A blog by runners. For runners.

Big race vs. small race: the pros and cons of different race sizes

Big vs. small: the pros and cons of different race sizesThe great thing about racing is it takes what is normally a solitarily pursuit – running – and turns it into a group activity. 

But your experience at a race can vary depending on its size. A local 5K or 10K from a running club is going to feel a lot different than a big, metro half marathon or marathon. 

So, should you go big or small? Consider these pros and cons.

SMALL RACES: The pros

  • + Cheaper. There’s a local running club near me (The North Medford Running Club) that organizes 5Ks and 10Ks in the summer and winter. For members (a whopping $20 annual fee) the races are free. Non-member pay $5. That’s a huge bargain. While you may not find as good a deal, small, local races are generally less heavy on your running budget.
  • + Closer. When you go small, you usually go close. Less travel means you don’t have to get up as early in the morning to fuel before driving to the start, and it also means the drive home to shower and change is much shorter.
  • + Better parking. Small races don’t attract huge amounts of traffic, so parking is no big deal (and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg).
  • + Familiar faces. When you go small and local for a race, you are bound to run into someone you know or at least recognize from previous races.
  • + It can just be fun. If you are not looking to set a PR or really exert yourself, the low-key atmosphere of a local race might give you just what you are looking for.
  • + Or, you might win. Small local races are where the average runner has his or her best chance to place in their age division – or even win! 

SMALL RACES: The cons

  • – Swag. If you like getting cool medals and tech T-shirts, a small race may disappoint you.
  • – On-course support. Some smaller races may not have the level of on-course support you want (water stations, crossing guards, race volunteers providing directions), and the actual course may be a little rough (potholes, debris, etc.) or poorly marked.
  • – Running by yourself. A small field of runners stretched out over a course means you may feel like you are on a training run and not at a race.
  • – Where are the spectators? If you rely on crowd cheers to push you faster, a small race likely won’t do it for you.

 BIG RACES: The pros 

  • + The atmosphere. Pack thousands of runners into a chute and fire a starting a gun after someone performs (live!) the national anthem and we promise – you will have goosebumps. Truly big races make you feel like you are a star on stage.
  • + Swanky swag. Big races attract lots of sponsors so you generally get your race medal and a good shirt, plus tons of free samples and coupons from race sponsors.
  • + Treated like royalty. The on-course support at big races is usually on point – not to mention the food and drink at the finish and the professional photography throughout the race (no selfie stick required!).
  • + Plenty of company. If you like to compete with runners in a race then a big race is great. Even with wave starts or pacing corrals, you still have plenty of runners within reach to pass or try to keep up with. And the cheering crowds will help push you along.
  • + Well-maintained and prepared course. Big races literally sweep the road for you to give you as smooth a ride as possible.
  • + Entertainment. Many big races have either on-course entertainment (bands, cheerleaders, people dressed as Elvis) or post-race festivities (and sometimes, free beer)!

BIG RACES: The cons

  • – Expensive. You will pay more for a big race. Some bigger half marathons and marathon will set you back $100 or more. You can cut costs by registering as early as possible, but the final price will still be much higher than that of a smaller race.
  • – Travel. For big races, many of us have to travel – either by plane or a long car ride – and that brings in a whole other set of potential complications and sources of anxiety.
  • – Crowds. Big races not only bring a lot of runners but all the support needed to host an event. That means you might need a shuttle bus to get to the start, parking could be expensive, and the lines for porta-potties might be a bit more than your bladder – or otherwise – can take.
  • – Impersonal. At a big race you could feel like you are being herded like cattle through gates and chutes, and the finish might be a sea of unfamiliar faces. You’re just another runner. 

Big or small, whichever you prefer or want to try, do your research first. Look at reviews online and check out a race’s website and Facebook page (if it exists). 

One more note: mid-sized races – those that have 600 to 1,000 runners – offer the best of both worlds. In other words, we consider them the goldilocks of races and highly recommend giving them a try.

When you race, do you prefer to go big or small?

Written by Rob Haneisen.

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