What Actually Happens on Race Day?

We’ve done our fair share of races over at The Allrounder. So many that we’d probably go as far to say we’re pretty much experts on the subject. Not on winning them mind. No, we’re experts on turning up and finishing the things.

When you race all the time it’s easy to take it all for granted. But even after ten years, we still remember the time we took part in our first few running events. The nerves, the worry that you were wearing the wrong kit, the fear that you should have eaten more for breakfast, what do you need to pack for afterwards? do you need energy gels? It can all be a bit a bit stressful, trust us, we’ve been there.

That why we decided to write this handy guide for all you newbies signing up to your first races; a few pointers we’ve gained from the past few years, some of which have saved us on more than one occasion.

The Pre Race Prep

The most important things to remember before doing a race for the first time is to avoid doing anything you’re not used to. It’s pretty easy to get all excited in the run up to a race. You’ll read blogs and websites giving you tips on what to eat and drink. They’ll give you advice on stretching and warm-ups or tell you how often to take an energy gel.

The basic rule here is, if you haven’t tried it before, don’t do it. That covers pretty much anything. Don’t eat something different, don’t do some weird exercises, don’t stay up all night meditating, don’t wear a load of new running clothes. Because the chances are, if anything is going to mess up your race, it’ll be something you’re not used to. We once ran the Brighton marathon and decided that we’d go paleo the day before. Let’s just say we weren’t running none stop for the whole thing.

If you normally eat Weetabix for breakfast, eat Weetabix for breakfast. If you normally don’t drink loads of water, don’t decide to start the day of the race. Treat it like a normal day, apart from the fact you need to do some running.

Make sure you check and pack everything the night before as well. Read the race information, work out your route, check to make sure you have everything you need (safety pins are a good thing to have with you, you never know if they’re going to have them on the start line), and pack your bag before you go to bed.

The Race Village

The race village is where all the admin for the race takes place. It’s where you’ll find things like information tents, bag storage, bib collection, medical staff and various other bits and pieces. For the smaller races they’re won’t be much more than the bare minimum. However, if you’re taking part in one of the more commercial events then they can be absolutely enormous. Aside from all the admin, there will probably be food and drink stalls, clothes to buy, massages and various other things to spend money on. They’re like mini festivals.

For first time runners event villages are actually pretty exciting/daunting. Hundreds or thousands of people wandering around making their last-minute preparations before the race starts. Just remember that most other people will be in the same boat. In fact they’ll all probably be pretty friendly and more than happy to chat to you or help you out if you’re not sure what to do.

Some races send your race bib through the post. If that’s the case then you don’t have much to worry about other than getting there and dropping off your bag. Others require you to pick it up when you get there from a registration point. Check the race instructions to find out if there is any specific information you need to know in order to pick up your pack (sometimes you need to know your number). The queues can be pretty big depending on how large or well organised the event is. So don’t turn up two minutes before it starts.

Most races will also put on a little warm-up before the start. Although this may seem like the last thing you want to do before running for ages, it’s actually pretty important. Not only will it help prevent the risk of injury, but it’ll also activate the muscles meaning you’ll probably end up with a faster time.

The Toilets

If there’s one thing that can make or break a good race day, it’s toilets. To be honest we’ve probably never done a race where the toilets haven’t had some sort of queue, but sometimes they can be ridiculous. That’s why you need to plan ahead. Most events will have some portable toilets on site, and for the most part there will be toilet paper provided. Not always though. Take our advice and bring some toilet roll and hand sanitizer with you. Better still, work out your journey to the event so that you can access some more enjoyable amenities on route, like a shopping centre or a service station.

The Baggage Drop

These can vary a fair bit depending on the race. Essentially the baggage drop is a place where you can store your bag during the race under the supervision of event staff. Sometimes they’re fairly formal affairs, others they’re more like throwing your bag on a pile in the middle of a field. So be wary of what you leave in them. It’s unlikely that any race will be covered for baggage lost under insurance, not that we’ve ever had one go missing. You never know though.

The Race Start

Again, this massively changes based on the size of the race. In a smaller race the officials will probably call you over based on how long you’ll take to run the course. The first lot stood at the start line will be the fast runners, then people will join the behind at various time groupings.

In a larger event you’ll probably be designated a specific wave based on your estimated finish time noted on the online entry form. Officials will check your bib to make sure people are going into the correct waves. This is to stop congestion as well as ensuring that people are given the best chance to run the race they want.

When choosing your start wave, make sure you choose a time that’s realistic. It may seem like a good idea to start nearer the front, but if you’re a slower runner you’ll end up getting in the way of a lot of people. If you’re new to racing, having a load of angry runners trying to get past you can be pretty stressful. If you have no idea how long you’ll take then assume you may be slower. Being in a slower wave and overtaking people is a pretty nice confidence boost anyway.

The Water Stops

Depending on the distance and the organisation, races will generally have water stops every 5 kilometres. These can be pretty busy, with a hell of a lot of runners trying to grab a bottle or a cup. The key to water stations is to keep going. Slow down a bit to grab the water but then keep going until you’re past it. A lot of people will suddenly just stop and start drinking, which means that the people behind will either run into the back of you or have to make a sharp jump out of your way.

If you’re running a race you’ll probably be thirsty, and the temptation will be to drink as much water as possible. Stick to a few sips though. If you’re running a shorter race like a 5k or a 10k, then drinking loads at the water stops is only going to make you feel full and the last few kilometres aren’t going to be fun. You can drink as much as you want when you get to the end.

In the larger races drink a little bit at each water station to keep you hydrated without  going overboard. They say that during a marathon you should sip some water at every stop, even if you’re not that thirsty. In the later stages you’ll thank yourself.

Some races will offer more than just water at the stops. Things like energy drinks, gels or fruit. The temptation, based on the fact you’re probably going to be tired and aching, will be to drink and eat various items. Be careful though. If you’re not used to taking gels then they can have a pretty adverse affect on your stomach. The same goes for energy drinks. During the Richmond Marathon we drank the best part of a full bottle of Lucozade Sport and spent the last 5 miles burping. Wasn’t nice.

The Finish

The most beautiful part of any race, regardless of the distance is that finish line in the distance as you run up to it and all the relief and joy suddenly sets in. Once you cross the finish line though, make sure you carry on jogging for a few metres. Not only does this mean you’re not going to get someone running into your back and knocking you to the floor, but it’s also much better for you. If you suddenly stop after a 10km race your heart loses the pumping assistance caused by muscle movement, which can leave you dizzy due to blood pooling in the muscles instead of moving around the body. Keep jogging for 20 metres or so and gradually slow down.

Races will generally have some food and drink after the finish line, although this can vary massively, so don’t expect anything other than a bottle of water. Once you’ve grabbed whatever they have, as well as your medal, you’ll need to head back to pick up your bag. In the smaller races this can be a 2-minute walk. If you’re looking at taking part in something like the London Marathon you can expect a bit more of a wander.

And remember. A large number of people at any race will be doing it for the first time. Like you they’ll be nervous, excited, confused or scared out of their wits. You may see people walking past that look like professional Olympiads but it’s important to remember that everyone has a first race. Pretty much every marshal we’ve ever seen at an event has been friendly, helpful and ready to help anyone out. So just grab one and ask them if you need to know anything.

Oh yeah. And good luck people! Let us know how it goes.

Have you got any other advice for first time racers? Let us know by sending us a Tweet and we may add it to this post.

Published by Tom Wheatley

All round web chap. Editor of The Allrounder and Get Sweat Go. Loves a pizza, Howard Hawks films, fitness and old British sitcoms. Not a fan of cucumbers. Level 3 Personal Trainer and massively mediocre runner. Recently launched The Run Testers video channel.

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