When I started couch25k last year, I never imagined I'd be running a marathon 6 months later. I learned a lot in 2015 about running races as at a very amateur level.
I have no desire to be categorised in my age or gender group and coming in the top percentage of people running isn't my aim, but running set distances and getting a buzz out of beating my own times has been great fun and it's something I'm continuing this year, despite finishing my challenge to run 100 competitive kilometres. But... Races can be scary things. Especially if you're not exactly the... sporty... type and you very obviously have no idea what you're doing! Here's a few things I've learned along the way that you might find useful...
1. Bigger is not always better
If you run a big race with thousands of people, a cool medal, a t-shirt, a bar, a race village and a postcode all to itself, you will notice that there are usually more bathrooms, better freebies at the end of lots of people who want you to spend your money on *things* before and after. These races are more likely to cost between £40 and £50 and some may argue that you get what you pay for. And yes, you get more *stuff* and the water stations on the course will probably give you a whole bottle not a plastic cup to spill all over yourself. The downside is that the course can be very crowded- 10,000 people is a lot of people, and conversely if you aren't running with someone you know it can be very lonely as I have found that although not unpleasant or unfriendly, the atmosphere is much less... intimate?
Nike Women's 10km kit 2015. A fun race but a bit lonely despite it being 10,000 women strong
Smaller races cost much less or are sometimes free and are often much more limited in numbers. Whilst the facilities may be more basic, I've met some really lovely people on these courses and people tend to be a bit more interested in what's going on around them, especially if they see lone runners and even more so those who appear to be struggling. These races are a lot of fun and if they're local to you, you may even make some friends. The start line is also much easier to find! The only downside is that many of the smaller races are not chip timed which means it's up to you and/or the volunteer with the stopwatch at the finish to work out how fast (or not in my case) you ran the course.
2. Never assume there is going to be a bag-drop
Luckily for me, I have never been caught out on this one. Unless it is specifically mentioned, always assume you won't be able to leave belongings anywhere and that you will need to carry everything with you- I find this harder when it's warm enough to run in a t-shirt but too chilly to stand around in one and am usually left jogging about near the start line for way longer than is ideal prior to the race.
If it doesn't fit in a pocket or an armband, it doesn't come
3. Take your own tissues
I've never been to a race yet that doesn't have bathrooms of some kind, often portaloos. And different events will have different levels of preparation. Many will not have enough toilet paper to keep the toilets stocked and I guarantee this is the day your insides will decide you need more than a last minute wee before the race! I usually take a pack of travel tissues and if I don't want to carry them, leave them for the next person- Karma and all that!
4. Volunteers can make or break a race
So on the note of karma, be nice to them. Most volunteers are great, their encouragement can keep you going in tough patches, they're usually pretty quick to notice if something more serious is wrong, and anyone handing out Wine Gums should be bowed down to. Smile, and they'll not only smile with you but they'll probably scream your name and applaud you. Some might even play air guitar for you. Remember these people are giving up their time to get you through your race and if you're being rained on, so are they without the benefit of a run to keep them warm. Say thank you, smile, play nicely.
I ran 4 different Race For Life events this year, including the marathon. The volunteers are incredible!
5. Terror is normal
I found my first full race a terrifying prospect as I waited in my pen near the start. Turns out so did three of the ladies stood around me and so we all had a laugh at our mutual terror, stupidity and incredulity that we had entered this thing. If it's your first race or your hundredth, it's ok. And especially if it's your first, runners are actually quite nice and I've found that there's always someone who is there with words of wisdom and support.
Racing is not for everyone but I do think have a distance race to aim for helped get me out of the door on the wetter colder days of last February and March. I really enjoy the buzz of a race, not because everyone else is there, but because it gives me a chance to beat my own best and be better. I've also had some experiences at races which remind me there is some humanity left in the world and there are plenty of great people around- everything from shared terror at the start line to people stopping to make sure I was ok even though I'd just stopped to stretch and people sharing their snacks and drinks when they can see someone else needs a boost. Running and exercise is such a personal journey, but sometimes, it's people who keep the journey moving forward.