As an adult, over the years I’ve run everything from a 5k to a marathon and everything in between. Mostly I’ve stuck with half marathons because of my goal to run a half marathon in all 50 states and so far I’m up to 42 states. When I first started running races I just signed up for a local 5k, not really taking anything into account like weather, elevation or anything else course-related. It was hot since it was July 4th but the race wasn’t anything very memorable other than that.
Most people do like I do and just run a local 5k, sometimes coerced by friends so they may not put any thought into choosing the race. For a 5k, that’s probably fine unless it turns out the race is insanely hilly or has such difficult conditions that it turns you against running and/or racing. If you’ve run several 5k races and perhaps a 10k or two and would like to run your first half marathon, where do you start? I’ll go through the steps I go through as a kind of guideline.
There are several considerations for me when I’m choosing a half marathon to run. At this point since I don’t have many states left until I reach my goal of a half marathon in all 50 states so I have to be more thoughtful than I was early on in this journey. The most obvious thing I have to consider is where the half marathon is being held. If it’s in a state that I’ve already run a half marathon, I won’t run it. My wallet, legs, and time off from work are limited so I can’t afford to go twice. This might be different if I didn’t make every race a racecation, but I just don’t see the point in flying into a city the day before a race and flying out the evening of or day after a race. Obviously this doesn’t apply to most people, but I did want to throw that out there because everyone still has to decide if the location of the race would work for them.
Once I find a half marathon in a state, I’ll look at what part of the state the race is being held. If it looks like an interesting city or is within a reasonable drive to a city I’m interested in going to, I’ll consider it. There have been exceptions to this, however, like when I ran in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire, Dixville Half Marathon, New Hampshire- 35th state. My daughter, who always goes to every race with me, has a friend who lives about 20 minutes from this race, and she had asked me a couple of years before I ran this race when her friend moved away from where we live if we could visit her sometime. I thought given the circumstances, it was meant to be for sure, so how could I turn down that one. Fortunately Dixville, New Hampshire is about a 3 hour drive to Montreal, so that’s where we spent the vacation part of our racecation.
Once I figure out if the location appeals to me, I’ll look at the time of year when the race is being held. As I said, my daughter always goes to races with me, and I don’t typically pull her out of school since we do spend more than a couple of days at these places. Fortunately, her school schedule has been flexible enough that I’ve been able to find races around the country on dates when she’s been on a school break. Some parents may think the only time to travel with school kids is during the summer, but there are many breaks throughout the year like spring break and Thanksgiving break for example. Some schools also have a fall break and other week-long breaks throughout the year, and others that are “year-round” have three-week-long breaks every 3 months spread over 12 months. If you’ll be going by yourself to the race or don’t have kids (or your kids won’t be going with you), it makes planning easier but I want to make sure I include that information for people who might want to bring family members along.
Another thing to consider when choosing a race and factoring in the time of year the race is held is your training schedule. If the race is in March, that means you’ll be running the bulk of your longest long runs in February. If you live in the deep south, that might be fine, but pretty much anywhere else and you’re likely to have some nasty weather to contend with in February. Likewise, if the race is in mid-to-late November, you’ll have some pretty nice running weather during your training schedule although the race itself could be pretty cold especially if it’s in a far northern state.
After the where and when are figured out, then comes the analysis of the race course. If a race advertises on its web page that it’s “the toughest half marathon” in the state, I’ll pass and you probably should too if it’s your first half marathon. Or if the race goes straight up a mountain, I’ll pass. I’ll check out the elevation and course on the race website then I’ll go to other places to get reviews from runners like Bib Rave and Race Raves. This isn’t to say I’ve never run a hilly race because I have many times over but when I have, at least I’ve known what I was getting myself into ahead of time.
Finally, I check logistics of flying or driving to the area. If I have two or more races for the same state that I’m comparing and one is significantly easier or cheaper to get to, and all other factors are similar, I’ll go with the one that’s easier or cheaper. Again, though, there have been exceptions to this, like when I ran the San Juan Island Half Marathon, Washington- 28th state. I had to fly into Seattle then take a ferry to San Juan Island from Seattle, but the ferry was one of the most scenic ferries I’ve ever been on so it was totally worth the extra hassle of getting there, plus the San Juan Islands are absolutely gorgeous. I just allowed extra time to get to the island before the race in my planning.
I know a lot of runners like running big races like the ones at Disney World and Disneyland and the Rock ‘N’ Roll series races, but I’ve personally never had any interest in any of them. The Disney races despite being hugely popular have some serious drawbacks in my opinion such as 1) the inflated cost, 2) the ungodly hour the races begin, and 3) the crowds. Start time and cost of race registration are two other things to consider when figuring out what race you want to run. If a race states you will be bussed to the start at 4:30 a.m. but you simply don’t function let alone be in a pre-race state at that time, it may not be a good choice for you for your first half marathon.
The flip side of big races are smaller races. I personally prefer medium to small races for several reasons. Not only are there less people running the races so you don’t have to worry about being slowed down at the beginning, parking usually isn’t an issue so you may not have to be bussed to the start. If you’re the type of person who feeds off the energy of spectators, you likely won’t get that at small races, however. Sometimes you’ll often just get a shirt and medal at small races, too, so if you like getting lots of things at packet pickup, you’ll have to take this into consideration.
Finally, the biggest factor in choosing a race is why. Why do you want to run a half marathon in the first place? Many people could avoid disappointment after a race if they figure out why they want to run a race in the first place. Do you just want to have fun with your running friends? Do you want to run with a particular goal finish in mind? Do you want to see a specific part of the country and would love to experience a racecation? Do you feel pressure from other runners to run a half marathon? Obviously if you have some goal finish time in mind, you should be more picky in what race you choose than if you just want to hang out with your running friends and have fun at a race together.
In summary, major points to consider when choosing your first half marathon:
- Where is the race? You need to factor in transportation and lodging costs.
- When is the race? To factor in weather and family or work obligations.
- What is the race course like?
- Is this a big race with lots of runners or a smaller race with fewer runners?
- What do you want to get out of running this race? If you don’t find a race that will address this, you might not have a good first race experience.
I have a similar post to this, Planning a Racecation that gets more into the specifics of packing, accommodations, and flying to a race. I also have a post Five of my Favorite Places for Racecations and I would be tempted to add my most recent race The Famous Potato Half Marathon in Beautiful Boise to that list of racecations.
Does anyone else go through a checklist like this when choosing a half marathon or marathon? What are the most important factors when choosing a race to you?