How to Pick the Right Marathon

Q I have been running pretty regularly for about nine months now and recently decided to train for a marathon. I thought I would do the New York City Marathon, only to find out that it is a lottery and I missed the entry date. I decided on another marathon and found out it was already full. I had no idea it would be this difficult to pick a marathon. How do runners go about selecting a marathon? – BILL


A This is a great question! You are not alone in your surprise about lottery entries or early close outs. Unfortunately, I hear this all too often from many new runners who simply have no idea that signing up for a marathon sometimes requires a long-term plan.

It depends upon the popularity of the marathon you are considering, but doing your homework is essential. Visit the website of any race you are interested in as soon as possible and check out the dates and logistics of how and when to register. It’s important to know and understand their sign up process. But don’t despair, not all marathons are lotteries or close out early.

Here are my suggestions for a list of priorities to consider when searching for a race. Pick and choose what seems most important to you. What’s interesting is that your priorities change over time too, so it’s fun to keep re-arranging this list.


The cost of running a marathon varies tremendously. Entry fees are just one cost factor. Airfare, hotels, meals and other transportation costs add up quickly and can get quite expensive. Deciding ahead of time how much you can realistically afford to spend as you begin your search is essential. If you are on a budget, look for races that are close or within driving distance. Smaller races, or races in smaller towns are typically less expensive than big city races. Also, small races can deliver quite a bang for your buck and a wonderful experience. If cost is not a factor, then you are wide open.

Time of year

Look at the time of year that you would like to run a race and then back it up by 4 to 6 months for training time. Autumn races mean you will be training through the summer. Depending upon where you live, summer training can be challenging. You might prefer to pick spring marathons and autumn half-marathons. Summer also means holiday; could travel potentially disrupt or even derail your training plans? Consider your work schedule too, as it’s ideal to minimise disruptions, if at all possible, especially for your first race. Time of year also includes looking at the weather on race day. Weather impacts performance, so if you don’t run well in hot, humid conditions, look for races in cooler climates. What type of weather conditions do you prefer for running? While there are no guarantees for perfect race day weather, set yourself up for the best conditions possible.

Race registration

Know the process and the important sign up dates for any race you are considering. It’s not uncommon for popular races to sell out within just a few hours after opening, so don’t procrastinate. If the race is a lottery, pick a back up race in case you don’t get in. Another option when races are lotteries or already full, is running for a charity. Many races offer a number of entries through various charities. A charity entry means you must raise a certain amount of money for that charity, so be sure and check the amount required and decide if that is doable for you. There can be perks associated with charity entries too, like transportation provided to and from the race, or special meet up areas, so it can be a good option and you help fund the designated charity.

Establish your goals for the race

The good news is that this is your first marathon, so you’ll automatically set a personal best (PB). But, be honest with yourself… are you looking to “just finish” the race or are you aiming for a time goal? Other than a time goal, what other race goals might you have? Are you looking for a big city marathon experience? Do you want crowds of spectators cheering you on? Or, do you prefer a quieter course, maybe one with scenic views? Do you want to stop and take pictures? Are you looking for a destination race to holiday afterwards? Is this a family holiday trip? Defining your race goals will help you narrow down your selections.

Check out the race course

Hills? Flat? Trail? Altitude? City roads? Wilderness? Read the website carefully! If you would like to run as fast a time as possible, then look for a fast course, which usually means relatively flat with few turns. Check out the elevation profile carefully. Note the hills and their incline. Selecting a race course that is similar to the type of terrain you have available to train on is important because whatever your goals are, you want to be well-prepared for the demands of the race. Also, consider the logistics of how the race course is laid out. For example, are the start and finish areas in the same place? Or, is it a point-to-point race where runners are moved by bus out to a start area and run back to the finish line. If so, is race transportation provided? How easy is it to meet up with family/friends afterwards? How far away is your hotel or car? Are these distances walkable? Easy access to family or friends, and/or easy availability back to your hotel, can be important afterwards if you are not feeling your best.

There are several other factors I like to consider when picking a race. One is the start time. I am a morning runner and love early start times, so I weigh this heavily when signing up for a race. Later start times are not for me. If you want your best performance, consider the time of day that works best for you and try to find a similar start time. Knowing the race cut off time is important too! Make certain you have enough time to finish the race without too much pressure.

For your first race, keeping it simple can be really helpful. Finding a race close to home with similar terrain, makes training easier, and reduces expenses and stress. On the other hand, making a big commitment for a marathon trip with airfare, hotel, and rental car or planning a destination race with a holiday can provide a great deal of motivation!

Bottom line: Clearly defining your race goals and objectives for your first marathon will help you refine your search. There are no right or wrong answers. The purpose is finding the right race for you.


Coach Marathon

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