Sunday, August 2, 2009

Beginners' Guide: Race Day

Yep, that's me! Second-to-last person across the line.

At this point, many of you have already done your first race. It's well into the season, and if you haven't raced yet, you're running out of time! That said, there's always the next potential crazy coming up after us who needs to know "What do I do?!" with knees knocking and hands shaking. So here's a primer on things you should know before you confront the excitement and anxiety of your first race.

#1 What to Wear
A lot of the decisions you make in preparation for race day have to do with your primary target for race day--in this case, how do you want to feel? Many experienced triathletes will wear the same thing for the swim, bike, and run. They do this because it's time-consuming to change clothes in a transition area, and part of triathlon is to get in and out of transition zones as quickly as possible. If you want to participate in that part of the experience, plan on wearing one thing for the whole race. The most effective way to make that happen is to buy an outfit specifically designed for a race. You can expect to pay $50-$100 for a tri outfit. Alternatively, you can wear bike shorts and a skin-tight shirt.

If you're less concerned about a quick transition and would prefer to be comfortable, then you have a little more lee-way. Men, you can swim in nothing but bike shorts, but most races now require that you wear a shirt on the bike and run. Do not put a t-shirt (especially the race t-shirt) on for the bike and run! Choose a technical shirt that will breathe and wick away moisture. Women, wear bike shorts over your bathing suit, or wear bike shorts and a sports bra on top. Even if you wear just a bathing suit, put a sports bra under your suit unless you are very, very small-breasted. If you are not wearing at least a moderately supportive bra, you will regret it by the end of the run.

So men: bike shorts and a technical top. Women: bike shorts and bathing suit/sports bra.

#2 Equipment
This isn't really the place to discuss what equipment you need, or how much you should spend (or the bare minimum you can get away with). But you do need to know what to have at your first race. You can customize a checklist and print it off here, or you can just make your own checklist in the weeks leading up to your race. I have 4 sticky notes hanging on my wall by way of reminder: one for swim gear, one for run gear, one for bike gear, and one for everything else (i.e. things I need to bring if I'm traveling to a race). The basics are:

Swim: Goggles, swim cap (the one provided in your race packet, if applicable), swimsuit, wetsuit (if you're using one).
Bike: Bike and helmet; you're not racing without those. Bike shoes, if you have them. Tools, spare tube, and pump are all recommended. Socks and gloves are optional.
Run: Running shoes and your race number. Again, socks are optional. A hat or visor is a good idea.

# 3 Food
For this first race, don't go crazy in trying to fine-tune a carb-loading strategy; just focus on eating in a way that's worked for you leading up to big/long/key workouts in the past few months. Keep in mind that the things you eat for several days leading up to the race will impact the way you feel on race day. So be good the week before your race! And don't eat anything new or exciting the night before a race, especially if you've traveled to get there and are eating in an unfamiliar setting.

I had baked manicotti the night before my first race. You'd think that with all the cheese and spices and rich, heaviness of that dish, I would have had some kind of stomach problems that day. But that is close enough to what I eat normally that it didn't really affect me.

That said, everyone has different needs and will respond differently to foods. Some people are super sensitive to foods, and some people are walking, talking garbage bins. You need to figure that out before the day before your race, though. If it's too late for you to figure that out, just try not to do anything too unusual before you race tomorrow (and I know there will be at least a couple people who read this the day before their races).

So don't try anything new or fancy the day before your race!

#4 Day of
Know what time you need to be there! If your wave is the third or fifth (or twentieth) wave, you still need to be there at the beginning of the waves. Every race is a little different in how they handle staging. If you have questions about that, you should ask at the race meeting (if there is one) or ask a volunteer at packet pick-up.

Give yourself an hour or so to set up transition. There's no way you'll need a full hour to set up transition, but it'll make you feel better to have that padding of time. You can use the leftover time to go for a short jog to get warmed up and spend some time in the water to get used to it. If you see someone doing something new and you think, "Hey, maybe I should try that!" forget about it. Race day is not the time to experiment.

As far as setting up transition, you just need to find something that works for you. There are all kinds of tricks and tips that are supposed to get you in and out of transition quicker, but your concern need not be so much for speed; instead, you should focus on comfort. So--again!--find something that works for you.

Triathletes are usually pretty friendly, so go ahead and talk to the people around you. They're probably about as nervous as you are, and can help set your mind at ease.

So find what works for you and stick to it, the day of the race. Be at the race site with plenty of time to spare. Warm up, chit chat, and do what you can to put yourself at ease.

#5 The swim
You're going to freak out. That's it. Get used to it now. At some point in this swim, you are going to freak out. You'll panic. You won't be able to breathe. You will become suddenly incapable of putting your head down and swimming like you've practiced for the past several months.

If (when) that happens, flip over on your back or onto your side. Do a back stroke or a side stroke until you can settle down a little bit. Then try again to get into your freestyle. Don't be afraid to side stroke the whole swim, if you need to; I did in my first two races.

So don't be afraid to slow down and side/backstroke; remember that this is only the first part of your race, and you don't want to be exhausted already!

#6 Transitions
Again, just try to stay relaxed, stay comfortable. Slow down and breathe. Sit down, if you need to. People will be zooming by you on either side. Just remember that your race goals are different from their race goals, and in order for you to be successful, you need to stay relaxed and comfortable.

So slow down, do what you need to do, and stay in your comfort zone.

#7 Bike/run
These should be pretty self-explanatory. Try to save a little bit of energy when you're biking, then start slow and get faster on the run. In your second transition, keep your legs turning over at a good clip. Walk if you need to. Stop and get water at every aid station.

At some point--maybe on the bike, maybe on the run, maybe both--you're going to start hurting. A triathlon is not an easy thing. It will feel like the hardest thing you've ever done in your whole life. You will ask yourself why you signed up for this torture. You will never want to exercise every again. You will hate yourself for thinking you could do such a crazy thing.

But you know what? You are doing it. And all you have to do is get through those last few miles. And you've done a few miles in training, right? You can do a few more miles now. No matter how your brain tries to trick you into thinking you're too slow or too fat or too stupid or too lazy or too ill-prepared to do this, you are doing it. You can do it. And you will finish, even if you collapse right after you cross the line.

So try to pace yourself well on and then off the bike; take it easy at first and then hammer it home at the end. Above all, trust yourself! You can do it!

#8 Finish!
You've done all the work, and you've finished! Whether you're first or last, you have achieved your goal. Enjoy it!


  1. you make it sounds so tempting!

  2. Man, couldn't you have written this before I had my panic attack in the swim? LOL!

    Definitely terrific advice.

  3. Don't forget to pose for that finishing photo! There is nothing worse than an awesome race, but a crappy finishing pic where you are looking down and stopping your watch.

  4. Excellent post.!! I usually wear shorts, a sports bra, and a tank top with a built in bra (for extra support.)