How to Pick a Marathon

Are you overwhelmed with choosing a  marathon? It’s no wonder because there are over 800 marathons in the US alone, according to Running in the USA. How do you go about choosing the right race for you? Here are some things to consider:

WHEN: Narrow down your race date first. If you can’t pick a date, at least narrow the timing down. Take into account your family schedule, work commitments and holidays. I find it easier to search for race options once I’ve picked my marathon month. Also, consider your training schedule – you may not want to run a September marathon if you have to run huge mileage in the August heat and humidity.

COURSE: Terrain, elevation and elevation change are also important factors to consider. Know your running strengths, and decide on a race that is good for these strengths. Some courses are pancake-flat, like the Chicago Marathon, and advertised as super fast. Other courses are net downhill, like Steamtown. Both courses can be fast, but speed isn’t guaranteed. I like marathons with rolling hills. Think also about specific course characteristics – some offer shade and protection from the sun. Many spring marathons along the east coast can be windy, which makes for a challenging race day.

COURSE SUPPORT AND SWAG: All marathons offer support on the course, which can include water and sports drinks, fuel and timing clocks. It’s important to know when these are offered so you can have a fuel plan. Be sure you practice your long runs with the sports drink used on the course. Some races also offer on-course entertainment that can help the miles pass. Besides finisher medals, more races are trying to give runners an entertaining and unique experience. Some races are known for their post-race parties (Rehoboth Beach has a great one!) Most races give shirts and some races offer specific finisher items such as hats or glassware. These runners are showing a spiffy blanket from the Richmond Marathon.

LOCATION: Hometown marathons offer easy logistics and are usually the most affordable. A local race can be easy to plan because you can sleep in your own bed. Reducing stress can help you focus on the race. On the other hand, traveling to a race can be a great way to see different areas. 

SIZE: The size of the marathon refers to the number of participants. A larger marathon may offer more on-course support due to the increased resources.  Running with tens of thousands of runners offers comradery and can help the miles pass quickly. Depending on your pace, you may find yourself running some miles alone in a smaller race, but smaller races can provide a more intimate experience. Larger marathons are typically found in larger cities, so decide if that’s important. Keep in mind that larger-city races often require you to register early, months ahead of the race.

TECHNICAL: Is the course USATF-certified course? This matters if you’re trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Boston-qualifying races will usually advertise this and you can check on Boston’s site.

COST: Races can be expensive, however, they often offer early registration discounts. When considering cost, take into account travel and housing fees. It isn’t worth traveling to an inexpensive race if you have to fly there or if the race is in an expensive city.

NEED MORE HELP? There are a number of websites that can help you narrow down your search. One of my favorites is Marathon Guide. This site allows users to search by date and includes previous results. You can also read comments by other runners who have raced the marathon you are considering. Another excellent website is Find My Marathon. This website includes course profile information and it assigns a score to each marathon that can help you determine your best option for getting a PR or Boston qualification. Another great site is Running in the USA. This site offers an interactive map of upcoming marathons. All three sites are great resources for picking your marathon – whether you are a newbie or seasoned marathoner. But nothing beats talking to other runners! 

Are you near the RUN717 area? Check out my list of local marathons here!


Goal Setting

My twenty-year-old son, taking a risk.

Do you have running goals? You should, they are important and act as a road map to your success. In his book, “Meb For Mortals”, he believes there are three things that determine your success as a runner: good goals, hard work, and commitment.

Here are some qualities of good goals:

  • It Should Have Personal Meaning – The goal should be something you want to achieve for yourself, not to meet someone else’s expectations. Just because you are a runner it does not mean you have to set a goal that is popular, such as running a marathon. The goal should represent you, it should not be about anyone else. When training gets tough, it will be difficult to persevere if you are not intrinsically motivated.
  • It Should Be Specific – Make sure your goal is clearly defined. For example, stating that you want to run more is not as specific as stating that you want to run five times a week.
  • It Should Be Challenging Yet Realistic – Goals should require you to reach outside of your comfort zone yet be attainable. Not everyone can qualify for Boston or run a sub 6 minute mile. Goals should require work to achieve them, but they should not be out of reach. Although it is important to dream big, we need to be realistic.
  • It Should Be Measurable – When setting a goal, it should answer the question, how much or how many, and also have a deadline. A great example of a measurable time goal is running a sub 30 minute 5k. Deadlines help prevent boredom and will help keep you motivated.

As you progress as a runner, so will your goals. My first marathon goal was to run a sub 4 hour marathon and in 2012, I ran 3:47 in the Marine Corps Marathon. In 2013 I targeted the Boston Qualifying time and ran a 3:15 in a local marathon. This spring I have a challenging goal of running sub 3 at Boston and then running in the Age Group World Championships at the London Marathon 6 days later.

Setting goals and running requires a bit of risk. Sometimes you are asking your body to do something it has never done before and that can be scary. Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith and jump in with both feet!

“A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal written down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.”

Greg S. Reid