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Picking and Choosing Your Marathon

Selecting your marathon may be simple for you because you want to run the one that your town hosts every year. But remarkably, many marathoners travel across the country (and world) to race because their towns don't offer one or because other courses offer more appealing amenities, such as the time of year that the race is scheduled, whether the course is rumored to be fast, and so on.

Running with the elites or the locals

Marathons are grouped into two categories:

Runners' marathons

These marathons share a number of features that make them appear more serious than their community-based counterparts:

  • Aid stations: A fancy way of supplying water and sports drinks, you can find an aid station at every 1 or 2 miles along the course. They may even offer energy gel and fruit, such as oranges or bananas, along the course.
  • Big: They're often quite large with an many as 35,000 entrants.
  • Clocks: They almost always have huge clocks that show your per-mile split (that's another word for "time") or have volunteers reading splits. This feature is helpful if you're trying to race a particular time.
  • Downtown venue: Held in large cities, major streets are closed off so that you can run through downtown areas.
  • Elitist: Runners' marathons invite hoards of elite runners, who can be fun to watch before and after the race. The elite winners (male and female) may take home more than $250,000 for winning the race and set a world record; those who finish in the top 10 or 15 (nearly always professional runners) may also make a pretty penny.
  • Fanfare and celebration: They offer a partylike atmosphere from the moment you arrive at the race headquarters until hours after the marathon is over. The marathon may offer an expo, a running clinic, celebrity singers or other performers, visits by famous runners, and hundreds of thousands of spectators to cheer you on. All this excitement can help you survive a marathon that you may otherwise be tempted to quit.
  • Fast: Often designed to be fast, they have long straightaways, few turns, and few hills.
  • Lottery registration: These races usually close their registration early and may have a lottery registration system. (With the lottery system, even if you register early, your entry may still not be chosen from among all the registrants.) They may also require a qualifying time in another marathon before you can run them.
    Marathons may begin registering runners as much as a year before the marathon. One day, you may not be able to register yet, and the next day, the race may be full. Just because you want to run in a particular marathon doesn't mean you'll be able to. Before you make hotel reservations or buy airline tickets, register for the race you have in mind and wait for verification, usually by e-mail or postcard. Some runners' marathons don't verify entries, but you can check on your status by calling or e-mailing the race director. This contact information is usually on the race Web site.
  • Reliable distance: Usually exactly 26.2 miles, these races are certified by USA Track & Field (USATF), the governing body of track and field and distance running in the United States. (In other countries, local governing bodies usually certify courses.) You can use a time you run on a certified marathon course to qualify for other marathons.

Community marathons

On the small side (2,000 people or less), community marathons are often held in small towns or suburbs rather than in large downtown areas and aren't designed to be especially fast. The staff invites zero or few elite runners, but these marathons may offer delightful scenery or other unusual amenities. They're often not USATF-certified. Community marathons do, however, offer aid stations throughout the course, just as runners' marathons do.

Consider running in a community marathon if you don't want to go far from home, want to register shortly before or on the day of the race, don't want to hassle with thousands of people at the starting line, and aren't looking for an abundance of hoopla on race day. The entry fee may also be a bit lower than a runners' marathon. You can find out about a community marathon in your area by visiting your closest running store and browsing their road race information or asking store employees about a local marathon they can recommend.

Finding the right frequency

Most coaches recommend running no more than two marathons per year, simply because of the wear and tear the race puts on your body. Elite runners usually follow this advice, too, although they may enter shorter races every 1 to 4 weeks in between each marathon.

After your first marathon, don't race another for 6 months. After that, decide whether running marathons more frequently works for you. Perhaps you want to do three or four per year and are willing to make sacrifices in your personal life to do that. If you enjoy this schedule and don't get injured doing it, keep it up.

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