Get to the Starting Line Stress-Free

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This writing is excerpted from The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, From 5Ks to Ultras, by Trail Runner contributing editor Sarah Lavender Smith. The book offers extensive information on developing trail-specific skills, adapting your training for ultra distances and reaching goals on race day.

Getting to the start of a race can feel like getting to a departure gate in an airport. So much planning and preparation has to happen to get out the door with everything you need, and then you may struggle to arrive on time and make it through check-in. Did you forget to pack anything? What if there’s traffic along the way? How much time will it take to park, catch a shuttle and stand in lines?

I’ve heard many runners at starting lines express that they felt frazzled, forgetful, constipated or nauseous because of a harried morning. Good race-day planning, like good travel planning, helps minimize the stress and sets you off on the race poised to reach your goals.

First, you should book travel and lodging for a destination race far in advance. During the taper weeks, fine-tune your itinerary and confirm all your transportation plans, building in extra time to get to the starting line approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour before the start. That will give you ample time to park, stand in line for the bathroom and get ready to run, with wiggle room in case of delay on the way.

Study the race website, and look for emails from the race director, in the days leading up to the race. Sometimes eleventh-hour course reroutes happen due to weather or other unexpected circumstances. Make sure you understand both the directions to get to the starting line (along with parking or shuttle instructions), and the directions for the race route itself. Print out the directions to the start and a course map; carry the course map in a pocket during the race, folded in a plastic baggie, unless you are completely confident you know the route. Most trail races are clearly marked with directional signs or ribbons and chalk, but sometimes the markings are sparse or have been removed by vandals.

Use the following checklists to plan the 24 hours to the start.

Checklists for Race Day

The day before:

  • Lay out clothes for head to toe: hat, sunglasses, buff, shirt, bra, arm warmers, gloves, shorts, socks, shoes.
  • Pin on your race bib if you were able to pick it up the day before (numbers should be pinned on the front, so checkpoint volunteers and photographers can identify you by your number as you approach them).
  • Lay out gear, calories and comfort items to carry: hydration pack or bottle(s), energy gels, drink mix if you use it, sunscreen, anti-chafe lube, small baggie with toilet paper.
  • Pack a headlamp with fresh batteries if the race starts or ends in darkness.
  • Lay out an extra layer of clothing to wear before start for warmth (jacket, sweatpants), and have a bag you can use as a drop bag to stash these items at the starting line area.
  • In case of rain or strong winds, pack a cheap poncho or Hefty garbage bag with a hole cut out for your head, to wear for protection at the starting line and dispose of when the race starts.
  • Charge your watch.
  • Charge your phone; if you plan to carry your phone in your hydration vest pocket, then put it in a plastic baggie to protect it from sweat or rain.
  • Double-check race day instructions, your plan for transportation to the start, and directions to the start; bring money for parking if necessary, and make sure your car has gas.
  • Print out the race course map to study while you’re waiting for the race to begin, and to carry folded in a small baggie during the race.
  • Pack a finish-line bag with a towel and change of clothes, so you can get cleaned up and comfortable for the ride home; include a recovery drink mix or healthy recovery snack if good-quality finish line food is not provided.
  • Get breakfast ready for the morning, coffee ready to brew, and a small snack such as banana and a bottle of water to take with you in case you feel hungry/thirsty while waiting for the start.
  • For ultramarathons in which you’re using a drop bag, pack and label your drop bag (typically, this should be done several days earlier and re-checked the day before).
  • Trim your toenails (ideally, toenails should be trimmed a few days before the race in case trimming them short causes soreness).
  • Figure out how much time you’ll need in the morning to get ready, out the door and to the start, and set your alarm accordingly.
  • Relax and go to bed feeling confident about your training!

The morning of:

  • Wake up early enough to eat and digest your breakfast
  • Put anti-chafe lube on any spots where clothing or a hydration pack might rub uncomfortably; men, prevent nipple chafing with Band-Aids or tape.
  • Prep your feet with anti-blister lube before putting on socks and shoes.
  • Fill your hydration reservoir or bottles.
  • Get dressed and get all your stuff together from the night-before checklist.
  • Hit the road with enough time to get to the start approximately 45 minutes early.
  • Check in with volunteers at the start, and set a positive tone for the race by acting friendly toward others.
  • Line up at the start and listen to final instructions.
  • Remember, this is supposed to be fun, and you worked hard to get to this point—congratulate yourself on making it to the starting line well-prepared, fit, and healthy!

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