There are several factors to consider when choosing your first race.
By Susan Paul, Runner’s World
You are not alone in your surprise about lottery entries or early close outs. Unfortunately, I hear this all too often from many new runners who simply have no idea that signing up for a marathon sometimes requires a long-term plan.
It depends upon the popularity of the marathon you are considering, but doing your homework is essential. Visit the website of any race you are interested in as soon as possible and check out the dates and logistics of how and when to register. With three of the largest marathons—Chicago, Marine Corps, and New York—now lotteries, it’s important to know and understand their sign up process. But don’t despair, not all marathons are lotteries or close out early.
Here are my suggestions for a list of priorities to consider when searching for a race. Pick and choose what seems most important to you. What’s interesting is that your priorities change over time too, so it’s fun to keep re-arranging this list.
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1. Budget: The cost of running a marathon varies tremendously. Entry fees are just one cost factor. Airfare, hotels, meals, and other transportation costs add up quickly and can get quite expensive. Deciding ahead of time how much you can realistically afford to spend as you begin your search is essential. If you are on a budget, look for races that are close or within driving distance. Smaller races, or races in smaller towns are typically less expensive than big city races. Also, small races can deliver quite a bang for your buck and a wonderful experience. If cost is not a factor, then you are wide open.
2. Time of year: Look at the time of year that you would like to run a race and then back it up by 4 to 6 months for training time. Fall races are very popular, but that means you will be training through the summer. Depending upon where you live, summer training can be challenging. As a Florida runner, I prefer to pick spring marathons and fall half marathons. Summer also means vacation; could travel potentially disrupt or even derail your training plans? Consider your work schedule too, as it’s ideal to minimize disruptions, if at all possible, especially for your first race. Time of year also includes looking at the weather on race day. Weather impacts performance, so if you don’t run well in hot, humid conditions, look for races in cooler climates. What type of weather conditions do you prefer for running? While there are no guarantees for perfect race day weather, set yourself up for the best conditions possible.
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3. Race registration: Know the process and the important sign up dates for any race you are considering. It’s not uncommon for popular races to sell out within just a few hours after opening, so don’t procrastinate. If the race is a lottery, pick a back up race in case you don’t get in. Another option when races are lotteries or already full, is running for a charity. Many races offer a number of entries through various charities. A charity entry means you must raise a certain amount of money for that charity, so be sure and check the amount required and decide if that is doable for you. There can be perks associated with charity entries too, like transportation provided to and from the race, or special meet up areas, so it can be a good option and you help fund the designated charity.
4. Establish your goals for the race: The good news is that this is your first marathon, so you’ll automatically set a personal record (PR). But, be honest with yourself…are you looking to “just finish” the race or are you aiming for a time goal? If you hope to qualify for Boston, make certain you choose a certified course. Other than a time goal, what other race goals might you have? Are you looking for a big city marathon experience? Do you want crowds of spectators cheering you on? Or, do you prefer a quieter course, maybe one with scenic views? Do you want to stop and take pictures? Are you looking for a destination race to vacation afterwards? Is this a family vacation trip? Defining your race goals will help you narrow down your selections.
5. Check out the race course: Hills? Flat? Trail? Altitude? City roads? Wilderness? Read the website carefully!! If you would like to run as fast a time as possible, then look for a fast course, which usually means relatively flat with few turns. Check out the elevation profile carefully. Note the hills and their incline. Selecting a race course that is similar to the type of terrain you have available to train on is important because whatever your goals are, you want to be well-prepared for the demands of the race. Also, consider the logistics of how the race course is laid out. For example, are the start and finish areas in the same place? Or, is it a point-to-point race where runners are bused out to a start area and run back to the finish line. If so, is race transportation provided? How easy is it to meet up with family/friends afterwards? How far away is your hotel or car? Are these distances walkable? Easy access to family or friends, and/or easy availability back to your hotel, can be important afterwards if you are not feeling your best.
There are several other factors I like to consider when picking a race. One is the start time. I am a morning runner and love early start times, so I weigh this heavily when signing up for a race. Later start times are not for me. If you want your best performance, consider the time of day that works best for you and try to find a similar start time. Knowing the race cut off time is important too! Make certain you have enough time to finish the race without too much pressure.
For your first race, keeping it simple can be really helpful. Finding a race close to home with similar terrain, makes training easier, and reduces expenses and stress. On the other hand, making a big commitment for a marathon trip with airfare, hotel, and rental car or planning a destination race with a vacation can provide a great deal of motivation!
Bottom line: Clearly defining your race goals and objectives for your first marathon will help you refine your search. There are no right or wrong answers. The purpose is finding the right race for you.