Over the past few years, the number of marathons around the world has exploded. Whether you’re interested in running on the Las Vegas Strip at night or meandering quietly through a forest, there’s a marathon for you. But picking out just the perfect race these days can take a little thought. Here are five things to consider when choosing your next great adventure:
Marathons can range from just a few runners to tens of thousands, and the size of the race has a direct impact on your race experience. Conventional wisdom might lead you to think that small races don’t have the same amenities as the largest races, but some small race organizers take surprisingly good care of their limited numbers of entrants. In fact, in some cases, small races might offer more food, drinks and personal attention than their big-city counterparts, simply because feeding 100 people is a lot easier than feeding 40,000. On the flip side, small races might offer nothing at all other than an organized route and a timing system. Aside from services, the size of the race also dictates the number of spectators who’ll be cheering you on (or not) and whether you’ll be sharing the road with cars. Think carefully about what you want the race environment to feel like, whether that be small and quiet or crazy and loud. And make sure to ask some questions, such as what services will be offered on the course or what the environment will be like on race day.
Coach Joe’s Pick: The Fargo Marathon has a reputation of being one of the best in the country, with amazing spectators, as many as 50 bands on the course and an indoor start and finish at the Fargodome.
I once saw a small group of bib-wearing runners doing laps around my local park. After talking to some of them, I realized they were doing a 50-mile race by running 50 laps around the park’s 1-mile loop. This sounded terrible to me. Race courses can take on all dimensions and sizes, so it’s best to check out what you’re getting into before signing up. Marathons can be held on a variety of surfaces, from trails to highways to running tracks, and can traverse anything from industrial parks to the wildest of mountains. Before signing up for any race, read through a description of the course to get a feel for what it’s all about and make sure to check out the “elevation profile” to see how much climbing and descending you’ll have in store.
Coach Joe’s pick: To get out of the city, check out the Big Sur International Marathon near Monterey, California, for spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, crashing surfs and coastal cliffs.
With a surge in popularity, a number of marathons have adopted somewhat unique and unusual registration schemes to prioritize entrants. Even many small races now use lotteries or have short registration windows because they quickly sell out. The Boston Marathon is perhaps the most famous race to require a qualification time to enter, but you might be surprised to find that other races ask for qualifying times in order to prioritize registration or to determine your start order at the race. The bottom line? Plan early and check out the registration process and deadlines so you have the best shot at getting into your dream race.
Coach Joe’s pick: Faster runners who are looking to qualify for the Boston Marathon should look into the California International Marathon in Sacramento, which holds a block of slots for runners with qualified times who register later for the race. It’s also one of the fastest courses in the country, with a gentle downhill grade for much of the first 20 miles.
Travel has become an important element for many people in choosing a marathon. If there’s a destination that you’ve always wanted to visit, whether that be Maui or Bangkok or Fargo, you can now run a marathon there. Bundling travel with a race is a fun way to see new parts of the world, especially if you run a lot of races. Today’s strong American dollar can also make participating in races in other countries a relatively good deal. Just remember to take into account travel-related issues such as jet lag, the potential of dehydration after long flights and the desire to have your favorite foods for breakfast on race morning.
Coach Joe’s pick: Races in Canada are a relative bargain due to the strong American dollar. TheBMO Vancouver Marathon is an exceptionally beautiful race with a mix of city and water views.
Personally, the most important element of choosing a race is the fun. For me, that means variety. I ran one local race 15 times and finally called it quits because the magic and fun had been lost years before. Think about the races you’ve already experienced and what might be new and different to try. Tackle a trail race or travel to someplace obscure to see a place that you’d never go otherwise. Marathon running is a hobby for the vast majority of runners, so don’t forget the fun.