Race Day Guide to the Starting Line

The starting line of a big race such as a half marathon or marathon can be a confusing, congested place. If you are new to racing or have only participated in smaller races, you may not know what some of the terms and traditions mean. The event's race day guide or web site might not spell it out for beginners. 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.

Shuttles - Drop-off Points - Parking

Water's Edge Half Marathon Starting Line
Water's Edge Half Marathon Starting Line. Wendy Bumgardner ©
How are you getting to the starting line? Big races may have 10,000 or more participants and you need to read their advice carefully for how and when to get to the starting line, including routes and drop-off points. I have been stuck in an hour-long traffic jam getting to the starting point. If you are getting dropped off by a spouse or friend, it is still important to study the road closures in the area and suggested drop-off points. Be prepared to get out and walk to make it to the starting line on time. The race may provide shuttles from more-distant parking or assembly points to the starting line. Some races bus everyone to a starting line and race point to point. Races usually start early in the morning, so expect it to be dark when you are trying to locate where to park or catch a ride.

Starting Line Expo

Vancouver USA Marathon Starting Line Expo
Vancouver USA Marathon Starting Line Expo. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Big races expect that people will arrive early and they may have sponsors and vendors set up to entertain you. You may be able to limber up to music, get a free cup of coffee and a bagel, and get enticed to buy more race gear. Remember the first rule of marathons and half marathons - nothing new on race day! Don't eat or drink anything you haven't used before your long training days. If they are handing out free samples of an unfamiliar energy gel, stow those in your pack or gear drop bag for later.

Late Registration - Packet Pick-up

Livestrong Registration
Livestrong Registration. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Large races usually do not allow you to register on the day of the event, and most also require you to pick up your race packet in the days before the race. Many require identification and don't allow for a friend to pick it up for you. Read the material carefully before making your travel plans to a race. But if a race lets you register and pick up your bib number, timing chip, race shirt and other goodies at the starting line, you'll need a plan as to what to do with the extras they give you in the packet.
Before You Register for a Marathon

Bib Number

Race Bib and Timing Chip Shoe Tag
Race Bib and Timing Chip Shoe Tag. Wendy Bumgardner ©

You usually get a bib number with your race packet to pin on your chest. Be sure to pick up four safety pins at the same time. The bib number proves you are a registered participant entitled to be on the course. Don't leave home without it, or you might not be allowed to enter or finish the race. Wear it in the position they suggest -- usually visible on your chest. The on-course photography will be sorted by your bib number, and they will use it to call out your name at the finish line. Bibs often have tags attached which you can use to idenify your gear drop bag, and sometimes have coupons attached to redeem for drinks at the finish line and other goodies. Many bibs have a place on the back to write your emergency contact and medical information. Fill that out, I've seen some tragic race accidents where it was needed.


Timing Chip and Timing Mats

Race Timing Mats
Race Timing Mats. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Timing chips are worn by each racer and are read by timing mats or detectors at the start, finish, and points along the course. You will get a timing chip in your race packet. Pay close attention to how you are supposed to wear it, as technology is evolving and each variation gets worn in a different way. They can be built into the bib number, or are a strip or chip worn through your shoelaces. Most races are using disposable chips, but some may still have chips that need to be turned in at the finish line. Usually they are read by a timing mat that you cross, so don't avoid those mats in the middle of the race course. But try not to trip on them, either, or you may need that emergency contact info I told you to write on the back of your bib number. At a chip-timed event, you don't need to worry that you are in the back of the pack and won't cross the starting line for several minutes after the starting gun.


Bag Check and Clothing Toss

Gear Check Truck - Portland Marathon
Gear Check Truck - Portland Marathon. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Races usually provide a place to drop off a bag with your warm-up/cool down clothes to pick up after the race. But check the instructions - some races are eliminating this in the name of security following the Boston Marathon bombing. At big races, the gear check can be a few blocks from the starting line and might be very congested to get to and from. Often they give you the preferred bag and tag to use when you pick-up your race packet. It's best not to store any valuables in the bag. I like to store a long-sleeved shirt or jacket and a back-up finish snack and drink in case they run out at the finish line. But many racers prefer to avoid the hassle and wear an old shirt they toss at or near the starting line, or a good old trash bag. Many races partner with charities to pick up usable discarded clothing.


Starting Line Portajohns - Vancouver USA Marathon
Starting Line Portajohns - Vancouver USA Marathon. Wendy Bumgardner ©
Flush toilets are rare at the starting lines of big races, and instead they rent portable toilets to set up in the starting assembly area. Lines can be long, but starting with an empty bladder is critical to preventing delays in even-longer lines on the race course. I study the race info to see where these will be located relative to my corral and/or the starting line. They are usually fresh rental toilets, clean and not-yet-odorous. It is rare that they run out of toilet paper at the start, but it can be bring-your-own later in the course and at the finish. Remember to lock the door when you enter or hilarity may ensue. Don't leave the seat a mess -- be a sweetie, wipe the seaty -- and take your trash out with you.

Spectator Area

Marathon Specators Cheering
David Madison/Getty Images Sport

The race info may designate a place where your family and friends can watch the start and cheer you. They may not be allowed into the race assembly area, and definitely should not enter the corrals. The race starting line is often very congested and this is not a good place to bring dogs, strollers, etc. Seriously, I was in fear of my life with the crowding at the 2011 Las Vegas Rock 'n' Roll Marathon/Half Marathon. Keep your loved ones out of the throng.


Half Marathon Race Corral - Portland Rock 'n' Roll
Half Marathon Race Corral - Portland Rock 'n' Roll. Wendy Bumgardner © 2012

Racers are assigned to corrals at larger races based on their predicted speed and finish time, plus which race distance they are participating in when there is more than one distance (marathon, half marathon, 10K, etc.) This ensures that slower racers won't get trampled by the faster folks and the speedsters won't get trapped behind turtles. Check your race packet info to see which corral you have been assigned to and where it is located. At some races, they strictly police entry and exit from the corrals based on your bib number and may have a strict time when you need to be in the corral.


Pace Group

Half Marathon Pace Group Signs
Half Marathon Pace Group Signs. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Races often designate pace groups so you can join in with a group going your predicted pace. They are identified with a sign held up by the pacer. If you are a runner or run/walker you can find a pace group. But those of us who are strictly walkers usually don't have a slow enough pace group designated. If you find yourself lined up next to a much-faster pace group, you are probably in the wrong corral or should filter further back in the starting line-up. It is no fun being endangered by the racing hoard if you are much slower than those you are starting with.

Starting Wave

Las Vegas Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Starting Line
Las Vegas Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Starting Line. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Larger races use a wave start to keep the course less congested. Your corral will be held while corrals with faster racers are allowed to start. Corrals are released every few minutes. Don't worry, that's why you are wearing a timing chip. Your time doesn't start until you pass the starting line, and any race course time limits are based on the release time of the last corral. My corral has started over an hour after the starting gun at large Rock 'n' Roll Marathon/Half Marathon races. Just chill, use the porta-johns, and expect a delay if you are in the back of the pack.

Starting Line and Starting Gun

Vancouver USA Marathon Starting Line
Vancouver USA Marathon Starting Line. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The race announcer will usually give warnings in the minutes leading up to the official start. The national anthem may be sung, so be prepared to show respect. A starting gun or even fireworks and cannon may signal the start. If there is a wheelchair division, they are usually released first. If the race includes different distances, they may have separate starts. Corrals may be released at different times. Your time doesn't start until you cross the timing mat at the starting line. If you want to stop for a photo before crossing the starting line, pull safely off to the side rather than becoming an obstruction in the middle of the street. You will often see piles of discarded warm-up clothes and trash bags near the starting line. Try not to trip over them. Have a great race!

Meanwhile, here are 10 Things Not to Do at the Starting Line

What Awaits You - Guide to the Finish Line

The finish line of a big race has its own traditions and terms, here is your guide.

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