Race start lines are often hurry up and wait affairs.
Most races recommend that you get to the start line staging area at least an hour before the start. So you get there. You park. Then… Um… you do what exactly for the next hour in dark?
I’m always prepared for some unforeseen parking issue (some may say I’m paranoid), so I err on the side of caution and get to start lines way early. As a habitually prompt person, I’m usually great at killing time. Under normal circumstances, I can people watch for hours. But race starting lines are the rare occasion where even I struggle to effectively kill time. The combination of pre-race nerves, stresses over if I fueled or hydrated properly, the usually cold and dark surroundings, and the various pre-race smells (the scent of bengay at marathon start lines never fails to make me nauseous) leaves me feeling anxious every time.
Here are some strategies you can use to have a less-stressful race day morning.
Having a great race start line experience begins days (if not weeks) before race day. A little research and planning is (usually) rewarded with smooth sailing on race day.
Review the Map
Most races have start line staging area maps published on their websites. Review these maps for the general location of the things you’ll need: gear check, porta-potties, water, the actual start line, the entry for your corral.
Also check the maps for road closures, parking restrictions and other blocks that could impact your ability to get to the start line race morning.
Don’t wait until race morning to figure out how you are going to get to the start. Each transportation option has its own set of concerns.
- Check for road closures
- Review where parking will be allowed on race day
- Bring cash for parking
- Check for road closures
- Confirm race day pick-up times with your driver
- Review transportation options and routes, keeping in mind that there are usually fewer public transportation options early on weekend mornings
- Confirm that your routes won’t be detoured on race day
- Confirm that you have the appropriate phone number(s)
- Schedule your pick-up ahead of time, if possible
- Confirm that there are bike racks or bike storage on race day
- Confirm shuttle pick-up and drop-off locations and timing
- Plan on taking the earliest shuttle feasible for you. Don’t wait for the last possible shuttle
For all transportation: expect Murphy’s Law- if it can go wrong, it will go wrong on race day.
There will be unexpected traffic or road closures, you’ll lose your car keys, and your usually reliable friend will sleep in and miss your pick-up.
Check and double-check everything ahead of time.
Pack Accordingly (Or Not At All)
Will you need to use the gear check? It will save time and stress if you don’t. Personally, I do all I can to avoid needing gear check.
If you do use gear check:
- Pack your bag (at least) the night before so it’s ready to go in the morning.
- Never put anything of value in your gear bag. Races do their best-protecting bags, but stuff can still go missing.
Consider The VIP Treatment
Many races offer VIP packages with special perks.
Several years ago, I signed up for the Runners World VIP experience at the Big Sur Marathon. For Big Sur, this package included dedicated bus transport, heated tents and dedicated porta-potties at the start. Buses to the start began loading around 4:30 a.m., so any extra perks and comforts were well worth the money.
These packages can be expensive, but depending on the benefits and specifics of your race, it can be worth considering.
The Start Line On Race Day
Handle Logistics ASAP
Trip(s) to the porta-potty and gear bag drop-off should be completed as soon as you can manage them. Waiting until the last-minute is rarely a good tactic.
Porta-potty lines are long (and painfully slow). Don’t wait. You can always get back in line if you need to.
Stay Warm and Dry
Races always start at an inconveniently early time of day. It is dark. It’s usually cold (if not literally freezing). Fingers crossed it will be dry, but you never know.
There are several approaches to staying warm and dry while you wait:
- Check it. Wear warm gear, take it off before the race starts and put it into gear check.
- Chuck it. Keep old sweatshirts that you would otherwise throw out. Wear them on race day and throw them out after you’ve warmed up.
- Donate it. Some races collect tossed gear at the start for charity. If your race does this, wear warm gear that you would otherwise dispose of or donate and know it’s going to a good cause.
- Garbage bag it. If it is raining, use either disposable plastic ponchos or the ever popular (and oh so stylish) trash-bag poncho
- Reuse it. If you have done marathons before, keep your finish-line space blanket. They can be reused at your next race’s start line to stay warm (they are also great additions to earthquake kits, winter car emergency kits and the like).
- Buy it cheap. Cheap, disposable, stretchy gloves from Walgreens or Target keep fingers warm and only cost a buck or two (bonus: buy Christmas themed ones on clearance for pennies)
Create A Pre-Race Ritual
So you are at the start, you are huddled under the space blanket you saved from your last race, you’ve pottied and watered, now…. you wait.
During training, develop a short (or not so short) pre-run routine or ritual that you can use to center yourself and relax pre-race.
Mantras, meditation, and visualization are all great options to ground yourself and focus on the task at hand.
My favorite pre-race experience along this line is at the Twin Cities Marathon. A church a block away from the start line opens their doors to runners and holds a brief, non-denominational service in the hour before the race. I’m not particularly religious, but there is something very moving about being with others preparing for the same goal (Added bonus that it’s warm with access to real bathrooms)
Something that formal is rarely an option, but the idea of creating a little service or ritual for yourself with whatever you find calming would serve the same purpose.
After some time spent centering yourself you will be refreshed and ready to conquer your race.
Do you have any other strategies for managing time at the start line?