October 17, 2019

Race Expectations: How to Find One, Register, What to Expect on Race Day, Training, and more

Race Expectations: How to find one, register, what to expect on race day, train, and more

For those of you that have walked or run races before, then you can probably skip over this post. Sometimes when I talk about running with people (parents of my cross country kids, for example) I forget that some of them don't know how road races work. A lot of people don't even know how many miles a 5K is!

So, for people who are curious for one reason or another, I thought I'd dedicate an entire post to what to expect at your first road race (as well as some other common questions and tips about running).

Before you read this post, I'd head over to a post called Running Lingo--if you really don't know anything about running, it helps to know the "language".

First, let's start with race distances when converting from metric to imperial. (K is for kilometer, which is equal to 1,000 meters or 0.6 miles.) For reference, the inner lane of an outdoor track around a football field is 400 meters (about 1/4 mile). A mile is equal to 1.6 kilometers (or 1,609 meters; about four times around the track). Is that totally clear? ;) Good.

Here are some of the most common race distances:

1 mile = 1.6K
5K = 3.1 miles
8K = 5 miles
10K = 6.2 miles
10 miles = 16.1K
Half-Marathon = 21.1K or 13.1 miles
Marathon = 42.2K or 26.2 miles)

(Anything that is longer than a marathon is referred to as an "ultra" or "ultramarathon")
50K = 31.1 miles
50 miles = 80.5K
100K = 62.1 miles
100 miles = 160.9K

Most people start out with a 5K race (3.1 miles). It's a challenge for total beginners, but definitely do-able and it's such a common distance that you can find local ones nearly every weekend. In this post, when I use the word "race", I'm implying a road race, NOT a trail race. Trail races are a completely different category altogether. A road race is done on pavement. (Here are tips for training for your first 5K)

Now that we've covered race distances, let's go through the entire process of signing up for a race all the way up until you get in your car to head home from your first race:

1) Choosing a race.

There are SO MANY races happening all the time and you may not even realize it. I never knew that there were local races around my town until I started running them. A lot of times, we learn of these races by word of mouth from other runners, or we've done them in the past. But there are some resources you can use to find local races.

One of them is called Race Find. It's very simple and fast to find races near your city, and you can filter out races by distance, dates, and cities. And the best part is that they have links to the race's website.

From the race's website, you can find the date, time, and location of the race; the distances offered; whether or not there are medals, trophies, or prizes; if the race has a theme; and all the other details you'll need. Another consideration is how hilly the race is--hills are tough! So you can view the course as well to decide if it's right for you.

*Note: You may hear of a race that is referred to as "chip-timed". This means that your bib (the number you wear on your shirt on race day) has a special chip on it that will keep track of your time as you hit certain spots in the race.

When you cross the starting line, for example, the chip will note that your race has started. If you are running a long race, like a marathon, you may cross over mats throughout the race at the 5K spot, 10K spot, etc.

The chip on your bib will keep track of when you reach these spots. This is done for a couple of reasons:
  1. So people don't cheat (there is a woman who is notoriously known for taking a train during a marathon, and then jumping back into the race about a mile from the finish line. She actually won the race, and it was later discovered how she cheated). 
  2. So, your race starts when YOU cross the starting line. In a race of 35,000 people, for example (like the Indianapolis 500 Festival Mini Marathon), it takes a good 20 minutes from the start of the race just to get to the starting line when you're in the back of the pack. With chip timing, your own timer doesn't start until you cross that starting line mat.
  3. This also ends your race the second you cross the finish line. Because of the chip timing, you will know exactly how long it took YOU to walk or run the course.
Most races these days are chip-timed, but not all of them are. I think it's preferable to have a chip-timed race, so I personally won't pay for a race without chips. But it's up to you to decide. When I ran the Chicago Marathon, I had to cross several mats--and they recorded my time at each, based on my chip.

2) Register for the race.

Once you find a race that suits you, it's time to register. I highly recommend registering BEFORE you start training--knowing that you're signed up and you've paid money for it may help you to stick with the training schedule.

On the race's website, there is usually a tab that says "Registration" or "Register Online" or something to that effect. Click on that link and just follow the prompts for the race you choose to do.

Sometimes, usually in a large race, the registration will ask what your expected pace or finish time will be. While you may be ambitious, it's always best to err on the side of slower than you expect. The race director asks this to know where to "seed" you--in other words, the faster you are, the closer you will be to the starting line when the race begins. So, be very honest about it when you are filling this out.

You will probably have to pay online for the race, and there is usually a "service fee" like anything else (I find these so annoying--why not just add it to the cost of the race?). Races are usually priced by popularity and by distance--the small, local 5K races with a couple hundred people might cost $15-20, while the cost of running the NYC Marathon is a whopping $255.

You can expect to pay less for a 5K than for a marathon. Also, the pricing can depend on what you receive--a shirt is commonly given out just for doing the race, and most races now give out finishers' medals (a medal to every participant who finishes the race). If you receive shirts and medals, expect to pay more than for a race without any bling.

A lot of races have early bird discounts, so that if you sign up by a certain date, you pay less than if you wait. It gets more expensive as the race gets closer (another reason for signing up right away!).

3) Choose a training plan.

Of course, I highly recommend one of mine (haha!) but you can find tons of different plans on the internet as well as in books.

There are a few considerations when choosing a plan:

How many days per week can you devote to training? (I suggest a minimum of three days a week for ANY distance, but in general, the longer the race distance, the more training you should expect).

Are you planning to aim for a specific finish time goal? Or are you planning to train just to cross the finish line in one piece? (If you're aiming for a time goal, then you'll want to choose a plan that includes speed work--which I'll explain below. If you just want to finish the race regardless of how long it will take you, then I would choose a plan that doesn't involve speed work.)

Note: Most runs on training plans are called "easy runs". These are VERY important to training (read this post about why). They should be run at a pace that is, well, easy. You should be able to hold a conversation with a running partner, and shouldn't be very out of breath or pouring sweat.

"Speed work" is just what it sounds like--running that helps you to work on building your speed. There are numerous types of speed workouts, but the most common is probably intervals/track repeats. Intervals are where you do a warm-up jog, and then run at a very hard pace for a particular distance or time, and then slow to a jog or walk to cool down for a specific distance or time. And then you repeat the hard pace/slow pace intervals for as many times as your training plan calls for. It is commonly written like this:

10 min warm-up
8 x (400 m fast with 200 m recovery)
10 min cool down

This would mean that you jog at an easy pace for 10 minutes to warm up before starting the speed work. Then, you run very fast for 400 meters (one time around the inner lane of a track); then you jog or walk for 200 meters (half the track). You repeat this seven more times, so you do a total of eight intervals. Then you jog easily to cool down for 10 minutes. This should be a very tough workout--speed work isn't supposed to feel easy!

An early speed workout at the high school track...

Another common speed workout is called a "tempo run". This is a run that is done at a faster pace than your easy runs, but not as hard as your intervals or at a pace that makes you feel like you're going to die.

Technically, a tempo run should be done at a pace that you could hold for a 10K--but since you're a beginner, you don't know what that pace is yet. On an effort scale of 1-10, a tempo run should be at a 7 or 8. It should feel uncomfortable and like you want to slow down or quit, but you know that you can keep going to finish the workout. A training plan may include tempo runs (usually no more than once a week).

There are lots of other speed workouts that I won't get into on this post, but intervals and tempo runs are the most common. When choosing a training plan that incorporates speed work, I would certainly choose one that has some sort of interval training as well as a tempo run here and there.

Something else to consider when choosing a plan is how much time you'll need to prepare. If your race is in six weeks, for example, you'll obviously not want to choose a plan that is 12 weeks long.

4) Make time to train

Once you choose your training plan, make the time in your schedule to do the workouts as written. If plans are written correctly, then each and every workout is important. If you don't do the work, you will be unprepared for the race on race day, and believe me, it's NOT fun.

If you have a hard time getting and/or staying motivated, think about what motivates you and make it happen. Maybe if you sign up for the race with a friend, you could meet your friend on run days to make it more fun. Think of ways to reward yourself for each week or month of your schedule that you complete. Or plan on having a special treat once a week after a particularly hard run (I used to love getting carrot cake on my long run days).

5) Get proper shoes

Go to a running store and get fitted for a proper pair of shoes. A good running store will look at your gait (the way your body moves when running) to see what shoes may be best for you. The wrong shoes can definitely be a cause for injury while training.

So can ice ;)

6) Clothing

You don't have to spend a fortune, but it's worth the investment to buy some running clothes that are comfortable, fit well, and moisture-wicking. Wearing cotton while running is very uncomfortable--it gets heavy and sticky, whereas moisture-wicking clothing does just the opposite. I wrote a post including all of my favorite running gear, including clothing.

My very favorite running tights! Wish they looked like that on me today. They don't ;)

7) Be prepared for race day.

Know ahead of time exactly what you plan to wear, and make sure it is something you've done some training runs in. Race days are not the time to try out new shoes or clothing. Also, if you're running a distance longer than 5K or 10K, you'll want to try out different forms of running "fuel" (food, drinks) to consume while running.

If you drinking nothing but water while training, for example, you're not going to want to try drinking Gatorade during the race. Any fuel choices you make should be practiced with ahead of time. Here, I wrote a post all about fueling for runs.

It's always good to check the website for information about aid stations. Aid stations are tables that are set up at certain points during the race where volunteers hand out cups of water or Gatorade, and sometimes (for longer races) packets of Gu or other running fuel. The race's website will usually tell you if and where there are aid stations during the race. This can help you plan on whether you need to carry food or drink with you.

This was a very small race, so not much of an "aid station"... but Eli helped pass out water to the runners. So cute!

8) Race week

So, you're registered for the race, you've been training for weeks or months, trying out the clothes and shoes you're going to wear on race day, and you've been finding the right fuel you'll need. Next, it's time for the days leading up to the race...

Usually a day or two before the race, the race will have a "packet pick-up" and/or an "expo". A packet pick-up is simply where you go pick up your race "packet"--your bib, your shirt (if included), maybe some local running store coupons or ads for other races, a course map, safety pins for your bib, etc. The packet varies by race. Some races will simply hand you a bib and a shirt!

Some races will have packet pick-up a day or two before the race, and some will offer it the morning of the race. Just make sure you check out the times on their website that you can get your packet before the race.

Other races, usually large half-marathons or full marathons, may have an "expo". At the expo are lots of booths set up from different companies that runners may be interested in--everything from running clothing to sweat headbands, from phone straps to samples of nutrition bars. Most of the booths give out free samples of things or have sign ups for drawings to win items. It's basically a way for companies to advertise their products to tons of runners in just one weekend. At the expo, you can also pick up your runners packet.

This is Rik and me at the Detroit Marathon expo... they had a huge map for picture taking.

Make sure that you are hydrating well for at least few days before the race. It's nearly impossible to have a good race when you're dehydrated. Drink water throughout the day for the days leading up to the race.

9) Food

Regardless of how long the distance of your race, you'll definitely want to take into consideration what meal you eat the night before. I wouldn't recommend going out for Mexican food and margaritas the night before the race. Some distance runners like to "carb load", which just means eating a meal containing a lot of carbs the night before the race--pasta is a favorite! This isn't necessary for a 5K, but even if it's not necessary, it's fun to have a special meal the night before the race ;)

10) Nighttime prep

Before bed, lay out all of your clothing. Attach your bib to your race shirt. Lay out any fuel you plan to bring with you, and charge your running watch (if you have one). Have everything as prepared as possible so that you can wake up and get dressed without having to search for things or forget things at the last minute. Make sure you have directions to the race location saved on your phone or at least written down.

This is a terrible photo, but I had all my stuff laid out in my hotel room for the Chicago Marathon.

11) Get some sleep

Go to bed early if possible so that you can get a good night's rest. If you've done the training, and you've got your stuff ready to go, then there isn't anything to worry about before the race. Set your alarm so that you have plenty of time to get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom (pooping is every runner's top priority on race day).

This is *technically* a picture of me finally getting some sleep after a Ragnar Relay (overnight race, and I was up for about 40 hours at that point!). But we'll pretend this is pre-race.

12) Ready to race

When your alarm goes off, get up and ready to race! Drink lots of water to be well-hydrated. Hopefully you won't feel rushed because you'll have prepared the night before.

Make sure you leave the house with enough time to find parking (remember, depending on the size of the race, you may need extra time). I prefer to get to the race rather early than to get there just before starting time. That way, you can pee one final time before it's time to line up.

By the way, if racing is going to become a regular thing for you, make sure you get used to using porta-potties. I despise using them, but that's pretty much your only choice while racing.

13) Starting line

About five or ten minutes before the start of the race, you can head to the starting line and find your spot to start (large races may have corrals, and your bib will usually have your corral assignment on it). If there aren't any corrals, and it's a smaller race, then line up about where you think others will be running the same pace. Unless you're running 5-minute miles, don't line up at the front. If you're walking, make sure you line up at the back.

This was a small race, but I just made sure to get ahead of the people who had strollers and people who looked like they were walking.

Some races will have "pacers"--a pacer is a runner who holds a sign stating his or her pace for the race, and they run that pace the entire time.

For example, a half marathon might have a 2:00 pacer (a goal finish time of two hours). If that's the goal you've been training for, you may want to stand near the pacer and run close to them throughout the race. They are trained to run at that pace, and will usually finish within 30 seconds or so of their stated time.

If you're very unsure where to start, ask a few people around you what their planned pace is; then just line up accordingly.

14) It's Go Time!

This is when you'll probably be the most nervous. Usually, there will be a race announcer who will speak of any info you need; there may be music playing over loud speakers; and someone may sing the Star Spangled Banner. It all depends on the race itself. But once all that is done at the starting line, the announcer will trigger the starting gun, and the race begins.

This is the starting line of the Detroit Marathon.

Depending on where you're lined up (and how big the race is) you may end up shuffling your way toward the starting line. Remember, if it's chip-timed, then your personal clock won't start ticking until you cross the mat at the starting line.

Once you cross the mat, you are probably going to start running way too fast. It will feel like everyone around you is flying past you and you may feel a little bit panicked. Don't let anyone intimidate you--just go at your planned pace, and you'll be passing them a mile into the race ;)

I ALWAYS have a dry mouth (from nerves) for the first half mile or so, and I like to bring a starlight mint or a Jolly Rancher to suck on. You might find that the first mile goes by really quickly because it's a new experience and you're running with a ton of people all around you. It's a lot to take in! On the other hand, the first mile might feel like it takes forever because you probably started out too fast and you're trying to set your pace.

15) Settling into a rhythm

Your nerves will eventually settle down after a mile or so. From this point on it depends on how long your race is. If you're doing a 5K, you're already 1/3 of the way done! If you're doing a 50K, well... you've got a bit longer to go ;)  Just trust your training to get you through it.

16) Lay it all out there

When you see the finish line, or you know you are about 0.2 miles away, go all out and give it everything you have left in you until you cross the finish line. You will think you are going to die (and if you don't feel like you're going to die, then you're not running hard enough at the end) but you can do it! DON'T slow down before the finish line--wait until you've cross the line to slow to a walk. I can't tell you how many times kids in cross country get passed at the very last second of a race.

In this photo, you can't tell, but I felt like I was going to DIE. It was awful! But my best (PR) personal record to date!

17) Don't pass out

Once you cross the finish line, it's important to keep moving so you don't pass out. There is usually a finisher's chute that you will follow--and most likely, there will be water and some sort of food (bananas, bagels, cookies, etc.). A volunteer will probably be handing out medals if those were included, too.

Some of the bigger races, particularly half and full marathons, will have a "post-race party". Usually, this consists of a beer garden, maybe a food truck or two, music, and a tent with race memorabilia for sale.

18) Congratulations!

You completed your first race! Hopefully all of your hard work paid off and you feel good about your finish. ALWAYS wait until safely after you cross the finish line to stop your running watch. Getting finish photos of pressing your watch aren't very fun.


  1. Great post! Makes me nostalgic for my racing days! Sometimes I really miss running and other days I feel like I'd be fine never doing it again ;)

  2. That pasta looks amazing. Recipe? :)

    1. I'll have to see if I can recreate it and post the recipe!

  3. In the photo above #16, are that dude's nipples bleeding??!?

    1. Yes! Poor guy. I didn't notice it until after I bought the race photo! Men's nipples bleeding is actually really common. Most men will put bandaids over their nipples because of this. (It doesn't happen to women because we wear sports bras)

  4. In your 4th paragraph you refer to 1K as equaling 1.6 miles when it's the opposite. OR 1K is equal to 0.6 miles. You're correct everywhere else, just wanted to let you know.

    1. You are right! All those numbers, I'm not surprised to find a typo ;)

  5. This is an amazing post! I just did my first race this fall (a dualthon) and I had more anxiety about everything leading up to the race and the morning of the race than I did the actual racing part! Luckily my friend that convinced me to do the race with her has a lot of experience but your post is awesome!

    1. Congrats on the duathlon! That is so intimidating to me. It's great you had a friend to share her experience--that's always helpful!

  6. In #15 are that man's nipples bleeding behind you? OMG, is this an issue for runners? Great blog post! I don't run, and never plan on it (hate it, and bad knees), but interesting info!

    1. Yes! Poor guy. I didn't notice it until after I bought the race photo! Men's nipples bleeding is actually really common. Most men will put bandaids over their nipples before the race because of this. (It doesn't happen to women because we wear sports bras)


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