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Your First (Or Nearly First) Race

November 27, 2013

I still remember my first race. I remember driving there, in the dark, and discovering packet

378828_2124533243984_1692096203_n (2)pick-up was not, in fact, where I had been told. I remember having to drive, with some other runners, to the actual race site, where I was handed a piece of paper and some safety pins, and actually having to ask someone what I was expected to do with it. I remember being very bothered by the other runners around me (it was actually an incredibly small race–under 500 runners, total). I remember starting just behind the lead pack, and having to walk before the first mile marker. I remember walking with a boy who was having a tough time. I remember hitting the turnaround before thirteen minutes were on the clock. I remember having a great time on the homeward half. And I remember how thankful I was for every single person who encouraged me along the way.

With these memories in mind, here are a few words of advice and encouragement for you, if you’re on your way to running in your first (or nearly first) race.

1. Don’t be afraid to look like a rookie. Runners love their sport, and we’re almost giddily happy when we find out someone has just discovered it. Tell someone around you this is your first time running in a race, and you’re sure to hear words of encouragement and/or advice. It’s what happened to me when I asked what to do with my bib (that’s the official name for the piece of paper with your number on it, by the way*). Ask about anything–where the water stations are, where the turnaround or portapotties are, etc.

2. Warm-ups and stretching are a very personal thing. If you’re new to running,  you should minimize doing anything you haven’t done before. Just because you see someone zipping around, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea for you–it might be a terrible idea. Stretching is great for those who are used to it pre-run, but if you’re not, it could lead to injury. Do whatever you’re used to. I usually run an easy mile or two before a 5K, but if your long run is just up to 3 miles, you’re probably better off just walking to warm up a little. Talk to a runner who knows your running history to get individual advice. Don’t get swept up by the crowd.

3. Don’t be afraid to walk, and don’t consider it failure if you do. Part of your learning curve as a runner is developing a sense of pace. In your early races, you may start too fast, which will almost guarantee you’ll be too tired to keep your pace in the middle miles. That’s okay. Plenty of us have found ourselves exhausted and needing a break, so you’ll probably have company. Try to time your walk if you can–you’ll get a mental and emotional boost from being able to run the last stretch, so it’s best to walk in the middle portion and conserve your energy for the last section of the race. Besides, there’s usually spectators (maybe even family?) at the end, and their energy will give you an extra push. And let’s face it, no one wants to walk in front of the hometown crowd. To minimize your chances of having to walk, however . . .

4. Start slower than you think you should. The people at the front of the pack will be running extremely fast. These people are in it to win it. Don’t follow them! The group right behind them are those we call age-groupers: they know they can’t win this thing, but they have a decent shot at finishing very well in their age group. At least in your first few races, you should probably let them go, too. If this is your first race at a particular distance, you should be in this to finish it, period, with no time goal in mind. (Even if you’ve run the distance before in training, race day is a whole different animal.) Once you’ve finished one race at that distance and are able to predict a time for yourself, be smart: don’t take off any faster than your desired pace. If you feel good after the first half, pick it up for the second. Feel great with one-quarter of the distance to go? Let loose! It’s always best to be picking people off at the end than to be gutting out a death march as you will the finish line toward you.

5. Pay attention to the conditions and adjust accordingly. If it’s rainy, the course may be slippery and /or muddy, so you’ll have to watch your footing carefully. If it’s very hot and/or humid, make sure you are drinking more water and slow down, especially at the beginning of the race. Remember to also adjust your wardrobe. You may want to wear a hat or visor in rain so you can see clearly; sunny conditions may call for a visor (I find a hat can trap heat). In longer distances (10K and up), don’t get arrogant: drink even in cold weather.

6. I wouldn’t take any sports drink on the course unless I’d tried it in training. In a short race, you probably wouldn’t get sick until you’d finished running, but why chance it? Check what the race is serving before you start running, because once you’re out there it’s not always easy to hear volunteers clearly. For short distances, you’ll get away with just drinking water. Your best bet to make sure you get the water you’re looking for instead of spilling water (it’s harder than you think to catch a cup while you’re running) is to identify the volunteer you’re going to take a cup from and point to him or her as you approach. I know–that sounds terrible. Trust me, having volunteered before, I know: your volunteers appreciate knowing you’re coming for them. Now grab the cup, and, if you’re going to walk to drink, look behind you, and move to the side before slowing down. Don’t be in a rush to catch up to your old pack when you resume running. Just gradually return to your running pace. Taking in water is worth any lost time. Do not take in water while running unless you’ve practiced in training. It’s harder than it looks!

7. Don’t do anything new on race day. Don’t try new shoes. Don’t try new socks. Don’t wear the new tank. Don’t try the new sports drink. Don’t do the stretch that incredibly fit guy is doing. Can I say it more clearly? This is the cardinal rule. Unless you’re using the race just as a fun run, and don’t really care about your time, you may as well burn this into your brain: nothing new on race day.

I’ll have more tips for your next race, but these will get you to the start line of your first or second short race confidently. Knowing you’ve put in the training, it only remains for you to run from the gun to the tape and give it your all!

*Like so many other things in running, pinning on the bib is a matter of personal preference. Races require that you pin it on your front, for identification purposes. This helps them locate and remove bandits, that is, runners who are running on their course without paying the race’s registration fee. In larger races, it also helps on-course photographers identify you so they can later sell you your pictures for exorbitant amounts of money. I happen to sweat like a beast, and I use my shirt to mop up, so I discovered after a few years of distance running having a piece of Tyvek on my shirt isn’t particularly convenient. Since I’m often running in skirts, I simply pin the bib on my skirt now. You just have to find what works best for you. Whatever you do, fill out the information on the back, which helps emergency workers find and contact your next of kin if, God forbid, something should happen to you on the course. Just be thankful you’re not running in 2007, when you had both a bib and a horrible ankle bracelet that served as your timing device. These days, your timing chip is somewhere on your paper bib. Not only is that one less thing for you to worry about, it doesn’t have to be returned. Sometimes, technology is your friend.

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