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.
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 MarathonGuide.com. 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.
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.
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 marathonguide.com 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.
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.
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.
Things I don’t care about:
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.
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.
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.
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.
LEAVE A COMMENT: How do you decide which races to do? What is important to you?