What to Expect at Your First Race
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It's normal to feel anxious as race day approaches, and to feel intimidated as you line up at the start. But don't let your doubts get the best of you. As you wait for the starting horn to blast, look around. You'll see runners of all shapes, sizes and ages. If you worry that those around you might be judging you, it's more likely that they're preoccupied with their own hang-ups or they're simply focused on the task ahead. You paid your entry fee, you trained, and you showed up. That takes guts and it takes commitment. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself: "I'm a runner, and I belong here." Just say it very quietly or keep it in your head or else the people around you really might give you funny looks.
Routine Is Your Friend
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Race preparation includes putting in the miles, but you should also spend time practicing what's most comfortable to wear while running, what and how much food and fluids sit well in your stomach when you run, and how to drink fluids while you're running or walking. All of this intel will come in handy on race day. There is great comfort in routine, and eating the same pre-run breakfast that you always eat, wearing the same running shoes you trained in, and knowing that those black shorts won't ride up and chafe your inner thighs will put you at ease during the race.
Get to the Start Before You Think You Should
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Set two alarms, make sure you know where to park or how you're getting to the race, and do everything you can to arrive an hour before the start of the event. An hour might seem like a lot of time to kill, but when you arrive and see the line for the porta potties, you'll be glad that you have those extra minutes to spare. After you drop your bag off, use the bathroom, and have one last sip of water, take 10 to 15 minutes to jog slowly or walk briskly to get your body ready to run.
Pull on the Reigns When the Race Starts
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If you're running a large race, the organizers probably seeded you according to your projected finish time, which means they put you in a start corral with those whose predicted race pace should match your own. If you're running a smaller race with a less organized start area, find others who look like they might run the same pace as you (or ask them), and stick with them. Even if you're in the best shape of your life, if this is your first race, you don't have a true idea of how you'll perform. It's smartest and safest to hang back and let the competitive runners line up in front so you don't get elbowed or pushed—unfortunately this can happen, as some competitive runners can be impatient to accelerate as quickly as possible--and so you're not tempted to start too fast. Ease into the race so you can find your rhythm, even if that means running the first half-mile or mile slower than you expected. It's better to start a little slower and make it to the finish line than to go out too fast and risk a DNF (did not finish) for your first race.
Run Your Own Race
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This is race-day runner speak for, "Listen to your body." Even if you're running your first race with friends or teammates, do what you need to do to reach that finish line. If you don't need to stop at that fluid station, sail right through it. Your buddies will catch up. If you feel a sharp pain that startles you, stop, step out of the way of other runners, and see if the pain gets better with a little bit of walking (if it doesn't, head for the medical tent). If you're in the homestretch and you feel amazing, pick up the pace. Just warn your friends that you're going to sprint for the finish, and see if anyone will chase you.
Have a Plan
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A good way to get through any race, no matter the distance: Break the event into different parts. For example, a 5K could be broken down into four parts: mastering a good start—you started with the right group and didn't go out too fast—mile 1, mile 2, mile 3.1. Conserve enough energy to get to the next part, and then reward yourself mentally with lots of positive thoughts when you reach the end of that part. This is a classic trick that marathoners use to get through 26.2 miles, but it's a great strategy to get through any distance. The miles seem far less intimidating when you don't stack them up in your mind, but rather view them as singular accomplishments.
Remember Why You Started
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You started running for a reason. Think of your first race as a graduation of sorts—you're taking the next step in your running career. Races are events where you can show off all of the hard work you invested during the training phase. Yes, you'll work hard during a race to get to the finish line, but you've trained your body to do this. If you don't feel prepared enough on race day to reach the finish line, keep this in mind and work a little harder during the next training cycle. No matter how you feel on the day of the race, take a moment to celebrate how far you've come.
Run With a Buddy
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If you trained with a friend, why not race with that friend? Your first race can be intimidating, so it can be nice to have somebody by your side. He or she can be a cheerleader when you need it, and you can return the favor when he or she needs it. Just remember to run your own race and communicate your needs to your partner.
Take Walking Breaks If You Need Them
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Many new runners start with a run/walk program, and there's no reason why you can't use that same philosophy to finish your first race. You might also want to walk through fluid stations—it takes practice to learn how to take a water cup, pinch it, and drink from it all while navigating your way past slowed or stopped runners. Also, those fluid stations can get pretty slippery, and tripping on spilled Gatorade is not a fun experience.
Run Like a Dancer
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No, this doesn't mean you need to wear a tutu and tiara to your race—although running in a costume can be fun. Rather, run "tall." Try to maintain good posture when you're running—keep your torso upright and straight, gaze ahead onto the horizon, keep your shoulders low and loose, swing your arms forward and back with your hands unclenched (think loose fists). This will help you maintain efficient form and breathe better.
Run the Tangents
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You signed up to run 3.1 miles or 6.2 miles, not 3.5 miles or 6.5 miles. Try to run on the inside of every curve of the road—if you run on the outside of every turn, you're adding to the distance. Of course the amount ends up being minimal, but you'll never see a pro athlete running the longer route. Just make sure you look over your shoulder before you cross in front of anybody or you might tango with another runner—and not in a good way.
When the Going Gets Tough
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Prepare a mantra, or a positive phrase you can repeat in your head when the race gets hard. Whether it's: "You're a loser if you give up," or "You're a mother of three who owns her own business. You can do anything you put your mind to," or "You survived two tours in Afghanistan. This is a cake walk compared to that." It's your world and only you know what motivates you best.
Keep Yourself Going
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If you start to struggle, play a game. Pick a person who is just ahead of you, and focus on that person's back. Try to keep the same distance between you and red shirt in front of you. By focusing your mind on something other than how tired you're starting to feel, you just might find a reserve of energy you didn't know you had. You might even feel yourself quickening the pace a little to see if you can run next to red shirt. If you're close to the last mile or running the final mile of the race, you might even see if you can pass red shirt.
Enjoy the Moment
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Running and racing can be hard, and it's the challenge that keeps it unpredictable and exciting. But, if you're not having a little fun, what's the point? Crack a smile at some point during your first race—you only get one chance to run your first race. This is a special, once-in-a-lifetime moment.
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No matter how fast or slow you go, you're setting a good example for somebody else—even if you don't know you're doing it. There might be a spectator your age who thinks she's too old to run a race. Or your 14-year-old son, who you dragged out of bed to attend the race, might look back on this day fondly because he was secretly proud of his dad's accomplishment. That high school buddy who you're friends with on Facebook might decide to take up running after she saw the pictures of how much weight you lost when you trained for your first race. Keep doing what you're doing; you never know what impact your running journey might have on others.
The Final Push
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The end of a race sucks for just about everyone. Take comfort in the fact that your peers are also suffering. If you can bear it and can see the finish line, try to pick up the pace. It'll be over all too soon, and you can catch your breath and rest after you cross the finish line. That finisher's medal will feel well deserved if you test yourself just a little bit.
After the Race
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As you cross the finish line, throw your hands up in the air to celebrate. You did it! Congratulations. Try to keep moving, even if it's just a slow walk, to return your heart rate to normal and keep the blood flowing. Gather your things, get your medal, pause for a photo, meet up with your family or friends, and then head to the post-race party. You earned it.