I'm running a marathon this weekend! :) :) :) -- Follow Me on Twitter for Real Time updates during the race!
I've gone to so many race expos that I figure I have enough expertise to write up a little "how to" to someone who has never been.
And if you haven't been, go! Of course, these things are much more fun if you're a long distance runner (the target audience), but they are really neat for even recreational runners. (Just be sure not to show up the afternoon before a race when they get packed!)
So here's my suggestions when it comes to navigating an expo:
1. If you're running a race the next day, take some time to check out the course and transportation maps. You will need to know how/when to get to certain places at the right times. If you're bringing a cheering squad, know where they can watch out for you and where to meet at the end. For big races, I usually try to meet up post-race at the medical tent (or sponsor of choice) if there is no official reunion area.
2. Head straight toward the packet pick-up as soon as you arrive to the expo. This way, this mandatory part is out of the way. Additionally, you will probably get a bag to carry stuff/vendor samples in, which you will probably need as you walk around.
Also, know what vendors you are particularly interested in and try to minimize the amount of circling you will have to do. Remember, you're going to be RACING the next day, so don't wear yourself out at any expo. If you're truly wanting to explore, go two days before the race (usually Friday) if the expo is open then.
3. People are probably going to crowd around popular vendors, especially the ones with samples. I would save these big vendors for the end of your visit if you find a crowd. Check out the other vendors while it clears.
4. Expos are a good place to stock up on running gear that you've been eyeballing. Oftentimes, you will find a good deal at these expos. At the very least, expect to save on tax and shipping that you'd normally have to pay online. I personally advise all vendors to at least offer this perk to those who bother to buy items in person. Most vendors should accept credit cards, but bring cash... just in case!
5. Remember to have your ID and bib number looked up before you reach the packet pick-up line! They usually have tables floating around where you can do just that, or sometimes they e-mail it to you prior to the expo.
6. Try not to get TOO disappointed if your race shirt isn't the perfect fit. You probably won't be able to change your preferred size that you indicated on your race registration. Different races have different-sized shirts. Some have sizes specifically for youth or women. Some have extra-small sizes and some don't. Technical fabrics are generally more "cool" (no pun intended). In some expos, you will be able to try on shirts and choose the size you want. Still, don't expect these shirts to be as good as tech shirts you'd buy on your own (though I wear mine all the time!).
7. Some races have special perks for returning runners. Know what prizes you are eligible for and clear up any misconceptions before the expo, if possible.
8. Speaking of samples, if you are running the next day, be careful what you eat! Don't eat stuff you've never had before! That vendor is likely to be there after the race, so wait until then to try some. Also, try to eat normally that day and not rely on samples as a meal or overstuff yourself with samples. If you've gotten this far, you don't NEED anything new in terms of hydration or food. Grab a coupon and nonperishable sample and save it for the next time you train for a race!
9. Expos are also great places to check out and sign up for other races. Often, they will offer discounts for those who register in person -- plus, you get to avoid those annoying online processing fees! (Never understood why they charge more for online entry because paper forms actually require more "work" to process.)
I've saved LOTS of money doing this and got a few freebie promo T-shirts along the way! Make sure you bring checks and/or have your credit card number ready!
10. Finally, be choosy about where you buy things like gels. You might find the same gel or bar being sold in three different places if the expo is large, so walk around and compare prices before you buy! Also, if the actual company is there, they are the best source of their own product!