Every year hundreds of thousands of people in the UK alone sign up to take part in a mass run. It's a great way to get fit and to raise money for charity, and there's a lot of advice out there on training programs, equipment and diets. But what about the day of the run itself? How do you get the best out of that?
It's really important to know where you're going. Really important. On the day you will be quickly swallowed up by crowds of fellow runners and their families, friends and other spectators. All these people will be travelling to the same place, using the same public transport or parking in the same car parks. Even if you know the place where the run starts from, it's going to be tricky moving around amongst the thousands of others all trying to go to the same place. So make sure to leave plenty of time as it's far better to be too early than too late. There's usually some forms of entertainment or trade stands around, so if you are early you can spend the spare time stocking up on free energy drinks and snack bars.
Preparing On The Day
Make sure everything you need for the day is arranged the night before. Don't use new kit; you don't want to be breaking in new shoes or have socks that rub. Lay out your running kit and pack your bag beforehand; you don't need to rush around on the day worrying about it.
Depending on the size of the run you are doing, before the race you may have received a pack with race information in it. This will almost certainly contain a race number to pin to the front of your t-shirt, and potentially also a timing chip to attach to your trainers.
Your race number will likely have a place on the back of it for you to fill in your name and address, and details of next of kin. If it doesn't, it's a good idea to write the details down on it anyway. You can attach this to your t-shirt with safety pins, but be careful that the pins aren't attaching it in a way that they'll rub and chafe when you start running.
If you're sent a timing chip, this will attach to your running shoes with some plastic cable ties that will come with it. It doesn't matter which shoe you attach it to. The ties are usually quite strong, so you won't need to worry about the chip falling off while running, but it's a good idea not to put it on until you arrive and have stored your stuff. And don't forget, it's the timing chip going over the start and finish lines that record your time; the big times on the clocks are from the start of a wave of runners so don't worry about them too much.
Make sure that you're not doing anything on the day that you haven't done in training. If you don't drink water or eat sweets or energy bars and pouches during your runs in training, don't do it on the day! A lot of people can't run after drinking water, or eating jelly babies, so try it out beforehand and find out if you can.
Storing Your Stuff
Most mass runs will provide storage areas for your bags. In general they're large rooms with areas sectioned off by starting wave and surname. These areas are usually watched over by volunteers and are pretty safe, but they're not secure. Leaving valuables in them isn't really advised, but they're great for a change of clothes (which you will need), keys and all the freebies you've managed to blag from the trade stands.
Different runs have different policies on whether or not headphones are allowed, so if you normally wear them when running to listen to music or timings, make sure to check. If you do wear them though, make sure you don't have them at full volume; you'll want to be able to hear what's going on around you. Make sure to check your battery is at full power, and that your running playlist is sorted out ahead of time.
If you use an app like MapMyRun, Runkeeper or Endomondo to track your run, then make sure to do a test with it before the race; you don't want it to try to run an update or not have GPS signal and lose your timings.
Finding Your Wave
The larger the run, the more people there will be participating, which stands to reason. It's impossible to send tens of thousands of people off at the same time, so larger runs send them off in groups that they call starting waves. Waves are usually organised by the runner's expected finishing times; the earlier waves are full of the faster professional athletes, then the club runners, working back to the later waves for those who are slower and the fun runners who don't expect to get fast times. The ideas is to give those who run quicker a clearer route. You'll be told your wave before the day, and will also be told your starting time and place. It's usually okay to drop back a wave, but you shouldn't go forward with the faster runners.
Make sure that you know both the time and place off by heart. Finding yourself ambling around trying to figure out where and when you need to start can really ruin your enjoyment of the day. If you do find yourself in this situation though, there are a few things you can do. The first is to ask a marshal. The marshals are there to help, and if you need help ask them. They'll almost certainly have a copy of all the information needed and will tell you what you need to know. Secondly, look around you. You'll be given a numbered bib to wear on the run, and these generally have the colour of your starting wave on them. So check the colour of your bib, find others with the same colour, and follow them. If neither of these options work, just join in with someone that looks about the same level of fitness as you. Most waves also have pace runners; look out for people holding signs with their pace finishing time, and if it matches yours you can follow them around the course.
Do It! Seriously, make sure you warm up. Even if you don't join in any mass participation exercises because you find the thought of bending and stretching in time to music with thousands of others to be a little silly, do some form of warm up. You're about to push your body, and your muscles really need to be eased into it. So even if you don't join in the choreographed clapping, do some warm up exercises of your own. Note the choice of warm ups you can do will be limited by space as you'll be amongst hundreds or thousands of other runners all jostling gently for a good starting position.
It will also be warmer at the start of the course; all those bodies packed together warming up generates a lot of heat.
All the training you should have been doing leads up to this moment and there's no doubt it's scary the first time you do it. But it's okay, you're surrounded by lots of other people all setting out to do the same thing - firstly to complete the course, and secondly to see about a good time. But everyone is there to have fun and it's very easy to get carried away in the moment, and the wave. When the wave starts, everyone will be trying to get ahead and find themselves a clean line to run in and the temptation is to join in and keep up. The problem here is that everyone starts running faster than their training pace, and if you join in you'll soon be pushing too hard. Take it easy, stick to your normal pace and let others flow around you.
On The Course
Once you've started off and are away from the initial rush, you're still going to be surrounded by lots of other runners; again don't change your pace to match or try to beat theirs. Try to keep to your own pace - there's a fair way to go yet!
With all the other runners out on the course at the same time as you though, you will come across something that you're not likely to have in training: traffic. You will have to pass slower runners, and you will have faster runners passing you. To make this as easy as possible for everyone, if you're running slower than those around you, move to the side. By running at the side you allow those faster than you the clear route through the traffic. If you find that those at the side are running slower than you, then move a bit towards the centre of the road or path. If you find that you can't get past a large group of people running together, a polite 'Excuse me' works wonders. Most people, especially those in groups, are there to have fun and raise money for charity and if people then move over for you, make sure to say or nod 'Thank you'.
The great atmosphere that you find at the start of the run continues through great camaraderie on the course itself. If you look like you're struggling, other runners will make sure that you're okay and give words of encouragement as they go past. Always thank them and smile - those words take time and disturb their breathing patterns, making them lose a second or two each time. But runners at these events would far rather everyone made it, than they got their personal best times. It's not unheard of for runners to carry each other over the finish line if needed.
The atmosphere doesn't just come from other runners on the course; there's also the crowd who've come along to watch and cheer you on. While they may not be running the course themselves, standing there cheering and clapping for a few hours takes a lot of effort itself and the support they give really does help motivate you to keep going. If you're going to have friends or family along to cheer you on, arrange beforehand which part of the route they'll be at or you might miss them. The crowds tend to be thickest at the start and the end where there's more to see, so you will find places out on the course where the crowds are thin, sometimes to the point of there being none at all. These stretches off a run can be the most soul destroying, especially after the heavy excitement of the first few kilometres - turning a corner into a desolate road where the pack has thinned out and there's no-one to cheer you on can really slow you down. It's when you get to these places of the route that you realise exactly how much the crowd and other runners can motivate you, and when you're back into a crowd-lined stretch, you'll appreciate them all the more.
One very important thing to bear in mind when taking part in a mass run is: don't ogle other runners. It's rude, uncalled for and unwelcome.
Depending on the distance you're running, it's very likely that at some point you will need to both relieve yourself and replenish yourself.
If you didn't take the precaution of going to the loo before you gathered for your start, it's very likely that you will need to go before you finish. Some runs provide toilets on the route itself, others make do with handy bushes. The urge usually happens around the two or three kilometre mark, when the crowd thins out and all the heat from it disperses before your body has properly warmed up. Your bladder will react to the sudden cold, contract, and leave you looking for somewhere hidden from view. If the idea of going with lots of other runners doesn't appeal to you, go before you go!
The other fluids to come out are snot and spit; there's quite a lot of this so please try to not eject this onto the course itself as it can be pretty disgusting running over someone else's mucus. Instead work your way to the side of the course and use a verge or a drain. Under no circumstances should you spit on the spectators or other runners.
During the run you'll also likely need to take on fluids, especially if it's a hot day. Most runs of ten kilometres or more will have at least one water station where you can grab a bottle of water as you run past. These are usually quite long runs of tables at the side of the course, and usually everyone will go straight to the front of them, so if you want to avoid the crowd grabbing, or the need to slow down while they restock, head towards the middle or end of the table. Once you've finished your bottle, throw it as far off the course to the side as you can, don't just drop it where people are still running and if you see bottles on the course, try and kick them to the side as you pass them. But do keep an eye out for other runners; throwing or kicking a bottle in their way is very much frowned upon. Don't worry about littering; people will be on hand to make sure it's all cleared away.
Once you're across that finish line, you can slow down and gulp great lungsful of air that you're likely to be needing, so really give it your all. It may not be a sprint finish but you just need to get across that line and then you can stop. Everyone around you will be stepping their pace up a notch to try and get the best time they can, so at this point do match their pace, go as fast as you can and get your best time.
Once you have crossed the line though, you do need to keep walking and it's a good way to start warming down. Suddenly stopping will mean that you'll get cramp and your muscles will start to seize up, so keep walking. Also, there's probably thousands of people behind you all wanting to get across that finish line too, and you and all the other runners coming over it need to move along to clear the space. Some of the larger runs have massages available for runners, usually provided by some of the charities that people run for; whether you opt for one of these or not, it's essential to find somewhere with a bit of space and do a few stretches to stop your muscles seizing up.
If the run you're on gives commemorative t-shirts, it's likely that you'll be picking these up in packs after you've crossed the finish line, so keep walking, listening out for the marshals letting you know where to go and what to do next.
Continue to enjoy the atmosphere. You'll have just completed a mass run with hundreds or thousands of others, and that's quite an achievement - you will feel very emotional.