What Kind of Race Is For You? The Pros and Cons of Small Races vs. Mega-Races (Part 1)

As someone who has run 15 marathons and countless half marathons, I have come to learn what sorts of races I prefer, and don’t hesitate to share my feelings on them. When a mega-race registration opens up, my Twitter feed explodes with lots of runners anxious if they got into NYC, Marine Corps or another race with a huge participant field. I honestly feel like this sets me apart from a lot of runners…just add one more thing to the list that makes me just a little different and not always fit in with society in general.

When it comes to these big races, I am totally indifferent. I simply don’t care. Huge races are not at all my thing anymore. In the past I ran my share of Rock ‘N Roll half marathons (and even a full marathon with D.C.) as well as the marathons in Disney World and Philadelphia (probably my largest city race to date), and in the end I just found that the smaller the race, the more it appeals to me. But there are definitely disadvantages to this as well and I wanted to break it down in sort of a Johnny Suede-style Pros and Cons list.

Part one will list the pros and cons of the mega-races, ones with fields well over 10,000 for the half and full marathon combined. I will start off by saying that if it’s your very first (or even second or third) marathon, I highly recommend going to for the larger races, it’ll definitely be good fuel for the inner fire to train for future races where you can eventually decide what sort of race atmosphere is best for your needs.

Please note that these are generalizations, and not 100% universal, when it comes to these observations!


The swag: The bigger races definitely have great swag, and I find that the race shirts are almost always better quality. I really love long-sleeved tech tees, and all of the bigger races (save Rock ‘N Roll) usually hand them out. Plus you oftentimes get fun little extras, for example at Shamrock we got not only  a great long-sleeved tech shirt, but a finisher’s hat and a great fleece blanket that I use all the time.

Larger Expos: The larger races have huge expos, with rows upon rows of booths with enthusiastic vendors, and also lots of speakers (legendary greats like Bart Yasso, Jeff Galloway or John Bingham, to name a few) throughout the weekend. Free samples, raffles and discounts galore (whether it’s for race registrations, local eateries or gear), you can’t go wrong if that’s your thing. I have been to so many expos over the years that the excitement has worn thin and I tend to get “peopled out” very quickly; I just want to get in, grab my race bib and shirt, and make a quick getaway. I found, on a whole, that getting your bib is a pretty streamlined process and the larger expos tend to have longer hours for late night packet pick-up, which is convenient when you’re coming in from out of town. It’s also a plus when, if you’re anything like me, you forget to pack something important for your race like Body Glide, running socks or sports gels, the expos will always have everything you need. For smaller races, this is not always an option. Like race-related souvenirs, such as hoodies, bottle openers, shot glasses, magnets,  or even stuffed animals? These expos will undoubtedly have plenty of wares to peddle.

Medals: The medals are usually very good quality, Disney being the prime example of exceptional bling.  They’re usually quite heavy, detailed, and the lanyard is usually much more ornate, which is nice when you want to sport your bling with pride after the race (and then throw it in a shoebox or on a shelf to collect dust for the rest of its existence).

Spectators: You’ll never be bored during a mega-race, as there is almost always an ample amount of crowd support. While Disney sometimes lacked in spectators during the sparser parts of the course that were miles outside of the parks, they still had plenty of entertainment on the sideline, whether it was cheerleading competitions, live bands or DJs, and costumed characters waiting to pose for pics. From what I hear, NYC’s marathon has a massive amount of support from start to finish. If crowds are what you need to get the adrenaline pumping, then larger races are definitely for you.

Start and Finish Line Fanfare: The larger races ALWAYS have fantastic start and finish lines. Lots of DJs, news cameras, and sometimes even fireworks. It gets you completely and totally psyched to be a part of the event and the atmosphere is absolutely electric with excitement. The finish line is usually lined with spectators for almost the last quarter mile, and it is amazing how that crowd swell can give you a last-minute boost of adrenaline for a triumphant finish!

Water Stops/Jons: Mega-races definitely have ample amounts of support when it comes of organized, well-manned water stops, free sports gels and food, as well as medical support and porta-jons. You’ll never be lacking in this department, but I personally feel this also can also slip over into the Cons category, of which I will be happy to elaborate! But larger races don’t have you looking for fuel/hydration stations, medical support or jons for too long, they are often right where you need them to be.

You’re Among Thousands of Your Closest Friends: No matter what, this is a plus for any size race. Runners tend to be a friendly group of people during a race, so it isn’t too hard to run alongside someone else and chat for a minute if that’s your thing. It’s quite easy to make a new friend during any race if you wish.

Transportation Logistics: This is always a huge source of stress for me, as parking can be a nightmare and I would actually have anxiety-filled dreams about missing my race start due to variables.  Many mega-races offer transportation to the start which can make for a smooth transition 99 times out of 100.  Larger races do tend to very clearly outline road closures and parking areas, which can make a real difference with planning ahead. But be warned that, no matter what, these races will want you to arrive to the start area EARLY to avoid traffic, as it will undoubtedly be congested. This is why I also feel that transportation can be a con as well.

Mile Markers and Timing:  Many of the large races will have huge, visible mile markers and some even have a clock every mile.  Your finish time will be very accurate, you can often get your results within minutes of finishing, and oftentimes there is runner tracking available for spectators when you cross certain mile markers, which is a very useful commodity!

Course will be certified (Boston qualifier):  The mega races will, without a doubt, always be certified, and you can use your BQ finish time to register for Boston.


PRs are harder to come by: When a race is packed wall-to-wall with runners, it’s definitely much harder to PR. The first five miles of my Philly marathon were slower than my average pace simply because it was so crowded in my corral. If you are in a slower corral, sometimes you don’t even cross the starting line until almost a half hour after the race start. That sort of thing isn’t super important to me (my attitude is, “when I get to the start I get there”), but I can see it causing problems with other runners becoming very frustrated VERY quickly.

Finish line spread: As a celiac, I usually forgo the finish line food, but I always found at the larger races the fare is not nearly as good: plain cold bagels, fruit (more likely than not, green bananas and orange slices), granola bars, water and Gatorade are the usual staple. It’s pretty standard fare and there’s not much more that can be said about it. If the race has a good sponsor you can sometimes get lucky, like the finish line of some of the Rock ‘N Roll races had food provided by PF Chang’s, which was a very nice treat.

Water Stops/Jons: I always find the water stops are just a traffic jam of chaos, massive piles of cups, Gu wrappers and banana peels everywhere, runners skidding into one another, and sticky Gatorade sometimes getting flung into your path by a careless runner trying to throw their cup to the side. Sometimes they are so crowded you simply have to bypass them because it’s impossible to get to a volunteer, but fortunately another water stop isn’t too far off. As for the jons, they are almost ALWAYS a nightmare…filthy, no paper or hand sanitizer, just totally decimated by the time you need one (usually after having to wait in line). And let’s face it, we ALL need to hit the jon as a last minute precaution before a race…the lines are usually 20+ people deep no matter what. It helps to have your hotel room within walking distance of the start line in these cases.

Finish Line Family Reunion Area: Any race I have ever run with a huge field makes it almost impossible to find loved ones at the finish line without it being a massive crush of sweaty humanity that are ALL on the same mission. I never run with my cell phone (simply because it’s cumbersome), so I simply have to rely on my senses. Chris and I often say we will meet in the family reunion area for last initial X, since the chances of people with a last name starting with X will be slim to zero. It’s worked many times if the family reunion areas are set up as such. But it can still be chaos (at the Baltimore half marathon it took us an hour and a half to find one another), and it’s tough when all you want to do is relax for a minute and give a loved one a (sweaty and disgusting) tear-filled hug of relief and joy. More often than not, my loved ones find me first; I have a feeling it’s because I’m just too wiped out to be at 100% cognitive capacity.

Transportation Logistics: This can also be a major issue if you’re coming into a major city, roads are closed, parking lots are full, and you are stressed, needing to get to the starting line, and have no idea where to go. Again, planning is absolutely crucial. Get a hotel within walking distance to the start, take public transportation, do whatever you can to make the process easier. But the bottom line is: mega-races will have thousands and thousands of runners, along with tens of thousands of volunteers, family members, support, spectators, etc. That is a LOT of traffic all trying to get to the same place at once.

Scenery/Terrain:  Sorry but the mega-races can really lack in this for me. You may run past some pretty awesome historical sights, but I know nine times out of ten I’ll miss them unless it’s pointed out to me or I study the map ahead of time. I will be honest though, I haven’t run the top city races like NYC, Chicago, Berlin or London (so some of you might just tell me to shut up – hopefully good-naturedly – since I don’t know what I’m talking about), but I absolutely LOVE a good natural setting for a race. I don’t need a cityscape, I want nature: running rivers and creeks, green, rolling hills, forested trails and mountains as my backdrop. I find the terrain in larger races to be pure concrete which can be murder on the joints, whereas the smaller races sometimes will surprise you with lots of narrow miles of packed dirt, pine needle or gravel trails, which are truly a nice treat for me and much more of a fun challenge than “flat and fast”, my least favorite kind of race. Rolling hills aren’t something that most city races like to boast!

Cost: This has been the biggest complaint from other runners, in my opinion. I ran the Rock and Roll Las Vegas half a couple years ago and it was $140 before fees. Disney’s Goofy Challenge is $340 (again, without processing fees) and climbing. NYC’s is $255 (if you aren’t a NYRR member) before fees and also increasing every year. Large races require massive amounts of manpower and resources, and this is easily reflected in the price tag. Also, some of these races don’t always benefit charities or local communities like the smaller races often do, but are for a for-profit business, plain and simple.

Tend to Sell Out Quick: Large races tend to sell out in record time, or require a lottery system. You can’t always depend on being able to even get INTO a race, and a race like NYC requires a lot of work (or luck of the draw) to gain an entry. Obviously it’s essential to keep a field maintained; a good example of not capping a race and catastrophe can be learned by Rock ‘N Roll Las Vegas 2011. They didn’t cap the event and it turned into an absolute nightmare on so many levels for a majority of runners.  I should mention, though, that even smaller races, like the coveted Flying Monkey or Big Sur will sell out or have to rely on a lottery system as well. It can be a major source of anxiety for a runner with a bucket list.

You’re Among Thousands of Your Closest Friends: This can also be a huge con. The roads are packed wall to wall with runners and it can be a little close for comfort sometimes, especially during a warm race. Sorry, but I don’t need to be so close to someone that I can smell them, but that’s the reality of mega-races in the early miles. I find they tend to thin out by Mile 10.

Mega-races definitely have plenty of pros and cons, as do the smaller races as well. Next time I will get more into detail about smaller races, and who knows, maybe it will help you decide what sort of race is right for you!

Did I miss any pros or cons in this list? Feel free to comment!


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