Running Your First Race: A How-To Guide

So you’ve been walking/jogging/running for awhile and you’re ready to take the next step: a race! Don’t be scared. Races are fun (and addictive) and are a great motivator to keep on training. I’m no expert–just a former fat(ter) and sedentary girl who has ran a lot of 5Ks and two half marathons (and counting). Here is a how-to guide on running your first race.

1.  What are some typical race distances?

A 5K is a pretty standard and common race distance and it is 3.1 miles.  A 10K is 6.2 miles.  A half marathon is 13.1 miles and a full mary is 26.2 miles.  Then there are those crazy Iron people who run way further than that.  Most races are run to raise money for some type of charity.  Some are just purely for fun and are not even timed (most of the “color” and “sparkle” runs for example).

2.  How much does it typically cost to race?  

Most 5Ks are around $20-35.  Half marathons and marathons are more expensive and could be $60 and up.  A lot of races offer discounts if you register ahead of time.  Race day registration typically adds $5-10 onto the price.

3.  How do I find a race to do?

We have two local race timing companies and there are 5Ks almost every weekend somewhere in one of our surrounding communities.  I just keep check on their websites for the race schedules.  I have also found races through Runner’s World, through my local running store, and on almighty Google.

4.  I’ve signed up.  Now what?

You will get information about where and when to pick up your race packet.  If this is your first race, I highly recommend that you pick your packet up the day before if possible.  This is one less thing you’ll have to worry about on race day.  In your race packet you may find a t-shirt, some coupons or freebies from local companies and your race bib and timing chip.

5.  Do I wear my race t-shirt the day of the race?

The unspoken rule is that you do not wear the t-shirt until you have “earned it.”  I see it as bad luck so I don’t, however you’ll notice at smaller races (especially those for charity) it is not uncommon for people to wear their race shirts the day of.  This one is up to you.

6.  What is a timing chip and what do I do with it?

Most races use timing chips to ensure your results are accurate.  For most smaller races, the timing chip is a small piece of square or round plastic with a hole in a couple of holes in it. Along with the timing chip you will receive a couple of zip ties.  The morning of the race you need to secure the chip to your shoelaces using the zip ties.  For larger races, the chip may be embedded in your race bib so you won’t have to do anything other than pinning on your bib.

7.  About that bib…where exactly do I put it?

Pin it across your belly.  You should receive safety pins in your race packet.  If you don’t then check the registration table the day of the race.

8.  What can I expect at the start of the race?

In small races your time may be based off of the gun time.  So your time will be whenever the gun goes off until you cross the timing mat at the end.  If you are in the back of the group it could take you several seconds to get out of the crowd and on your way running.  Several seconds to a new runner isn’t a big deal but to someone who is running competitively, it could mean winning or losing.  Thus, the “elites” (the fastest of the fast) will line up at the front.

If your time is important to you then you’ll want to line up somewhere in the middle.  If time is not of importance to you or you plan to walk you will want to line up in the back.  If you have a stroller you will most likely be asked to start in the back.  If it’s a large race you’ll probably have a wave start and you’ll line up according to your wave.

If it’s a larger race your gun time and your chip time will be different.  In my last race, my gun time was 35:22 which was from the time the gun went off until I crossed the mat at the end (and the time that I saw on the clock when I crossed the finish line).  However my chip time was 35:16–so it took me six seconds to get across the mat at the start of the race.

9.  What’s a wave start?

A wave start means that runners are released to start the race in groups based on their estimated finish time.  Wave A will be the elites, wave B will be a little slower, etc.  Each wave will have their own gun start and typically each wave is started about two minutes after the first.  If it’s a really large race it could be a long time before you start (I’ve heard of some people taking half an hour or more just to start the race!).  I’ve only done two races with wave starts–both half marathons–and I was in the third wave each time.

Wave start at the Flying Pirate Half Marathon

11.  What happens after I finish?

After you cross the timing mat someone will remove the timing chip from your shoe.  If it’s on your bib then they may scan it as you come across the finish line.  If medals are awarded you’ll receive yours after you cross the finish line.  Some races will have the race results available instantly on a computer screen and others will print them off and display them after the last participant finishes.  Some will give you a print out right away and others will even text you the results within minutes of finishing.  The results will also be posted on the race website within a couple of days.

10.  Should I stop at the water stations?

If it’s a 10K or smaller distance then you really shouldn’t have to stop for water unless you want to.  For a 5K, my strategy is usually to run until I reach a water station, walk through it, and then start running again.  Lately I’ve been skipping the water stations all together.  For long races (over 10 miles) then you should definitely be drinking water so you should stop at water stations or carry your own water along.

Since I am not an expert, check out this article on Hydration and Running.  If you want to run through the water station, then grab the water from the volunteer, squeeze the top of the cup together and drink it on the run.  My hubby likes to take two cups–one to drink and one to pour on his head!

There is usually a small awards ceremony and free food is available!  Definitely enjoy the bananas, oranges and water that is typically available.  I have seen other food from pizza, to cookies, to doughnuts, to subs and bagels available.  Just remember that if you ran a 5K you probably only burned around 300 calories–don’t finish the race and then eat 800 calories!  Not that I’ve ever done that…

12.  What if I come in last?

So what?!  You still did it!  Even if you have to walk every single step…you still did it.  I am never going to win a race.  Heck, I don’t know if I’ll ever even get my 5k time under 30 minutes–but I still get out there and do it because it’s fun!  Don’t worry about being last.  Sometimes, the last runners get the loudest cheers!
Plus, there’s always the chance that you’ll find this at the finish line:
  Have you ever done a race before?  What is stopping you from trying?  Just get out there and DO IT!
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  • Erin

    Thanks for the awesome post. I am going to be running my first 5k on June 9. It is a color run. Any tips for a color run? I plan on doing another 5K in the fall as well that is just a “regular” run. Love your blog!

  • Laura S

    Hi Erin! Thanks for the comment! I will be doing my first color run in October! It is a new thing in my area and I haven’t had a chance to do one yet. Everything I have read says to not wear anything you don’t want ruined just in case it doesn’t wash out! The one I am doing is a color and glitter run. Let me know how your race goes and you can give me some tips! 🙂

  • Kimakazie

    Great tips! I’ve done a few 5Ks, a 10 miler, and a half marathon and they really are addicting! I’ve done the Color Run before and I’m doing another one next week. I will say, the Color Run is SO much more fun if you don’t focus on your time or anything. Just have fun! My cousin and I walked pretty much the whole Color Run and had a BLAST. Our other cousin and aunt ran it and they didn’t have nearly as much fun as we had. So this year, we are ALL walking it together. Also, whatever you do, do NOT wear your hair in a messy bun. I made that mistake and the powder makes it darn near impossible to get out. I ended up with a HUGE rats nest and took FOREVER to get it undone.

    • Laura S

      Thanks for the tips! I may end up wearing a hat! And I love that most of them are not timed. I’m hoping to get my kids to do this one and I know it will be more fun if we take our time. Thanks for commenting!

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