Although I am certainly not an expert, by now I am a seasoned racer. To date, I have completed 7 half marathons, 1 full marathon, 6 triathlons, and countless 5ks. During this time, I have learned many things to do--and NOT to do--in order to make race day a success. While you can easily google this and find many lists of things to help you on race day, I decided to compile my own list, most of them learned through experience.
1) Get to the race early. I can't stress this point enough. Arriving to your race early will decrease your stress level (sitting in traffic as the start time grows nearer and nearer does no good for your blood pressure!), allow time to stand in the long port-o-potty line, and give you time to acclimate yourself and warm-up. If you are doing a triathlon, getting there early will allow you to leisurely lay out your gear in transition. You'll also have time to find the key entry/exit points from transition (swim-in/bike-out/bike-in/run-out) and where they are in relation to your rack.
I have been to quite a few races where I have witnessed other people stuck in traffic and missing the start time. The Safari Park Half Marathon was a logistical nightmare; I got there in plenty of time, but others weren't so lucky and had to park miles away and run to the start line! I easily cruised up to Long Beach a few weeks ago for the half marathon and slipped into my pre-paid parking spot without any traffic at all; however, afterward I read that many runners, who were maybe only 30 minutes behind me on the freeway, got stuck in horrendous traffic and people missed the start time. Even a few weeks ago, at the Mission Bay Triathlon, I myself left in plenty of time yet ran into a ton of unforeseen traffic and had only 15 minutes or so to set up my gear before I had to exit transition.
The lesson? Look at your start time, and backtrack from there. Allow PLENTY of time to arrive to your destination, park, and get to the race area. Once you have your goal time to leave the house, do yourself a favor and backtrack it by another 30 minutes or so. Yes, this means you have to get up earlier. But the worst-case scenario is that you arrive too early and sit in your car for a while listening to the radio. You will not be stuck in traffic, worrying and stressing, and be able to start the race in a good mood and having used the facilities, if you need to.
2) Charge your electronics. These days, most runners use some sort of electronic devices when they run. Garmins (or other GPS aides), heart-rate monitors, iPods/MP3 players are all common place. What a bummer it is when you fail to charge your device though! At this year's Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half Marathon, I had wanted to reach my goal of breaking the 2:30 barrier. However, I had not properly charged my Garmin, and the battery died at mile 7. I had no idea of my pace or what time it was. I am convinced that had I known my pace, I would have reached my goal (I missed by time goal by just over a minute) as I would have kicked up the pace at the end, knowing how close I was. In triathlons, you are not allowed to bike or run with music, but most running races allow it....and I can't imagine running a 13.1 mile half marathon without my favorite tunes in my ears. Failing to charge my iPod would be horrible for me.
3) Nothing new on race day. This is common knowledge among runners; we hear this again and again. However, I know plenty of people who fail to listen to this sage advice. "Nothing new on race day" means no new clothes, food or hydration. If you need new running shoes, don't buy a pair at the expo the day before and wear them on race day. During the Long Beach Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I used a extra pouch on my fuel belt that I bought to hold my camera. If you read my race recap, you'll remember that my camera bounced out of it after I forgot to velcro it closed. Had I used this pouch on a training run, I would have been more practiced with closing the pouch, and the camera probably wouldn't have bounced out.
As for hydration and nutrition, if you train with a favorite sports drink, and you find out that the race course support will be handing out a different brand, either don't take any during the race or drink some of the new brand during a training run to see how your stomach reacts to it. I myself bring my own Gatorade on my fuel belt, but, for example, when I read that a race is offering a different sports drink like Cytomax I try it weeks ahead of time to see how I like it. I've heard of many a runner who drinks an untried brand of fluid during a race and ends up with stomach cramps. This goes for gels (I use GU and once passed by the table handing out PowerBar Energy Gels because I had never tried it and didn't want to start during mile 9 of a half marathon)! I just bought some Nuun and will be trying it this weekend, far ahead of my next scheduled half marathon.
And, of course, make sure you've run in your shoes, socks, clothes, hat, and whatever else you plan on wearing. Doing a triathlon in open-water? Make sure you've had some open-water swim practice...IN the wetsuit you are planning to use, and with the same goggles. Work out any kinks before the race.
4) Bring your own hydration. If you are doing a short race like a 5k, you probably don't need to bring anything (unless the weather is so hot and/or humid that you will need it). However, on races 10k or more, I highly recommend bringing your own. Race courses will, of course, have aid stations along the way, always offering water and sometimes a sports drink. However, there are two problems with this:
The first issue is, what if you need a drink and there is no aid station in sight? I always carry my own liquid on my training runs (for me, I carry it on runs 5 miles or more). I get to take a sip whenever I want. But during a race, aid stations are usually set up every mile or so, sometimes spaced even further apart. What if you are dying of thirst and the next aid station is 3/4 mile away? You run the risk of dehydration, especially if you're racing in hot weather.
The second problem with not carrying your own hydration is that race directors are human, and sometimes planning can go wrong. It's not unheard of for aid stations to run out of water. A few years ago the CHICAGO MARATHON (a very well-known race) ran out of water...and in the blistering heat one person died and several other runners had to go to the hospital with heat-related illnesses. I myself have seen many aid stations run out of water; I'm so slow that often by the time I get there they're out of goods. And during last year's Carlsbad Half Marathon I came across an aid station that had plenty of water, but had run out of cups! My running partner, who did not carry her own water, had to drink out of a communal water jug. Yuck! I ended up giving her one of my four bottles of Gatorade in order to help her through the race.
5) Lay everything out the night before the race. There is a lot of things to remember to bring to a road race, and a triathlon is a whole other beast in terms of necessary gear. Because you need to get up at dark o'thirty on most race mornings (see tip #1 above), I recommend having everything ready the night before so that all you need to do is get up, brush your teeth and get dressed (in the clothes previously laid out). For a running race, I will lay out my clothes, already have my bib pinned to my shirt and my timing chip on my shoe, and have my fuel belt packed with my gels and bars. I fill my flasks with Gatorade and put them in the fridge; all I need to do in the morning is take them out. I have my Garmin, iPod, headband, sunscreen and anything else I need already laid out on the dining room table; I even pre-make my pre-race peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and stick it in the fridge. When I stumble downstairs in the dark, exhausted and anxious, it makes it easier on me that everything is done.
For a triathlon, I start to lay my gear out on the dining room table 3 days ahead of time. I know this sounds excessive and obsessive, but there is so much gear to bring to a triathlon that I like to start collecting early so I won't forget anything. I use this list to check off my gear. The night before the race, I triple-check everything and load it all in the car, including my bike. Then all I need to worry about in the morning is pulling on my trisuit and shoes, and getting my sandwich and Gatorade out of the fridge. Knowing everything important (bike, helmet, wetsuit, goggles, timing chip, etc) is already in the car is a great relief to me.
6) Bring clothes to toss. Most races that I've done start early in the morning. It can be a bit cold when you're waiting around for the race to start, even in the summer. However, you don't want to dress too warmly; runners will quickly heat up once the race begins. I have learned to bring clothes that I can dispose of either before the race or as soon as I heat up on the run. I used to wear old sweatshirts to the start line that I could discard, but now I don't have any more old shirts. Therefore, I go to the Salvation Army (you could go to any thrift store) and spend a few dollars on a hoodie or jacket. I take it home, wash it, and wear it race morning. I don't feel bad at all discarding a jacket I only spent a few bucks on. Many races have volunteers that collect the discarded clothes and donate them to a charity. I also buy cheap gloves at Target (they have some that come in a 2-pack for something like $2.50 for two pairs, or something ridiculously cheap like that.). It's a great way to keep your hands warm and not feel bad about tossing the gloves later. As a last resort, I've seen runners cut holes in garbage bags and wear them to keep warm.
7) Train for race conditions whenever possible. If you're doing a local race, this should not be too much of an issue. However, if you travel, this could definitely come into play. Weather, elevation, even the time of day can wreak havoc on a runner's routine. If you live at sea level and sign up to do a race in the mountains, the elevation change can be hard. It's best to arrive a few days beforehand to acclimate. Similarly, if you live in a dry climate, like Phoenix, and sign up for a race in a humid city, like Dallas, the weather may drag you down. If you can train in the conditions, it'll help you that much more on race day. Doing a race that's notoriously hilly? Train on hills. I am doing the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in December, and it's at night. I do all of my runs in the morning. While I doubt I will be doing a long run at night before the race, you can bet I will do a few short runs in the evening, just so that my body gets the feel of running during that time of day.
8) Finally, trust your training and have fun! If you're been training properly, you should be ready for the race. And having fun is the most important thing---this SHOULD be fun! Most of us are not professional runners who depend on the race as a way to make a living, or for their reputation. Soak in the contagious energy of the other runners, enjoy running in a new place, and smile, smile, smile---especially for the race photographer!