I worked the transition area at Ochsner Ironman 70.3 New Orleans this past weekend, checking bicycles and making certain they were sitting in their proper place. The preparation level among the athletes, like many racing events, ranged from the level of very well-prepared to the level where we could see the athlete would probably have a challenging day on Sunday.
Among the racks of bicycles swaying in the gusty transition area were probably half a dozen with identical reinforced nylon, zipper-and-bungee-cord fastened covers running from handlebar to saddle. Sure, there were other bikes whose chains and derailleurs were covered up with trash bags, and a couple of quick-thinking athletes who found a new use for their swim caps, but these covers were the most efficient sail I've ever seen devised for use on a parked bicycle. It was east to tell these covers were purchased at the expo; the athletes had not taken the time to remove the price tags from them before coming out to transition.
A runner at their first major road race can go to a race expo, or a new runner can go to their local running emporium, and quickly be overwhelmed by the number of products which have been developed to (supposedly) make them faster, more comfortable, and happier while engaging in their hobby. Many of the items may be of benefit at one time or another in the runners' life, but there are items sitting on the displays which may be of little use at the immediate time.
I've had conversations with the proprietor of my local running emporium on many occasions on the topic of shoes, gear, training and all things running (and some things triathlon). He's often told me he would not be able to stay in business based on the demands and equipment preferences of experienced endurance athletes. The new runner is the "typical" running store proprietor's bread-and-butter. Not every store is like this, but if you find a store that's stocked with what seems to be "everything under the sun" it's probably one who lives on the initial purchases of the "hobby jogger."
The nicest thing about running is that the individual runner - should they decide accordingly - can keep things simple; minimize the damage to their bank account by avoiding the shiny little "you really, really need this" gadget marketed on the back pages of the running magazines.
So, if I were your coach, I would advise you to spend your running dollars in this particular priority order:
"SPEND YOUR MONEY HERE" STUFF:
Good shoes - these are a must. While you can buy "too much" shoe as "too little," if I have the choice of spending my money/time with orthopedic physicians/physical therapists and spending it on the right pair of shoes, the shoes win out. Get evaluated and fitted for the right type of shoe, and stick with that particular type. You can either stay faithful to one brand or you can try a couple of different brands out to see what works best, but the shoes are going to make or break the runner.
Identification - either invest in a small personal item carrier which will let you carry drivers' license, credit card and a few dollars or a cell phone, or purchase one of the wrist/ankle/shoe/dog tag devices where your personal information can be inscribed. A half-dressed, unconscious "John/Jane Doe" is something you never should be to the local constabulary.
Running clothes - simple is good. Technical fiber tops and shorts, support wear and socks are durable and can be found at most department stores, as well as running shops. Let your conscience be your guide. My wife likes a couple of particular brands which aren't sold at the local running emporium. I'm into high-cut, split racing-style shorts.
Cap/visor - Keeping the sun off your head or out of your eyes can reduce the strain of your daily run. And if you're doing a long run a good running cap, soaked in cool water, will help keep your core temperature down.
Sunglasses - Even the least-expensive pair of sunglasses is better than none at all to protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation, as well as dust, grit, debris, bugs and tree limbs.
Running watch - Some training programs like to focus on running/walking periods. Others like to do speedwork and interval training. A simple sports watch, like the Timex Ironman, can help to keep tack of the distance run through the entire workout, or let you go as granular as the time taken to do a particular distance.
"NICE TO HAVE" STUFF:
Heart Rate Monitor - There are running watches which also let the athlete track the intensity of their particular workouts, Some of the more-expensive ones will even download data to your personal computer. The downside of using heart rate monitors is the need to know your individual maximum heart rate; the classic "220-minus-age" calculation does not work for every individual, plus the fact that heart rate during identical exertion can vary from day to day depending on other factors like hydration level, caffeine intake, and so on. And, to many runners, heart rate is only a number.
GPS - Global Positioning System-enabled watches are nice tools to have if you run in areas where you're not sure of the distance from point-to-point, or you spend a great deal of time traveling, or you want to have a ballpark figure of your present running pace. The best consumer-grade GPS units have technological limitations, and if you use one at a race you're going to be "most likely" longer than the stated distance.
Three things, right off the top of my head, which I would not recommend new runners spend their investment money would include hydration devices, stretching devices, and running-related music player gadgetry. Hydration devices, like the "camelback pouch," might be fantastic for the athlete who runs out in the middle of nowhere for hours on end, but an urban or suburban runner would be better served by stashing fluid bottles along their route, or carrying a couple of dollars (or credit card) and setting your route so it stops near a convenience store. Stretching devices, especially the ones which look like something you'd see in "Braveheart," are overrated. Invest instead in a book like "Run Strong," edited by Kevin Beck, which has a great number of stretching and strength routines for runners.
Music players are great on the treadmill or elliptical trainer, but the overwhelming majority of runners play them too loudly. Earbuds which allow ambient surrounding sound in can be defeated by the runner who turns up their MP3 player to eleven...and block out the approach of an oncoming pedestrian, bicyclist, or automobile. If you're lucky you'll only be suddenly frightened by them. If you're less lucky it might end up being an assailant. If you're very unlucky you might end up as a hood ornament.