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Most runners today go to races knowing they have no chance of winning. Instead, they run against the clock, themselves, a particular rival, or even just for the fun of it. And racing can be a wonderful social activity.
Select a relatively short race for your first experience. No more than about two-thirds or three-fourths the distance of your longest training runs. This will help ensure that you finish.
Set a realistic time goal. If you normally train at a 12-minute-per-mile pace, don't expect to race at twice that speed. In fact, consider running your first race simply for the experience of it… to get an overall feel for what a race is like.
During the week before your first race, make a checklist of what you need to bring with you on race day. Run thorough your list one last time before you leave the house. Nervous people forget things.
At the race, try to relax and have fun. Soak up the atmosphere.
When the gun goes off, resist the temptation to take off like a rocket. Remind yourself of your goal pace, and stick to it. Most runners who fail to finish their first race do so because they're too eager at the start. If you stick to your goal pace early in the race, you're more likely to make it across the finish line.