On Saturday, I’ll be running my first half marathon of 2014. But before I can attempt to PR, heck before I can even head to the start line or lace up my shoes, I’ve got to take care of the first important part of the race experience… the runners’ expo.
And I love it.
Imagine all of the enthusiasm and anticipation (and swag) for a race stuffed into one place; that’s what a good expo represents. The great thing is that everyone who goes to a runners’ expo is either a racer or racer tagalong who is every bit as excited about running as you are (you are in the midst of your people). Typically scheduled for the day or two prior to a race, it’s the first taste runners get of the race to come as they file through to pick up their bibs, T-shirts, freebies, as well as sample the products of running vendors and get a sneak peek at races to come.
Mind you, all expos are not created equal. At some smaller races, their expo (if you can even call it that) might consist of a dozen tents featuring a few local vendors peddling forgettable wares. Rather, let’s ruminate about the big boys, the expos that accompany the large races.
Expos at big races are often located in the local convention center or in a large space at one of the hotels. And these expos have a bit of a Comic Convention feel to them as the aisles are packed with hardcore running fans eagerly bouncing from booth to booth. Another good thing about having an expo at a convention center is they’re designed to efficiently handle the thousands (or tens of thousands) of runners and supporters who have to pass through the doors. Parking is available, but expect to spend anywhere from $5- $20. My advice is to look for nearby street parking and save a few bucks. You’re going to need it because there’s plenty inside vying for your hard earned cash. And one thing that always excites me as I walk up to the expo hall is to see all of the people coming out clutching huge bags of swag (along with big runner grins).
The main reason for any expo is for runners to pick-up their bibs & T-shirts and finalize registration. Hopefully, registration is organized (and the volunteers properly trained) so it goes off without a hitch. As for the bib itself, it’s your first taste of the race’s style… some bibs are well designed, others feel very generic (more on bibs in a future post), but once you’ve got that bib in your hands, you know things are going to be fine… you’re officially in the race. One bit of advice, make sure you get your safety pins and either attach them to the bib right there or connect them to each other as they have a nasty habit of disappearing. Or you can pick up a few extras to carry with you on race day and be someone’s savior (people are always looking for safety pins).
THE RACE SWAG
Next to the bib, the number one thing people look forward to getting at the expo is the official race T-Shirt, another indicator of the race’s style. I’ll speak more about race shirts in a future post as well, but just one bit of advice… be sure to try on the shirt as soon as you receive it to make sure it fits; different manufacturers have different cuts and you don’t want to get home to find out that your shirt is skintight (in a bad way) or baggy like a burlap sack.
Back to the swag, different races give out different goodies (sometimes in lieu of a race shirt)… sweatshirts, beach towels, headlamps (for night races) and even the swag bag itself. Some races give you basic plastic bags to lug, but others give you a nice drawstring backpack that you can use for years to come. And not only is that bag good for toting your growing pile of stuff around the expo, but inside is usually a bunch of coupons or free samples for you to check out afterward (like a runner’s trick or treat haul). My favorites swag freebies have been free waffles at Waffle House (Atlanta Half) or a free ticket to the Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach Half). In an effort to go green, some races now have virtual swag bags, but this is one area where I like to have stuff to rifle through (environment be temporarily damned). Okay, now that you’ve got your goodie bag, it’s time to cut loose on the rest of the expo.
THE GIFT SHOP
Most races have a gift area where you can pick up additional shirts/hats/race tchotchkes. I find this a bit odd as the stuff for purchase can be a little pricey and sometimes isn’t as cool as the free shirt you already received. One thing I do like to buy is beer glasses from the Rock ‘n’ Roll series. I know $10 is a lot to shell out for a race logo sporting pub glass, but I use ‘em all the time and it’s a nice daily reminder of the race (remember when I said save your parking money, that’s what I usually use mine on). So once you’ve bought your official race luggage tag or sport visor, it’s time to hit the floor for the real fun.
THE MAIN FLOOR
The rest of the expo is a cornucopia of vendors, both big and small, hoping to push their products/races or snag some of your disposable income. While it’s a great experience and there are deals to be had, be sure to “caveat emptor” it and let the buyer beware. First off, you’ll have the running mainstays (shoe and clothing manufacturers… especially if one of them is a race sponsor) with booths to show off their latest styles and goods.
Next, you’ll have companies who specialize in race prep, stocking just about everything you could want before, during or after a race. Companies like One More Mile make the rounds at big expos and have fun stuff (stickers, slogan shirts, gloves/disposables and such). It’s a nice opportunity to pick up a memento for yourself or the runner in your family. Buy it there and you can save yourself shipping costs down the road.
Then you’ve got the up & coming vendors who are looking to make a name for themselves with their new food/drink or race product. Here’s a good piece of advice… be careful sampling new foods and drinks (and it’s easy to try a lot, as free samples abound). Remember the slogan “Try nothing new on race day.” Well it’s race day eve and the same advice applies. It’s not hard to overdo it and you don’t want to eat something that might not agree with you. You might be better off getting a sample to take home and try during a run after the race. The same holds true for sprays, belts, headbands or other items. Take as many freebies as they give out or pick up something new if temptation strikes… just save ‘em for after the race.
The other vendors who will be there in mass are upcoming races… you know Rock ‘n’ Roll will be there along with a slew of other races. They will try and temp you to “sign up today” with discounts, no convenience fee or free shirts. There are some good deals to be had (I’ve signed up for several races at expos) but don’t feel pressured or get swept up in the excitement… usually the savings amount to about $10- $15 and you can sometimes find the same (or possibly better) savings on-line or on websites like Racegrader. The way I like to use race vendors at expos is to figure out what races I want to do beforehand and then shop the expo to see what they’re offering (it pays to compare). If it’s a good deal, then sign-up. If not, then wait and check it out at home. And just like any shopping venture, be careful with your credit cards and who you give your info to. I usually like to pay with cash. Not only does it protect me, but also if I agree to only use the cash in my pocket, it saves me from going overboard and buying everything in sight.
One last note, don’t spend forever at the expo. Do your once around and check things out, but it is the day before a race and you need to rest. You’d be surprised at how much you can walk at one of these expos, especially when you add in going to an from the parking lot. So with bag in hand, make your exit and go back home (or to your hotel) and rummage through your goodies… it’s always fun to look at your swag haul in one big pile.
Then put it away and get ready for race day. After all, are you there to shop or race? Okay, maybe a little of both.
(Please share any expo experiences or your favorite ones)