Racing: Part II Your First Race, Travel

Note: I had let the blog slide with life and a new job. I recently was interviewed for a podcast (thanks Ben Reuter) and was reminded of the blog. It served as a kick in the seat of the pants to get back to blogging.

My last blog was on preparing for your first race, and I left off talking about travel to races. My recommendation for a first race is to do a local race just to reduce the stress of that first race and get some experience under your belt. So many people like to go to a big city race, particularly a marathon, that will present unique challenges. I am going to approach this blog from the perspective of a big city marathon like Chicago or Boston. Shorter and smaller races may not have some of these issues, but I think they will get covered in talking about a marathon.

Getting there...

Driving to the site eliminates a lot of problems but creates a few as well. While you have less to worry about in terms of baggage getting lost (if so it is on you) and you can carry as much stuff as you like. But if you are driving to a marathon and planning on coming back right after, you need to consider how tired (and maybe sore) you are going to be on that drive back. Also, while driving to the hotel or AirBnB is easy, you might want to find other means to get to the start line. Road closures for many marathons can be a mess. Also parking issues could be a major pain near the start.

If you are flying, do not check your running gear. CARRY IT ON! You do not want to have the stress of your running clothes for the race being delayed. Anything that you are going to need on race day should be carried on. But keep in mind to follow security regulations for things like gels or liquids.

Before making travel arrangements check to see when packet pick up is. Many races do not offer day of race packet pick up. Some races allow someone else to pick up your packet, but you will need to check the procedures (at times it might be a copy of identification). If race packet pick up is limited to the day, or days, before the race, you need to take that into consideration in planning travel.

When booking travel do not, if at all possible, get the last flight in the day before the race. If there is a delay, your options are limited. When booking the flight out of town, consider staying over the night after the race. Most races are on Sundays so staying over might not be an option. When booking the flight out of town, give yourself as much leeway as you can. Have a realistic sense of how long it will take you to finish the race, then you will need to get your stuff from your hotel (unless you have someone willing to hold onto your clothes),shower (please shower before getting on the plane) and get to the airport. If this is after a marathon you likely are not going to be moving very fast.

Where do I stay?

Choosing a place to stay is a big decision. First consider the course. Is it point-to-point like the Boston Marathon or New York City Marathon, or is it a loop where the start and finish are close together? For a loop course where the start and finish are close (if not the same) then these next issues will be moot. I always check what is around my hotel in terms of places to eat. Keep in mind that pasta places the night before are going to be packed if the marathon is large and the city small. I remember being in Dallas for the White Rock Marathon and the restaurants around the area of the hotel (a few blocks from the start/finish) were packed. Being alone was an advantage as I sat at the bar and ate, but I saw groups of 4 and larger waiting an hour or more for a table.

Of course with the options like AirBnB you might choose an option other than a hotel. AirBnB could be great as you might get access to a kitchen. While I will use hotel below most of these suggestions go for the gig economy as well. AirBnB might offer more flexibility with check out, but you need to clear this in writing before booking!

Most big races (and even smaller ones) will have a race hotel headquarters with the expo in it or nearby. These hotels often are the most convenient in terms of the start or finish or the expo for race packet pickup, but you may pay a premium in terms of price. It can be fun to stay at the HQ hotel since other runners will be there, and it can be exciting. Another upside is that the hotel might also host the expo/packet pick up or be very close to it. The downside is that everyone is staying there and it might be overwhelming. It depends a lot on what experience you want. 

Price will probably also be a driver. Typically speaking if it is a major urban race the closer you are to the downtown the more expensive the hotels are going to be. In cities with excellent subway systems you can save money by staying near a station and commuting in. But keep in mind others will be doing the same thing. I have run the Boston Marathon once and getting the train from the Marriott Cambridge (my go to hotel when I travel to Boston) to the bus was pretty easy.

One option is to find the race HQ hotel and then do a search for nearby hotels or AirBnB that might fit your budget or needs. If you are traveling with family then you might need more space or want a kitchenette or other things unique to your needs. It could also be a good choice for a group traveling together.

For point to point courses you need to make the decision on staying at the start or finish. For a loop course, if you are staying near either the start or finish you likely can just walk to the start or back from the finish.

Staying near the finish: The advantage is that you do not have to walk far after the race. The downside is that you will need to get to the start. Some races bus you to the start regardless (like Boston) so you will need to figure out how to get to the departure area for that. Of course public transportation, Uber or a taxi is an option. If you take the subway consider that others will be doing the same thing. For the Chicago marathon, I stayed at the Marriott near O'Hare. The train stop was right beside it and it was the end (or beginning) of the line. So when we got on there were only a couple of people on the train. After a couple of stops, it was packed.

Staying near the start: the nice part here is that you can sleep in a little later and perhaps roll out of bed and be close to the start. The downside is that you will need to get back to the hotel after the race is over. While Uber or a taxi is an option you might need to walk a ways to get out of road closures. Of course an issue with staying near the start, is getting back. One of our local marathons, The American Discovery Trail Marathon has a bus to the start and very limited parking at the start. If you park there, you are on your own for getting back to your car.

The logistics of a marathon like Boston or New York City are complicated because staying near the start is not really an option. But few courses seem to be point-to-point. Some that are might be much smaller in scale and getting to and from the start or the finish might not be much of an issue.

Regardless of where you choose to stay ask about a late check out. This is where being a member of a hotel loyalty program can come in handy (not to mention using points to pay for the hotel). If you have "status" with a hotel it increases the odds of being able to get a late check out, but you need to ask as soon as you check in. Many will tell you to call the night before. With Marriott Silver I can generally get a late check out, but remember if there are a lot of runners at your hotel they might all be asking for a late checkout. Also, there is a limit to the late checkout time. For the Chicago Marathon, there was a group of us that went. None of the others could get a late check out so we put everyone's bags in my room and then I got a couple of key cards so that people could come back and shower in my room as they finished. For a large group it might be worth it to pay for one room night to shower and store bags if you have a late flight out.

Since most races start around 7am if you stay near the start/finish, you should be okay with a late check out of 2pm to give you time to finish the race, get back to the hotel and shower. Some races will make arrangements for nearby gyms to provide showers for a fee or if you are a member of a national chain of gyms you can check to see if you have access to the gym in that city so you can shower. This can be useful if you are driving in and want to check out of your hotel before the race. Of course if you are driving by yourself, you might be okay driving back without showering (although I could never do that).

Of course traveling with others adds several wrinkles that I will address in the next blog.

Please add comments below. What did I leave out? What are your "hacks"?