Last weekend I did the Mount Cook Half Marathon. I’ve lost count of how many races I’ve done now; too many to count in the 7 years I’ve been running. But I might never have done any at all if it weren’t for a friend all those years ago.
I never wanted to run in a race you see. One, I didn’t think I was good enough, two, I didn’t think I was a ‘proper’ runner and three, I felt intimidated by all the actual ‘proper’ runners. Back then I was just jogging around as an attempt to try to get fit and (to my massive surprise and slight disgust) I found I rather liked it.
I also didn’t know what To Do. Not the running bit, I knew what to do with that. But the logistics side. Like, where to go, what to take, what time to be there, what actually happened and when. This actually bothered me more than the running bit for some reason. I guess I felt like a novice, and back then I didn’t like feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t want people to laugh at me. (Now, I constantly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, hahaha and don’t give a shit what other people think).
It was only when a friend suggested I sign up did I explain all this, and when they offered to come with me and show me what to do, I
felt coerced relented and signed up for not just one race, but a three-race series (two 5kms and a 10km).
I then promptly crapped myself (not literally) at the prospect of having to run 10km (I hadn’t run that far at that point and could only dream of those elusive 6 miles) but also a bit excited and a little less nervous knowing that someone would be there to tell me what to do and generally be a responsible adult so I didn’t have to.
Because lots of stuff does happen at a race. Like wearing a race bib (number). And timing chips (I’d never even heard of them before). I had questions like: How do they attach to you? When do you get them? What stuff do you need to take, and where do you put it when running? What about my car keys? What should I eat? When should I eat? What do I wear? How will I know where to go?
SO MANY QUESTIONS.
I wonder how many people might get put off like I did? I acknowledge I could be in the minority here, maybe it was just me, but I’d put a bet on me not being the only person to have felt a bit anxious about that stuff.
The good news is that once you’ve done one race, you’ve pretty much figured it out. Or you make it up as you go along and realise that’s what everyone else is doing too.
But, if you’re reading this and haven’t done a race or are wondering about the above, I’ll help demystify it a bit for you as please, please, please don’t let it put you off. I bloody LOVE doing races now, I love the atmosphere, the buzz and I can absolutely 100% assure you, NO ONE is looking down on you or not thinking you are a ‘proper’ runner. There are all kinds of people who enter races, who are all amazingly supportive to everyone.
What’s a race bib? What do I do with it?
A race bib is the number you see attached to people when they’re running, it identifies you (all the details you provide when you enter a race will sit against that number, like who you are, any medical history, your address etc. and that’s why you can’t just give someone else your number to run with) and often there is a space on the back to write emergency contact details in case anything happens to you during the race.
You attach it to your top, usually at the front (sometimes you can attach it to your shorts/leggings but check each race detail as they may have specific rules about where it needs to do). 99% of the time they are attached with safety pins, so be careful not to stab yourself. An easy way to avoid this is to attach it to your top before you put it on, but this can lead to weird and uncomfortable positioning. You’ll get the hang of it. Some fancy race numbers can have magnet type things, or some are like a bit window sticker. Race numbers in mud and obstacle races are a trophy; if it’s still attached after you’ve thrown yourself over walls, down slides and through water, you deserve to keep and frame it for posterity.
The numbers are so you can be easily identified, both during the race and for any race photos (yes, most races will have a photographer hiding in a bush somewhere taking THE MOST unflattering pictures you will ever see of yourself in your life). Sometimes they might have your name on which means the crowds can cheer for you personally, making you feel like you have lots of friends (especially if you’re like me and never take anyone to any races) and a fucking hero.
What’s a timing chip? What do I do with it?
A timing chip is what will give you your Official Race Time, which is what you will tell to as many people as possible, but only if you are happy with the time. These can take a few forms, but mainly they’re a small piece of plastic that attaches to the top of your shoe, either with cable ties or on your laces. If they’re on your laces, you will have to re-lace your shoe, so try to remember how they were laced up before you untie them. Yes, speaking from experience here. Allow extra time to put these timing chips on; they’re bloody fiddly. Rushing to do them just before a race starts is not pleasant. Yet again talking from experience.
Sometimes it’s a small receiver on a strap which ties around one of your ankles and makes you look like you’ve been electronically tagged and out on a day trip from prison.
Sometimes it’s on the race number as a small metal insert which makes the number feel a bit bulky but at least you haven’t had to untie your shoes.
What’s the difference between Gun Time and Chip Time?
The gun time is the time from when the gun went off (or air horn, or whistle, or cheer. Basically, the start of the race) to when you cross the finish line. The chip time is the time you ran over the starting mat (the chip magically (probably RFID) gets triggered by something under a big mat you run over) to when you cross the finish line. I have ZERO idea why some races give you both times, as no one actually gives a stuff about the gun time, especially in busy races where it can take ages to get to the start line.
What do I wear?
Whatever you want. It’s not a fashion contest, so wear kit that you feel comfortable in, and that you’ve worn before, especially your trainers. It’s a rookie mistake to take new kit as it can be uncomfortable, and rub/chafe or give you blisters, which is bloody miserable and painful.
Don’t worry yourself too much about what other people wear either, there will always be some serious elite athletes wearing amazing kit, including things you didn’t even know existed (calf sleeves, arm warmers, hydration packs). If you don’t know they exist, chances are you probably don’t need them.
What is race registration?
Some races will send you your race bib, timing chip etc beforehand in the post. Other races will have registration where you go and pick all of this stuff up. This stuff is often referred to as a race pack. You’ll have to give your name (for big events you may find you have to join a queue according to what letter your surname starts with, or something similar) and might have to provide ID, and/or proof of race entry.
Some race registrations will have a mini expo; a few stalls selling running and race paraphernalia, like trainers, water bottles, kit, souvenir t-shirts etc. Sometimes these might be cheaper and have good offers, sometimes they are twice the price and a total rip off. A good tip is to not rely on these to buy your race kit.
What do I take?
Yourself. This is the most important thing. And some decent trainers. And a good sports bra.
Your race pack if you already have it, or proof of your race entry and/or ID if not (see above).
Earphones, if you’re allowed to run with them. Check the race rules to see – a lot of races don’t allow them because they can be a health and safety risk.
Anti chafe gel – the runners friend. This is for life, not just for races.
Some water and food for afterwards. You may get some in a goodie bag but it’s good to have something of your own just in case, as you have the excuse of just running a race to now stuff your face with goodies.
Money. There might be some food and drink outlets, or a massage tent who will all offer you post-race treats in exchange for some of your hard earned dosh.
Extra safety pins, just in case none are provided with your race bib, or you drop them in your car or the grass, because those little bastards are nigh on impossible to find again.
First aid kit. Can be handy afterwards to soothe any ailments thay may have occured. Chafing, safety pin puncture wounds, bramble scratches from hedgerow toilet visits…
Layers of clothing, Depending on where you are and the time of year, chances are you need extra clothing to what you’ll be running in. Baggy jogging bottoms, hoodies and hats are always a good bet to wear over your kit, but remember to take them off before you start, otherwise you’ll probably cook yourself.
You may see people in black bin liners at the start of a race. This is not a fashion trend, these are people who want to keep warm while waiting at the start line in that time between having to take all your layers off and dump your stuff (see below) but before the race starts. Bin liners keep body heat in fantastically, and can be ripped off and dumped at the start line.
A friend. For cheering and stuff holding duties (see next section).
What do I do with my stuff?
The BEST option is to take a friend or family member as cheering squad/stuff holder. They can hang around with you right up until the time you need to strip all the extra layers off, take all your stuff, look after it while you go frolic around the race, and give it back to you when they meet you at the end having cheered enthusiastically (extra bonus friend points if they make you a sign) as you cross the line.
The other option is a Bag Drop. This is where you can drop your bag (which will contain all your stuff as listed above), safe in the knowledge you can go pick it up at the end of the race. You might have to fill in a tag that you attach to your bag, or just give your race number but either way there will usually be people running this. If you’re finishing in a different place to where you start, there may be a bag transfer service, which works in the same way, only while you’re out giving it your all, someone’s is giving your bag a ride to the finish line.
What should I eat and when?
This really is personal preference, and it’s worth trying a few different things out in your training. Depending on the distance, you might want to take food/nutrition with you. Some races may offer nutrition as well as fluids out on the course at water/aid stations. Check the race details and do some research to find out what works best for you.
Pretty much all races will have water at some point, but always check the race details beforehand so you know for sure.
How will I know where to go?
Again, always check the race details, especially if a course map is given, to get yourself familiar with the route. Unless you’re doing something like the Barkley Marathons or a rogaine though, chances are the route will be well signposted and full of marshalls along the way to direct you, usually at junctions and road crossings to make sure people are safe. Always remember marshalls are volunteers, usually runners themselves, out there for a good while and are there to make sure you have a great (and safe) time. Give your thanks and say hello! Some marshalls appreciate a hug, especially on mud runs.
What if I need the toilet?
There will never be enough toilets before you start the race. Even if there were a million. Everyone needs the loo multiple times before the race starts, it’s just the law. Try and go before you leave the house, and then if you think you might need it before you start, join the queue as soon as you can. You might want to take some toilet paper with you, as chances are what’s provided will run out. Some races will have toilets out on the route, if not you’ll have to dash off and do a Paula Radcliffe.
And so there you go!
Hopefully the above has helped de-mystify the complex world of race logistics a little bit. I’ve probably forgotten stuff but it’s now late and I’m tired.
If you’ve never entered a race but would like to, GO DO IT! Most races have loads of information on their websites or joining emails, but remember too that there are always people around to ask – you can always email the organisers beforehand, or just ask anyone (either part of the organising crew or another race goer) on race day, everyone will be super friendly and willing to help.
Enjoy! If you have any tips for anyone reading, stick them in the comments, or if you have any questions fire me a message 🙂