Too far back and you get stuck behind people – especially if the race also has walkers.
If there are no pens then go stand near some people who don’t look terribly fitter than you are! If your 5k time is over 30 minutes then you will want to start nearer the back. Ask the people around you, if you are not sure.
In chip timed races your chip will log the time you go over the start line so you don’t need to worry if it takes you a little while to actually start. Once the gun goes off take care as the start of a race, where everyone is packed in together, is an easy point to get injured. Take it steady and you will find that it soon thins out and you can get into your stride.
Try to avoid the temptation to set off too fast – it is really hard not to start chasing faster people, but you will suffer for it! If you realise you have gone out too quickly and start to struggle drop your pace to a really slow jog until you get your breath back and recover, then get back onto a sustainable pace for you. This is where running watches can be really useful, as you can keep pace with your watch and not worry about anyone else.
Enjoy your race!
Races should be a fun experience and a way to see the progress you are making. How well you actually do on the day can be down to a lot of different factors – some of which, like the weather and crowded starts are out of your control. Enjoy the experience.
If you have any tips for races, or a race day experience to share, then leave them in the comments.