Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Are friends and family coming to watch you race? Here are some things NOT to do.

Last Saturday I participated in the National Half Marathon in Washington DC. I was excited to be running on a fast course through the nation's capital, but I was also excited because for the first time I had three supporters who would be following me along the route to cheer me on. You can see the story of my race here, but I also wanted to share some tips from my friends on how to make the race-watching experience better—or, rather, what NOT to do, based on our mistakes. Obviously, if a race only has a few hundred participants, rather than 15,000-plus, these tips are less critical. But if you're heading to a destination race with friends and family, hopefully these guidelines will help you avoid our mistakes.

1. Don't "thoughtfully" leave early for the race. I was supposed to be at the race 45 minutes early, so I figured I'd do my friends and family a favor and tiptoe out of the house before they woke up. They were planning on heading to the 6-mile marker to cheer me on mid-race, so this was the "thoughtful" thing to do, right? Wrong! Since they never saw my running outfit, they had no idea what to look for on the racecourse. They had to scan through throngs of runners and try to recognize my face. As it turned out, they only spotted me after I was about 10 meters past them. There was enough time to wave and say "hi," but that was it. They didn't even get a photo of me!

2. Don't wear dull gray and white clothes. I thought I was perfectly dressed for the race, with my white DART shirt, my white compression shirt, and my gray hat and dark glasses for sun protection. Wrong! I had inadvertently coordinated my outfit with at least 50 percent of the runners out there. Even the DART shirt I was wearing used the same color palette as the official half-marathon shirt that 11,000 of my running buddies had been given the day before in their goodie bags.

Could YOU tell these shirts apart at 50 meters? I wouldn't bet on it!
Ideally I would have worn something visually distinctive but not trendy. Since day-glo green seems to be all the rage these days, that might not have been a good choice (although it would have been better than white and gray!). Maybe a bright purple and pink hat? With tassles?

3. Don't be vague about your meeting points. Once again, out of consideration for my supporters, I was noncommittal about where they might want to stop to try to spot me along the race course. Ideally it'd be near a Starbucks, so they could sip lattes while they waited for me to show up. We settled on "DuPont Circle," which as it turns out is a huge intersection with a giant tunnel and two bridges over a divided highway. It's also the spot where hundreds of other fans had decided to camp out. Since they didn't want to lose unobstructed view at the edge of the road, my friends and family didn't have a chance to stop for coffee, and shivered for 30 minutes in 30-degree weather waiting for me to arrive. I didn't know exactly where they would be, so I couldn't spot them right away among the hundreds of fans. At the finish line, it was even worse, with fans lining the course 5- and 6-deep for over a quarter mile on both sides of the course. I never saw my supporters, and they didn't spot me either. If we had been more precise about where to meet, including the particular corner of the street they'd be waiting (perhaps using Google Street View in advance to confirm it), I might have had a better chance of spotting them.

4. Don't count on technology to help. Our ace in the hole was going to be the Live Tracking feature of the iMapMyRun iPhone app. My wife Greta and I both have iPhones, so the plan was for me to carry mine along the race course, and she could follow my progress on her phone. We had tested it out a couple times before the race, and it seemed to work. If I recorded a run while enabling Live Tracking, then she (and any of my friends on MapMyRun) could see my exact location. Even though MapMyRun successfully recorded my route, Greta could never find my live feed. Maybe the congestion of so many runners overwhelmed the network, or maybe we had configured it wrong, but this technology didn't work for us. Also, just running the app for 13 miles nearly completely drained my battery. It would never work for an entire marathon. Plus, the site doesn't give you as much information as tried-and-true resources like Garmin Connect, which not only mapped my course, but gives detailed splits and pacing information.

5. Don't be shy about expressing your support. The most visible spectators are the ones making the most noise, holding the biggest signs, wearing the loudest clothes. While I might not have appreciated the Navy fan holding a huge sign and yelling "Don't Give Up the Ship!" at two different points along the course (you call that motivational?), I definitely saw and remembered her.

6. You are never going to be as cool as the coolest fans. Unfortunately, it's true, and there's not much you can do about it. My favorite fans are city kids with huge ghetto blasters, playing loud rap music. They're positive, they're dancing, and they always get me going. I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm and bring it with me on every run, but I just have to take it when I can get it. This time it came around Mile 11, and it was fantastic!

7. Don't keep your phone in your purse. After I missed seeing my supporters at the finish line, I gave Greta a call to reconnect. Unfortunately, between the cheering and the loudspeaker, she couldn't hear her ringer over all the noise at the end of the race. I called all three of my supporters, each with the same result. Meanwhile, running iMapMyRun for 13 miles had drained my battery below 20 percent. I sent Greta a text message asking her to call and just waited. Meanwhile, since they hadn't seen me finish, my friends and family were still scanning the hordes of runners crossing the finish line looking for me, getting increasingly worried that something had happened to me. Eventually we reconnected, but not before a few tense minutes after my phone had completely died! Greta suggests putting your ringer on vibrate and keeping it in your pants pocket at the end of the race to make sure you don't miss an important call.

8. Don't forget to check traffic plans. At the National Marathon, supporters (but not participants) could take the Metro to the race. But five years ago when I ran my first half marathon, Thunder Road in Charlotte, Greta and our kids had a tough time making their way in the car to the half-marathon finish line -- so many streets were closed due to the race that they nearly didn't arrive in time. So make sure your supporters know the race route and which roads will still be open to allow them to make their way to their preferred viewing points.

Hopefully these tips will help your supporters have a good experience during your next big race, and you won't look like a dope for dragging them along and then never seeing them. Remember, these are the people you're going to be sharing post-race drinks with, so you don't want to disappoint them.

See you on the road—preferably wearing bright colors!

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