Which is fair enough. I remember posting pretty much the same question on various web forums before my first FLM. So if you more experienced runners will excuse me for a minute, I’ll try to cover off a few of the things you should know before your first few races.
Now, if you get the chance, it’s really worthwhile starting off with a couple of small and friendly local 5ks or 10ks, just to help you get into the groove. This is when you’ll see that speed merchants are mercifully few and far between, and that you’ll almost certainly find plenty of other runners glad to get round at a fairly sane pace.
These sort of events tend to involve a mass start, where you can stand wherever you like, with the faster club runners usually jockeying for position at the front, and the rest of us plodders at the back. At the risk of insulting anyone’s intelligence, the only thing you’ll have to think about, if you’ve never raced en masse before, is to try not to get in anybody’s way. So if you’re on a course with narrow stretches or, heaven forbid, pavement sections, just try to be aware of people who want to pass you.
Also, particularly at water stations, try to get over to wherever they are in plenty of time, to avoid diving over at the last minute and getting in people’s way. And once you’ve drunk your water/lucozade etc, try to fling it to one side of the course if you can, as water areas are where most racing accidents happen, mainly through runners turning their ankles on carelessly discarded water bottles.
Now then, all of the above comments are fine and dandy for your friendly little local races with up to 500 people taking part. Where things get a little bit more complicated are when you line up for something like the Great North Run or the Flora London Marathon.
The extra complications of really big races like this are legion. But the biggest problems are caused by people who either blag their way into the wrong starting pens, or who put a hopelessly ambitious planned time on their entry form, and are therefore going to be a hazard to thousands along the route.
Now, the FLM is by far the better organised of the two races, featuring no less than 3 starting points which merge a couple or three miles after the start. So once you’ve changed in one of the thoughtfully-provided tents and handed your bags in, it’s pretty easy to find the pen you’ve been allocated based on the finishing time that you yourself predicted.
You’ll also find a great baggage system at the FLM, where you get to place your belongings on a pre-ordained lorry before the race, which is then waiting for you at the finish. As opposed to the serve-yourself shambles using double-decker buses favoured at the Great North Run.
The GNR also features just one massed start, albeit taking up two lanes of a motorway, and offers far less control over people being in the wrong pens. So it is possible to have a red number that gets you into the first pen after the celebs and superstars, only to find that a couple of thousand walk/run people have blagged their way in front of you before the starting gun goes off (which happened to me in 2006 and made a complete hash of my race). The GNR also tries to get you in your pen up to 2 hours before the start, leaving you with nothing to do but stand there getting cold and tired.
So, really, the most important part of race etiquette, even more so than watching where you throw water bottles, is to make sure you’re honest about predicting your own time, and that you have the good sense to go in your allocated pen, rather than blagging your way in nearer the front with a mate.
After all, if you’re further forward at the start than you should be, then not only are you spoiling things for faster runners by getting in their way – you’re also ensuring that the first few miles will find you being overtaken by literally thousands of people. And psychologically speaking, that isn’t going to make your race any easier either.