Race Day Guide to the Finish Line

What to Expect at a Half Marathon or Marathon

You're approaching your moment of triumph at the finish line of a big race such as a half marathon or marathon, what awaits you? If you've never been to a big race, you may not know the terms and traditions that are familiar to seasoned participants. Be sure to study the race's web site and instructions to see what they have in store for you. Be prepared first with our tips for the week before the race so you won't have a race mistake or lesson learned to report.

Finish Chutes

Finish Line
Finish Line. Hero Images/Getty Images
As you approach the finish line, they will often separate racers who are in the marathon, half marathon, and shorter distances so you finish in your designated chute. The chutes will continue to channel you through the finish area as you pick up your medal, get a heat sheet, pass the photo area and grab hydration and snacks.

Timing Mats

Race Timing Mats
Race Timing Mats. Wendy Bumgardner ©
You will cross one or more sets of timing mats set before, on and after the finish line. Do not divert around these and don't trip over them. Don't stop short to take a selfie! These read your timing chip and enter your information into the race database. Your finish time gets recorded when you cross the mat. An early set of mats shows the race announcer who is approaching so they can cheer you by name as you cross the finish line. Multiple sets of mats help ensure they don't miss anybody when lots of racers are crossing at the same time. Most races are using disposable chips, but some may still have chips that need to be turned in at the finish line. Your first stop in that case is the chip-removal station.

Finish Line

Portland Marathon Finish Line
Portland Marathon Finish Line. Wendy Bumgardner ©

You made it! The finish line is here! The finish line clock shows the time elapsed from the starting gun (which is probably not your official chip finish time). The announcer calls out your name. The crowd roars! Try to put on a smile and finish strong so you look great in your finish line photos.


Medals. Rachel Spanks ©
You are a winner! One of the first stops across the finish line is a volunteer handing you your medal. Put it on and revel in the triumph. If the race has different distances and they haven't separated the finish lines, you may have to make sure you get the right medal. Some races also hand out other finisher items, such as finisher shirts, roses, hatpins, and even tree seedlings.

Specator Area and Reunion Area

Marathon Finish Reunion
Marathon Finish Reunion. Wendy Bumgardner ©
Your family and friends can cheer you at the finish, but there may be designated areas and barricades. After the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, it is likely that races will be even more restrictive in where spectators can linger near the finish line. At big races, spectators aren't allowed to join the racers until after the racers have left a controlled area. Study the race materials ahead of time to see where family and friends can watch you finish and where you can meet up with them to get to your victory party.

Heat Sheet

Heat Sheet at Finish Line
Heat Sheet at Finish Line. Hero Images/Getty Images
Racers cool down fast, so big races provide mylar heat sheets at the finish to put around your shoulders. This can help prevent post-race chills, even on a warm day. They also make a good temporary rain poncho. But best of all, you can tie them into a cape and look like the superhero you are.

Recovery Drinks and Snacks

Finish Line Snacks
Finish Line Snacks. Wendy Bumgardner ©

After you cross the finish line, look for the replenishment. It's typical to have volunteers handing out bottles of water or sports drink, and tables set up with bagels, bananas, chocolate milk (a great recovery drink), chips, cookies, and other post-race snacks. Go ahead and grab what you need.

Photo Area

Finish Photo Booth
Finish Photo Booth. Wendy Bumgardner ©
You will have another chance to pose with your medal in all of your sweaty glory. Races have official photo areas set up with backdrops advertising their race and professional photographers to sell you the photo. Be sure to adjust your medal and gear so your race bib number is visible to identify your photo afterward. Warning: they usually discourage selfies here, as they want to sell you their official photos.

Medical Tent

Medical Tent Avon Walk for Breast Cancer
Medical Tent. Wendy Bumgardner ©

If you cross the finish line limping, weaving erratically or grabbing your side in pain, it's likely that a medical volunteer will steer you into the medical tent. I know this from experience. Do as they tell you. You are exhausted, you are in no condition to judge your own condition. Let them pamper and probe you and hopefully you'll recover and not need an ambulance ride. Most Common Marathon Injuries

Finish Line Expo and Party

Party at the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon
Party at the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Wendy Bumgardner ©

It's party time at the finish line. You and your loved ones can enjoy the sponsor and vendor booths, music, freebies, food and drink. You may have tags on your race bib to redeem for the food and drink or door prizes. If a free alcoholic beverage is included, some races take your ID at the pre-race expo and give you a band to show you are of age. Slower racers may arrive to discover the booths picked clean or folding up. That's one way to judge whether it's a walker-friendly race.

Bag Check Pickup

Gear Drop Booth
Gear Drop Booth. Wendy Bumgardner ©
If you checked a bag, you will need to pick it up. Be sure to note where this will be, as often it is a couple of blocks from the finish line, and you may have to exit the finish line party area to get to it. Also note how late you can wait to pick it up. You may be having fun enjoying the music and a beer, or recovering in the medical tent.

Shuttles - Parking

Shuttles. © Wendy Bumgardner
How are you getting home or back to your hotel? The finish line isn't always in the same place as the starting line, and there can be confusion in how to get back to your car. If the race provides shuttles to take you to distant lots or back to hotels, be sure to note where the pick-up spots are and the hours and frequency of the shuttle. Slower racers may risk missing the bus and should have a Plan B in mind.

Marathon Recovery Starts at the Finish Line

Here are the steps you need to take to stay strong and healthy after crossing the finish line.

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