Choose Your Own Adventure: Finding the Right Marathon for You

Don’t worry, Goldilocks. There really is a marathon just right for you! Image via

Picking a marathon can feel like an overwhelming task, particularly if it’s your first marathon. Races literally go from A (Accra International Marathon, Ghana) to Z  (Zürich Marathon, Switzerland). According to, in 2011, a total of 564 timed marathons took place in the United States alone.  Compare that to the estimated 483 marathons held on U.S. soil in 2010 – the result is nearly 22% growth in just one calendar year! A reported 592 marathons are slated for the U.S. this year. With that many options, looking for the perfect race can understandably feel like looking for a needle in a rapidly-growing haystack.

If you ask a group of people about how to select a race, chances are they will all give you very different answers. Runners have plenty in common with Goldilocks when it comes to choosing races. For any one particular race, you may hear people say it’s too hot, too cold, too big or too small.

Even though every runner has their own personal set of priorities for choosing a race, those priorities can be boiled down to ten categories: size, course elevation, surface, race reputation, geographical location, race setting, time of year, cost, race organization and extras. What varies from runner to runner is which of these categories are more important.

One group who has plenty of experience choosing races is the 50 States Marathon Club. Collectively, their members have run more than 169,000 marathons! I turned to their Board of Directors for guidance on how Salty readers can find the best race for them. After all, it’s not about finding the best race, just the best fit for you.

Size: Would you rather share the road with a crowd of 40,000+, a small gathering of 130 or somewhere in the middle? Think back to shorter distances you’ve run and if you preferred big crowds or smaller races.

Course elevation: Are you a hill lover or avoider? Do you like rolling hills or a big climb? Club President Lois Berkowitz of Detroit has run 354 races of 26.2 miles or longer. (She’s got #355 on tap this weekend!) Berkowitz advises runners to not be too ambitious in the elevation of their first marathon. She mentioned several people she’s talked to who have done Pike’s Peak as their first marathon and categorizes that decision as “a seriously bad idea”.

Race reputation and organization: These are things you can’t overlook. Many of the runners I talked to said that they check the online reviews on, but don’t rely upon those as their sole source of information; just like any other kind of online reviews, race reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.

Paula Boone, 310-time marathoner from Humble, Texas, describes her vetting process. “We usually look at or the 50 State Marathon Club schedule to see what races are available on a certain weekend… If the rating on MarathonGuide for the race is low, we will ask others who have done the race if the rating is accurate. We also check with our members on Facebook to see if the race was well organized.”

Besides, the race web site and its social media presence are good ways to learn about organization and reputation. And of course, don’t forget to ask around at your local running club!

Cost: Obviously this can play a large role in selecting a race. The most expensive marathon in the U.S. is the ING New York City Marathon, clocking in at $255 – and that’s just for registration. On the flip side, the Really Big Free Race Series offers marathons in Arizona, Las Vegas and Southern California, well, for free! (And remember, we’ve already given you some tips for saving on race expenses.)

The Big Sur Marathon is a popular destination race. Image via

Logistics: Geographical location, race setting and time of year all go hand in hand to help determine the atmosphere of the race. Do you want to race somewhere close to home or are you interested in a destination race? For race setting, consider whether you’re a city mouse or a country mouse. When considering the time of year, think about how the training will fit into your work and life schedule, as well as the weather you’ll encounter in both training and racing.

Extras: The little perks that a race offers above and beyond the ordinary: things like jackets or beer mugs for finishers, or massages at the post-race party. Boone says that, for her, “Races that have special perks like nice shirts, great medals, etc. receive higher marks” when deciding which one to choose.


Perhaps the most important rule of choosing a marathon is to know your deal breakers, whether those are based on terrain, logistics or finances. Beth Davenport serves as Club Secretary and has run 162 marathons. Her deal breaker is travel costs. “I will not pay more than $400 to fly anywhere within the lower 48. Considering that I fly out of Albuquerque, a small market, that can be limiting.” Berkowitz also cites costs as a deal breaker, along with having to drive a long distance to a race.

In the end, it’s up to you to determine which factors are most important to you when choosing a race. We’ve listed some handy tools to make your research a little easier!

Choose Your Own Adventure with these resources:

  • Find My Marathon – Includes a personal record score for each race, converts equivalent times between race courses and the search tool with infinite combinations lets you compare races.
  • – Search the race calendar, view past years’ results and read reviews to get a feel for races you are considering.
  • Runner’s World Race Finder – search for races by date, distance, location and much more.
  • Running USA Race Tool – This site has an interactive map and even a 50 Stater’s Plan!

Do you prefer big races or small races? What kind of extras would sway you towards a particular race? What are some of your race deal breakers? Do you use any other resources to research races?

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Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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  1. Hi Sassy! Great advice. I decided after reading your post to go for a half-marathon that will be a little more of a drive, but tons more fun. It’s the Santa Fe to Buffalo Thunder Half ( — two miles of a gentle grade (300 feet) which is about the same elevation as the path that I train most of the time, and then coasting down a 1300 foot elevation drop to the finish line through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It cost a few dollars more than the boring, flat marathon in Albuquerque on the same day that I was considering but the goodies include a medal and a technical shirt. I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the extra drive up to Santa Fe to pick up the race packet the week before the race, but decided that it’s worth it if it’s something I can really get excited about. Thanks for encouraging me to take a look at the entire menu!

    1. Candy, thanks for the comment! Your race looks like a ton of fun – and those views! Sometimes it really is worth paying more to make sure the race is a good fit for you.

  2. Sassy – one thing that is important to me is being able to easily get to the start quickly. I love races where I can walk out the hotel and be at the start line within minutes (like Columbus, Des Moines, Green Bay, etc.). One of the most frustrating things for me about the Boston Marathon or Twin Cities is the LONG waiting around period required prior to the race. I also tend to prefer medium sized races (2000 people rather than 40,000), but I will admit I am currently training for Chicago. 🙂

    1. Mint, I really like being close to the start too! Probably my most stressful race was when I ran the Air Force Half. I left super early from my friend’s house where I was staying, but there were only a couple of access points since you are going onto a base. I remember just watching the minutes tick by and thinking I would miss the start! I think it takes some trial and error before you can figure out what really works best for you as far as races go.

    1. Great Sarah Jo! Welcome to Salty Running! There’s tons of great information here, especially since we’re currently focusing on writing about fall marathons. And if there’s a topic you can’t find you can always let us know by emailing us (or the form on the ‘contact’ page is great) and we’ll work on it for you!