9 Helpful Tips for Your First Charity Race

Now that summer is mostly behind us and cooler temperatures are starting to drift in, the prime season for charity runs and walks begins. People of all abilities lace up their running and walking shoes and hit the pavement to raise money for many great charitable causes. If you’re a first-time race participant, you’re bound to have questions. Below are a few tips I've accumulated after running more than 60 races.

Dress for the Occasion

It is very important to overdress or underdress for your race. Most new runners will tend to overdress, which is usually worse than being underdressed. The reason? As you begin running, your core body temperature will begin to rise. In addition, you're contending with the ambient temperature, humidity levels, radiant heat from the running surface (usually asphalt), and direct sunlight. Many experts advise runners to dress as though it were 20 degrees warmer than the actual air temperature. For example, if the temperature at race time is 60 degrees, dress as though the temperature is 80 degrees. You may need to wear a jacket prior to the race (see "Pack Your Bag" below) if temperatures are cool, but be sure to remove it before lining up.

Pack Your Bag

Below is a list of many items you may wish to put in your running bag. Obviously, you won't run with all of these items, but they'll be helpful before and after your race. Feel free to include any additional items you may need before, during, or after your race. You can return your bag to your car or leave it with family and friends who are not participating in the event.
  • Your bib number (if picked up in advance) and four safety pins to secure it to your shirt
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat/Visor
  • Sunscreen
  • Band-Aids
  • Jacket and/or pants
  • Dry change of clothing
  • Water
  • Hand sanitizer (for use after the portable toilets)
  • Post-run snack

Carry Your ID

Always carry identification with you—even if you are participating with a friend or family member. Many walkers prefer to carry their IDs in a fanny pack (worn around the waist), while many runners prefer to wear popular bracelets or shoe tags (such as Road ID). Your identification should include your name, emergency contacts, and other essential information, such as drug allergies or pre-existing medical conditions. As a last resort, you can simply write your emergency contact information on the back of your bib or a piece of paper in your pocket. If you carry a cell phone, make sure you have an ICE (In Case of Emergency) entry in your cell phone address book. Emergency personnel are trained to look for that listing in cell phones.

Get There Early

Runners should arrive at least one hour before their official start time. Doing so will allow time to park, register (if not done in advance), pick up your race packet, pick up your bib/chip, allow time for warming-up (details below), stretching, and hitting the portable toilets. Depending on the race location, race directors usually provide portable toilets for the runners. Just know that the closer it gets to race time, the longer the lines become, so give yourself plenty of time to take care of any bathroom breaks well in advance of the start time.

Put on Your Bib on Right

Pin your bib on the front of your shirt rather than on your back. This will make it easier for race officials to identify runners so they can call out their names as they cross the finish line. If your race is not a chip-timed event (see below) this will also make it easier for you to tear off the tab at the bottom of your bib.

Clip on that Chip

Not every race uses chips to time the runners. Some bibs have a timing device on the underside, and other races use neither. Large and competitive races tend to use a chip that attaches to your shoe via a zip tie (available at the race). Wearing a chip allows your race time to be recorded for placement and award eligibility.

Chips are not usually distributed to runners until race day, so plan on arriving a few minutes early so that you have time to pick up your chip. Most races hold these chips at the registration table or within close proximity of the registration table. It is essential that you have your bib number on hand when picking up your chip as your chip number corresponds to your bib number.

The chips have a small transponder that activates when you cross the mat at the starting line. Remember to cross the mat or your starting time will not be recorded. When you come to the finish line, you must cross the second set of mats to deactivate the chip in order to have your finishing time recorded. Most events require participants to surrender the chip when the race is over; make sure the volunteers remove yours before you meet up with family and friends. If you fail to return the chip, you may be billed for its replacement.

Warm Up

Warming up is essential before every race. Not only does it get the blood flowing to the muscles, it also helps you mentally prepare for your race. It is quite common, even for seasoned runners—and non-competitive ones—to have a little anxiety prior to the race. Doing a nice warm-up allows you to shake loose some of the nerves.

I generally do a nice walk/jog 20 to 25 minutes prior to the start. Don’t feel the need to run hard; you want to save that energy for your race. One of the tricks I use is to run/walk the course starting at the finish line and going out approximately 400 meters (a quarter mile) before heading back to the start. The advantage to doing so allows you to see if there are any obstacles, such as hills, curves, et cetera at the end. In addition, once you hit that point on the course during the actual race, you know you are almost to the end.

Only after you have done a nice warm-up should you do some light stretching.

Run Your Race

Race anxiety is quite common. But that extra burst of adrenaline works to a runner's advantage. If the event you are participating in allows for runners and walkers, you may want to line-up mid-pack. This will allow you not to be pulled into a faster runner's pace or have to dodge walkers participating in the event.

Start your pace much slower than you feel you should and then allow for a gradual pick up in pace as the race progresses. Once the field thins out, you can then choose a pace that you can comfortably hold for the remainder of the race. If you find yourself running too fast, slow your pace or add a nice walk until you are ready to pick up your pace again.

Many runners prefer running in the middle of the road as there is less sloping than you'll encounter along the curb, but you'll run farther than if you run near the curb. Running close to the curb and cutting corners is not considered cheating as International Amateur Athletic Federation-IAAF and USA Track & Field sanctioned races are measured using the shortest route available for most runners.

Most events generally provide at least one, sometimes two, water stations on a 5K (3.1 mile) course. Feel free to stop and drink at the water station or to pick up cups of water and continue running if you're concerned about making a good time. I believe the biggest anxiety for most new runners is the fear of being the last one across the finish line. Regardless of your finishing time or placement, know that you just accomplished something that many people never had the courage to do.

Cool Down and Refuel

Once you have crossed the finish line, don't stop abruptly! It is very important do some light jogging or easy walking for 10 to 15 minutes after you finish. This helps keep the blood from pooling in the lower extremities while helping the body remove the built up lactic acid within the muscles. And don't forget to do a more thorough set of stretches while your body is still warm. Be sure to stretch the hamstrings (back of thighs), quadriceps (front of thighs), calves and upper body.

Once your cool down is complete, you need to rehydrate. You may also want to change into the dry clothing you brought in your bag. As your body's core temperature begins to drop, wearing damp, sweaty clothes can cause chills.

Drink plenty of water now and for the rest of the day. The best determination of your hydration level is by monitoring the color of your urine. The desired color is a pale like lemonade; a darker color means you may be dehydrated and lighter means you may be over-hydrated and need to drink a sports drink such as Gatorade, which contains electrolytes to allow for proper sodium and potassium replacement.

You also need to make sure you get in a nice recovery snack as soon as possible after your race. Consuming a post-run snack containing carbs and protein will aid in muscle recovery as well as replenishing the glycogen stores within the body. Something as simple as a banana and peanut butter or low-fat chocolate milk will suffice.

Be sure to enjoy the festivities after the race is over. And be proud of yourself—you did it!