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The Case for the Smaller Race


If you're an experienced, but non-elite runner, it may be time to look toward smaller events if you're seeking a new PR or a fast time.


Big-City races are amazing experiences, but the sheer number of participants means that race logistics have to outweigh prioritizing the runner experience when making decisions. Additionally, the character and nature of massive events may lead itself to excess mental pressure for athletes.


I'll be mostly referring to marathons here, as they have the biggest tradeoffs between a Big-City race with 40,000 people and a smaller race of under 2,000, and they are also generally longer-term goals for most athletes. That said, if you are trying to race your fastest 10k or half marathon in a huge field... much of the same will apply!


Note that there is such a thing as TOO-small, but this varies by your approximate pace range and your goals for the race. For example, if you can win the race with a time slower than your PR... you probably won't PR, but you will have won the race! By contrast if you are mid-pack, you may be fine with a very small race.


This aspect of race planning isn't something that is often discussed, but I've talked with a few other coaches and they agree – if you want to increase your likelihood of running your fastest time, run a smaller race.



Mentality

This encompasses both how you think about the race in the preceding months, AND how you approach the race on race day.


Let's get a few facts out of the way.

First, you are NOT your race result. Your fitness improves regardless of when or IF you even race, let alone what actually occurs at that particular race. Just because things don't go according to plan doesn't mean you aren't fit!

Second, the most-effective training to improve your fitness over the long-term is not focused on a specific event date, especially if you trying to run multiple Big-City marathons per year. I see a lot of runners do a Spring marathon and a Fall marathon, sometimes even the same ones year after year! While that can sometimes work, it also really boxes you into a corner when it comes to planning your long-term goals, and adding in other fun races.


Third, there are a wide variety of uncontrollable factors that determine how your training goes and how quickly your body adapts. All of this can affect when an ideal period of time for a race would be.


Finally, remember there is a simply massive number of variables that go into running performance on any given day, and many of them are uncontrollable. You can show up with the best fitness of your life, pace and fuel perfectly, and still have a poor race. That's why we have races, and not just look at everyone's training and VO2Max!


So with all that in mind, here are some ways that choosing Big-City races can affect mentality.


A pattern I have seen in some athletes is that a Big-City marathon will seem more important to them than smaller races. This can affect how they think about their training, pressure and stress they put on themselves, and more.


Here's an example: Let's say there are some unforeseen difficulties in your life that is increasing your stress level, and trying to fit in your training is causing additional stress. It's approaching peak training for your chosen race.


Do you:

A: re-evaluate whether your chosen race fits with your life and training at the moment?

B: Adjust your training but stick to your chosen race?

C: Take the 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' approach and gut through training no matter what, because 'following the plan' is all that matters.'


From what I have seen, athletes who were planning on a smaller race are much more likely to consider switching to a different event a month or two later, perhaps getting a refund, deferring, or stepping down to a shorter distance at the first event. Those planning on a Big-City marathon... well we know most athletes will be on that starting line no matter what happens aside from serious injury. And perhaps even WITH a serious injury.


From a long-term progress and health perspective, option A, re-evaluating your race date is often the best choice. Option C is the unhealthiest, because miles are meaningless - it's stress that matters, and you could be risking a lot more than a race result doing that.


Option B is certainly a safe approach when it comes to the training itself, but the drawback here is that you may be risking injury at the race by showing up undertrained. In both B and C, you are also adding a recovery period (perhaps a significant one) before you can build up to race again, and you almost certainly won't meet your goals at that race.


When it comes to race day, athletes at a Big-City race are similarly much more likely to take a 'death before DNF' approach to the race, which may not be healthy and can limit progress in the future. They may also make questionable decisions about their pacing, fueling, hydration and more, OR hyper-fixate on everything being 'perfect,' both of which can be limiting!



Pre–Race Logistics

Let's describe what I think is the most ideal pre-race routine.


You awaken in a comfortable bed (perhaps even your own!) and eat your pre-race breakfast. Your drive yesterday to the hotel was less than two hours, or perhaps it's even shorter and you'll drive over this morning. You've carefully calculated when the best time to eat is, given the start time of the race. After you eat, you lounge for a bit, limiting your mental stress. You walk or drive easily to the race venue to arrive about 45-60 minutes before the start, pick up your bib, and connect with other runners and race staff. Maybe you sit a bit on some nearby picnic tables or chairs. About 20-30 minutes before the start, you begin your warmup with some leg swings and lunges and an easy loop on neighborhood roads, followed by some strides from the starting line. You finish your warmup about 10 minutes prior to the start of the race, and get into position. You are probably much closer to the front of the pack, but even if you aren't, you'll likely be waiting less than two minutes to cross the line. The National Anthem is played or sung, the gun goes off, and you run! All told you've probably been on your feet for less than an hour prior to the race.


Now let's think of your nearest Big-City marathon.


First, you need to plan to pick up your bib 1-3 days prior to the race. That means you need to be on-site well in advance. There may be a big expo that is worth walking around for awhile. Perhaps this is a new city or one you rarely visit, so you wander a bit. There are so many cool things to do! On race-day morning, while the elites start at 9am, you won't be starting until 10:30 or 11am. It's going to be HOT. That means you need to eat around 7 or 8am, but the problem is... you have to take a bus to the starting line. Or otherwise be at the venue 3-5 hours prior to your race starting. You may have to stand, or you may be able to sit on the ground. If you're lucky, there may be chairs. You manage to keep moving a bit, but that's the best you can manage for a warmup, as there are 30,000 of your 'closest friends' packed into the same area. About 45 minutes prior to your start time, you have to go stand in your corral. You're packed in with a few thousand other people, and can't really do much but wait. The race started for the elites 1-3 hours ago, and it's warming up, and you are just... waiting.


Now obviously there is nothing wrong with the latter as a fun experience. But unless you are extraordinarily lucky, you are unlikely to run at or near your true fitness level with a pre-race routine like that.


With a smaller race, the likelihood of getting close to that ideal pre-race routine is much higher.


 

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During the Race

In many Big-City marathons, you can be a competitive runner in your age group and still be starting behind many thousands of other people. Even if you are nearer the front, you still have a significant number of people in your general vicinity.


In some ways, this could be a strength. You're never running solo, which means if you are careful, you can run in a pack and gain the benefits of drafting. You also have many options of people to talk to, or to get in that competitive mindset and race. However there may be an overwhelming number – too many to focus on one person at a time to race, or to chat with.


However, there are also crowds, and all the negative aspects that brings with it. Difficulty moving through water stations efficiently, tripping over tens of thousands of discarded cups or gel packets, running excess distance trying to maneuver around people that are slower than you, and more.


In a smaller race, there are far fewer people. This can be a great thing – fewer crowds to get in the way, less of a mess on the street, easier time getting water, etc. However it also comes with the caveat that - especially if you are faster but not quite with the lead pack - you may be running alone. This means you can't draft, and may make it more difficult to get into a competitive mindset. That could be a good or bad thing for you!


One thing you will find less of is spectators cheering you on. You will certainly find them at most races, and they will be extra special because you can pick out actual people rather than a crowd, but there is certainly much less noise at a smaller race. This can be both helpful and limiting, as you will feel less-energized from the crowd, but will also waste less of your energy on that feeling which may or may not help you running.



Course

With a few exceptions, most Big-City marathon courses are designed around what is logistically feasible for the city, as most completely close the courses to traffic.


By contrast, many smaller races design their courses to be fast, fun, aesthetically pleasing, or otherwise improve the runner experience. Some have portions on dirt roads or bike paths, or are otherwise scenic. In many cases roads aren't entirely closed to traffic, which means race-directors have much more freedom when designing their courses! That does mean that a runner needs to be safety-conscious on fully-open courses, however it is rare that there are accidents during open-course races.


That's not to say that all smaller races are held on amazing courses, and all Big-City marathon courses are terrible. Far from it! But it's a generalization you should take into account if you're used to solely running in Big-City races.



Post–Race Logistics

Just like before the race, generally logistics at the finish line are much simpler. There may only be a few finishers per minute (if that!), which means you can take your moment to celebrate your finish, grab pics without getting in anyones way, and find your family or friends easily. You might even be able to get in a brief cooldown (especially important at half-marathons and below).


Your family or friends were probably able to watch you finish and/or give you a high five while leaning on the barricade right at the finish line.


You most likely won't have to walk too far to your car, and can even go get showered and changed and come back to cheer on other racers, or just celebrate together. At a lot of smaller races, it can feel almost like a family or team event rather than a big commercial production. Sometimes the finish line is in a park or other open space where you can find some space to yourself to celebrate and decompress.


In a Big-City race, again the sheer number of participants necessitates a very different atmosphere. You're more likely to be ushered into a line of people trudging their way toward a pre-determined order of your 'post-race checklist.' Get your medal. Bottle of water. Blanket. Maybe grab a granola bar or other food item. Continue trudging to a designated place you can pick up your gear bag and/or meet up with your family or friends.

Speaking of your family or friends, they might or might not have been able to pick you out of the crowd to actually see your finish. (I'll tell you from experience it's stressful!) Regardless they probably can't be close enough to the course to actually cheer for you in a way that you'll hear. Then they too have to walk to the meeting area to try and find you.


Then of course, you need to get to your car, hotel or other post-race plan. That may or may not be straightforward in a Big-City race!


Again - these aren't anything deliberate on the part of Big-City marathons; they just come with the territory of hosting an event with 40,000 participants, 10,000 volunteers, and spectators that can number in the millions.



Miscellaneous Benefits to Smaller Races


There are other benefits to smaller races as well.

  • Smaller races may have a fun and quirky atmosphere, or even a theme.

  • Previewing the race course may be much more straightforward.

  • Family or friends will likely be able to easily access the course at several points to cheer you on, rather than just the finish line.

  • They may be able to take photos/video of you and otherwise support you.

  • You may feel treated more like someone special when you are among ~1,000 runners versus among 40,000.

  • If you are a fairly competitive runner, you may find yourself racing directly alongside many people in your age group, rather than running your own race and seeing what happens in the results later.

  • You'll finish far higher up in your age group than you would at most Big-City races.

  • Participant photos may be better-quality and more accessible, often even free! From a race-director and photographer standpoint, free downloads with the race logo is something ALL races should try to do, and you're far more likely to find that a smaller race hired a real photographer to do just that. In contrast, most of the big races are heavily-incentivized to use the big 'spray and pray' image companies.

  • Post-race amenities are often more substantial, including the food situation. Some races really want to incentivize you staying around the finish line, rather than trying to kick you out!


Are there other drawbacks? Only one significant one that I can think of that I haven't mentioned, and that's that if you are doing a smaller destination race, travel might be a little more difficult to organize. But there are SO many amazing races out there, and there are surely a bunch near you!


Summary

There are plenty of reasons to do a Big-City marathon, and they can be amazing experiences. However if you are feeling 'stuck in a rut' with your racing, or you find yourself unable to continue progressing or snag that PR, I urge you to look for some smaller races. They can be pure magic!







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