Rules for Racing

There’s a pretty unique blog out there put together by a few renegade running ladies called the Bad Angels.  The authors regularly contribute to the site with their own thoughts on running, training and racing, accumulated through years of hitting the pavement.  This wisdom is packaged in neat little “rules,” which range from conventional advice (rule #91 – Drink Water) to personal quirks for newcomers (rookie rule #11 – Get Inked).

In addition to these guidelines, they also provide race recaps, tons of running song recommendations and the occasional op-ed on the goings-on of the running community.

It’s a funny blog because running is seen as a simple concept.  You put one foot in front of the other, then you go fast enough to be airborne and that’s it.  You’re running.  You’re falling forward but catching yourself.  Simple enough, right?

That is, until you go hard.  It’s not until you dip your toe into the local racing community, until you sign up for a long-distance race and become completely inundated by everyone’s opinions on shoes, gear, race fees, efficient gaits, the legitimacy of Dean Karnazes and whether giving medals at 5ks diminishes the value of accomplishment that you realize how insane the sport is.  The point is, when you become a Runner with a capital R, things stop being so simple.  There are so many things to consider, which is why it’s helpful to have a blog that has 105 rules (and counting) for your reference.

Inspired by their structure, I decided to put together my own little list of “rules” but with my own personal twist.  Instead of producing a list of guidelines for becoming a successful runner, I wrote out my ten rules exclusively for racing.  While they aren’t applicable to everyone – in fact a few are admittedly superstitious – I think they can be helpful to any newcomers to the racing circuit.  But remember, these are just things I do.  If it helps, say “I, Dan Solera” before every rule to make it less of a command.  And so, here they are, in the order that they should be observed:

Dan Solera’s Rules for Racing

1. Don’t Look at This Year’s Medal

Many races these days are luring runners by email blasting their medal design before the event even happens.  While I have said on numerous occasions and make no attempts at hiding it, an awesome medal will get me to your race.  In my list of motivations, “zomg a medal with a duck on it” ranks much, much higher than “this would improve my overall health” and “finishing would bring great honor to my ancestors.”  But for some reason, I don’t want to see it before I actually earn it.

In other words, it’s totally okay – in fact, it’s necessary – to see medals from previous years so you get an idea of what to expect this time around.  However, if they post it on their website or email it to you or carry it in a golden sarcophagus to a mountain in the desert, don’t look at it, Indy!  You’ll enjoy it so much more when it’s a surprise at the finish line and all the Nazis are dead.

2. Show Up Stupidly Early

You don’t want to miss out on your corral start because you got in a 30-minute bathroom line 20 minutes before the race start; you don’t want to end up in the Z Corral because you ended up parking two miles away after everyone else took all the choice spots; and you certainly don’t want to spend the first two miles side-stepping charity walkers because you thought waking up at 4 AM wouldn’t be awesome sauce.  Trust me, show up early.

3. Line Up (Slightly) Slower Than Your Projected Pace

Every race is full of people who don’t obey the pace rules.  You line up next to the 7:30-pace sign and sure enough, there will be people running 9- or 10-minute miles next to you for the first mile.  There’s no panacea for this, it’s just an annoying reality that we have to face no matter how fast we run.  And let’s face it, lots of people running a 7:30 pace probably lined up with the 6-minute milers just because it feels badass to be near the start.  However, we can be part of the solution.  So what I recommend is picking a Corral or a pace sign just slightly slower than your goal pace, but when the gun goes off, run at your intended pace.  Better to be faster than the runners around you (and annoy the scrub n00bs you pass) than be slower (and annoy everyone else).

4. Sandbag Your Expectations

We all love to PR.  It feels great, it validates our efforts and we get to brag about it for a few days when people are dumb enough to ask.  However, unless you’re just starting out, you won’t PR every time.  In fact, the more you run, the less likely you’ll achieve a personal best as you become more of a Nordic god see your returns diminish.  While I consider myself an optimist, I put more stock in pragmatism than blind enthusiasm.  After all, your brain secretes more happy juice if you surpass your C-level times versus missing your A-level times, right?  I’m no brain surgeon, but I think I read that on the internet somewhere.

So when I line up to start, I sandbag my time goals.  Even if I’m feeling 100% with spring-loaded shoes and a hired thug with a nailbat ready to chase me, I’ll tell myself, “You know, I’d be happy if I finish in [SUPER FAST TIME minus several minutes].”  This doesn’t mean that I’ll run any less hard or put less effort into it.  I’ll still try my damndest to PR.  But if I don’t, it’s alright.  I’ll move on and sleep soundly that night with help from the Sandman.  And his bags.  Of sand.  I’m sure there was a better way to end this one.

5. Don’t Bring Energy Gels / Beans / Shots to Anything Less Than a 25K

Just don’t, you’ll embarrass yourself.

6. Duck to the Side of the Course if Walking During Aid Stations

To date, I have yet to finish anything longer than an 8k without walking at an aid station.  I’m not a big fan of pouring Gatorade down my shirt or into my nose, so I like to stop, walk, and make sure I do it right.  However, there are thousands of people behind me who might also want to do the same thing, which would turn the rushing parade of humanity into the foreigners-only line at LaGuardia (but without all the scared silence).  So to keep this from happening, I take my cup and keep running until the aid station ends.  At that point, I duck to the outside of the course, the “slow lane” if you will, and hydrate leisurely while Vivaldi plays in my head.

7. Don’t Run More Than Three Abreast

Unfortunately, that’s not a Total Recall reference.  Instead, it refers to the phenomenon that occurs when giant charity groups (you know who you are) decide to run four, five even twelve people across, making it awkward or impossible to pass them without sounding like a jackass.  Look, I get it, there’s a huge feeling of camaraderie involved in running with your charitable organization.  It’s not just you running, but your support network.  But not every race is the Chicago Marathon, where you have four lanes of space on either side.  Most races run on residential roads or bike paths and half-mooning around your altruistic posse isn’t easy.  So if I ever find myself running as part of a horizontal line of people, I either pull ahead or duck behind them to let other runners through.

8. Leave It All At the Finish

Whether it’s a 5k or a 50k, I will want to feel like death at the finish line.  Unfortunately, I very often reach this semi-mortem state earlier than that, but it serves to remind me that I am going as hard as I can.  Every now and then I’ll see people finish a race and then talk to their BFF without even panting.  Or they’ll have enough left to look bubbly and cute and bounce spritely through the finisher’s area because racing is supposed to be “fun” and “not make you a haggard mess.”

But not me.  I will look like a character from The Road at the end of every race.  If you were to plant a bug on me right before I cross the finish line, you’d hear what might sound like a caveman fist-fighting a buffalo.  If I ever ran for office, my opponent would handily defeat me with just one shot from MaratonFoto or brightroom and a sinister voiceover saying “Dan Solera looks like shit in this picture.  Do you want our country to look like shit too?  I’m Galactus and I approve this message.”

9. Don’t Celebrate Your Finish Unless It’s a PR

Remember, these rules aren’t for everyone.  Every race finish, no matter how fast or how long, is an achievement, an improvement over sitting  at home watching redneck hoarders auction off storage containers full of real housewives (or whatever the kids are watching these days).  I will never tell anyone to not openly celebrate a race finish, nor do I look down on anyone for being proud of finishing a race.  But my personal rule is that I don’t throw my arms over my head, air guitar “Sweet Child of Mine” or do the Dougie at the finish line unless I PR.  That’s just my rule.  All efforts shy of BEST EVAR earn a quiet, internal celebration.

10. Thank Every Volunteer

Volunteers are awesome.  They could have stayed home and made sweaters for their pugs but instead came out to hand paper cups to oily, snotty hands.  Or they’re out at intersections, holding their arms up to stop or direct traffic until their muscles atrophy.  Some are at the gear check tent, doing their best to find your bag, which looks exactly like the other 400 bags out there because the race organizers demand that you use their standard issue gear bags (which I will never understand).  Others are at food tents, watching as sweat-streaked runners touch three bagels before deciding what they really want is an orange and wondering why there aren’t any Purell stations on the course.  Or they’re at the finish line waiting for Galactus to get that picture of me he wanted before asking for his autograph watching people come close to voiding their bowels.

Collecting diseases may not be the most glamorous job, but they do it and they do it with a smile.  So I make sure to thank each one as I pass them.  Sure, towards the end of the race the usual “thanks for coming out” gets reduced to a heaving “TANKS” and maybe a weak thumbs-up (any more would trigger a 2008-recession-style run on my glycogen stores and at 6’4”, I’m too big to fail).  Put simply: thank volunteers because without them, race directors would have to hire people, races would cost ten times as much and the resulting hiring boom might get unemployment back down to 5% …

Bonus Rule: Wear Your Medal to Lunch, Maybe Dinner, but Then Please Stop

This one’s simple enough.

And so there you have it, my short set of rules for race etiquette.  By no means exhaustive, I think it covers most of the basic guidelines.  I’m sure if I sat down and really thought about it, I could make a longer list, but I’ve already stomped on the Bad Angels’ turf too much, so I’ll leave it at this.  For more rules, please visit the Rules for Running page and subscribe to them (especially if you’re from Chicago – they give the city lots of love).