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Where I present unsolicited advice for your next race

by John on September 15th, 2014

This week is the official start of my “fall racing season.” This Sunday, I start a series of races: two (possibly three) half-marathons, a full-marathon, and then a 10k, before I shift focus from running to swimming as it will, likely, be too cold to safely run outdoors, and I hate hate hate the dreadmill.

As I’ve been through a race or dozen in my life, I’ve picked up a lot of habits, whenever I run. As it seems that running is becoming more & more popular, I figured I’d share my sage advice wiseassery for anyone who might not yet be familiar with what to expect at a race.

I was originally planning this as a completely facetious list, but The Oatmeal beat me to it, and did a much better job than I ever could hope to do.

  • Do not wear the shirt from this year’s run. Yes, it’s great to have a brand-new tech shirt, and, oftentimes, that brand-new tech shirt will have a great design. But it’s tacky, the equivalent of wearing the t-shirt of the band whom you are seeing in concert. The only time you can pull it off is if you’re wearing the shirt of a previous tour, and you attended one of the dates . . . it’s cool to wear the shirt of the same race from the prior year, but this year’s shirt? Wait until after you’ve completed the race before you wear it1
  • Do plan out your outfit the night before — know what you’re going to wear, and put it aside before you go to bed. Nothing sucks quite as much as rushing about, trying to remember where you put this thing or that thing.
  • If you have boobs, do not use your running bra as storage. Boobs are wonderful, truly. I can’t say enough about them . . . but, as I understand it, women who lack pocket space will turn to the combination of bra & mammary glands as a method of carrying stuff. During a race, it’s good to have your car keys and a few bucks on you (I can’t imagine what else you might need to have – stuff for immediately after the race can either be left in your car or with a bag-check — I like to have a pair of sneakers & a really REALLY comfortable pair of hiking socks), but running for a distance with a car key pressed against your boob is just asking for a bruise the shape of a Nissan Sentra key. If necessary, buy a fanny pack, or (even better) one of those shirts with a tiny pocket built into it.
  • Do not constantly check your phone during the race. First off, if a course photographer is being all ninja-like, trying to keep people from posing for a photo2, you’ll have pictures of you looking at your phone . . . and, no matter how fast you’re running, you look like you’re going slow when you’re looking at your phone. Next, you fucking need your battery life — even if you had a fully charged device, you had a few hours beforehand, and you’re probably running your run tracking program, and you might not be able to charge immediately after you’re done. Let your phone be.
  • Do put thought into your runtime playlist. When reading the previous bullet, you might ask “well, how do I know how I’m doing as I run?” Now, most run tracking programs will give you a cue every x minutes or every mile or something, but I don’t use that, because I get into whatever I’m listening to. But, even if the course doesn’t provide regular feedback as to elapsed time, I can tell you how I’m running. See, months ahead of time, I start planning my playlist – for any race more than a 5k, I have the same routine: I have a target time, I arrange a playlist for 10% longer than that target time (for example, I’m running the marathon in November, I’m targeting four hours: 240 minutes, so I’ll plan a 260-ish minute playlist — I hope to not hear the very end). I always start out with incredibly mellow music, to remind myself to keep calm, there’s a lot of race ahead of me. I gradually pick up the pace to a series of what I can only describe as “jams,” pop music that I can sing along to that makes me happy — as I hit the runner’s high3. From the halfway point, I gradually switch to angrier and angrier music, with music that would make Mother Theresa want to kick puppies playing at my target time. Then, for that last 10%, which I truly hope to not hear, however, is sympathetic music. So, if I hit the halfway point, and my music is still mellow? I’m ahead of pace. If, suddenly, I hear “Everybody Hurts” by REM, I know I’ve missed my time – all without ever looking at my phone.
  • Do not have a “loud” volume on your tunes. This is simply common sense — you need to be able to hear other runners. You need to be able to listen for road noises. You need to be safe, and that means your music can’t be so loud that you’re essentially, a deaf person on the course.
  • Do pull your earphones from your ears before the end and give everything you have left. Where you “turn it on” is entirely up to you4 — and, yeah, “turning it on” is difficult at the end of a long run where you, simply, don’t have anything left. But people are cheering. Soak it in. You fucking did it. Go as fast and as hard as you can. Make it hurt. Because it’ll feel all better in just a little bit.
  • Do not pull out your phone/watch to stop your run tracking at the finish line. We all want that ultra-accurate assessment in our run tracking – we hit the “start” just as we crossed the start line, let’s make sure we have the finish to the second. But, with the previous notes about pulling out your phone on the course, there are, typically, photographers everywhere at the finish of an event. Head through the finish, strong, and stop your tracked run a little while after. If you’re truly anal about your time, log in, edit your run, & make your run time match your chip time.
  • Do smile as you cross the finish line. Again, photographers are everywhere. Also? don’t blow a snot rocket as you cross the line.
  • Do plan your morning before the race starts. Most every race I run, I sleep at home the night before — so I have my routine: wake obnoxiously early, heat water & grind coffee, as my coffee brews, I shower & manscape, dress, drink my coffee, eat something protein & carbohydrate laden, drive to the start. My race, this Sunday, I’m staying with friends – so I’m going to have to change things up — and I, honestly, don’t know what I’ll do leading up (I’m not about to say “I’m going to take a long shower…and don’t mind the curly hairs in the shower drain when I’m done” to my friends, though they’d likely get a kick out of it) . . . but I can guarantee that, the night before, I’ll think through what I plan to do the morning of the race, just so that I have the semblance of a plan worked out in my “early morning brain”.
  • Do arrive early. Save your stress for the race itself – don’t fret about getting to the start on-time. My worst run, ever, I arrived 20 minutes before the gun, picked up my packet, pinned my number on me, and got to the start just as the race started. I was frazzled before I started and, when it was time to run, I was already spent. Arrive early and chill. It’ll be worth it5
  • Do not bring too much to check into the bag check. There is typically limited space — if you won’t have access to your car at the finish, bring only what you know you’ll need. If you will have access to your car, consider foregoing the bag check all together.
  • Do not be intimidated by other people’s warm-up routine. I do not stretch before I run. I do not run wind sprints or do squats or stand on my head before a run. I do not warm up6. Typically, before a race, especially if the early morning is chilly, you’ll find me hanging out wherever I deem it “warmest,” preparing myself, mentally, for what’s forthcoming. Other people have their own routines — don’t feel the need to match what someone else is doing. Do you stretch before you run? Ignore the assholes like me that are just standing around.
  • Do make small talk before & during the race. I love to meet new people and hearing their stories (I know not everybody is like that). If there’s a conversation going on that you’re interested in, jump in — everybody is awkward in places where the only thing bringing us together is a want to “make ourselves tired.” You might as well enjoy it.
  • If you’ve never this specific distance previously, do advertise that this is your first time. “Hi, I’m Bob Fartknocker, and this is my first marathon8.” You’ll find like souls that are feeling many of the same feelings you are. And, if you’re talking with a race veteran, well, you’ll introduce nostalgia for them as they remember their own first time.
  • Do not interrupt someone obviously trying to keep to themselves. I realize I’m writing this as the extrovert that I am . . . if someone is, obviously, hanging out trying to keep to themselves, let them have their own pre-race routine.
  • Do not let your eyes wander. Look, runners have some of the most gorgeous bodies. At a race, no matter what your personal inclination, there’s plenty of eye candy. Don’t let your eyes pop out of your head.
  • Do course research. I am horrible about doing this, myself, but it’s important — know if you’re dealing with a late hill, or “rolling hills” throughout9, or a flat course. It does you no good to go out hard, run a great race for 3/4 of the distance, only to have a hill eat you up at the end.
  • If you’re concerned about racetime start temperatures, do not fret about bringing throwaway clothing. I’m saying this, specifically, because this Sunday, I’ll be running my race with several friends from South Florida . . . and current, morning Philadelphia temperatures are, um, a bit colder than they’re used to. Bring a big old sweatshirt and start the race in it (just make sure it’s not one that you won’t mind if you don’t get it back — many races will collect all clothing & make it available for pickup, donating anything that’s left) — once you’re warmed up, leave it at an aid/water station.
  • Do hydrate. Generally, when I’m out on a training run, I don’t drink water . . . and this has lead to truly horrible training runs from time to time, but I know what my body needs. For most distances, however, unless I actively need to pee, and the thought of drinking water makes me feel like I’d burst, I grab a cup of water from every aid station and swallow what I can (without fear of spilling any on me – if I do, I do) as I run. For a full marathon, I’ll drink whatever sport drink they have for the first half – I’ll need those carbs at the end, switching to water at the halfway point.
  • Do not litter. After every aid station, there will be some sort of trash can, at least try to throw your cup in it.
  • Do not start too fast. You’ll be excited. You’ll want to win! Resist temptation — if you start out “too slow” you’ll just have more in the tank when you get to the end . . . but if you start out too fast, you just won’t have anything left10.
  • Do thank the volunteers. They’re giving up their time to make sure you have a good race – show them your appreciation (also? unless you’re in the final kick, if you’re breathing too hard to say “thank you,” to someone, you’re going too hard).
  • Despite the temptation & common knowledge of “carb loading,” do not change up your diet, significantly, the night before your race. Let’s talk about poop for a minute. See, I’m the father of two four year olds — I’ve been dealing with poop all of my life. And, for the past few years, I’ve been dealing with more than just my own poop. Everybody poops. Pooping during a race sucks (and yeah, the “runner’s trots” happen), as it means time is ticking and you’re trying to “drop the kids off at the pool” while sitting in a horrible chemical toilet. Do not do anything that may make your bowels hate you — if you have an established diet, do not deviate from it, the night before a race, because you just don’t know how it might affect you.
  • If you’re a coffee drinker, do drink coffee in the morning. Coffee helps me poop. Though, when the portapotty line includes portapotties that have run out of toilet paper, it’s no fun hearing “oh, you’re a guy, you can use that one,” only to have to respond “um, no, I need toilet paper.”
  • If you’re not a coffee drinker, do not start before a race. Again, see above about changing things when you don’t know how your body might respond.
  • Do allow yourself to splurge after you’re done. You fucking did it. Bacon cheese fries with milkshakes, all around!
  • Do not introduce any new equipment for a race (he says, not sure if his shoes will be up for the entire race circuit he has planned). Most big runs feature an expo, where you get to view all of the latest & greatest running gear & gadgetry. If you want to try something out, go for it . . . but wait for your next run after the race — keep with the “tried & true” equipment that you’ve been training with, for this race. Nothing sucks quite so much as finding that your brand new running shorts leave you feeling some chafing, or running an entire race with earbuds that just won’t stay in.
  • If there are “anticipated pace” or “anticipated finish” stations, do follow them. This is a major pet peeve of mine. You’ve been training for this, presumably for awhile. You know where you plan to finish – why the fuck would you start with a faster crowd? If nothing else, run like an asshole11. What I find is that, most people who start with the faster crowds hang out in a crowd and throw their elbows, as if to say “I don’t care that I’m slower than you, you go around me,” which is fine & all, except that, in the early goings, it’s almost always crowded, so everyone ends up sacrificing safety & energy trying to get around these people. The thing is, despite the elbows being thrown by the slow walk/runners, I have, probably, 40+ pounds on most of them. If the elbow connects with me? I’m probably not the one who is getting hurt.
  • Do not leave immediately after finishing. I used to be someone who would have to look at the course cutoff time before committing to a run. In the years that I’ve been running, though, my pace has gotten faster & I can generally assume that I’ll finish any race well before the course cutoff time. But, those runners that are racing their own targets and the course cutoff time, they deserve the same race experience as the elite runners. They deserve to throngs of cheering spectators as they end (because, all too often, they’ve been dealing with support stations that may have packed up before they should have, or support stations that are, plain, out of support materials). Stick around. Cheer for those finishing behind you.
  • Do not fret when you’re passed. There’s something in all of us that, as soon as we feel someone coming up, we want to go just a little bit faster to keep ahead. Remember that this is your race, so run your race. Unless you’re trying to win, outright, repress that competitive vibe.
  • Do not feel bad if you’re “running for the bling.” Hey we all have our own motivations — don’t fret if you signed up for this specific race because you liked the medal, or because you wanted to achieve a NerdFitness quest, or get the Fitocracy points. This is your race. Your motivations are your own, and they’re just fine.
  • Do have fun. I mean, that’s why we’re waking up early & freezing our asses off & losing toenails & breathing heavy – this is fun, right?

  • 1 A few weeks ago, I wasn’t able to run a race series (5k on Friday night followed by a Saturday half-marathon). A friend of mine picked up my packet, including three shirts — shortly, I’ll pick up those shirts from her, but, as I didn’t run? Part of me thinks I’ll likely donate them to goodwill, rather than wear them, as they weren’t “earned.”.
    2 Sounding my barbaric yawp as I approach the finishI’m horrible at this — when I see a photographer? I put on a great big smile & typically gesture for the photo – the most egregious example is seen to the right.
    3 A truly magical experience, where you’re running and you don’t realize how far you’re running & the miles just kind-of pass by, but you’re in a zone. Every run starts, with me, with “why the fuck am I doing this?” but, eventually, the suck starts to wear off, and then *gasp* it becomes enjoyable. Then, distance dependent, the suck might return . . . or it might return with a vengeance.
    4 For me, for a 5k or 10k or half marathon, this is the last half mile or so. For a full marathon, this is the 26.0 mile marker
    5 This rule goes out the window for a The Color Run or any other super-large race with “open corrals” where they start the run at some time & continue running heats until there aren’t any other runners left.
    6 Ok, for a 5k, because it’s such a short distance7, I’ll ensure that my legs are warmed up by jogging a mile or so and then doing some lunges before the start.
    7 Yes, I realize that I’m an asshole for just calling a 5k, a distance many new runners hope to simply achieve a “short distance,” but, for the distances that I’m used to, 3.1 miles is what it takes for me to “find my pace.”
    8 Bonus points if you don’t replace “Bob Fartknocker” with your own name. Triple bonus points if you name is, in fact, Bob Fartknocker.
    9 Rolling Hills are bullshit.
    10 Despite writing this, I always start out too fast.
    11 If the event is chip-timed, meaning that your time is measured between when you, personally, cross the start line, then the finish line, running like an asshole is when you hang back with slower runners and spend the entire race passing people, feeling like you’re the fastest person in the world.
8 Comments
  1. I broke 1 and 3 this last weekend. 3 is totally possible with the right placement. I didn’t even know my key and phone were there.

    • I’m hearing, left & right that, with the right sports bra, the boobs are a totally sufficient storage area 🙂

  2. A. Rolling hills ARE bullshit. Especially at mile 23.

    B. I have never EVER blown a snot rocket.

    C. I thank every volunteer like a dang lunatic. It makes them happy and it makes me happy. Win win.

    Great list and good luck!!!

    • Never ever? Never ever ever?

      I actually have only blown one and it’s because I had no choice – I couldn’t breathe so it was pull off the course and correct the situation or try. It felt good – but I don’t allow myself to make it a habit because I fear the sensation will be like cocaine “sure, that felt good, but it was nothing like the first, let me see if I can do it again”.

      Perhaps I put too much thought into things.

  3. I love this because I am THISCLOSE to getting the okay from my physical therapist to start training again after being laid up with a herniated disc since January. I have to take it slow, but we’re talking about getting me ready for a late season race, probably a 10k in March. I may try to talk him into a half marathon. To say I am excited is understating it JUST a tad.

    My friend running a half marathon “with” me (as in way ahead) wasn’t prepared for the rolling hills (10 miles of them) and tried to sprint up the first one and nearly vomited. Oops!

    I don’t use my running tracker in a race. I’m afraid it will discourage me if I’m off my game.

    I would add to NOT crowd around the beginning of an aid station. The last race I ran, the aid station was several yards long. Everyone was stopping at the first table, and the volunteers couldn’t hand out the water fast enough, while there were volunteers a few yards down with hands outstretched.

    I make a killer running playlist.

    • You know, the beginning of an aid station . . . yeah, I forget about that, but I’ve conditioned myself to “just keep going” until I get to the halfway point of an aid station before getting water — it’s just second nature to me now.

      I’m hoping to record a vlog, today, about how I got into running, and part of that will be a very long bike ride that I took where, pushing myself, hard, over an early hill meant that I, just, had nothing left (though, in regards to vomiting during races, I find that, if I throw up during a run, from that point forward, I’m strong).

      I try to use a run tracker for each & every run, be it a race or a training run or “pretending to run with the kids.” The hope is that, with a ton of data collection, I’ll be able to look up trends, and, if I’m taking notes at all (not that I do, but, in theory, I can look up tweets from such & such a time), see if there are behaviors which mean improved times.

      And yay for almost being back on your feet!

  4. Great list! Although, I confess, I do carry my keys in my sports bra. Old habits die hard.

    • I’ve heard from several who use their rack as a storage option during races, without incident . . . obviously, I’m coming from an area of ignorance, but I’ve heard of many awful bruises.

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