The Lone Racer: Tips for Racing Alone

English: English long-distance runner Paula Ra...
Go, Mommy, go! Paula Radcliffe and her #1 fan at the 2007 New York City Marathon. Photo by Alan Cordova. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone talks about the loneliness of the long-distance runner, but as anyone who has ever gone to a race alone knows, this is such a lie.

Everyone seems to have people with them.  Hordes of people:  supporters, minions, pit crews, families, companion runners, non-running friends holding their gear, adoring significant others rubbing the shoulders of their beloveds, proud children holding signs that say “Go Mommy Go!”

Even when the race starts, it can seem as if half the field is running with somebody.  From the elites at the start to the jugglers at the back, like gazelles, racers seem to move in packs. Then there’s me. 

Sitting on the curb with my newspaper, waiting for the race to start.  Trotting it without encouragement or conversation. And when it’s over, browsing the booths alone, looking for free stuff and an egg bagel.

Blissfully happy, I might add.

Most of the time, I race alone, always have, even when I was married.  Growing up, I was an only child, and out of necessity, learned to enjoy my own company.  That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I had someone to race with; of course I do.  Twice, I’ve run half-marathons with friends and once, I did a 10K with my teen-aged son, and even my inner monk admits that racing is more fun with company.

Me, finishing the Kiawah Island Half Marathon, my first half ever, way back in 2001.

But none of my close friends are runners, and my teen-agers would rather go to the dentist than hang out at a race with me at this stage of their lives.  So I race alone. And it’s honestly, truly, really okay, particularly at the end of the Kiawah Island Half-Marathon, where they serve this amazing hot white-bean soup that is practically a mystical experience and probably best experienced alone.

Of course, there are places in this world you don’t want to go alone: weddings, movies on a Saturday night, a carnival, a dark alley in Detroit at midnight.

But races are fine, and even a good antidote for what otherwise could be a lonely weekend. Run one, and you’ll  emerge shinier, healthier,  happier, and maybe even make a few new friends.

Here are six tips on becoming comfortable with racing alone:

1. Take something to read, something you don’t mind throwing away when the race starts.  Ideally, you’ll find someone with whom to make conversation, but if you don’t, this will keep you from standing around awkwardly and becoming self-conscious in your aloneness.

2. Take something to share.  Mints? Gum? An extra rain poncho? A PowerBar or gel?  Something, anything, to give away, to facilitate human warmth and connection.  This is particularly helpful if you’re painfully shy like me, and don’t come naturally to conversation with strangers.  You’ll help others, while helping yourself.

3. Eavesdrop shamelessly.  If you don’t have anyone with whom to make conversation, sidle up to people who look interesting.  Okay, that’s redundant. What runner doesn’t look interesting? But you know what I mean. Find someone who doesn’t look like you, and get all engrossed in her conversation.  Or listen for laughter, and go stand near its source.  Even if you don’t become part of the group, you’ll be smiling when the gun goes off.

4. ID, ID, ID.   If you have a medical emergency mid-race, make sure there is contact information on you … not just in the waiver you filled out when you registered. Mark it on your leg, your arm, your shoes. You want someone to be able to call in your troops, and fast, if there’s a problem.

5. Humor us.  Wear a funny T-shirt or hat. Write something comical on your arm. Make it easy for other shy loners to connect with you, by doing the hard work of ice breaking in advance.

6. Be comfortable in your own skin. Remember that no one, NO ONE, is looking at you, or even thinking about you, unless you are nine months’ pregnant – ahem, Salty – or bear a strong resemblance to Lolo Jones.

LoLo Jones during Doha 2010 World Indoor Champ...
LoLo Jones during Doha 2010 World Indoor Championships (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They say this is true most all of the time in life, but it’s doubly true in the moments before, during and after a race. Everyone is excited, nervous, and worrying about either their exposed cellulite, their aching bladder, or whether  they should attempt a negative split.  No one is noticing you.  Really.  Unless, of course, you just nicely offered them an energy gel, in which case you might have just acquired a new BFF, whether you want one or not!

Salties, please share your tips on how to enjoy running alone, both before, during and after the race!


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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Even when racing alone, I usually have friends and family who are following via text alerts or who know that I am racing that day. They will ask about my race afterwards, share in my excitement, and not understand a word of my race report. Sometimes dragging non runners to the expo can be positively painful, despite having non running booths and activities. Race day alone isn’t actually too bad. I ride the energy of crowds, look for signs meant for other people with my name, and race knowing that I can focus on my run, instead of searching thousands of faces.

  2. I always race alone. To be honest, I get a bit jealous of my friends with the whole pit crews with support along the route, but enjoy my races either way. I shanghai runners during races to be my new friends. Watch out, Lady in Green! You’ve just been abducted! So long as I see that a racer doesn’t have headphones, I start talking to them. Of course, I also use this same policy on long runs. I just remind myself that I will probably never see these people again, and even if I do, they won’t recognize me without the sweat.

  3. I always race with friends, and my upcoming marathon will be my first “loner” marathon (NYC). I am nervous about this race because I worry about getting to the start by myself, having something to do while waiting in my starting village, and being lonely. Luckily, I am usually very good at making new friends, so hopefully I can talk to some other loner runners until the race starts 😉

    Thanks for the post!!!

    1. Something else to do in the starting village: endlessly stand in the Port-a-Pottie line. (Relieve yourself, then go to the back of the line again.) Not very exciting to be sure, but it passes the time, and it’s good insurance that you won’t have to stop on the course!) Good luck in NYC!

  4. Great post. I was originally traveling to New York with just me until a recent change of plans, but I have often driven to races alone. I’ve done many of your tips. I thought they were my secret.

    I love to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, who wrote heart of Darkness, (book version of Apocalypse Now) and say “I run as I dream – alone.”

    (The original quote is “We live as we dream – alone”)

  5. I’ve raced alone many times. It can be a little awkward. I was alone after the race this past weekend. I felt so conspicuous and crazy for running a cool down. Everyone thought I was nuts! And then sitting there alone, spherical and sipping my water waiting for my award I felt like a lunatic for being there 🙂 Normally I don’t feel so odd or awkward being at a race. I guess there’s something about being 8.5 months pregnant and at a race that makes the experience a little rough! I felt like a clown or a circus freak! But otherwise, I like racing alone sometimes. I can focus and not get caught up in what others are doing. Plus, once you’ve been racing and running for a while it’s hard to show up and no NOBODY at a race. Even when I’m there alone I still know at least several people there and appreciate the chance to catch up.