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5 Surprising Things about 5K Races

Get up front if you're in it to win it.
Get up front if you're in it to win it.

Training for a 5K race is a great way to stay motivated. You spend weeks with your carefully planned running schedule, testing and finalizing your gear while mapping out everything that’s going to happen on race day. However, despite your best efforts, there are a few things you’re going to encounter in an actual race that you might not be prepared for. Here are the top five things I discovered on my first race.

Most races figure out your time using something called a “gun start.” That means everybody’s start time is exactly the same, it’s when the gun or horn goes off. It’s done that way to keep the finish fair. If you’re approaching the finish line, you should be able to feel confidant that your time will be better than anyone coming in behind you.

Position yourself properly at the start line to take advantage of that. If you can complete a 5K in 22 minutes or less, there’s a good chance you’ll be one of the winners. The faster you run, the closer you should be to the start line when the race begins.

You won’t be running the race in a straight line. When you train, it’s generally just you, or maybe you and a friend. You’re going to run in a relatively straight line from one point of the course to the next.

Everything’s different on race day. You begin surrounded by lots of other people. When the race starts, you’ll find yourself dodging left and right to avoid people. That means you’re making quick, sometimes spur of the moment, lateral moves.

At the end of my first 5K, my knees started to swell up from all the jerky movements I made. You can sidestep the problem by preparing for it. During your training runs, practice sudden movements left and right and pretend to avoid phantom runners. Put on a pair of inline skates, jump on a slideboard or practice lateral lunges so your body is ready for the human obstacle course you’re sure to encounter.

People are going to do gross things with bodily fluids while running. I’m always amazed at how many people spit during a race. That’s especially true when they grab a glass from the water table. Many swallow a little, then spit the rest out.

Races held on colder days often have people blowing their noses, but not into a tissue. Instead, they blow it out by blocking one side of their nose and exhaling through the open nostril. Unfortunately many don’t care where it lands.

Don’t join in the bad behavior. If you have to spit, do it off the course and make sure nobody is trying to pass when you do. Carry napkins and a plastic bag in your pocket to discard used tissues in. Other runners will appreciate the effort.

You might see cheaters. When runners cut a turn short or don’t go completely around a turnaround, they’re potentially stealing medals from honest competitors. The same goes for walkers who run. Walking is a separate category and walkers must keep one foot on the ground at all times.

Small races have a limited number of people to spot cheats, so racing companies rely on the runners to let them know when it happens. Make a note or take a picture of the cheater's bib number. In some cases, the race director can simply change walkers into runners, or add a time penalty on to compensate for the improper shortcuts.

You’re going to carry more stuff than you planned. If you run the race alone, at the very minimum you’ll need a place for car keys, some cash or credit cards, ID and a phone.

Look for ways to secure those things so you don’t have to hold anything. Get an armband strap for your phone and make it waterproof if you’re somewhere that rains a lot. Choose shorts or a jacket with zippered pockets to secure money and keys. You might even bring a fanny pack for medications or other critical items. Practice carrying all that stuff when you do your training runs.

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