Last time I wrote about the pros and cons of mega-races, and this time I want to focus on the pros and cons of the smaller races to finish out the debate.
This list of pros and cons is for mid-size to smaller races that are less than 10,000 people for the half and full (but most of the ones I have run were even SMALLER, with a field of maybe 1000-2000 total, with less than 500 being full marathoners):
Scenery/Terrain: Hands down, I have always found the smaller races to have much better scenery. Sure, you sometimes run quite a few convoluted out-and-backs through residential areas, but more often than not the scenery is far more rural and scenic, and this is a huge plus for me. The terrain can also vary, and oftentimes at least a few miles will be on unpaved dirt trails in wooded parks, which are a nice respite from bone-rattling concrete. Some people really dislike that aspect, and I was surprised to ever hear complaints about it, but as runners we’re all different. Some people simply don’t like mud, roots and hills. Also, it’s nice to be able to see actual wildlife, and sometimes even a stray dog or two, you never know what sort of furry friends you’ll see on the racecourse (and hopefully not as roadkill, as I saw in Ann Arbor)
Water Stops/Course Support: You’re pretty much guaranteed an enthusiastic and friendly volunteer that is thrilled that you ran their race. Water stops don’t seem to be lacking at most races and there are oftentimes more than enough stops even with smaller races. Hatfield McCoy’s marathon had one for every mile, which was important for a race in June. I also find the water stops tend to be less chaotic since there are less runners on the course. They also have ZERO qualms about you using their supplies to fill you own hand-held bottle, if you bring one – if anything, I think they appreciate it.
Finish line food: Again, as a celiac I am time and time again walking away disappointed and hungry at pretty much every race, but for those of you who have absolutely no food issues or allergies, smaller races always win, hands down. There’s usually a lot more hot food: fresh pizza, pulled pork sandwiches, hot soup and stew, macaroni and cheese, huge soft cookies and baked goods, ice cream, and the list goes on. Not a lot of cold bagels granola bars and green bananas at these races, but nine times out of ten I see boxes of fresh pizza heaped on tables for the taking. *sigh*
Cost: Registration is almost always much less expensive, usually starting around $50 (sometimes even less); if you wait until last minute though, sometimes it can skyrocket, but even my most expensive small race registration (for Rehoboth Seashore Marathon in DE) was $110, which is still less than I’ve paid for larger races. It’s best to research ahead of time, look for online coupons and try to snag the early bird fare if you can. Being a Marathon Maniac has its advantages, as you oftentimes can get race discounts.
Heart: Smaller races tend to support the community, and in return, the community supports the runners. In instances like Hatfield McCoy, this is a big deal for the area and they absolutely love having the race there every year. The same could be said for the Outer Banks, since it was off-season and after a major hurricane. They appreciated the revenue, and signs were spotted throughout the area welcoming the runners. A lot of the volunteers are locals armed with a water cup and a smile, and more often than not they thank YOU for running their town’s race.
Unique medals: Some of the smaller races boast handmade medals, like the one I earned from the Freedom’s Run Half marathon in West Virginia, which was a hand-cut copper steeple. Hatfield McCoy’s was two crossed shotguns with the phrase “No Feudin’ Just Runnin” proudly emblazoned beneath it, and I don’t think you can get any better than that. The one from Colorado Springs was simply a porcelain rendering of Pike’s Peak mounted on a medal , which was beautiful and memorable.
You just MIGHT place: Smaller field means a better chance of placing! I am not a fast runner by any means but I won a third place finisher plaque at Hatfield McCoy simply because there were only 11 in my age group. It’s kind of a cool moment of triumph to walk away with an award.
50-staters, Maniacs and friends abound: I find the smaller races tend to have more 50-staters and Marathon Maniacs, and if you are an amiable runner that isn’t off to set any records and just earn another state, it’s pretty easy to make friends along the way that help the miles pass by with ease. It’s great to get input from others as to what races they recommend, and even recommend some to them if they have yet to venture into your neck of the woods. Time and time again I have found my races to be more enjoyable by making friends along the racecourse, and sometimes they’ll even approach you at the finish line with a smile and a hearty congrats.
Jons: The wait for a Jon at the start line is usually 10% of them time you’d spend waiting in a massive line at a mega-race. They are usually very clean and it’s great to be able to hop in and out when you have little time to spare. During the race, when you CAN find a Jon they are almost always clean, and fully armed with ample amounts of paper and hand sanitizer. But with this can also come a loss of costly minutes to your finish time, which I will explain in the cons section.
PRs ARE possible: The thinner the field, the better your chances are of running at full tilt. You have less crowds to muscle through in the early miles, but sometimes no matter what it can be a slow start if the road is narrow. Even with just a few hundred runners it can bottleneck in the beginning. Sometimes even the smaller races have corrals, and most of them have pace teams, which can help you stay on track for a smooth finish.
Spectators: Spectators are usually found at the start and finish of the race, and scattered in small clumps along the course, but more or less the only spectators and support you might see are usually the volunteers. Trust me, they’re wonderful no matter what! And the non-volunteer spectators you do have are usually locals, as well as family and friends of the runners, which obviously will be small if the field itself is minimal. To me, there’s still plenty of heart and enthusiasm no matter what, and I love and appreciate any support I can get! I always appreciate them standing in any kind of weather to cheer us on, it makes a world of difference to us runners.
You Have to Share the Road: Full road closures for small races usually just don’t happen. The roads you run on can be pretty rural, and you’ll oftentimes have to share the road with cars and trucks or run on the cambered shoulder of a busy road (like during Outer Banks’ marathon). While you have police to help guide you across the street, sometimes it can be a little nerve-wracking to contend with impatient motorists. It’s very, very important to be aware of the vehicles on these shared roads, never assume they will obey the law or even regard your presence. At the Ann Arbor Marathon someone ignored the policemen and the obvious closures and simply drove through the barrier and up the street, completely disregarding the officer’s angry shouts as he ran after her; thankfully we weren’t knocked over like bowling pins. Also, make sure, no matter what, to always thank the volunteers that help to keep you safe! Also, you might end up sharing the course with cyclists, roller-bladers, walkers and runners that may be totally unaware that a race was even going on during their usual morning exercise. I’ve more often than not passed people that seemed perplexed when they saw that I was wearing a race number.
There IS a chance you just might get lost: This hasn’t happened to me yet, thank goodness, but I have been close a couple of times. There’s usually volunteers that help direct you when the course takes an interesting twist, but it’s important to always keep an eye open for runners ahead as well as signs. I read a story about a prankster that decided it would be funny to steal and rearrange the directional signs at the Two Bear Marathon (the one I am running this fall) in Montana and a hundred runners were off-course because it was a trail race. NOT fun when you’re in the middle of the woods and there actually IS a chance you might see bears!
Jons: Once you cross the starting line they can be sparse and usually there will be a line since there will be only one or two rather than a massive row. Best place to look for them is by the water stops, there’s usually at least one or two. I will say though, that they have always been much cleaner and less used than at the mega races, so it’s sort of a Catch-22. More times than not I see runners sprinting toward the woods rather than find that single jon that might be within a 4-5 mile stretch. Some courses just may have one or two jons between the start and finish line, so I always recommend to COME PREPARED with your own TP and to leave your pride behind if nature calls and you have to duck into the woods. Trust me, there’s no shame in this, we’re all human after all.
Bling: Sometimes the medals are pretty sub-par, flimsy and uninteresting on a plain lanyard, but honestly I don’t work too hard for the medals, and very few times have I been disappointed in the reward. But the same can be said for the mega-races with boring and clichéd medals, and yes, I’m looking at you Rock ‘N Roll DC 2011.
Water Stops/Course support: I have to throw this in the Con category also because sometimes you’re going to have to carry your own water and fuel whether you want to or not. The support just isn’t there. Some courses have no fuel whatsoever and only fluids, which can be a drag if you forget to bring your gels. It’s important to do your research ahead of time and see what you have to bring just in case.
Swag: If you like lots of coupons, free samples and high-quality shirts, it may not always be the case with the smaller races. But I found that some of my favorite race shirts are from smaller races; they simply fit better, but oftentimes are LOADED with sponsor logos. The price you pay for comfort I guess! They also might be a loud color, like neon orange or yellow, and I’m sure it’s all due to the cost of production. A lot of times, too, these expos have VERY few vendors, and sometimes are just a packet and shirt pickup with nothing more. No free beer or food samples, no raffles, no speakers. It’s bare-bones, and for me, that’s just fine! Some races will surprise you though: Akron marathon gives out a high-quality Brooks running jacket (as well as a very good quality baseball cap, still my favorite to this day) instead of a tech-shirt, and my upcoming trail race in Maryland will give out a good quality fleece jacket. So it will definitely vary!
Races CAN sell out: With a smaller field, these races can cap out at sometimes only a couple hundred participants, and it’s important to do your homework. I always recommend registering the minute it opens up, not only to guarantee a spot but to also get an Early Bird rate.
Chip timing: Sometimes the timing for smaller races isn’t super accurate, and they base your finish time on the race clock at the finish and not when you crossed the start line. In cases like these, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the course isn’t certified and you may run a 26.4 or 25.9 mile marathon. It’s a race to run for the love of running, just go along with the ride and enjoy it! Leave the Garmin at home or you just might be a little disappointed.
Few frills: If a race starts in a remote area, oftentimes it’s just the runners that are bussed to the start with no spectators or crowds, and it can be very, very quiet. Sometimes the start of these races is just some taped lines on the ground and a “GO!” or an air horn from the race director. No fireworks, no DJs, no fanfare. Then again, at the Akron Marathon (a decent mid-sized marathon) they pulled off ALL the stops: DJs, fireworks, and even the Goodyear Blimp. It felt like Disney. You never know what you’re going to get! But no matter what, the National Anthem is always sung, and to this day it’s still a wonderful feeling to quietly stand and salute your country with your fellow running friends.
It CAN get lonely: Smaller races mean you can sometimes run a LOT of miles alone with very few runners ahead or behind you. If the race allows headphones, I definitely use them, because otherwise it can be just like a regular long run for me: solitary and quiet. You also are very likely to pass the same people over and over back and forth, like a game of tag; make sure you throw a word of encouragement their way if you see them more than once!
As you can see, both the larger and smaller races have plenty of good and bad points. Because I don’t like crowds in races I always look for the races with the smaller fields, and usually make sure to check marathonguide.com for some reassurance that I picked a good event. That is usually the clincher for me. The reviews make all the difference, and I always add my two cents to help other runners choose their races once that medal is earned.
We are all different and all have a variety of things that we look for in a race, so I encourage you to do a little of your own soul-seeking before registering for an event. Don’t let people talk you into running a race if it doesn’t seem like you’d enjoy it. Take all the factors into consideration, read race reviews and blog entries, do your research, and I guarantee you won’t regret your ultimate decision.
I hope these tips served as a useful guide for your race research!
Did I miss any pros or cons with smaller races? Feel free to add your comments!