on... Running Your First Race

Completing my first Half!Last year, I Had the pleasure of talking to someone at parkrun who was in a similar position to me the previous year. He had started running in the Spring and was due to run his first big race, the Cardiff Half Marathon, in just over a week’s time.

I reeled off a bit of advice and thought it might be good to put it out for others in a similar position. I’m sure that more experienced runners could add comments / extra points (and please do), but this is what I came up with on the day:

Stick to your plan

OK, so this has been written a week before the race. If you have been working to a plan (and you should), it will be telling to run less this week. Run less this week. You may feel great, and perfectly capable of doing a bit more, but just run less this week. Keep your legs ticking over, but you’ve put the mileage in the bank earlier - you know that you are good for the distance, a bit of rest will help.

Change nothing on Race Day

Run with the same kit that you ran with. No new shoes for race day. Charity shirts are a bit more of an issue if they turn up too close to race day (as mine just did - 7 days to go!) Wear them on your final training sessions, even if you do have a funny message printed on them (ahem...). 

Eat as you would normally, taking into account the time of the race. It may be different to the times that you have trained, allow sufficient time for digestion. If you use gels, take them with you, and know exactly when you will use them. If you fancy the idea of gels, but haven’t tried them, leave them at home - you may end up leaving them in your shorts otherwise.

Your People

If you are lucky enough to have some understanding people with you to cheer you on / pick you up and drive you home after the race, arrange where you will meet up later. Having a mobile with you to call them later is great, but remember that mobiles can get lost or go wrong.

Persuading them to get there early is paramount. Always aim to be in the general location an hour before the start of the Race, especially if there are planned photo-shoots!

Clothing

Change nothing on race day. Don't wear anything that you haven't worn during your training. A favourite here is people deciding to buy a new pair of shoes the week before, or the Charity vest. Running for Charity is great, and wearing the vest makes you all part of the same team - but make sure that you run in it, and put it through the wash beforehand so you are forewarned of any issues.

After the race, you will get cold. Take some warm clothes that you can slip on after the race. Leave them with “your people”, or otherwise, pop them in a bag and drop it off at the attended baggage area.

Fill in the personal details on your Race Number the night before, and attach your Race Number early, using four safety pins. Some people have reported chaffing from the back of the pins, so a bit of surgical (micro-porus) tape on the back may help.

Also, if you get any problems with chaffes, sort them well before the race. Again, training runs are the place to identify issues, so that you know exactly what to do.

Vaseline or body-glide come recommended for chaffes, whereas surgical tape can work wonders for blisters or good old “Joggers nipple”.

If it’s cold, wet or both, wear a cheap plastic poncho or even a Bin bag to the start! They may look ridiculous, but it will keep you warm and dry when hanging around, waiting for the race to start. Pop a hole in the top and don’t worry about fellow runners wearing the same outfit as you.

Have your drink ready. If you use electrolytes, caffeine or anything else pre-race, take it to the pen so that you don’t end up drinking it too soon.

Getting ready to race 

Get in the correct position in your pen. About 30 minutes before the race, you’ll be encouraged to stand in a “holding pen” with other people of similar ability. Pens are based on expected end-times - e.g. for a Half Marathon, 1:30 - 1:45, 1:45 - 2:00, 2:00 - 2:30, 2:30 + (they may be more, including a fabled "White" pen, but I’ve never seen that one!) Often, you get pushed towards the back of the time windows, so if you fancied yourself as a 1:45, you’ll be with the 2:00. Don’t worry, you can make this up, so long as you get to your desired pace fairly soon. 

Timings - Gun and Chip

After the starting Gun goes off, It can take a while to get to the Start line, but don't panic. You will get two times at the end of the race - a Gun time, and a Chip time. The Gun time is for the Elite athletes, Chip time is for us. The gun will go off at the specified time, but it can take a few minutes before you cross the Start line. You will be wearing a timing chip - either tied into your laces, or as part of your race number. Your chip registers you as you run over the Start line, and again over the Finish. Often, there are a few other checkpoints during the race, just to make sure that you didn’t just get a taxi.

Race is On!

It takes time for the hustle to die down and for you to find some space. Lots of people get tripped up here, either by other runners, or by mis-judging a cheeky jump onto the kerb to break away from the pack. Be careful - I saw someone accidentally trip a runner who was using a running blade, particularly nasty - for the chap with the blade, and the “tripper” probably felt pretty bad too.

When you can, get to your pace, move your way through the crowd as necessary, and keep up with yourself!

Traffic lights are amazing while racing - first time around, it just doesn’t feel right, running through as they hit red.

You’ve put in the work during your training, now enjoy the race, it’s payback time!

Pacing

You should know what time you are aiming for, and have an idea of how you will achieve it. For some, simply completing the race will be enough - others will be chasing a PB, either theirs or someone else. Just be sure not to go out too quickly.

When planning your race, you should know roughly how long it should take you to complete each mile, so you can check this as you go along - if you can do mental arithmetic while running. Runners have been known to write their split times on the back of their hands.

If you think that's a bit extreme, Listen to the number of GPS watch bleeps at each KM or Mile marker - they're just doing the same in a more automated way. Personally, I check km splits - far easier to keep in check over 21 one-km checkpoints than a sudden panic / realisation towards the end that you’ve over-cooked the race, or run too slow.

There will be pacers for common times - these will generally have balloons attached, or a sign on their back. Use them, but don’t fully rely on them without additional verification. They are normally spot-on, but sometimes, they can be erratic, running slowly for a while, knowing that they can pick up the pace when they realise later. Also, one pacer’s 2:00 can mean < 2:05 and another’s is < 2:00.

Run your own race though.  Don’t worry about how anyone else is doing - it’s your race.

Admittedly, there is something strange about feeling that you’re doing great, only to be overtaken by a banana.

Music 

Touchy subject here - some races don’t allow MP3 players for safety reasons. It’s possible to miss valuable safety instructions, traffic and other runners. Balance that with the fact that music generally keeps people motivated, makes people run faster and relieves boredom. If you do like music, choose carefully to get your pace right. I've had issues in the past with either getting the wrong music (choose your playlist carefully - it will affect your speed), or the music playing too loud.

Cheering

On a bright and sunny day, you will get a cheer from the crowds. On a wet day, you won’t. Different people react to cheering in different ways - take it as positive encouragement and recognition of the work that you’re doing, and you’ll be fine. If your name is on your running vest, people will call it out - for most people, this will be encouragement enough just to keep going. People will tell you that you're doing great, you may not think that you are feeling great. Give them the benefit of the doubt!

If you’re a member of a Running Club, you may see their flags. If you’re running for a Charity, they might have a Cheering Station - use this enthusiasm to keep you going - you’re doing just great!

Water / Gels / Jelly Babies

As you run, you will be offered water and sports drink at various stations. These stations are quite long, so don’t get hung up on taking bottles from the first person you see - this will only slow you down. If you can take water during a run, great, if you can’t or if you’ve never tried it then be very careful. Sports drinks feel easier to take on due to their viscosity. Sometimes, kind souls lay out entire nurseries of Jelly Babies on trays - Jelly Babies are particularly good while running. 

Dont buy Gels the day before the race if you've never used them before!  Your fuelling strategy should have been sorted during training - if you done your training without Gels, fantastic - just don't try them for the first time on race day. That includes a change to Gels - even the same brand with a different flavour or added caffeine can cause problems. 

Water stations are dangerous

More accurately, the 400m stretch after a water station is dangerous. If you running on the same side as water is being handed out, runners will weave straight across you before almost stopping. Many runners take water, have a few sips then drop the bottle on the floor. This makes it hazardous for other runners coming behind them, in a kinda’ Wacky Races type sabotage. In a new addition to the hazards of running, at some races, the local kids pick up the discarded bottles to engage in water fights with the runners

On a hot day, even if you aren’t drinking, just holding a bottle of water will cool you down.

The Finish

This is where you use your “kick” - in the last few hundred metres, you suddenly realise that it’s almost over - if you can, raise your speed and pull your time in a few seconds. Don’t be concerned about passing someone coming up to the line - it’s a race. Since writing this, I have been told that this point is the most common for Cardiac Arrests, so take it easy - and don't come running to me...

Raise your arms as you approach the line - and smile! There will be cameras, you will have your photo taken. You may feel awful, you may hurt but make sure that photo counts!

Various photos will be taken as you go around, so again, if you see an official camera then smile / little push to make sure you look like you’re ahead!

Once you finish, slow down to a walk, but don’t stop completely. Your body needs to get used to the fact that you have stopped running. Collect your medal and (hopefully), your goody bag and keep moving.

Post Race

Some events offer free Sports Massages following a race. These can be very useful, but not everyone’s cup of tea. Bear in mind that they are likely to hurt too.

Relax, catch up with your people at the meeting point that you arranged before the race, or give them a call. You will feel warm for a while, then suddenly feel very cold. This is where you need your additional layers of clothing that are either with your people, or over at the baggage stop.

Well done - you did it!