No matter if you're about to compete in your first 5K or your third marathon, dealing with crowds on race day can be an exhausting experience. There's more to completing a race than simply crossing the finish line, as it requires navigating several mandatory checkpoints that can not only be tedious, but both physically and mentally stressful. Throw peak crowds into the mix, and you may find yourself on your feet for way too long when you should be relaxing back at the hotel room—ultimately impacting your energy levels and performance once the gun goes off.
Don't worry—with a few premeditated steps, navigating crowds on race day doesn't have to be a hassle. From parking and checking in, to navigating aid stations and the finishing chute, here are a few tips on how to deal with crowds on race day.
Parking can be tricky when thousands of athletes and their families all converge on the same event, but note there are a few ways to dodge this hassle in the morning.
First, finding a hotel within walking distance to the starting line is a great option. Second, consider carpooling with other athletes or finding a ride share option to drop you off (but note these services can be spotty around early start times). Lastly, look at your athlete guide in your race packet and figure out where easily accessible parking lots are, then scout these lots the night before and arrive as early as possible.
There will be traffic on race day, so consider having a family member drive so you can jump out of the car if needed.
Ah, the check-in process. This is the required step where race organizers and sponsors try to "upsell" you on often unnecessary products (pro tip: It's never a good idea to purchase new shoes or nutrition the day before the race, or at least using those new purchases on race day). The race expo can be sensory overload, with tons of competitors and vendors populating the showroom floor at loud flashy booths designed to capture your attention around every corner. It also doesn't help they're generally laid out like IKEA, where you have to walk through the entire expo to find the exit.
To limit your exposure to some of these crowds, try to pick up your bibs once the expo opens or right before it closes to save yourself from standing in lines. Also, stay away from booths—find the check-in area and make a beeline for the exit. If you have an especially selfless race Sherpa, you can lend them your ID and have them pick up your bib and packet for you (and have them listen to the athlete debrief).
If you decide to go yourself, we encourage you to wear your compression garments and bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated and limit the effects of being on your feet before race day.
Most race organizers do their best to order enough porta potties for the projected turnout, but there will always be a line in the hours leading up to the race. The best way to avoid even using these in the first place is to wake up several hours before the start and eat a small breakfast (and drink your coffee) to give your body time to do its business before you leave.
If you've already left and still need to go, look for a nearby coffee shop or park facility and go there, or (warning, it's about to get a little gross) keep a disposable "brief relief" bag in your car and dispose of your waste in a nearby trash can.
If you have time to wait in line, be sure to keep warm and stay moving, and don't forget to bring your own toilet paper.
On the Course
Unless you start way in the back, there's no way to "avoid" crowds in the starting chute or in the first few miles once the gun goes off. The best way to keep yourself from being hindered by athletes blocking you from the front (or have athletes cut in front of you from behind) is to stage yourself with the appropriate pace group. If you know you're going to run a four-hour marathon, find the pacer (and their sign) and stage yourself with that group.
Once out on the course, look ahead for any bottlenecks and keep to either one side or the other to limit how many surges you'll have to take to pass a fellow competitor. Don't forget to yell "on your left" as you pass, too.
Aid stations are another place were crowds can be especially problematic. To eliminate this variable altogether, some athletes prefer to carry all their nutrition and hydration with them. This tactic can work through the half-marathon distance, but generally marathon runners will take advantage of the on-course nutrition, especially later in the race.
If you do stop, be sure to slow down as you approach and check what's available. Some sections only offer sports drink or water while others have gels, bananas or blocks—and if the aid station is on both sides of the road, opt for the side with less athletes. Also, don't stop at the first table with everyone else, run to the end of the aid station and grab what you need from a less-busy volunteer.
You'll often find that as athletes cross the finish line, they'll stop. It makes sense, but look ahead and see where athletes are in the finishing chute and adjust accordingly. If you time it right, not only will you cross without anyone in front of you, but you'll get an unobstructed race pic from the photographer just beyond the finish line.
Like we suggest with the on-course aid stations, find the volunteer near the back who's waiting around to hand out their medals, and don't stop at the first table giving out food and drinks with the other competitors. Walk a bit farther and usually the same things are offered again (but with no line).
Race selection is a big factor when it comes to crowds on race weekend. A popular race like the Los Angeles or New York marathon will undoubtedly result in more crowds and a more hectic experience.
Spend some time researching a nearby race series, or find a local running group and see if they host any members-only events. Trail races are usually a great place to avoid crowds, as bunches disperse quickly due to the varying terrain on the course. The expo and check-in area are usually outdoors, with less people registering in total (depending on the race, of course).
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