My 50 States Philosophy

The idea for this post started out of an email I received from a reader who asked me how I decide which races I’m doing for the 50 states. Her question was: “I was just wondering how you plan your races? Do you go by region? Or just pick dates that work for you and go?” I get asked this question a lot by people I meet during races who learn about what I am trying to do, by curious coworkers, and readers of my blog, so I thought maybe I would record my thoughts for public consumption. I wrote this poor girl back a novel describing how I go about picking my races, and I think I gave her way more information than she wanted to know because it took her about 3 weeks to email me back, presumably after recovering from the traumatic brain injury inflicted upon her by my verbosity. Oops. Sorry in advance if the same thing happens here.

God, I miss the Fresh Prince so much.
God, I miss the Fresh Prince so much.

To understand my thought process for the 50 states, it is important to know how I got the idea of doing this in the first place. Before I ever ran a marathon, I started extensively researching all the different races. I came across a blog written by a Marathon Maniac named Stephanie, who was trying to become the youngest person to complete the 50 states and was a couple years older than me at the time. Although her race reports were mercifully much shorter than mine, she always included little bits of information about what made each race unique, what she did and didn’t like about them, etc. It was from her blog that I heard about the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon and the Flying Pig Marathon, and it was there that I became obsessed with As a result, I started noticing little oddities about each marathon early on, which has framed the way I think about them today.

On the topic of travel:

There are not many areas of life in which I would consider myself high maintenance. In fact, I am often described as almost frustratingly low maintenance. That being said, when it comes to traveling to races, I have very specific rules that I will not break, no matter what, and this puts me somewhat at odds with a large group of Maniacs and 50 Staters who are determined to complete the 50 states and travel to races as inexpensively as possible. Allow me to explain.

1. No bed, no T-Rex. 

I will not, under any circumstances, sleep in my car before a race. I will not sleep in a tent. I require a roof and a bed, no matter what. I know many, many, many runners who think this is fundamentally insane and a waste of money. Some of them are my very good friends. It may well be a waste of money, but I have enough trouble sleeping as it is without adding the fear of being attacked at a rest stop or being eaten by a bear into the mix, thankyouverymuch. I am 100% serious that I would rather take longer to finish the states than to sleep in my car even once. It’s just not going to happen.

Call me spoiled if you want. I don't care.
Call me spoiled if you want. I don’t care.

2. I will drive no more than 9 hours to a race.

I hate being in the car. Bottom line. It hurts my back, it takes forever to get anywhere, and it requires more time off of work. That being said, it is significantly cheaper to drive than to fly, especially when you can split the costs with several friends, so I do drive when possible. No more than 9 hours, ever. After that, I fly. By the way, 9 hours is how long it takes me to drive home to South Florida, which is why I have selected this threshold.

3. I will happily get home or leave home at obscene hours to avoid taking time off of work.

There is no flight time that is off limits as long as it saves me vacation time. Also, these random flight times are often much cheaper than the more desirable times. I have no qualms about waking up insanely early to drive to the airport or getting home super late. This is one area where I have no problem sacrificing sleep and sanity.

How I pick races:

1. Themes, themes, themes

I absolutely love themes. Themes are cheesy. Themes are fun. I like cheese and fun both in food and in life. If a race has a pervasive theme, I am automatically attracted to it. There are undoubtedly plenty of people who find themes hokey and annoying, and that is understandable, but I am not one of those people. Bring on the hoke.

It's the cheesiest theme of all! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH I'm funny.
It’s the cheesiest theme of all! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH I’m funny.

2. Good reviews

Whether a race has a theme or not, it is absolutely critical to me that it has good reviews.  I almost always check for race reviews and I often rely on the running community to provide me with additional detail. Reviews are good online, but they’re better in person, and everyone has a different experience. Organization is pretty important to me, so I’m not likely to do a race that has a lot of reviews about starting late, having a confusing finish area, etc. I don’t like stressful environments like that and I try to avoid them whenever possible

3. Local flavor

If you’ve looked through my race reports, you may have noticed that I don’t really run any “brand” races. That is, you won’t catch me running a Rock ‘N Roll marathon (although I did once – my second ever marathon, before I knew better) and I don’t do races like the NorthFace Endurance runs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people who love those races, but those people are not me. The reason I try to stay away from “chain” races is the same reason I try to drink local beer everywhere I go. To me (especially as a geography major), it is especially important to me that I get to experience some of the local culture everywhere I go. Rock ‘N Roll races have variations on the same medal everywhere. The finish area food, expo, signage, etc is the same at every race. Some people like that continuity and like knowing what to expect, but I do not. I don’t think the race directors of those events are the best equipped to showcase the city where the marathon is held because they often do not live there. The little touches of each marathon are a part of what makes each one unique. I want to get a thorough tour of an area. I want local specialty food at the finish line, even if I’m too sick to eat it. I want a unique shirt design and local vendors at the expo. I want a race director that cares about the runners, not just the profit. My favorite races are the ones that were the most unique and had the most “local” feel to them. I think everyone should run the races they like best, and if that means you’re doing every Rock ‘N Roll marathon, more power to you! I would ask you to save me a banana from the finish line, but there won’t be any left.

Lure me in with your culture. I'll never leave.
Lure me in with your culture. I’ll never leave.

4. Timing. 

Admittedly, there is something to be said for races that fit into my schedule of other life events. Since I do have a timeline in which I want to complete the 50 states (before I turn 30), I do have to deal with the fact that some states don’t have many marathons, and sometimes several marathons that I want to run are always held on the same weekend. The first weekend in May is really popular in particular, with Flying Pig, Kalamazoo, Wisconsin, Tacoma…the list goes on and on. There have been races that I really want to do but can’t because I have other things going on, like when AJ selfishly decides that he wants to do something for his birthday other than watch me run a marathon, or when people decide to get married on prime race weekends and insist on my presence. Therefore, I sometimes don’t get to do every race I want to do when I want to do it and I just have to deal with it and try and keep the tantrums to a minimum.

5. Who’s going?

Yup, it matters to me who will be there – to a point. I wouldn’t ever not do a race just because I wouldn’t know anyone there, but I definitely can be swayed towards certain races if I know a really fun group of people is attending. The bigger the Maniac/50 Stater crowd, the better, and the best part of this is that doesn’t necessarily mean the race will be big. Maniacs and 50 Staters made up something like 1/4 of the crowd at Hatfield-McCoy this year, and that was a race of only about 300 full marathoners. Because I love races as social events so much, it’s important to know I will have a great time when I’m there, although that is admittedly rarely an issue.

I love my friends.
I love my friends.

6. Swag

Awesome medal? Extremely cool race shirt or other giveaways? I’m there. Enough said. Lack of this stuff is not going to deter me from doing a race, but it very may well attract me to do it.

I'm coming for you next, Mississippi!
I’m coming for you next, Mississippi!

Things I don’t care about:

1. Cost

I know this sounds obnoxious, but stick with me. This is not to say that I never consider cost when selecting my races, because I have, on occasion. However, I try not to make it a habit because I would honestly rather take longer to complete the states but do all the races I want than try to do it as cheaply as possible and miss out on some great events. That’s just me, and although I would like to say you can blame my parents for that mentality, you cannot, because they are far more financially responsible than I will ever be. I actually did pick a race once based on the cost (Sioux Falls Marathon) because it was a solid $500 cheaper in airfare alone to fly to that race than to the other race in South Dakota I wanted to do, and I regret that decision. I wish I had saved more money and done the race I really wanted to do, but oh well. I learned my lesson. The reality is, some races are damn expensive and worth every penny. Some are damn expensive and worth not even half the pennies. Try and figure out which ones are which. If a race or destination is offering you something you can’t get anywhere else (the crowds of New York, the food in New Orleans, the scenery in Alaska), it’s probably worth it. If it’s offering you something you can get elsewhere, it’s probably not.

It's true.
It’s true.

2. Race Size

I’ve run races of all different sizes, from the very small (<150 runners) to the very large (35,000+) and everything in between. They all have pluses and minuses, and I don’t care if a race is large or small as long as it is good. That is my only requirement. I would say I err on the side of preferring mid-size to small races over the large ones purely from a logistical standpoint, but there is something to be said with running along with tens of thousands of your closest friends, even if half of them seem determined to trip you and/or slow you down. Because I know people at pretty much every race I go to, the size of the race is of no consequence.

3. Crowd Support

Some people, especially new runners, care a whole lot about the number of people that will be out cheering for them along the course. This is understandable,  because crowds can definitely give you a boost, as I experienced in Chicago. Maybe because my first marathon had almost no crowd support, I have never considered crowd support to be particularly important, and I don’t really mind being “lonely” out on the course. Sure, spectators are fun and I definitely like interacting with them, but the number and enthusiasm level of the spectators at a given race has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I will run it.

I've never seen this one before!
I’ve never seen this one before!

4. Weather conditions – within reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a masochist. I do not go out actively looking for adverse weather conditions. They do indeed seem to find me, with the coldest race I’ve ever run being in Alabama and the hottest race I’ve ever run being in Minnesota.  I’ve run in the pouring rain more times than I’d like to count (2). I’ve run in the blazing sun. While I can’t say that I have greatly enjoyed all of those conditions, I have learned that I can in fact run in any weather and survive. If a race sounds entertaining enough, I’m in. Bottom line. At the very least, it makes for a good story and gives me a good excuse for why I ran so slowly, aside from the whole vomiting thing.

During the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, you literally have to run on the white line on the side of the road or your shoes will MELT. Um, absolutely not.
During the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, you literally have to run on the white line on the side of the road or your shoes will MELT. Um, absolutely not.

On the topic of “doubles:”

“Doubles,” or two marathons run on the same weekend (preferably in two different states), are a popular way for marathon enthusiasts to complete multiple races in the same weekend, thereby reducing costs by purchasing only one plane ticket for two races. I have run one double (New Hampshire and Maine) and I have plans to run another one in May (Wisconsin and Kalamazoo). I think doubles are really fun and a great source of camaraderie within the marathon community. With that being said, all of the above rules about marathons still apply to doubles, which means I will never do a double just to save money. If both of the races come highly recommended and seem fun, I’m in! But if one of the races is not a race I would do if it wasn’t part of a double, then I won’t do it. Again, some people think this is stupid and a waste of money, but there’s so many great races out there! I want to do the best (or at least a very good one) in every state.

Basically, my philosophy on races is just to do the ones that seem like the most fun in every state. That isn’t always possible, but it’s always my goal, and I try not to let anything stand in the way. Also, incorporate sweet dance moves whenever possible.

Conan and Stephen know.
Conan and Stephen know.

LEAVE A COMMENT: How do you decide which races to do? What is important to you?

38 thoughts on “My 50 States Philosophy

  1. I’m just like you Danielle! I choose my races the same way. I have learned the hard way about the doubles thing though!! I like doing doubles but definitely won’t do a marathon now just because it is part of a double if I wouldn’t do the marathon on its own!! Also, I don’t sleep in cars or in tents or bunk houses with a bunch of people I don’t know!! My driving limit is 11 hours.

    1. Fortunately, I never had to learn the hard way about doubles and I’m trying to keep it that way! I guess 11 hours wouldn’t be too bad. I find 9 hours still generally gets me home in time the night after the race for me to get a decent night’s sleep before work the next day, which is key.

  2. I like to stick to my area, no nine hour drives for this gal! Being in DC I have races in the district, the hills of virginia, or up yonder by the water in Maryland!

    1. There are a lot of people who totally agree with you, Megan. A lot of Maniacs won’t leave the Pacific Northwest to do races! The only problem with that philosophy is that it would seriously hamper my ability to run a marathon in all 50 states 🙂

  3. I love this! I’m in the midst of selecting races for 2013 and am figuring out what I want out of a race. Right now the essentials are timing and the course itself. I want a spring marathon that takes places on the weekend of April 13th or 27th, and I need a flat, fast course! In the future (once I get that dang BQ) course will matter less (bring on them hills!!!) and theme will matter more! I still want to run Hatfield SO badly annnd I’d love to run The Gettysburg Marathon. Hell, I know Baton Rouge was only my second Marathon, but I already want to run it again ’cause I had a blast (and it’s on my birthday next year!!).

    So far I think I’m going to do the Eugene Marathon and the Chicago Marathon in 2013. I’d love to fit in more, but it’s like marathon tetris trying to puzzle together the right marathon schedule 🙂

    1. Your comment reminds me that I forgot to talk about the course! Oh well. Yeah, it’s not important to me about the course (except that I won’t run on trails) but I definitely understand why it is important for you! You MUST run Hatfield. Mandatory. I really want to run Eugene, so I am jealous!

  4. I’m in agreement with almost everything you’ve said here. Good to know.

    I’m on my own 50-state quest, and I don’t care how long it takes. I’m going to have fun doing it. I was almost to the point where I thought it MIGHT be okay to sleep in my car the night before a marathon, but my heart wasn’t in it. I like hotels and I like beds to sleep in. So you’ve inspired me to stick to my guns. If I can’t afford the hotel, I won’t do the race.

    And I much prefer the smaller races, and I don’t mind lack of crowd support or being lonely on the course. I loathe the Rock N Roll series races. I think they’re bad for the sport.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your posts. Mostly worth my time. Sometimes not, but nobody’s ever 100%, right?

    1. Stick to your guns! No car sleeping! If you’re willing to wait, there is always a way to do a race while still getting everything you want out of it. I prefer the smaller races too, but I will admit that there are some races I feel compelled to do just for the experience, like Chicago, Disney, and maybe NYC. That doesn’t mean I will do them twice, though.

      I’m obviously with you on RNR hatred. I tried not to say too many negative things about them because I know some people love them, but I agree – I think they’re bad for the sport and I hate that their advertising is leading people away from a better experience at pretty much any other race. Oh well.

      I think my posts are mostly worth my time too. Like you said, nobody is ever 100% 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  5. You make very good points about your choices and they are very similar to mine as I persued the 50 States. But since you haven’t finished yet and I have, there is something else that you should plan on; expect the unexpected!

    By that I mean as you get closer to finishing, the marathons you need/want to do might change or something else might come up. For example, I had planned to finish in Hawaii, but a kidney stone made me miss the Rhode Island marathon that I wanted to do and I had to have a new finishing plan. So I made a new plan and then, on my way to do the Colorado marathon I had chosen, when my plane landed in Denver I got a phone call that my significant other had just been hit by a car while riding her bike for Ironman training and was in the ER! So I had to come right back on the same plane (she was OK) and make yet another finishing plan. I finished in Missoula, MT – not quite Hawaii, but a fun time nonetheless.

    So expect the unexpected, but enjoy every minute of the journey!

    1. Very good point, Art! I am definitely thinking along those same lines in 2013, since I may (or may not) have to have stomach surgery. It’s making it really hard to plan my race schedule! This time last year, I had it all figured out, but now I only have a few races planned for 2013 and then just some general ideas about what else I want to do. It’s really frustrating!

      On the plus side, I loved Missoula, so even though it’s not Hawaii, it’s definitely not a bad place to finish!

  6. 1. Concur, 2. Concur, 3. Concur, 4. Concur, 5. Not important (I like alone time), 6. CONCUR!

    As for the Not-Importants: 1. Disagree. There are some races whose price tags are insane and I refuse to participate because of them. New York is one of them and Chicago will become one in 2013, mostly because they jacked up the fee by $25 as opposed to the yearly $5 increase. Also, I’m not very parsimonious when it comes to racing but if I find a $30 marathon in a new state, I will definitely consider it over its big city cousin. 2. Concur, 3. Concur, 4. Slightly disagree. I sweat more than the average bear so any race that is typically warm I try to avoid.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Well, I do think cost is a factor sometimes, but my point was more that if I REALLY want to do a race (for whatever reason), the cost would not stop me from doing so. That being said, the cost of RNR races, on top of their general suckiness, just makes the whole brand that much more offensive to me. I haven’t decided if I want to do NYC yet or not, but if I decide I really do, then however much it costs for me to do it, I will. I can understand you not wanting to do Chicago because of the cost, seeing as how you live there. I’m happy to choose a cheaper race if possible, if the $30 race is equal in quality (however I decide to measure it) to it’s big city cousin, but I wouldn’t do a crappy race just because it’s cheap or not do a great race just because it’s expensive.

      Otter did mention that you don’t like warm weather for running. I totally agree, but again, it matters less when you run slow. I’m looking forward to seeing your race line up for 2013!

  7. Hey, T Rex: Another great blog. Do you consider hilliness? I don’t, but lots of runners do. Also, scenery. That’s high up on my priority list. The course must be beautiful or at least interesting. I agree with you that you should run better races even if it takes longer to achieve your goal of 50 states. Go for quality. Besides, you’re young! Keep up the good writing.

    1. I actually can’t believe I forgot to mention those, but it seems a little late to add them in now! I don’t consider “hilliness,” but I do consider things like mountain ranges. I don’t mind a hilly course or one that is considered tough, but like…the Pikes Peak Marathon is literally up a mountain, so I would probably draw the line there. I guess I consider the scenery as well, although that kind of falls under “good reviews” for me. Tulsa wasn’t the prettiest course, but it was a great race, so I didn’t mind that it was kind of ugly. I guess what I’m saying is it’s not a deal breaker or maker either way. Thanks for your comment!

  8. I’m hoping to do my first marathon this year, and I’ll probably do the Twin Cities Marathon since I live here. I had considered doing an RNR race at one point (half marathon), so I’m glad to have read this. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing – I love your blog!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kacey! I have heard the Twin Cities Marathon is a GREAT one, so that is a good choice! It’s on my list of marathons to do after I finish the 50 states and go back and do the other ones I missed 🙂

  9. Kalamazoo MI? what’s the date? and I’ll be there! (unless I’m actually employed and have no way to get off) I miss Fresh Prince too. 89’s / 90’s TV all good 🙂

  10. OMG! I did it! I read all of your blogs starting at the beginning…. Wow, that sounds a lot creepier out loud than it did in my head. Oh we, in my defense I’m on vacation with very little to do… Not that I wouldn’t have done it anyway it just would have taken me longer. Yup. Fact.

    Long story short I love the blog!!

    1. HAHAHAHA I’m super impressed, Kara! I hope you enjoyed most of them. Every once in awhile I’ll go back and read one of my first posts and think “wtf, why did I bother writing that?” I guess that’s part of what makes it fun. Thanks so much for spending your vacation (a lot of extended family must be involved) reading all my rants.

  11. I’m a newbie runner making a 2013 race schedule and I’m wondering why RNR races are so gross. They’re expensive, I know. But what else?

    1. Gross is maybe a bit of an exaggeration on my part. I think it’s more that I don’t think they are worth the money. As I said in my post, I really enjoy races that showcase the features of a local area – the food, the scenery, unique aspects of the culture, etc. RnR races don’t do that for a variety of reasons. The entire experience is designed the same way a chain restaurant would be. Runners get the same experience everywhere they go, which can be comforting – it’s why Americans go to Europe and eat at McDonald’s instead of enjoying the local fare. For me personally, RnR races are generally too crowded, too expensive, have courses that could better showcase the area, very generic expos, generic medals that are similar at each race, etc. For me, the experience just isn’t what it should be for the amount that they are charging. I can understand why people like them, and I think if the concept intrigues you, you should try one out. I know some are better than others and some people have really enjoyed their experiences. For me, with the goal of trying to see as much of the country as possible and experience as many areas and cultures as I possibly can, those races just are not a good fit for the goals I have. I hope that helps!

      1. Totally understood. I just read your interview with the Mississippi race director, and I think I get it now. There’s just something about the local experience, be it for shopping, restaurants, whatever. Thanks so much for the detailed response. Love the blog.

  12. Just stumbled across your blog and I have to say I think you’re amazing and inspiring. As a runner also dealing with an ED, I can relate to a lot of your struggles. Thank you for being so candid in your ED series. I noticed that you have not hit Utah yet on your 50 states quest and wanted to suggest the Big Cottonwood Marathon to you. is the link and I completed last year’s inaugural race and will run this year as well. It is a fantastic course with amazing scenery through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and VERY well organized/run. September is a fantastic time of year to run through this particular canyon and I can’t sing its praises enough. Best of luck to you on your journey!

    1. Thank you, Michelle! I’m really glad you’re enjoying the ED series. It’s been really helpful to me to get such feedback and also connect with other people who are struggling! I have not yet done Utah, and actually, Big Cottonwood will almost certainly be my Utah race! I’ve heard great things about it and it fits into my schedule well. I’m looking at it for 2014!

  13. I’m looking for one in Cali – Big Sur keeps filling up before I can get in! Have a recommendation? All I can find on my schedules are the RNRs.

    1. Gosh, you’ve come to the wrong place, unfortunately. I did RnR San Diego with Team in Training back in 2011, and as much as I love TNT, I did not make the best choice in the California marathon department. I’ve heard great things about the Napa Valley marathon, California International Marathon, LA Marathon, Big Sur (of course) and Surf City, off the top of my head. There’s so many great ones out there! Try and you’ll be able to find tons of races in each state and reviews from people who have run them.

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