Want to Run Your First Marathon in 2011? 6 Factors to Keep in Mind When Choosing Your Race

This post is an excerpt from the Marathon Roadmap, a guide to running your first marathon on a vegetarian diet.  Click here to learn more about it.

Choosing Your First Marathon

If you’re anything like me, you probably have some big, some-might-say-ridiculous plans in your head for 2011.   If, for you, those plans include running your first marathon, guess what.

It’s January 12th, and if you don’t start making it happen now, your marathon idea will probably end up in the goal graveyard, alongside those 15 pounds you were going to lose that one year, and that pony you swore you’d have by the time you were 30.

So how do you make this one happen?  Turning your goal into reality starts with making it concrete.  In this case, that means choosing a race and committing to it.

Choose the wrong one though, and the road to your first marathon can be a whole lot harder than it needs to be.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of choosing the right race

You need to pick a target that will inspire you, even when you get home from work and the last thing you want to do is go run.  One that will make your first marathon experience every bit as magical as it should be once you get there.  So how do you go about selecting your race, when there are so many to choose from?

It comes down to several factors, each of which I’ll address here: time frame, location, weather conditions, course, size, and what I call the “wow” factor.

Note: As you’ll see, I’m a big fan of making your first race a real event.  To me, it’s much easier to keep running when it really hurts if the race feels like one huge party. But if you’re more low-key and a festive atmosphere is not what fires you up when all you want to do is stop running, then by all means adapt my advice to whatever gets you going.

Time Frame

Picking a race that gives you the time you need to train properly is the most important factor for avoiding injury, and the part so many first-timers get wrong.

I recommend a training program of at least 18 weeks, which is pretty standard, plus six or more weeks of base-building at the beginning if you haven’t been regularly running around half of the race distance in total weekly miles.  So you want to be running 12-15 miles a week before you officially start training for a marathon.  If you’re already there, 18 weeks is enough.  If not, choose one that’s at least six months away.


Should you stay close to home or travel to a destination race?

The way I see it, you only run your first marathon once.  (And everyone wants their first time to be really special, right?)

My first marathon was in San Diego, on the opposite coast from where I live, so two friends and I spent four days there and had an absolute blast.  If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing about the location. (I might go back and change our choice to walk all around the world’s largest zoo the day before the race, though.)

Going somewhere fun and making a mini-vacation out of your first race is the way to go, as far as I’m concerned.  Of course, traveling to your first marathon also has its downsides.

You have the added stress of travel and jetlag, not to mention the added cost of a flight and hotel.  Most of your friends from home won’t be there to cheer you on, and your comfort and sleep the night before and after the race might not be quite what they would be at home.  There’s also the risk that you’ll get injured and won’t be able to cancel your hotel and plane tickets.  But hey, then you could just be like a normal person and take a vacation that doesn’t involve running 26.2 miles!

Bottom line: If you’re the type that loves to travel and you don’t mind giving up some comfort and taking a little extra risk in return for an awesome locale, then run wild with your choice of location.  Otherwise, stay close by and enjoy the comfort of your own bed and familiar faces.

Weather Conditions

The previous two factors, time and location, also determine the likely weather conditions of race day.  For most people, 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit is a pretty ideal temperature range to run in, but keep in mind that most races start early in the morning so you usually won’t be running during the hottest part of the day.

Rain isn’t much fun to run in, and wind will slow you down way more than it will help you.  Also, be aware that differences in humidity and elevation between your race location and what you’re used to training in can have a significant impact on your performance.

Obviously, you can’t control all of these things, but do what you can to keep from being caught off guard by the weather.

The Course Itself

Most races offer elevation profiles on their websites—for your first marathon, you’ll have an easier time with something that looks like this (Chicago Marathon),

than like this (Pike’s Peak):

(The elevation profiles are from MarathonGuide.com, where they have a good marathon directory to help you choose one.)

If you’ll be able to do a lot of your training on hills, then you might be able to handle a hilly race.  But in general, flat equals fun for your first big race.  You’re running 26.2 miles for the first time.  Why make it any harder than it needs to be until you’ve got one under your belt?

Another thing to keep in mind is terrain.  Most marathons you’ll find are road races, but trail marathons are becoming more popular.  If all your training will be on roads or paved trails, be cautious about choosing a trail race, especially if you’re not sure how technical the trail is.  Trail running is very different from road running, far more than just “picking your feet up so you don’t trip on roots,” which is what I thought it was before I started trail running.  Bottom line: If you only train on the roads, race on the roads.


Do you want an intimate 1,000-person race or a 30,000-runner spectacle, complete with bands, cheering squads, and spectators several rows deep?

I’ve run both, and I can tell you firsthand that there’s an enormous difference when it’s mile 18, the doubts are creeping in, and you’re all alone, versus having the support of a crowd with music and festivities to keep you going.  I can understand that some people enjoy being alone with their thoughts, but when you’re running farther than you ever have, those thoughts can sometimes drive you crazy.

As I said, big races probably aren’t for everyone.  They’re generally more expensive, and you’ll have to deal with crowds and traffic before and after the race. And even during the race you’ll likely find that you don’t have as much room as you’d like until the crowd thins out, often not until several miles in.  But if you can handle that, the adrenaline rush of a screaming crowd when you need it most is totally worth it.  (Check out the Rock ‘n’ Roll series, my favorite of the big races.)

One added benefit of a big-city marathon, specifically for vegetarians and vegans, is having more choices when it comes to food.  What you eat in the day before and the hours following the race is important to make sure your stomach doesn’t revolt and you recover properly.  If you’re in the middle of nowhere out in huntin’ country, where the race you picked is, that could pose a problem—salad isn’t going to cut it.  With a little planning though, you should be able to find something, even if it’s just plain pasta.  So keep the food-factor in mind, but don’t let it completely dictate your choice.

Wow Factor

Listen.  You’re going to run a marathon.  You might as well make it awesome.

Pick something that inspires YOU.  If that’s running through the desert, surrounded by mountains and red rocks, then do that.  If it’s running down the Las Vegas strip, do that instead.  If it’s cruising through city blocks in between skyscrapers, pick one of those.  If it’s a peaceful journey along rolling hills through farmland and tiny towns, you can find plenty like that, too.

There are so many different types of marathons.  For your first one, pick something that truly inspires you.  One that when you download a great picture, or the course map, and set it as your desktop wallpaper, you’ll get butterflies just imagining yourself running it.

Training for a marathon is tough, and that’s why so few people will ever do it.  Let yourself be inspired along the way.

Want to run your first marathon as a vegetarian?  Click here to learn more about the No Meat Athlete Marathon Roadmap!

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!



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  1. This was the most perfect post for me to read. I signed up for the Pittsburgh marathon a few months ago and 2011 IS going to be the year that I complete my first one! I live in Pittsburgh and the city is breathtakingly beautiful! Plus, friends can come to support me and the race definitely has that big old party atmosphere you mentioned! And I’m pretty positive about it…I just completed a 14 mile run a few days ago, which is my longest to date! 🙂

  2. What a great post! I think a lot of people are intimidated in choosing their first marathon to race in ~ I’ve found a perfect race in the midwest. The Inaugural Carmel Marathon 6/11/2011 ~ in Carmel, Indiana. To be a part of history AND run 26.2 in a beautiful town. The race is a Boston qualifier and the Indiana Marathon Championship race – so cool!! The course is flat, fast and the weather will be awesome (I live in Carmel so I don’t have to travel far, but I love running here!) The race organizers have teamed up with St. Vincent Sports Performance and providing everyone who registers a FREE training program that starts late February ~ gotta have it! I’m stoked and looking forward to seeing the finish line and my amazing medal 🙂 – thanks again for posting this!!

  3. This is definitely an important factor to consider. I wish I had taken it into consideration. I just finished my first marathon and I wish I had not listened to my friends who insisted that this particular marathon was a great one. It was definitely not my cup of tea. Too big, no beautiful scenery, lots of highway, too many Disney characters (oops, I forgot I didn’t like people dressed up in suits- creepy!!)

  4. Great advice! I wrote a similar post as a guest on Run to the Finish’s blog. Anyway, I think we should go through these factors for every marathon we do — after all, it’s a lot of commitment to run a marathon, so better make it great, right?!

    I’m running Fargo Marathon this year, which I’m sure will be a contrast to the CA marathons I’ve run (I’ve done the Vegas one, too — it was awesome!).

  5. Matt: As I sit here, eating my pulled pork, avocado, cheddar cheese, and 2 egg omelet, I can’t really comment on the vegetarian aspect of running a marathon. But I can comment on the fact that you’ve nailed the variables that you should consider when choosing your first marathon!

    For me, travel is the biggest issue. If it’s your first marathon, and you’re just going to finish, then I’m all for making a trip out of it. But if you’ve got more serious goals like running a BQ or setting a PR, then you’d better make darn sure you’ve got enough time to spend in the race location BEFORE the race to acclimate to the environment. I’m pretty sure that’s why the Vegas marathon was so difficult for me this year—it was the first race I’ve ever travelled to and I was totally thrown off my game.

    There’s something to be said for sleeping in your own bed and eating your own food (vegetarian or not) the few days before a big race effort.

  6. Shameless plug for the ING Miami marathon in January! It gets overlooked because it’s only 3 weeks after Disney, but it’s a blast! Awesome scenery and crowd support!

  7. I completely agree make it an event! Right at one year ago we did the Disney marathon for our first one. It gave us a reason to train and seeing the run rise over Cinderella’s castle as we ran through Main Street with hundreds of people cheering was awesome and we weren’t even half way yet! The course finishes by running around the worlds of Epcot. I highly recommend it. You only get one first marathon make it a good one!

  8. Brianna O. says:

    I’m running my first marathon on June 4th…Newport, OR. I love that it’s small…900 limit…and flat…many people PR. We’ll be running around a beautiful bay so it should be very scenic and relaxing. I’m really excited and glad I chose this one.

  9. I’m looking forward to your book. This is the year I hope to run my first marathon, and I’m sure your suggestions will help me to finish strong. Thank you!

  10. I’ll be running the Tel Aviv Half Marathon in April – my first race as a vegan – in my NoMeatAthlete t-shirt!

  11. I was so excited to read this post today as it comes at the perfect time! I’m looking forward to the release of your book. I am a vegetarian who is planning on running my first marathon this year (after turning 30 and I still don’t own that pony). Thanks for the advice – I’ve accomplished step one and picked MDI Marathon in Maine on October 9th, 2011. Now all I have to do is train…

  12. Like many above, I was excited to see this post. I plan to run my first marathon in October and already have a training schedule (which starts in June) on my wall to motivate me!
    Thank you for weighing both sides of the equation for each factor. I hadn’t realized until I read this why I choose the marathon I did. Thank you!

  13. Great advice, I fall right alongside your suggestions. My first marathon is this Sunday, 3/20/11, in Virginia Beach. The Yuengling Marathong (aka – Shamrock Marathon) is flat, festive, and a mini-vacation for my husband and myself. We’re especially excited to finish on the boardwalk and get our free beer afterwards. I also heard that they have one of the best swag bags and expos around.

    Good luck to everyone running their first marathon this year!!!

  14. MsMelisaClimbyClimb says:

    Wow. This is a really encouraging post. Do I dare? Is it possible? I’d definitely pick one of the Rock & Rolls as my first. I’m new. Really new. I can give myself eleven months. Just… thinking (typing) out loud (on a keyboard).

  15. My husband and I registered today to run the Chicago Marathon. It will be our first Marathon! We are so excited and very nervous. I always resisted the idea of running a marathon and the other day I was flipping a magazine and I read about this guy who is 100 years old and finish a Marathon! Wow! I thought, you know what, I can do it too 🙂 We’ve been running since 2008, done a few 5Ks, a couple of 10ks and last November we ran our first Half. Wish us luck 🙂

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