Choosing Your First Big Race: Guidelines and Recommendations

I am a plus-sized runner.  I run/walk at a 16:00 per mile pace, and I can carry that for a half marathon, easily.   In 1999, my younger, lighter self was a 13:30 runner.   Neither Young Sallie nor Current Sallie, however, could escape the steely gaze of the Chicago Police Department, winding down the course of the Shamrock Shuffle.   Every time I ran that race, I found myself at Mile 1, or 2, or 3, with a megaphone blasting in my ear “Walkers to the side!  You have to get on the sidewalk.”  I spent two years like that, getting yelled at.   It didn’t matter that I had paid the same amount of money as every other entrant, or that I was passing skinny runners who hadn’t bothered to train.  The third year, I realized the joke was on me.  I cut the course, (the only time I’ve ever done that) and finished angry and short a mile.  I also learned a valuable lesson.  The Chicago Police had a job to do – to re-open the streets – and races that ran on short timelines were no longer for me.

Big athletes – plus sized athletes – are, in many, many cases, slower than the “average” sized athlete.  Why?  Physics.  There is more weight to move, requiring more energy, and unless your body can overcome the energy needs and manage the cardio demands at the same time, chances are, you’re slower than someone who is exactly your height.  Just today, in fact, the New York Times shares the same conclusion, one which shouldn’t shock us, but is nice to see in print.

So how does that impact you?  Why should you care about it?  You’re out there, you’re running, you’re doing great things, right?  Well, right.  Except that when it comes time to put your money into a race, to give yourself a goal, you need to make sure you’re choosing a race that’s going to accept a slower runner, and support a slower runner.  Or you might as well just go run by yourself somewhere.

I have seen many, many plus-sized athletes go out for their first long, endurance race, (or even their first Shamrock Shuffle) only to find themselves completely overwhelmed by the fact that they are, in fact, slow – and as a result, their race experience sucks.   They begin at the back of the pack, as instructed, only to find that by the time they reach the mid-miles, the water is gone, or the police car is on their tail, or the mile markers have been taken down (all of which have happened to me). 

So, to help you pick your first, or next race, I offer you some simple guidelines.  Then, a list of recommended, plus-runner and walker  friendly half marathons. 

Choosing your first 5k or 10k is a bit simpler than choosing a half marathon or marathon. 5k races are typically run with a little bit of extra time, early in the morning on a weekend, resulting in minimal street closures.  But your best experiences may come in a race that’s run in a local park (on a path or in the streets) or somewhere else that doesn’t require street closures. 

Check out the terrain if you live in a hilly area.  Most of us, when we start running for the first time, make it a little easier on ourselves by finding a somewhat flat (or lightly rolling) place to run.  If you’ve been training like that, don’t choose your first 5k or 10k for a little hill action.  Check out the course, and make sure it’s manageable before choosing it as your race.

Check the “Rules and Regulations” section, or “Frequently Asked Questions” section of the race’s website before signing up – if the course will be open for one hour for the 5k, and two hours for your 10k, you’ll have plenty of time.   If in doubt, email the race director, and ask if the course will be supported while you’re out there.

Just in case, bring your own fluids.  If you’re training with a water bottle (which my running group recommends as soon as you go over 3 miles), bring your own fluids in a waist belt.  Then, you won’t have to worry about  not having that gulp of water when you need it – you’ll have it on you!

Choosing your first half marathon

If you’re not currently running or walking, you don’t know your pace yet.   Which means that looking at finishing times means bupkus to you.  So, take my advice: look for courses with a 3:30-4:00 finish.   A 3:30 finish is about a 16:00 mile, and that gives you plenty of room – but many plus runners will be unable to make a 3:30 cutoff.  A course that’s supported to four hours is rare, but they’re out there, and they’re a nice option for first-timers.

Pick a race that suits your needs.   The Indianapolis Mini Marathon, held in May, is a half marathon that has 35,000 people running 13.1 miles.   It’s urban, it’s crowded, it’s fun, and you get to do a lap on the actual Indy Motor Speedway – seriously cool.  Contrast that with the Door County Half Marathon, also held in May.  It’s a closed-course, 13.1 mile, hilly, gorgeous, quiet, course where you have a great picnic at the end.   Last year, 690 people completed the half.   Check out that contrast: 650 people versus 350000. 

If you think you might want some crowd support, maybe an Indy Mini is for you.  If you’re up for a bit more beauty, a Door County-type race might be your thing.  Just depends on what you love, and what kind of experience you’re going for.  (I went big first, starting with the Indy Mini, but as time’s passed, I like the closed courses like Door County, which give me a bit more time to groove into my run…)   Both of these courses are open for four hours, and both have their challenges (no shade in Indy occasionally a very warm day; hills in Door County).  Think about it, and choose a race that’s good for you.

Check out the race reviews.  Marathonguide.com has a full calendar of races held in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.  Use it to check the race reviews from other runners who have completed the race in the past year.   Marathon Guide will tell you what you can’t see when you’re poking around on a race website, including a few key points:  organization, hills, and crowd support. 

Skip a race with poor organization, as it most often affects the back of the pack runners worse.  If you’re reading the reviews, and the organization gets poor marks (or people are commenting about the lack of fluids on the course, direction, etc.), skip it.  Yes, just skip that one.  You don’t need to run your first race on a course where there’s no water or Gatorade, or where the organizer forgot to put volunteers out for you.  There are thousands of races out there- don’t spend your money on one that isn’t well-run.

Think carefully about what you want or need on a run – hills and crowd support are two biggies.  If you’ve never run a half before, you probably want a course that has some fans on it.  (Well, at least I did.)  You maybe want people cheering for you, to help you run your best time.  So pay close attention to the descriptions of the crowd support.   Small towns – and medium sized cities – do this well.   Bigger cities tend to have a hard time, due to the fact that the courses tend to be run on out-of-the-way streets to keep traffic snags to a minimum. 

Also, check for hills.  I run in Chicago, which is flatter than my stomach, fo sho.  So running the Flying Pig Half Marathon in Cincinnati is always a bit challenging for me – but I do it, because there are wicked good downhills, they have a 3:30 time limit, and it’s home.  Be aware of what you’re willing to do to train for hills, and don’t let them freak you out – just be aware of them.   Two of my favorite courses are hilly monsters – the Flying Pig, and the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Fran.   But they’re both amazing races.

A few recommendations

So, you’ve got some advice, now for recommendations.  These are completely biased, and based on my own personal experience, likes and dislikes.  Unfortunately, they’re also very Midwest-based.  (Sorry ’bout that…)  I’ll tell you why I would and wouldn’t run them, and you can ask me anything you like.  Consider it my gift to you.  (And, if you’ve run one you really like, send me a note, and we’ll post it here!)

Half Marathons – Spring 2010

The Flying Pig Half Marathon – Cincinnati, Ohio.  May 2, 2010.  Yes, there are hills. But the first 5 miles are a nice warmup, and you get to run over the Ohio River at sunrise, a site which can’t be beat.  The Ohio is always nearby in this race, which winds through downtown Cincinnati before heading into Eden Park.  Yes, it will kick your ass going up, but you make up the speed on all the hills going down.  I know more people who have set personal records here than in Chicago, which is flat as a pancake.  Plus, the finish at Sawyer Point is a great reunion area, and the medal is pretty cool.  Walkers are welcome.   Cost: $75 through April 1.  Three hour thirty minute course.  Run this race if:  you live within driving distance of Cincinnati, and like some pretty in your run.  Skip it if: you can’t handle long hills. 

The Country Music Half Marathon Nashville, Tennessee.  April 24, 2010.  Great crowd support, great atmosphere, and simply the best music of any of the Rock and Roll events.  Nashville is a music town, so if you’re going to go for a RNR event (girls weekend, etc.) this is the one to do.  If you like music, and are looking for some extra motivation, run this one.   Cost: $105 through April 18.  Four hour course. Run this race if:  you live near Nashville but have never run there; are looking for a party weekend with your friends, or are a big country music fan.  Skip it if: you need a flat run.  Nashville is never, ever flat.  

The Indy Mini Marathon – Indianapolis, Indiana. May 8, 2010.  Flat as a pancake, except when you’re on the track.  The Indy Mini is a great excuse to run your first half marathon if you live in the midwest, or are a fan of racing.  The course, however, leaves much to be desired.  You start downtown, then wind through dilapidated, abandoned sections of urbanity.  You focus ahead on getting to the Brickyard, and even that, you might find challenging – it’s 2.5 miles of shuffling people, baking in the sun. (Do I sound bitter?)  Don’t count on shade, and don’t count on pretty, but do count on a fast time. This race is sold out for 2010.  (Clearly, no one listens to me :))   Run this race if:  you need a flat course  Skip it if: you don’t like crowds, or don’t care for a desolate urban running landscape.

The Door County Half Marathon – Door County, WI, May 2, 2010.  Beautiful course, closed to traffic, excellent organization, and no end-of-race car chewing your tail as you run.  You might be last, but you’ll be very happy you came.  Plus, at less than 900 participants, you’ll know everyone around you by the time you’re finished. Cost: $48.   Four hour course. Run this race if: you live in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Minneapolis and need an affordable, gorgeous, quiet spring half.  Skip it if: you need some quality time on a football field – check out the Green Bay Half instead, where you can finish at Lambeau Field.

The Minneapolis Marathon and Half Marathon – Minneapolis, MN, June 6, 2010.  Great shwag (finisher’s jacket and stained glass medals); in gorgeous downtown Minneapolis. Free training programs, great organizers, and a course that takes you along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi river towards Fort Snelling, then sends you back downtown.  What’s not to love?  Cost: $68 through Feb. 3. Four hour course.  Run this race if: you need one last long run before summer, or live anywhere near Minneapolis.  Skip it if: you don’t run long after May.

Half Marathons – Fall 2010

The Nike Women’s Marathon & Half Marathon – San Francisco, CA, October 17, 2010.  Not a finisher’s medal – a Tiffany finisher’s necklace (um, handed to you by a hot guy in a tux and running shoes).  Women’s specific tech shirts.  (Oh, guys can run, too, and there are shirts for you, too.)  Massages and shopping to die for.  The Ghirardelli Chocolate Mile (no, I’m not kidding.)  The. Best. Views.   The Oxygen Bar at Mile 7, on the way up behind the Golden Gate Bridge.   Oh, and it’s 99% women, so it’s uber-supportive.  Literally, I have never, ever run/walked a race where I was surrounded by people – the entire way.  Yes, it’s a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training event, so if you’re not running with them, you have to lottery to get  into the race, but it’s a lovely experience, and one of the best I’ve ever had.  If you have a Nike+ system, register with Nike beforehand and you’ll get advance notice on the lottery.  Cost: $110.  Four hour half marathon, 7.5 hour marathon. Run this race if: you can get in.  It’s a lottery system, and it’s tough.  Skip it if:  you’re a moron.  Okay, if you can’t handle hills at all, skip it – but I actually thought this race was easier than the Flying Pig.  Yeah.

The Grand Rapids Marathon, Half Marathon, and Marathon Relay Grand Rapids, MI, October 17, 2010.  Three words: Velocity-Challenged-Start.  A few years back, when the Chicago Marathon imploded due to heat, people flocked to Grand Rapids to make up for the Season That Got Overheated.  They found a small race, run by a passionate guy, with great crowd support and good perks.   There were cookies on the tables! Water everywhere! Running through the woods!  And this “Velocity Challenged Start” – an earlier start time for walkers and slower runners (over 6 hours on the full marathon, 3 hours on the half).  It’s perfect – no stress, no fuss, no muss.  Grand Rapids is a not-so-big town with a big heart, and this race opens its arms to you.  Plus, the shirt is simple and good-looking, and the posters are eight sorts of inspiring.  Even if you don’t run it, you should sign up for Don Kern’s race director blog – it’s worth reading.  Cost: $68 through May 15. Four hour half marathon, 7 hour marathon (using VCS).   Run this race if:  you need a low-key alternative to the Chicago Marathon; or would like a great fall half marathon.  Skip it if: you get into Nike. Otherwise, run this one.

The Chicamauga Battlefield Half Marathon Chattanooga, TN November 13, 2010.  If you’re a fan of American history, or simply in awe of what the Civil War meant for America, this is the race for you.  Three years ago, I was at this battlefield – I visited while on an assignment in Chattanooga.  Technically, this race is just over the border in Georgia.  But the battlefield itself – and the amazing monuments which line the park – are breathtaking.  When I was there, we watched runners lacing up for a nightly run, and I remember thinking “that’s odd”. Now, I think it’s just plain cool.  The race runs you through the park, ranked recently as one of the top three by Runner’s World readers.  And, bonus for us slowbees – it has a SIX HOUR half marathon limit.  Yes, you read that correctly.  So it’s a great, historical place. It’s beautiful.  It’s course with little or no car traffic – and it’s near one of the coolest little cities in the South, Chattanooga.  I’m about a day away from adding it to my schedule. Cost: $40 through August 10.  Six hour course.  Run this race if: you like American history, quiet runs on your tree lined streets, and want to bring the kids along (most family friendly race, too.)  Skip it if: you don’t like running alone.  It’s a small field. 

That’s it from here! Take a look, lock in your spring races, and share your plans!  We’ll see you on the path!

8 thoughts on “Choosing Your First Big Race: Guidelines and Recommendations

    • I completely agree! The Nike race is simply one of the best targeted at women in the country – and frankly, the views are like nothing else. It’s worth everything!!

  1. Ouch- desolate? As an Indy resident, I take issue with that- the area you are talking about is going through major urban renewal- but you also run with the full downtown skyline on the backside of the run, past the museums and zoo and over the White River.
    Not sure when you last ran this race- but I think you’ll notice a big difference if you run it this year. I’ll be there! 🙂

    • Emily –
      Thanks for the local perspective! I’ll admit, haven’t run this race since 2004, so I’d be glad to hear the area is getting some renewal! I won’t be running it this year, but good luck to you!

      • Well, I know its not Tiffany’s necklace, but what can I say- we love our town! 😉 And thanks for the luck- I’ll need it- its my first Half and I do a Ragnar Relay a month later.

  2. I ran/walked the Nike Women’s Marathon (1/2 marathon for me) in 2009. I must say it was the most amazing experience EVER! I finished just under 5hrs, and there was still water & Gatorade available. If you can get in, do it!

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