Pros and Cons of Big City Races

What are the pros and cons of “big” (ie New York, Boston, LA, etc) marathons vs. “small” marathons.

From crowds to course support, there’s a lot to consider and prepare for depending on which type of marathon you choose to run.

Coach Claire gives her advice in today’s daily podcast


Audio Transcript

Coach Claire Bartholic: Hi everybody. This is Coach Claire Bartholic, back with you for my final day of this week of the Xtra Kick podcast, brought to you by RunnersConnect.

Today’s question comes from Lee.

Lee: What are the pros and cons of the big – in other words – New York, Boston, L.A. etcetera – marathons versus small marathons?

The two that I’ve done were both moderate sized, but a couple of friends and I are doing an unofficial marathon in the beginning of April due to lack of suitable races in our area at that time.

Is it harder running with only a couple of spouses as support on the sidelines?

Coach Claire Bartholic: First of all Lee, I think it’s awesome that you have the support network that you do.

Not only do you have great running buddies that are willing to create and race a homemade marathon with you, but you also have spouses willing to work your aid stations. You are certainly very lucky.

Secondly, I love your question because you’re right – the atmosphere of a marathon can make a big difference in how you feel on race day. First, let’s talk about the positives of a big city major marathon.

To put it quite simply, there is nothing like it. The energy and adrenaline rush that you get from being a part of a giant party with 50,000 other runners is simply incredible.

Everyone is there to do the exact same thing – from the elites with their toes on the line, to people in the back of the pack.

What other sport do you get to join the pros – the best in the world – and run this same course at the same time? I can’t think of any.

The excitement in the starting corral is contagious and palpable. Collectively, everyone has dreamed of this day; they have circled it in red on their calendars, and put in countless hours just to be there.

It’s not just the athletes that have been waiting for this day. The organizers and volunteers have been working for the past year, for this one day.

The size and the scale of what it takes to put on a major marathon and all its components are just mind blowing. Being a small part of that is something that you will never forget.

The crowds that line the streets of a big city race can truly give you a real boost and keep your spirits up throughout the race.

Let me give you an example; I love to run with music.

But when I ran Boston for the first time, I couldn’t get my music started before the gun went off. If there is ever a race to run without headphones, it’s Boston.

Thick crowds of people pack the streets the entire course, even in miserable weather, cheering, holding up funny signs and playing music. It’s a 26.2 mile party and you feel like a rock star on stage.

There is so much hype around the Boston Marathon, as well as the other major marathons like New York. Let me tell you, it is absolutely deserved.

But I’ll also admit, there’s a whole lot of external validation that comes along when you run one of the majors.

When people that you meet first learn that you’re a marathon runner, the inevitable question that comes next is, “So, have you run the Boston?” And it’s going to feel really good to say, “Yes.”

The same can’t be said for a little race that nobody’s heard of. If you crave that kind of attention, a big race will feel more important.

Now let’s get to the downsides of those big, fancy races. First of all, my God, they are expensive. You’re looking at race fees north of 200 bucks, then probably airfare, hotel stays, restaurants, cab rides and more.

A few days for a big city race could set you back a grand or two, or even more. But hey, you’ll probably get a really nice t-shirt, right?

Now, if you’re looking at the race as part of your vacation, the money spent could even be considered reasonable. But is it really a vacation?

You’ll need to get there a day or two early, but you won’t be able to do too much sightseeing since you won’t want to wear yourself out by walking too much before the race. And you certainly don’t want to be indulging in alcohol or fancy, decadent meals before the race either.

But after the race, your legs will be bone tired and you won’t want to go traipsing all over Manhattan seeing the sights.

You’ll be lying in your hotel room, in bed, watching Netflix just like you do at home. So as far as vacation goes, it’ll be a bit on the tame side.

The next obvious con of a big race is the crowds.

There are people everywhere. The expo will be packed with people, traffic getting to the race, and huge lines at the Port-A-Party. You’ll be packed in tight in the starting race corral with thousands of other people, making you feel like cattle in a pen.

Then when the race starts, you’ll be surrounded on all sides by a mass of humanity, preventing you from running the pace you want to run. If you are at all claustrophobic, your instinct to get away to some open space will cause you to dodge and weave through the crowd, wasting precious energy.

But I will tell you that you can use the crowd to your advantage, especially if you have a tendency to go out too fast in the race.

Those crowds do eventually space out even in the biggest races. Not being able to go out fast in the first couple of miles might actually be doing you a favor.

Once you finish the race, you’ll, again, be treated like a commodity and shuffled through the finishing shoot.

You’ll get a fancy metal around your neck, but you’ll also have a long walk ahead of you, in many cases, before you get to your family, friends and dry clothes.

Sure, they’ll give you snacks and water, and maybe even a beer at the end. But if you just want to get out of there, it’s not easy to do.

Back to my story about my first Boston.

It was 45 degrees and pouring rain most of the race. I finished thrilled and happy, but because of the crowd at Subway, my family ended up missing me at the finish line.

I ended up walking nearly a mile after the race – hobbling really – shivering in the cold rain, all alone, back to our hotel.

But you know what, as bad as that felt physically, at the time, it didn’t matter because every few feet or so, strangers on the street would see my finishers’ metal around my neck and say, “Congratulations!” Or, “Good job!”

As silly as that sounds, it meant the world to me at the time. Physically I felt awful, but because of the simple, kind words of strangers, it was one of the most beautiful and rewarding parts of that day.

With smaller races, logistics are simple and the costs are low. You can saunter up to the starting line, with easy parking, and without the hustle of the crowds. You are not squished in with other runners, and you have a clear, open road ahead of you.

But the bad side of that open road is that you often end up running alone most of the race. If it’s windy, you have no one to draft behind, and there’s no one to pace you.

In your case Lee, I am assuming that you and your friends will all run together, which can be a great thing for motivation and support. But if you happen to be different speeds, that will make it a bit tougher mentally.

It could be harder with just a few friends if you’re not planning to stick together. But with your homemade race, you can have the spouses provide you with whatever nutrition you like whenever you like. This will not be the case in a big race, unless you’re an elite.

And when you’re done, your support team will be right there at the finish line cheering you on, waiting with your favorite post-race treats.

While I do think that running a big city race should be on everyone’s bucket list at some point, they’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Running smaller events will be a better choice for some runners.

Thanks for your question Lee, and best of luck in your training.

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That’s it for my week behind the mic here at the Xtra Kick podcast. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have, and I will catch you later on some future episodes. Have a great weekend and a great run today.

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