How to Pick a Goal Marathon

One of the most asked questions I receive via email is what marathon is the best for a first-timer. In my opinion, that is completely up to the individual runner. There are a lot of factors that will go into what makes a race a great race – for you – things like travel, family/friends at event, course, time of year to travel, etc.

Deciding to run a marathon is only a small part of the first step. One of the biggest and most important steps is choosing your goal race – which can be pretty overwhelming since the number of marathons grow each year.

So how do you go about choosing your goal race? There are a ton of factors that have gone into every marathon I have run. I’ve learned that it’s really hard to find a race that satisfies every single criteria I want. So, the order and importance of these factors typically change cycle to cycle. I’ll start with what is the most important to me for my next race and then begin eliminating from there. There have been instances where I want to pick a good course to chase down a PR (Wineglass) and others where I want the experience of the race (Boston) and other times I want a race close to home (NYC).

These are the factors that usually weigh into my decision for which race is best for me:

  • Date: Picking a race where you have no commitments that weekend may seem obvious, but it is crucial. You don’t want to have a race on Sunday after a late night party or event on Saturday where you’ll be on your feet. Ideally, you can pick a totally free weekend where the focus is on resting.
  • Minimal Distractions: Aim for a race where you have as few commitments as possible, especially in the weeks leading up to the race. Be realistic with your time and your ability to train. Things like weddings, finals, work commitments and lots of travel all play a part. You will be stressed out enough – and may be functioning on less sleep – which is not ideal for marathon training! My sister was recently looking at having a goal race this past October. But we decided to postpone that specific race for a year since her wedding and honeymoon would occupy a good amount of time in the weeks before the big race. Will she run on her honeymoon? Probably. Will she want to run 20 miles and feel pressured by sticking to a training plan? Probably not.
  • Time of Year: Do you prefer running in the cold? Then choose a winter or early spring marathon. Do you dislike the heat? Then avoid early fall marathons. Pick a race that suits your comfort level and preference. You’ll be doing a lot of running so you might as well enjoy the training and the race!
  • Travel: This will significantly shorten (or broaden!) your list. In my opinion, there are three avenues here. The race is either a flight away, a road-trip away or within driving-distance of your home (meaning you can sleep in your own bed the night before the race). My first marathon was when I was a senior in college. I couldn’t afford airfare, hotel, rental car, etc, so I chose a race that was a couple of hours away and only required two nights in a hotel. But, even if you can afford to fly across the country, you may decide that you prefer to stay close to home.
  • Course: If you despise hills, you may want to avoid courses like NYC and Philly – and opt for a flatter course like Chicago, Wineglass, NJ Marathon. Some runners prefer rolling hills. Others want a net downhill course. Most race websites have the course elevation profile so take a look and see if the course fits your comfort.
  • Size of Race/Spectators: Details like how many participants and the number of spectators may not seem like a big deal now, but if you prefer quiet, intimate races where you can sit in your car until 15 minutes prior to the race, then don’t choose a race like NYC, where you’ll need to be on public transportation 3-4 hours before the race even begins. If you want those screaming crowds and people cheering your name, look to the larger races that tend to have more spectator support.


    I LOVE big races!

  • Family/Friends Involvement: I love having my family and friends at races when possible. I make every attempt to select races close to home (or their homes), so that they can be along the course cheering! There is nothing quite as uplifting as seeing familiar, smiling faces throughout the 26.2 miles you will be running.

    nj marathon20142

    Seeing my boys during NJ Marathon (2014)

  • Bucket-List Race: These are the races that may go against most of your preferences BUT are on your list to run one day. When you get the chance to run one of these, don’t pass it up!
  • Recommendations: One of the best ways to narrow down your list is to talk to other running friends and read reviews or race recaps. It can give you an idea of more of the details of the race, course and race environment!

If you are having a hard time determining a race for yourself, I would love to help – just give me some of your preferences (from above) and we can narrow down some possible races!

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    5 thoughts on “How to Pick a Goal Marathon

    1. Pingback: why i chose the walt disney world marathon as my first marathon. | a runnaroundd life.

    2. Good tips and some things here that would probably never occur to me until it was too late… like the race not being 2 flights, a train and a bus ride away… And these things make a big difference to your overall enjoyment of the race. Thanks :)
      Fiona recently posted..Washing Bathroom WallsMy Profile

    3. I just wrote a post about picking my goal marathon for 2016. A lot of what you talked about where exactly things that I considered. I am looking to BQ this year, so I needed to put more thought into it than any of my others. When it came down to it, location, course elevation, and the date were all the deciding factors.
      Melissa girlchasingpavement recently posted..Fall 2016 MarathonMy Profile