A colleague recently asked a couple folks on Twitter for some advice about preparing for his first 5K. I suggested that he not think too much about it.
As it turns out, there is a lot to think about before your first road race. After all, it’s your indoctrination into the Cult of Running, and it’s human nature to not want to be That Guy, whether you’re standing in the wrong spot, wearing the wrong shirt or hitting the wall less than a mile into the race.
To avoid embarrassment, real or otherwise, here’s a few things you should do.
Stick to what you know. Now’s not the time to try something new. Wear clothes, including shoes and socks, that are comfortable and familiar to you. If you eat, make it the same light breakfast you usually have. (If you’re a bacon-and-eggs type, save that for post-race brunch.) If you drink anything, make it water or your sports beverage of choice. Coffee is OK in limited quantities. Don’t drink a ton, though, unless, you know, you like waiting in line for Port-a-Pottys.
Plan, plan and plan some more. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the starting line. Research your parking options and try to find a spot convenient to bib pickup, the starting line and the finish line.(If you’re lucky, all three are in the same spot.) Plug the race address into your phone and review the directions the night before, as you may wake up so early that you're incapable of rational thought.
Leave early. I like to leave my house such that I’ll arrive an hour before a race, perhaps earlier if it’s a long race, a race I’ve never done before or a race where I expect a lot of traffic. If I’m early, I’ll just sit in the car and kick out the jams for a bit.
That said, stay loose. You don’t need to jog for half an hour, but you shouldn’t sit in your car until two minutes before the gun goes off. Walk around a bit. Take a swig or two of water. Do some dynamic stretches, such as squats or lunges, to get your blood flowing. (This has the added effect of psyching people out.) Don’t head to the starting line until it’s about 10-15 minutes before gun time.
On the line, breathe. There will be a lot going on. People pose for pictures. People look for friends. People violate your personal space. People pose for more pictures. Do your best to ignore it all.
Don't stand up front. Unless you plan to win, you wore the greatest costume ever or you personally know the race director, you can stand back with the hoi polloi. Larger races will use corrals that put faster runners up front and increasingly slower runners further back. Look for signs that mention a specific pace per mile, find the corral that best fits your pace and make some friends.
Don't take off like a bat outta hell. It's hard to avoid starting too fast. I've been running for 18 years and I still do it myself. About 95 percent of the time, I regret it. You will, too. Keep breathing, stick with the pack around you (you made friends, right?) and remember that the thundering herd will quickly thin out.
Push yourself, but not too hard. I know, it’s like saying, “Take your time, but hurry up.” Presumably, you signed up for this race in part to see what you’re made of. You should be going faster than you did on your training runs. Don’t hold back, and you’ll surprise yourself. That said, it’s your first race, so be careful. At any sign of non-routine discomfort (that is, anything that’s not the usual soreness or tightness that all runners feel), dial it back a bit.
Don’t worry about hydration. Unless it’s obscenely hot out, you’re probably not going to need to drink water during the course of a 5K. If you do, one little cup will suffice. (Obviously, this will be different for longer races, but for now you’ll be fine.) Anything more and it’s gonna slosh around in your stomach.
Enjoy yourself. Odds are you’ve never had people cheering you on. Soak it all in. Use that to push you if you start getting tired, sore or cranky. Once you cross the finish line, make the most of the post-race festivities (especially the food). Rehydrate. Find the friends you made, or the friends you already have, and cheer them on as they cross the line. Make plans to run together again.
Stretch. You don’t have to do this at the race itself -- though if you’re feeling tight, you probably should. But at some point during the day, take a few minutes to stretch. Remember, you’ve never run this fast, so you owe it to your legs to treat them right. (You’ll probably want to stretch the day after the race as well.)
Treat yourself, albeit within reason. I usually grab coffee and breakfast on the way home. You should, too. And it’s more fun with friends. If it’s the right time of year, you could always get ice cream.
Oh, one final thing: The race T-shirt is like the concert T-shirt. Don’t wear the race T-shirt during the race itself. Amateur. But if you need to change after the race, the race T-shirt is acceptable. Plus, it’s a silent way of explaining to the folks in the coffee shop why you smell so bad.