It’s How Much? Making Races Fit Your Budget

2009 Races
You might need some smelling salts if you added up the cost of all these bibs and medals. Image via luxomedia.

We’ve all heard that saying about running being cheap; all you need is a pair of shoes. Well, if you’re just running around your neighborhood that might be true, but if you’re running races, the costs can add up quickly! Think about it: the race fee itself, gas or airfare and a rental car, new shoes, a hotel and don’t get us started on managing an injury … it’s all about the Benjamins. Runner’s World‘s Mark Remy even quotes his colleague Bart Yasso as saying that “the average marathon medal costs about a thousand bucks“. I’m here to help you navigate the world of marathons and half marathons while softening the blow to your bank account.

Race Fees

Time – it’s on your side. A little planning can save you a lot of dough. If you’re the type of person who plans out your races a year or more in advance (what, runners? Type A?), think about not just the race costs, but any other expenses you may have on the horizon. For example, I’m only going to do local races this spring because I’m saving for an epic trip out West. Or ponder if you can combine purposes of your trip. When I do a California race (I’m eyeing CIM), the Mr. and I will probably make it into a mini-vacation. Getting back to the actual race fees, pay attention to deadlines and get in on those early bird race rates! Generally, the race website will have a table showing the dates that the different rates take effect, so don’t snooze.

Go on a Surfin’ Safari… on the World Wide Web, that is. When it comes to saving money, the Internet is your friend! If you’re even thinking about doing a race, sign up for their email newsletter, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Races will not only remind you of those pesky deadlines, but often offer promo codes for discounted registration. (You can sometimes find these guys in race goody bags, at expo booths or in magazine ads, too.) Use your Google-fu to search for codes or put your friends to work if they’re doing races nearby. One of my friends ran in the Indy 500 Festival in May, so I had her check to see if Monumental had a booth there to save me some moolah. Sites like RetailMeNot sometimes have race deals, and RunGearGuy is a great source for deals as well.

If I Had A Million Dollars… While I hope my tips help you save some money, sometimes you’ve just got to splurge on the race fees. Only you can decide when it’s worth it to pay more for that experience. It may be a bucket list destination race, a once-in-a-lifetime event or a reunion with old running buddies halfway across the country. I paid $125 when registered for the 2012 Houston Marathon (I ended up running the half, but that’s a whole other story); since it meant getting to spectate at the Olympic Marathon Trials the day before the race, I considered it money well spent.

Yeah, when I’m paying an entry fee for a big race I don’t feel like this, either. Image via

… And Everything Else

The actual registration fee isn’t the only thing to consider when you’re mentally doing the math. Unless you’re racing in your town, you’ll have to pay for travel to the race – whether you’re road tripping or flying -, for a place to rest your head and for eats to fuel your body the next day.

My Houston travel ended up costing me approximately $30. I will admit, though, that totally lucked out with the timing and like-minded travel partners. I cashed in airline points for a free flight (sans the $5 fee). My friends and I agreed that since everything we were doing was located within a small area, we could skip the car rental, and instead used a Super Saver Shuttle to get from the airport and a cab to get back. Rather than staying at one of the official race hotels, I searched for one that would fit with my rewards points … and found one less than a mile from both the start and finish!

Now, you may not get as lucky as my nearly-free trip to Texas, but there are still lots of ways to reduce costs by planning ahead.

Bills, Bills, Bills.  If you have a credit card that earns points, check to see if the rewards catalog has a “travel” category (anything from car rental to flights) and get credit for money you’d be spending anyway! For my out-of-state half this spring, my friends and I stayed at one of the official race hotels. In this case, it was a Marriott and I was able to cash in credit card points for a Marriott gift card. I’m saving up those points so I can do the same when I go to Indy in November!

Travelin’ (Wo)man.  Chances are, you belong to at least one hotel or airline reward program. Maybe you haven’t stayed with that chain in a while or even forgot the account existed. Don’t let those points go to waste; use them to take the edge off your race travel!  I am admittedly a bit of an award mileage nerd and have a whole folder of travel blogs in my Google reader, but using a program like Award Wallet helps you  track your points and stay organized. Many programs also offer a “cash plus points” option if you don’t have quite enough points to reach your reward. Keep in mind that you can earn points many, many ways besides actually travelling!

How to Deal. You know those emails you get from daily deal sites like Groupon, LivingSocial and their cousins? Once you know what farther-flung races are on your calendar, sign up for deals in those cities, whether you get them in your inbox or just use the app version. You never know when you’ll spot a bargain for a pre-race pasta dinner or a post-race massage or beer!

What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a race? Do you have any tips for keeping race and travel costs under control? What races are on your “splurge list”?

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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. I’d like to add a couple of tips:

    1. Patronize smaller local races. These tend to be WAY cheaper than the biggees and I really enjoy the smaller size. I meet lots of people and have a blast almost without fail. Who knows, with the smaller field you might even win!

    2. See if you can join a local racing team or running club. Many racing teams and running clubs offer discounts to some of the bigger local races. You might also get a discount at the local running store for shoes, apparel and gear.

    Those are my tips. I’ve been racing since 2006 and the cost of just race entry has skyrocketed! Even my old 2007 shoes of choice are now $30 more at retail. It’s nuts. Running can be an inexpensive sport, but you have to work hard to keep it that way. I realize events like NYC, Chicago and Boston are VERY expensive to put on, but the RNR races can’t be nearly that expensive yet their entry fees are almost as much. It would be nice to see a budget line of marathons or a scholarship system or something. It’s crazy!

    1. One of my favorite half marathons costs about $35 (although it’s probably more now), and you get a windbreaker AND a show from the local drum corps at the halfway point. The downside is that smaller races can be lonely sometimes, though, so it’s about what size race is good for you. Love your idea of a scholarship system!

  2. My running partner and I were just talking about this today on our long run. We feel that racing in some respects has become an “elite” sport because there are not too many people in our current economy who can afford to shell out $20-$30 a month or more on races (and those are just small, local race prices). The most I’ve paid is $80 for the Akron marathon this fall. I’m already trying to budget for Boston 2013. I know that is going to be a bank breaker. From the $150 cost to register (and that is the 2012 price, could be more for 2013), to travel & eating expenses, to purchasing race swag (which I will splurge- only fair to brag about a hard earned goal). I know that trip will be worth every cent, but that might prevent me from racing the months after that, just to recover the debt. Ugh. It is becoming an expensive sport. Yes, all you need is a pair of running shoes, but add on the Garmin, running clothes, running fuel, etc., it is not cheap! Still, I won’t put a price tag on my passion:).

    1. Michelle, I I love the last line of your comment! Boston is definitely on my splurge-worthy list, but I feel you about having to save in advance and not doing many other races that season.

      Your comment got me thinking about what you get for your entry fee. I know Akron used to give “free” shoes to all runners – I think now they’ve switched to jackets. I wonder if for some people, that swag helps justify the cost?

      1. Akron’s also on the cheaper side too! The jackets are great. I love mine!!! Akron is a really well-organized race that the community is behind. It treats the runners great too. It’s definitely a great race. I try to participate on some level every year because it’s such a good one.