Traveling to Races With Kids

traveling with kids

The holiday season is definitely upon us, and between visiting friends and family and a winter race, it seems that I’m spending much more time in the car with my kid than any place else.  As thankful as I am that we have the ability to get all of this family travel accomplished, it can still be rather draining.  Especially if my husband and I haven’t adequately prepared for our extended time on the road.  Being able to take our kindergartner to destination races is important to us, as we often try to squeeze in a quick family vacation when we race somewhere fun.  I love having both of my boys waiting for me at the end, and my kiddo loves running across the finish line even more.  Over the past couple of years, we’ve stumbled upon a couple of “traveling with kid hacks” that have helped us enjoy our family road trips and marathon spectating with our kid.  I hope some of these idea’s might be useful for you during your next road trip or race.

Buy A Roku
Most of my friends who have kids my sons age rely on iPads for long car/plane trips, and I don’t judge them one bit, but we just haven’t gotten comfortable with semi-supervised technology yet.  Instead, we’ve always had a DVD player in our car for long trips, and in the last year we began traveling with a Roku Stick.  What I love about the stick is that it plugs into our DVD player and our son has access to NetFlix and all of our streaming subscriptions, but doesn’t have access to a browser where he might find himself unintentionally exploring something I’m not ready to have a conversation about.  I also love that the stick can be removed from the DVD player and brought into our hotel, where we can connect it to the room tv and have access to Netflix as well.  It’s fairly cheap, and easily one of the most used purchases we’ve made in the last year.

Easy Access Snack Bag
What do bored kids and marathoners have in common?  We love to eat.  Snacks are definitely a traveling must have.  We used to put a few snacks in a grocery bag and plan to stop along the way for gas station snacks or lunch somewhere on the road.  A few years ago, though, I decided I wanted to try to eliminate any unnecessary stops, and  filled an insulated reusable grocery bag with every snack I could find in the house.  We had chips, granola bars, fruit, yogurt, cheese sticks, pre-made pancakes (that’s not weird, right), sandwiches, and trail mix.  Instead of breaking up the trip, which I really recommend for younger kids, we drove straight for a solid chunk of time.  Having a bag in the backseat that my kiddo can easily access keeps me from mindlessly eating the entire contents of the snack bag because I have no self-control, and allows him to grab what he wants without needing help from me.  Win/win.

traveling with kids
Check out those easy access bags in the back

Easy Access Activity Bag
Similar to the snack bag, I like to pack a small bag of car-friendly activities for the periods of time that we have poor reception, or my kid just doesn’t feel like watching something.  What I have packed has changed substantially over the years, and is completely related to the things my kid finds interesting at the time.  Currently, I tend to pack some activity/coloring books, handwriting practice (he weirdly likes it) books, and stickers.  In the past, we’ve packed cars, magnet boards, and play dough.  Again, having something that he can grab on his own, without my involvement, has been a welcome transition in the past couple of years.

Finding a Halfway Park
At this point, if the trip is anything less than 5 hours, we’re probably going to try to drive straight through, stopping only for restrooms.  If the drive is longer, though, we’re going to find a good place to take a break and save my sanity.  I look for a couple of things in a good stopping location: food, somewhere to play, and clean bathrooms.  I’m not talking about a 5 minute walk around Buc-ee’s here, I’m talking about a good hour to eat lunch and let the kid run around.  We usually stick to outdoor shopping centers that have a playground and restaurant options, or family-friendly restaurants with playgrounds like Hat Creek Burger.  Stopping for a real break can be a huge morale booster; for the kid and for the adult trying to prevent road rage as well.

Carb loading at Hat Creek in Austin, halfway to Dallas

Wet Wipes & Trash Bag
I have a six year old, and we are well beyond the diaper stage, thank you Jesus.  Yet, we still go through about half a pack of wet wipes per round trip we take.  Between Cheeto dust, spilled apple juice, chocolate smears, and markers, I would really hate to see what my family would look like arriving to our final destination without having some wet wipes handy.  We’ve made some short trips where we’ve forgotten to grab a package, and we’ve scrounged for napkins, and no one has perished, but a good stash of wet wipes trumps week old glove box Whataburger napkins any day.

So far I’ve covered tips for travel that would be applicable for any family embarking on a road trip for all reasons, not just races.  However, there are some additional considerations that need to be taken if you’re planning on taking a kid under ten to a long race.  As much as I LOVE racing, for my six year old, it can be a rather boring morning spent driving around, waiting for mom, only to see her for about two minutes.  We’ve been really blessed to have friends with kids around his age in some cities I have raced in that have been gracious enough to let him hang out (shout out Liz and Jacqui, we love ya’ll).  But I do love having him waiting for me at the finish line, and I think it’s a really great opportunity to reinforce the importance of health and physical activity for my son.  That being said, here’s some recommendations that can help make spectating a race with a kid a decent experience for everyone.

Take Entertainment
Endurance races are not short events, by nature.  So if you plan to have a younger kid hanging out for a long period of time, don’t expect that watching runner after runner is going to be sufficient entertainment for more than approximately 75 seconds.  Bring something for them to do; an iPad with games, a book if they are reading age, or just a cell phone to watch some YouTube are all decent options.  And if you plan on spending a good chunk of time in one location, be smart and bring a chair.  There’s nothing worse than a kid whining about tired feet when you’re trying to find someone in a sea of mid-packers.

Dress & Pack Intelligently
In Texas, the weather can swing rapidly in short amounts of time.  Does my husband want to hear my son complain about being hot or cold or otherwise uncomfortable for 3-4 hours?  No.  So what does the smart spouse do?  The smart spouse brings a backpack, dresses the kid in layers, and gladly throws abandoned sweaters into the backpack to prevent clothing-related meltdowns.  What else goes in the backpack?  Some sunscreen, some water, some snacks, and some Tylenol for him.  Because spectating is hard on the middle-aged body too.

Meet at the finish
As much as my son may not love hanging around, waiting for me to turn a corner, he does love meeting me at the finish line.  I’m not sure if he still thinks I’m winning or not, but the finish is the most exciting part.  There’s an arch to run under, there’s balloons, there’s music, and it’s obviously a big deal.  My son would be most displeased if he had to run around meeting me at random corners all morning, but didn’t get to see me finish the damn thing.  Make sure to prioritize this, because it’s a really special experience.  There’s been a few races where my kid has been able to run through the finish with me and collect my medal, and let me tell you, he beamed for hours and told anyone in ear shot how he helped mommy finish her race.  It was really sweet, and it’s an experience I hope every running parents gets to have at least once.

50k race
He was PUMPED 3 min before

Have a fun lunch after
After a race, there is nothing I am more focused on than finding food.  Same goes for my kid after a full morning of watching mommy run.  It would be rather rude for me to insist that he sit down to a five star lunch after dedicating several hours to supporting me do what I love.  My kid wants chicken tenders and fries, and I’m so hungry that fried food and maybe a milk shake sounds amazing to me.  My husband and I usually put some effort prior to the race into finding a family-friendly restaurant near the finish line that will be fun for all of us.  After my 50k race, I was beyond exhausted, but luckily my husband and I had planned to stay at a hotel that had a huge courtyard adjacent to its outdoor restaurant.  It gave me an opportunity to eat some amazing pizza, shower, and put my feet up on a lounger while my son ran around with a ball.  It was heaven.  Taking some time to make family-friendly, post-race meal plans was the best decision we made that trip.

You can’t predict how a race will go, or how long you kid will be cooperative, but I hope that some of these tips might give you the confidence to include your kid in your next race day plan.  It’s certainly no Disney vacation, but I do think it’s been a great experience for my little family (most of the time).

Staying in a nice hotel never hurts

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