Running is full of major milestones, from the first time you ran a mile without stopping to the first time you crossed a finish line. Every run and race has the possibility of a new first; it can even be as simple as the first time running a new route or first time running with your dog.
However, there is something about that first marathon that is the perfect combination of thrilling and terrifying — this is true even when it comes to making the choice of which marathon to run. Luckily, we have rounded up the most important factors to consider when choosing your first marathon, so you have one less thing to worry about and can focus on getting to the start line as prepared as possible.
GOAL AND MOTIVATION
Understanding your motivation for tackling the mileage — and what you hope to get out of it — is the first step toward choosing the best race for you. Many coaches recommend you have a few races under your belt before choosing a marathon (after all, you will be running the mileage anyway).
“Everyone is different, but I’d recommend doing at least one half-marathon before seriously catching the bug,” instructs Anoush Arakelian, a Boston-based running coach. “The key to being physically ready and not just mentally ready may be tougher to distinguish, but I think it is so important to avoid injury and burnout.”
Once you’ve built a solid base, be sure your goal isn’t just to run a marathon for the sake of it. Mary Johnson, running coach and founder of Lift | Run | Perform reminds us training for a marathon takes much longer than the race itself. Don’t just run one to say you’ve done it; make sure the race excites you so you can enjoy the entire experience.
SIZE AND LOCATION
Bigger marathons aren’t always better, especially when it comes to your first marathon. While runners are drawn to the Abbott World Marathon Majors — in the U.S. that includes the Boston Marathon, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon — you shouldn’t overlook the smaller, hometown races.
“People love big-city marathons for the excitement and crowds, but I think there’s so much charm and fun in small-town races (and also so much less stress),” says Johnson. “Staying off your feet the days leading up to a marathon is pretty important; but with the big city races, there are generally so many logistics leading up to the race … before you know it, you’ve walked almost half a marathon the day before the marathon itself! Don’t overlook simplicity!”
There is something to be said for being able to drive only 20 minutes to a start line (more sleep!) and navigating smaller crowds in a familiar place can make your first marathon experience a lot less stressful. Plus, if you are racing in your hometown, you can train on parts of the course, which can be a huge advantage while planning your race-day strategy.
SEASON AND TEMPERATURE
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it is easy to choose a marathon that is a few months away to line up with your current training plan and not realize it is smack dab in the middle of summer. Some runners love the heat, but if you are one who prefers cool, crisp fall mornings, you probably should aim for a marathon later in the year. Also, remember you aren’t just choosing what the weather will be like on race day; you will be running a lot in the season before your race, as well.
“Choosing between a spring and fall marathon is a tough decision,” shares Johnson. “A spring marathon means you have to train through the winter; while a fall marathon means you have to train through the summer. Which do you prefer? On top of this choice, it’s important to consider what weather trends have looked like for the marathon you’re thinking of running.”
TERRAIN AND ELEVATION
Most races have detailed course maps with elevation charts on their website. Your first marathon doesn’t have to be completely flat, but it is a good idea to make sure the elevation matches conditions you are training in. If you live somewhere relatively flat and your course of choice is full of rolling hills you don’t have to shy away, but you should make sure you can find a way to get some hill work in.
“If you are trying to qualify for Boston or run a fast timed marathon, then check out the course profile,” adds Arakelian. “If there are giant hills after the halfway point, all signs point to it not being a fast course.”
SUPPORT AND LOGISTICS
The actual logistics of race day, including travel to and from the race are important, of course. Other factors to consider when planning your pre-race experience include packet pickup and dinner the night before. If you are racing in a new city, be sure to stay near the expo center and make an early reservation for dinner the night before so you aren’t waiting for a table and spending extra time on your feet.
Even if a race is easy for you to get to — maybe you have some extra vacation days at work you were looking to use — don’t forget your family and friends while planning. Having support from your loved ones at various points of the course is huge and can make all the difference in your experience.
“If you really want a certain family member with you, make sure it is reasonable for them to get there with you,” shares Arakelian. “If I really want my family there, I try to let them know well in advance and make sure that housing and transportation are all reasonable. When I chose a marathon that took a flight, I decided to go by myself. You just have to be comfortable potentially going on your own.”