When it comes to picking a race, size matters.
The pros and cons of big and small events.
By Amanda Loudin, RRCA Journalism Excellence Winner - 2017
If you ask Janet Sherman, nothing beats a big, raucous race, full of spectators, energy and fantastic amenities. When the 53-year old Wyoming-based school teacher plops down her race fee, she likes to feel as if she is getting something in return, and big races fit the bill, she says. Of the five to 10 races she runs each year, the vast majority are in the large category.
Eric Collard, by contrast, prefers his races on the small side. The 39-year old public relations professional from Ottawa has done his share of big races—everything from the Ottawa Marathon to Ironman-branded events—and found they’re just not his jam. He’ll pick small over big every chance he can.
There are pros and cons to every race size. What’s important is discovering what fits your personality and preferences best so that you can get the most out of your experience. This means knowing your goals and then finding the races to help you achieve them.
“Size definitely affects the experience of the race and can impact your time,” says RRCA-Certified Coach Kristina Craig, from Buffalo, NY. “I always recommend that runners consider the size in conjunction with the course.”
There are other factors that come into play as well: Do you like to travel to races and make a trip out of the experience? Do you prefer sleeping in your own bed the night before? What about the medal, the shirt, the crowd support? All are factors to weigh before signing on the dotted line. The beauty of it is: There’s a right fit for everyone.
A Case for Big
Carly Pizzani, a Vermont-based RRCA coach, says that it definitely takes some trial and error to figure out the best fit for your personality and goals. But for many new runners, she says, big is a great way to go. “They offer so much support for the runners,” she says. “They usually have the organization down pat, so they have plenty of volunteers, aid stations, and are well run.”
While Sherman has been running for years, she’s learned that the bigger races provide plenty of bang for the buck. “You get tech shirts, lots of on-course support, and finishers’ medals,” she says. “I also like five-year age groups, which you might not find in smaller events.”
Put the after-race party with plenty of food for everyone in the bonus category as well, says Sherman. “I love the excitement and vibe of a big race,” she adds.
There’s also this: for Sherman, who often places at smaller, local races, the large crowds at a big event removes some pressure. “I’m really hard on myself,” she admits, “and in a bigger race, I assume there are plenty of faster runners in my age group. If I do place, it’s a pleasant surprise.”
Pizzani says that another plus for big races is the option to train with groups leading up to the event if you live in the area. On race day, she says, “There’s nothing like that big-city crowd cheering you to keep going, especially during the tough parts.”
This encouragement can come from a fellow runner or pace group, too, something in greater quantities in a big event. “Most large races have pacers and they can be extremely motivating,” says Craig, “as can your fellow competitors.”
Craig points to one of her recent half marathons, during a point where she was struggling on a big hill. “A pacer passed me and I thought to myself, ‘oh no he doesn’t,’” she says. “That was the push I needed and I caught up and passed him, while he gave me encouragement to finish strong.”
On the Other Hand
Small races have their share in the plus category as well. Eric London, a 53-year old communications and policy consultant in D.C., has certainly given large races a try. His resume includes the Marine Corps, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore marathons. “It’s definitely nice to have crowd support,” he admits. “But the start line really throws me off. I don’t like the pushing and shoving, the time you must allocate to get there, and the over-the-top adrenaline that surrounds you.”
London says the crowded, slow first mile that comes along with a big race is also a downside to the bigger events. Plus, he says, he doesn’t care about the shirts or medals. “They’re generally too expensive for the value,” he says. “So what’s the point?”
With that view on the big races, London tends toward the smaller, low-key events in his area. “I love that these often support local running clubs, which are the backbone of running,” he says. “Smaller races are low stress, easy, and you can often run faster because the course is wide open.”
Craig says that smaller events allow you to focus and hit goal pace much earlier than their larger counterparts. “It’s easier to pay attention to time and form, rather than spending time weaving around slower runners,” she says. “There’s also the fact that you get easier access to hotels, smaller lines, and parking.”
Collard likes the fact that at most small races, you can sign up at the last minute, too. “They generally have less hassle and more charm,” he says of his preference, “and a smaller price tag.”
No matter which you prefer—big or small—every race has something to offer. You don’t have to commit to one or the other, but it does help if you know what size will deliver your race-day goals. For his part, Collard plans to keep things relatively low key with one big exception: “I did get into the Chicago Marathon lottery, so I guess I’m training for that,” he says.
Pizzani’s final piece of advice is to follow your heart: “Unless you are a professional runner making your living out there, you should find joy and fun in the races you choose.”
Looking for a race? Check out the RRCA's event calendar.