Race Day Etiquette: How to Line Up at the Start

Dear Miss Race Manners,

I am about to participate in my first race.  Where is the best place to line up at the start?


Miss Aligned

Dear Aligned,

Signing up for a race can be a big motivator in working to improve your running – good on you!  Many first time racers already get paranoid about all the etiquette that revolves around race day (and some seasoned pros never stop being nervous).  Here are the tips I’ve learned for lining up on race day:

Time a few miles to know your real speed.

And we’re not talking, “time them on days you are feeling fabulous.”  Time a general set of running for a few weeks if you can, as that will give you a good marker for your finishing time.  Sure, you’ll be missing all the adrenaline of race day, but you’ll know that if it all goes wrong you are more of a 12 minute miler than a 9 minute miler.

Be realistic with your finish time.

Really, be realistic.  Do not be unafraid to see the line up markers that read 9 minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, and proceed to put yourself in the far far back where there is no minute miler chart.   If you know in your heart you start more at a walk than a jog then put yourself back there.  There is no shame in it.  I’m glad enough that I can now stand in a minute per mile group, but I started in the back at first so I could learn how races really work.

If you are not an elite runner, don’t put yourself in the elite running group.

Do not toe the line unless you have every intention of hauling ass for 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon.  You’ll block people who will run you over.  I distinctly remember a race where they let the slow people go first and then when we reached halfway they released the fast runners.  It was the most terrifying experience I have ever had.  Know this: They hold no mercy for you.  They will, if provoked, trample you into the ground and on their second lap dance on your skull.

Follow the signs/listen to the announcements.

In really big races they will often corral you, but I’ve seen really big races where they don’t bother.  If you are super concerned about lining up correctly put yourself near the announcement speakers and listen carefully.  If you see a pack of people moving toward a start line it is perfectly okay to ask a volunteer what group it is heading there.  Don’t just get into a group if you don’t know what group it is.

And finally, if you’ve brought anything with you or are wearing anything you plan to toss – make sure you toss it as far off the course as is reasonable.

Start lines are often littered with ancient shirts and water bottles, especially cold races.  Make sure you take off or toss those items off the course if you plan to let them go at the start.  Do not just drop them where you run.  You’ll cause issues for the people behind you, plus, if a donation group is working they’ll end up picking up your filthy junk and cursing your name.  And since races are run primarily by volunteers you don’t want them angry.  Alternatively if you are attached to something be sure that you will either have someone who will carry said item for you or that you can check baggage somewhere, often for a small charity fee.

So, there you have it.  It’s all about being realistic and looking for the right signs/listening.  Once you’ve got that down you’ll know where to start on race day.

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