10 Best Races For Sub-Elite Runners

There are perks to being an elite runner: complimentary race entries, travel assistance, free hotel stay, performance bonuses, even VIP porta-potties. The list of luxuries goes on and on. But many of these perks are available to sub-elite runners, if you know where to look or if you know the secret handshake. The key is finding the best races that cater to runners who aren’t quite national class, but are still very good runners.

So, how do you know where to find these races? Well, I’ve asked some of my friends to share their favorites and tell us about their experience as a sub-elite. And I’ve included some of my own favorites as well!


Houston Marathon and Half Marathon

This race is held in mid-January and is one of the most competitive races in the United States. The flat, fast course brings in a strong international field. Ryan Hall set the American record for the half marathon here, and the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were held in Houston in 2012. This year, Jordan Hasay raced her debut half marathon in 1:08 on an unseasonably warm and humid day.

In addition to a strong elite field, Houston has an American Development Program (ADP) for sub-elites. For 2017 the standard was sub 1:25 for the half marathon and sub 2:50 for the marathon. The ADP gives you a free race entry for the half or full and access to a separate warm-up area with private porta-potties. You also get to line up directly behind the elite field.

I personally participated in the ADP this past year and thought the race was very well organized. Having a private warm-up area with separate bathrooms cut down on the pre-race stress and variables and allowed me to focus on my race. Elite fluids are not available for sub-elites, which isn’t an issue for the half, but may be more of a problem for the full marathon so that’s something to keep in mind.

Mercedes Marathon (Birmingham, Alabama)

Sub-elite runner Anne Portlock recommends this race because it’s a PR course and overall a great experience for the runner. Mercedes provided a complimentary entry, lodging for the night before the race with a very generous extended checkout time following the race too. It also offers shuttles to and from the airport. More information can be found here. The race is held in mid-February in Alabama where the temperatures are generally mild: average of 47° on race day.

Shamrock Marathon Weekend (Virginia Beach)

Hollie Sick, a sub-elite runner and blogger from New Jersey is a big fan of the Shamrock Half Marathon. Shamrock is organized by J&A Racing, a timing and race management company that puts on several big events throughout the year in Virginia Beach.

Hollie has this to say about Shamrock:

J&A Races will normally give someone under a 1:20 half a free entry and they always have a ton of free things at the end.

Shamrock usually has travel assistance and a complimentary hotel stay for sub-elite runners, but they are hosting the US Masters 8K Championships in 2017, so the only perk offered this year is a complimentary entry.

Even so, Shamrock has a flat, fast course as long as the weather cooperates, and usually brings in a strong, competitive field. The 8k and children’s races are on Saturday, with the half marathon and full marathon on Sunday. Race day falls within a few days of St. Patrick’s Day and sometimes on the holiday itself. Don’t forget to wear something green for good luck and so you don’t get pinched!

Pittsburgh Marathon 

Jen Bigham, a Pittsburgh sub-elite runner, wanted to give a shout out to her local race where elites can get a shared hotel room with another athlete, travel assistance, and a warm private area to hang out before the race with REAL restrooms. In addition to a complimentary dinner the night before the race, Pittsburgh Marathon has “special needs for race day (your own fluids placed on tables on the course), an elite lounge with snacks and drinks plus coffee, electrolyte drinks and typical race morning foods the morning of the race.”

Pittsburgh has an American Development Program with American-only prize money plus overall cash. Jen also warns that it’s not a PR course, with significant hills, but fast runners always show up to battle for the prize purse. Finally, “another really unique and special part of this race is the locally themed gift given to elites at the technical meeting. It changes every year and is sure to help you remember Pittsburgh.” A gift for running the race that’s not just another t-shirt? Sign me up.

Poppy gets it done at Broad Street last year.

Broad Street Run (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Broad Street is a 10 mile race through the streets of Philly in early May. Although this article is mainly geared towards half and full marathons, I wanted to include this race because Hollie Sick says that this is one of her favorite races … and Hollie runs a LOT of races.

They have an elite program that you can qualify for if you’ve run under 60 minutes for 10 miles. That gets you a private porta-potty and complimentary entry. But it’s worth applying if you’re close to that standard. You can get a spot in the seeded corral if you have run under 65 minutes in the past two years. More information on how to apply for Broad Street Run here.

Lincoln Marathon and Half Marathon (Lincoln, Nebraska)

This is another fantastic race in early May. Maija Zimmerman, a sub-elite runner from Colorado says that it’s a good race for sub-elites. With a fast course and a hefty prize purse, you might consider a trip to corn country for your next big race.

Rock ‘n’ Roll races (24 “tour stops” across the US and abroad)

In general you can get a free entry if you have run under 1:25 for the half marathon. The elite standards are no longer posted on the Rock ‘n’ Roll website, so each race may have slightly different standards. You can contact their team and supply them with your recent race times, if you’re interested in racing as an elite. You can also find more information here.

Hartford Marathon (Hartford, Connecticut)

So many sub-elite runners have recommended Hartford that I have to include it on this list. And if you’re not able to get into the elite field but you live in New England or New York then you’re in luck. Hartford has a special sub-elite program, New England’s Finest, with separate prize money and extra perks such as mileage reimbursement and complimentary hotel stay. All you have to do is complete the questionnaire and submit a bio highlighting your race performances for the past two years.

Keep in mind that for this race you have to submit your application early. Most races will accept elites and sub-elites up to two weeks beforehand, but the application period for Hartford closes in July, three months before the race.

Indianapolis Monumental Marathon 

Anne Portlock, a sub-elite runner who lives near Indianapolis, has this to say about her experience at Indy Monumental:

IMM was a relatively local race for me so I can’t say how much they supported athletes traveling for the race. I did take advantage of the elite fluids and indoor warm-up area. It was a very well organized, high-caliber event with a consistently competitive field.

Salty Running’s own Chicory highly recommended this race for several reasons, but she also mentions IMM’s “pretty generous elite standards”.

I spoke with Matt Ebersole, the elite athlete coordinator via email who said the race organizers want:

A good race at the front, more than a fast winning time. We have seen races that have one or a very small number of runners way ahead of the field. We [are] more interested in bringing in as many people… that are close to the marathon trials standards (also in the half). Our courses are both conducive to fast times. Combining this with deep fields lead to many PRs.

Matt also provided some fun numbers that I thought were worth sharing:

Monumental had the 7th most marathon qualifiers and 5th most half marathon qualifiers for the 2016 US Olympic Marathon Trials and had the 10th most Boston qualifiers of all marathons in North America!

If you’re interested in running IMM check out the race’s FAQ, and where you will also find contact information to email Matt.

California International Marathon (Sacramento) 

If you’re serious about chasing the OTQ standard, CIM is a great race to go for it. The course isn’t necessarily flat, but it’s still fast. And CIM always brings a very strong field. The elite application isn’t open yet, but will be available here when it is.

In addition to their regular cash prizes, CIM offers prize money for PA-USATF members, runners who live in Northern California and are USATF members. For 2017, CIM is also the USATF National Championship for the Marathon. Look for more information to be released soon. CIM falls on the first weekend in December.


If you’re a sub-elite runner looking to run fast, give some of these races a shot. But if you want to look beyond this list, here are a few additional tips.

Ask around. Ask other fast runners in your area if they have any races that they would recommend.

Contact the elite coordinator. When you’re looking for races online, sometimes it can be hard to find the contact info for the elite coordinator but I’ve had luck with checking the FAQ or googling the race name plus “elite athletes”.

Know most published standards are a wish list, and not set in stone. Another helpful hint from Anne Portlock is to not take the event’s standards, when published, as firm requirements. If your times are close and you think you will be competitive, it never hurts to ask because the field might not be full.

Don’t commit too early. Being registered as an elite can add pressure. Anne says, ” I prefer to wait until close to a race date before committing so I don’t put myself in the position of trying to work though a potential injury in order to keep pace with a training schedule with a firm completion date.”

That’s something to keep in mind particularly when you’re training for a marathon. Injury and illness can happen at any point, and it can be hard to register for a race a year in advance hoping that the stars will align in your favor. Last-minute requests to elite coordinators often pan out!

Are you a sub-elite runner and had a great race experience that you’d like to share? And if you’ve had a bad experience, you can tell us all about that too (like still waiting for your prize money from two years ago? Cue eye roll.)

I'm a mom and business owner from upstate NY. I love running, coffee, and adult beverages. Also chocolate. I'm currently training for shorter distances (mile-5k) but my big goal is to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials in the marathon.

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  1. Grandma’s Marathon is another great race for sub-elites. They don’t have set-in-stone standards listed on their website (they ask you send a running resume), but they are pretty generous with accepting runners into the elite field there and they take very good care of the runners. I’ve had very positive experiences with the people involved with the race every time I’ve done it. It’s one of my favorites.

    1. Grandma’s is on my list — good to know! I might do Boston for fun with a friend next spring and then find a later one to run for time, so Grandma’s could be a good fit.

      1. Second the recommendation for Grandma’s- it’s a good course, nice size, and enjoyable weekend. Only negative is it can be a little hard (expensive) to get there if you don’t live within driving distance. I qualified for the 2012 Trials there.

        Also highly recommend Pittsburgh. Hilly course, but I I really enjoyed running it and appreciate their commitment to American only prize money. Had a great weekend there and would definitely go back to run again in the future.

        Not on the list but good sub-elite perks: Outer Banks 1/2 and marathon, held in November. Elite entry includes race entry, lodging, pre-race reception, and post-race brunch. Very low key. Course is your typical beach race course (flat and a lot along the highway), good prize money (but they ahem need to do drug testing b/c of some questionable groups that frequent it). I’d recommend it if you’re looking for a nice weekend at the beach and want to get a training run type race in.

        1. Check out Cowtown in Fort Worth! The race is in late February with distances from 5k-50k with considerable crowd support on a relatively flat course. They also went above and beyond when it came to supporting their elite field.

  2. The Buffalo marathon provides hotels for certain time criteria. I’m not sure what it is, but it isn’t too strict and you don’t even have to be “racing” the event to get it. What I mean is, my roommate at the hotel last year was just running the race, she hadn’t trained for it, but it was free for her, so she signed up.

  3. While I’m not fast enough to qualify for the sub-elite pool, I’d reiterate that Indy Monumental is a great event. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better executed race, and the course is tight and fast. I’ve vowed to try to run it every year that I can. So far, it’s my favorite.

  4. I’m going to put the shoe on the other foot for a second here. I’m a race director who has put on over 50 races and recently ended our elite / comped entries program. It was always fun to see some really fast people come out and set a new course record, but in the end I wasn’t able to justify the cost. I’m spending money on food, permits, awards, etc…and elites get a free entry and sometimes other perks. One of last elites we had out was a gal who finished top 10 at the 2016 ncaa steeplechase…again very cool to see her come out but I don’t know that it helped our race in any way. So what I would ask to the local elites / sub-elites is what is the justification for the free entry and other perks? Not trying to be mean and I certainly want to see American times continue to improve, but I take money and prizes out of the hands of paying customers so there needs to be a purpose for doing that. Thank you for any feedback.

  5. Love this list, very useful. In fact it was what directed me to Houston this past year and I ran a 5 min half marathon PR of 1:20.. However, I also ran Mercedes half this year, and I would not call it “fast” in the least, I had a crap day, so that was definitely a part of it, but there pretty significant hills on this course!