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home > training > training tips > the fall marathon season: how to choose the right race

The Fall Marathon Season: How To Choose The Right Race
There is a time and a season for everything. Spring is the time for romance. Summer is a time for travel, sightseeing and a trip to the beach. Winter is a time for family gatherings and curling up with a book. And fall is a time for raking leaves, watching the fall foliage, and long distance running, especially marathon running.

The Fall Marathon Season: How To Choose The Right Race

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By Don Allison
Posted Tuesday, 12 August, 1997

There is a time and a season for everything. Spring is the time for romance. Summer is a time for travel, sightseeing and a trip to the beach. Winter is a time for family gatherings and curling up with a book. And fall is a time for raking leaves, watching the fall foliage, and long distance running, especially marathon running.

Sure, there are marathons nearly every weekend of the year all across the USA. Boston is the rite of spring, but in much of the USA, fall is the best time of year to run a marathon. The crisp, cool air is ideal for training after a long, hot summer. The training miles and long runs come easier; you just feel better while running. Many fall marathons across the land feature a beautiful, scenic backdrop, making for a complete 26.2 mile experience. Let's face it: When you reach mile 20, it can only help to be running along a scenic coastline or through a bucolic, tree-line route.

So, now that you have decided to run a fall marathon, which one will it be? There is no "best" marathon to run, despite the claims of the individual races themselves of rankings by publications. Individual preferences vary widely when it comes to choosing a marathon. Since there is such a big training investment, it only makes sense to be careful in selecting which race to run. If you go to a 5 km or 10 km road race and it turns out not to be what you were hoping for, you can always write it off and find another race the next week. It's not so easy when it comes to the marathon, unless you are an ironman who can run the 26.2 mile distance week in and week out. Those types of folks do exist, but I am not one of them, and you probably are not either. So here are some factors to consider when choosing which marathon to run:

* Why are you running a marathon? It sounds trite to ask this question, but not really. If you are hoping to run a PR and/or qualify for Boston, a trail or mountain marathon is probably nor your best choice. There are many marathons that claim to be "flat and fast," but investigate the race carefully before believing that claim. The best way to do this is to talk to as many people as possible who have run the race before. Race director's definitions of what constitutes a hill can vary widely. Also, sticking close to home on a known course is your best bet for a fast time.

If it's travel and adventure you are after, there 26 milers in virtually every corner of the globe, in almost every conceivable setting. Traveling to a marathon in another state or country is a great way to get to see the sights and meet local residents. Visit the Marathon Tours page on CR for a listing of great marathon vacation trips.

*What size race is best for you? Do you like a lot of other people around when you run, along with screaming spectators? Or do you prefer a quiet setting where you can be alone with your thoughts. Either way, there is a wide variety of marathons available. Through the years, I have found that I am not a mega-marathon kind of guy. It always surprises me when folks say how much they love the screaming crowds at New York or Boston. No spectator can make me feel better when I'm starting to fall apart in a marathon; when I'm feeling good, it's nice to have people cheering, but not absolutely necessary. For me, the inconvenience that accompanies a mega-marathon (hours of pre-race waiting around, baggage buses, long porta-john lines, a massive crush of humanity at the start) outweighs the cheering crowds. I'm obviously in the minority on this opinion however, otherwise tens of thousands would not be flocking to New York or Honolulu every year.

A marathon with 500 to 1000 runners is ideal for me, as it allows plenty of room to run, few inconveniences before or after the race, and a fair number of cheering fans at the finish, when I can appreciate the support. A marathon with less than 100 is a bit too lonely for me, as it spreads out very quickly and regardless of pace, you will spend much of the time running alone. This is not necessarily a bad thing if 1) you enjoy the solitude and chance to commune with nature or 2) you are hoping to win an age group award.

*What type of course do you prefer? I have also found this to be a very individual choice as well. Some folks thrive on change, in which case a repeating loop course is not the best choice. The nice thing about a repeating loop course though, is that you know what to expect and are more "in control" of the race. I once ran a marathon on a half mile loop circuit. The race seemed to go by quickly; it didn't feel as if I had run 26.2 miles.

Point to point course almost always involve extra energy expenditure in getting to the start, and depositing and/or collecting baggage afterwards. The upside of a point to point route is that it can be net downhill, something a repeating loop course cannot be. Plus it's cool to think you ran through a whole bunch of towns.

A one big loop route splits the difference between point to point and repeating loop courses. You get the constant change of scenery without the hassle, but without the net drop that almost all ptp courses seem to offer. I don't know of any net uphill ptp routes, but I'm sure there are a few out there.

* Are you looking for a race or an "experience"? It used to be that a marathon was a 26.2 mile road race. That's not necessarily the case anymore. To many people a "marathon" is a full weekend experience, including an expo, a pasta dinner, a medal, all kinds of goodies after the race, race photos, and so on. In that case, one of the big city marathons is likely the best choice, although even some of the smaller races are amenity friendly now. Generally speaking, the more expensive the race, the more "extras" are involved. If the entry fee is $12, don't expect to receive a 100 page color commemorative program in the mail.

Travel is also part of the experience now as well, as alluded to above. Some strong-willed souls even try to combine a family vacation with a marathon. Anyone who has run a PR using this methodology obviously had plenty of room for improvement. Traveling to a distant marathon as part of a charity group is a growing phenomenon. The Leukemia Society's Team In Training program and Arthritis Foundation's Joints in Motion program are two examples. In these programs, you raise money for the charity in return for a trip to the marathon. It's billed as a "win-win" situation, and ostensibly it is. Usually these charities require big fund-raising amounts however, so make sure you know a lot of people in the giving spirit. Watch out at tax time as well. The Leukemia Society construes the funds you raise towards your trip as taxable income.

* Don't forget time and weather considerations. If you are not an early morning person, it's unlikely you are going to miraculously turn into one on race day. Many people who never run at noon often wonder why they feel "out of synch" at Boston. The New York Marathon is not an early morning race either, although the fact that you are out on Staten Island at 7:00 a.m. sure makes it feel that way. It's almost 11:00 by the time they fire the cannon. For those traveling to another country, don't forget the time change. I ran in the Comrades in South Africa in 1995. The race began at 6:00 a.m. but it was really midnight Boston time. I made sure to arrive several days early to switch over my body clock. Usually, traveling East to West is easier on the circadian rhythms than vice versa.

Exotic vacation marathons sound like fun, but one aspect that is often overlooked is the weather. Training in the cool, crisp New England air is perfect preparation for area marathons, but if you are going to go to Honolulu, the heat can be an unwelcome change.

* Do your homework! As mentioned before, research a marathon thoroughly before entering the race. Almost all marathons are very well organized. Attracting runners to a marathon is a competitive business; thus most race directors are meticulous about mile markers, splits, and traffic control. But things do occasionally happen. Just ask Jim Flint. He was in the running for prize money at a fall marathon last year and went off course due to an unmarked intersection. He ended up at the finish line after only running 23 miles. I don't know where Jim is running this fall, but I know where he is not.

I attended a well-known marathon last year with an excellent reputation. Everyone had good things to say about the race, and indeed it was well organized. One aspect that did not agree with me however, was that we were required to run on the right hand side of a major road the entire way. Due to faulty mechanics, I am much better on the left hand side, or at least alternating sides. I ended up with a huge blister on my foot after the half marathon mark. You can never do enough homework on a marathon.

If you are planning on running a marathon this fall, good luck. There is no better time of year to do so. Consult the CR fall marathon page for contact information on a number of fall 26 milers. We have several on-line. Believe me, the others will all be willing to send you an application and answer your questions. After all, it's your marathon we are talking about!



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