How to Pick the Right Marathon for You
By Patrick McCrann
The challenge of running and racing a marathon is a singular pursuit. Before you even start, you know that you'll have highs and lows, obstacles to overcome, and inevitable suffering--followed by euphoria--on race day. With all of this ahead of you, it makes sense to pick the right marathon. No 26.2 miles is the same, and not all races are created equal. Some are big, others are small. Some are epic tests, others are (literally) a "walk" in the park. Finding the right race that syncs with your goals, abilities, and geographical location can go a long way towards ensuring you are able to run to your potential.
The Four Factors
Before we even get to your particular goals, it helps to take a macro level review of where you stand. Here are the four key areas we suggest you consider when picking your next race:
#1 -- Timing: The ideal marathon will give you at least three months of good outdoor running prior to race day. It will fall on a quiet time of year for you, either personally or professionally. There will be options for half marathons and other local running events that will keep you motivated and on track. You will have had at least 4 if not 8 weeks of downtime from your previous big race, so residual fatigue isn't an issue.
#2 -- Terrain: You might love the punishment of steep hills and oxygen-starved air; perhaps your crave epic scenery or the taste of travel to another part of the world. Or maybe you just want to drag race the whole way. Whatever you chose, make sure the race you pick has the terrain that matches your goals for the event. Watching total marathon newbies suffer on challenging courses because they didn't know what they were in for isn't fun...and it can be avoided if you do your homework.
#3 -- Conditions: Make sure to research the weather on / around the race date of choice. Do a web search for race reports and forum posts about the event to learn what others have said. A race in Florida in January sounds great, for example, until you realize it's been in the 30s at the start for the past few years. Knowing that the sun beats down on you later in the day, or that the temperature plummets on the other side of the mountain pass will make you a much more informed racer...and lead you to a better overall experience.
#4 -- Logistics: Traveling to your next race sounds cool and exciting until you realize it means passports, international flights, a new language, and random dietary changes pre-race. Don't get me wrong, I am all about adventure. I just want folks to consider just how much bandwidth they have before they pull the trigger on a race that could just be challenging enough so as to suck all the fun out of it.
Picking A Race By Goal Orientation
Now that we have covered the basics, we can afford to look more closely at your overall motivation for the race. Nuturing this passion is critical if you want to train and race to your potential. Despite the higher price tag, you still have a lot to do on your own. Knowing that your race "fits" you will go a long way to making the training both more bearable and effective.
Goal: First Timer
If you are out to pick your first marathon, ever, then I suggest you pick a relatively flat marathon course that will give you plenty of nice warm weather to train in. Warm weather training means more folks on the roads when you are, as well as a higher potential for group training options. It also means less gear to manage and more time to focus on your fitness and overall well being. The course doesn't have to be 100 percent flat, but it should be straightforward. A nice loop course will mean more spectators to keep you going over those last few critical miles.
Goal: Boston Qualification
If your sole focus is on earning your right to try and sign up for the Boston Marathon, your selection process starts with terrain. You'll want a flat and simple course, ideally with two loops. This will allow you so manage your time and effort appropriately and allow you to identify trouble areas before lap two hits.
As a veteran, weather and conditions aren't as important to your decision, as odds are you'll have the gear and the mental fortitude to suck it up should the running weather gods not be smiling on you. You'll also want to check on the finish times for your age group and do some general research to make sure the course you are considering is legitimately a good option for qualifying.
Goal: Inspiration / Travel
If you are out to stay on track with your running but need a fun year, or a massive change of scenery, an international marathon might be just right for you. It will keep you running, but within reason as this isn't about racing--it's about doing. The travel to the race and few days leading up to it will have some stress, but the post-race scenery, cuisine, and culture will more than make up for it. Be sure to research by networking with other runners who have attempted the event...nothing beats the inside scoop!
Maybe you had a bad race last year, or just not the best training buid up. Regardless of the reason, you are back to give it another go. This is both good and bad, as you know the course and what _not_ to do. But it also means you are bringing a lot of negative energy to the table; it can push you a long way but might not get you the full 26.2 miles.
And let's face it, sometimes even the same course can seem different from year to year! To be 100 percent ready for your revenge tour, do a full 360-degree analysis to determine where things went wrong last time. Guaranteed your challenges will be very different this year, but even to have the basics covered will put you a few steps ahead.
There is no such thing as the perfect marathon, but with the right event, a clear set of goals, and the proper marathon training schedule, you'll be well on your way to creating the perfect race experience for you. Good luck!
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