I’ve been lost in the woods on courses, missed turns and even participated in races that ran out of water for those of us at the tail end of the pack. When you’re running your first (or second) race, you have to pick the right one or you’ll get discouraged and it could be your last. If you choose a race that’s really set up to accommodate the slow pokes and the newcomers, you’ll have a good experience and, perhaps, fall in love with the marathon (and the half marathon) as I have.

I suggest a few questions to ask when choosing your first marathon:

  • How many hours is the course open? Many races have cutoff times after which the course closes down. There would be nothing worse than doing the work of training to run your long race and discovering at the finish line that the port-o-potties have been taken away, all the recovery food has been consumed, and there are no volunteers left to wave you in. If you’re picking a marathon, be sure the race you choose is open for six or more hours. If you’re walking the race, make sure the course is walker-friendly and is open for at least seven or eight hours. For half marathons, check that it’s open for three and a half hours at a minimum. A good way to find out if a race is friendly for slow pokes is to look at race results in previous years. If you see race results recorded for people at your pace, you’re golden.
  • What does the race offer in the way of support and accolades? If you’re a first timer or a back-of-the-packer (finishing in 4:45 or longer for a full marathon), the number of volunteers and water stations on the course is important. You’ll want to find a race with water available no more than three miles apart. You’ll also want to choose a race that gives you a medal and a shirt! If you’re not likely to place and be recognized in your age group, you’ll want those mementos to give you the pat on the back you need at the beginning of your running career.
  • What does the course look like? It’s pretty awful to have to run past the finish line and watch others completing the race while you still have two hours of running left. Be sure to choose an out-and-back, a single loop or a point-to-point course instead of a double loop (which trots you past the fast finishers as they celebrate and stretch). Also, be sure the elevation gain and loss on the course is something you have trained for and can handle.
  • How many participants will the race have? Some people like to choose the mega races with 25,000 runners or more for their first go. These large races are a lot of fun, and they tend to be pretty well supported and good at making runners feel celebrated. But because they cater to so many participants, the really big ones may make it tough for your family and friends to find you in the crowd along the course (at mile 16, for example, when you most need their moral support to keep going) or at the finish line. On the other hand, a really small race (say, less than 150) may mean you won’t be able to see other runners in front or behind you at certain points on the route. You could get lost or discouraged under those lonely circumstances. How big you want to go depends on your personal needs and the kind of experience you’d like to have. If you’re not sure, try choosing a race with between 500 and 2000 racers for your first foray. Your supporters will be able to find you along the course, and you’ll see plenty of other runners at your pace, but you won’t bump into them or have to elbow for space at the starting line.
  • How old is the race? New races haven’t worked out the kinks. Choose one that has at least two or three years under its belt.
  • How much does it cost? Marathons are big business nowadays, but a larger entry fee doesn’t necessarily mean better organization or support. You can find a great race for between $50 and $60. Remember, too, that the cost goes up closer to the race date, so get your registration in early.

Keep me posted! Where are you running your 2012 half or full marathon???

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