Picking the Right Race

09/28/2018 - 14:46

By Lena Hollmann
What factors are important to you when you pick a race to run? Depending on where you live and the time of year, you may have several options when it comes to choosing a race. I was recently looking for a race nearby to run around Labor Day. One that was fairly close to my home, preferably no more than 30 minutes.

I found a 5K about 20 minutes away, that seemed to be perfect in every way. Until I saw the entry fee! That’s when I got sticker shock. Almost a month before race day, it was $35 to enter online. Plus a “convenience fee” that yanked the price up to almost $40. I’d be willing to pay that much for a half marathon, and maybe also for a 10K. But for a 5K that I enter ahead of time, it was too much. Especially here in Naples, FL, where I don’t expect to pay more than $25 or maybe $30 for a 5K.

So I decided to skip this $40 race and look for another one. And I got curious how my friends pick races. What criteria matter to them? I did another one of my little surveys on Facebook, and found that my friends also favor races that are not far away from where they live. Having a long drive to the race site can be a show stopper, especially since races tend to start early in the morning. And unless it is a very important race, we usually don’t want to leave the night before and check into a hotel.

For me it is also important that a race fits into my schedule, both in general and running-wise. If it’s too close in time to another race I want to run, or if it conflicts with other important activities, I will skip it. And of course the race distance also matters! I can be somewhat flexible and opt for a 5 miler instead of a 10K, but when I am looking for a 5K I’m not going to settle for a half marathon. Race distance and “fitting into my schedule” were also collectively the second most important criteria for my friends.

The reputation of a race is also a viable consideration. Is it well organized? Did last year’s rendition go off without any glitches? In general it’s a good idea to pick races that have been around for a while because they have had time to fine tune, and to get rid of any issues. Usually we know which races are ”good ones”, unless they change management or undergo other transformations. With inaugural races on the other hand we take our chances, especially since there are a few “shady” operators out there. It has happened more than once that “race directors” announce new races and set up websites where runners can sign up. But after a number of runners have entered, they take the money and leave town! In other words, they collect entry fees and then find a reason to cancel the race (for example not seeking a permit, or being denied one), and then refuse to give refunds. Sometimes these races can be part of a series that have gotten into hot water in other cities. So it’s always a good idea to Google a race that you consider running but don’t know much about. Or ask other runners if they are familiar with the race.

This being said though, there are several new races out there every year that do a great job, and the majority of races are legit. It’s just that as with any other product or service we purchase, we need to be on the lookout for scams!

A few of my friends have races on their bucket lists. John Farrow of Albuquerque, NM, wants to run races in Alaska and Hawaii to complete the achievement of having raced in all 50 states. For this particular accomplishment the distance of the races he picks won’t matter – any distance will do! Farrow also wants to complete the London and Berlin marathons, so that he has done all the Majors. (Other marathons in the Majors are Tokyo, Boston, Chicago and New York.) And running the Boston Marathon is or was on the bucket list for several of my friends. It was on my bucket list too, a long time ago. Until I ran it for the first time in 1979!

The race course can also be a consideration. Is it hilly? Scenic? Point to point, out and back, or a loop? Does it have a lot of turns? If you are going for a personal best or a Boston qualifying time, the course could be a deciding factor. A flat course with few turns would usually be your best bet, even though it could be less interesting than a scenic but hilly course.

The weather is another factor. We rarely know in advance what Mother Nature has in store for us on race day. If you run the Boston Marathon, be prepared for any weather! However a race in the summer will likely be hot and one in the winter will be cold. And if you are going for a personal best or a Boston qualifier you may want to pick a November race, because in most parts of the country it will likely be cool then without being so cold that you freeze your nose off!

Michael Selman of Atlanta, GA, picks races according to what age groups they offer. He prefers races with five year age groups that go up to at least 75+, even though he is not in that age group yet. So I figure he would be happy with the racing scene here in Florida, where almost every race offers these age groups! A few races here go even higher and offer age groups up to 80+, or even 85+. But in most of the rest of the country, age groups often stop at 60 or 65. I remember a few races in North Carolina where age groups only went to 60+, but that was a few years ago and could have changed. And here in Florida we really need the breakdown of age groups up to 75+ and maybe older, because among the flocks of retirees that move here every year there’s also a fair share of fast runners!

Whether the T-shirts and awards are nice and the food is good doesn’t matter as much to me and my friends. Nor do we care much which races our buddies decide to run. Each of us has our own goals and preferences when it comes to racing. Your friend might be an avid marathoner while you stick to 5Ks. Or they go to out of town races while you prefer to race in your own town.

Entry fees don’t seem to be as important as I expected either. We have gotten used to that it’s more expensive to race than it used to be. And as long as the runners will come, races can charge higher fees. Sometimes they have to because expenses associated with putting on a race have gone up also. But for most of us there is an upper limit as to what we are willing to pay. Cheryl Scher of South River, NJ, for example, decided not to run any 5Ks in a series that charged $50 for each race. And I didn’t sign up for that $40 5K!

In the end, deciding which races to run is probably more of an art than a science. We have our favorites, and it can be a plethora of reasons why we return to them every year. Sometimes we do the same race year after year because it has become tradition! Or at least I do. Other times we want new experiences and try races in other towns, maybe even one in every state. But regardless where we run, how far, and in which races, we’ll always cherish the experience. Especially when we cross that finish line!

Lena Hollmann is a certified personal trainer with American Council on Exercise (ACE). She lives and runs in Naples, FL, and can be reached at

This article appeared in the October issue of Running Journal.

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