Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

I barely noticed the incline of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge during the first mile of the 2011 New York City Marathon. With fresh legs, cool temperatures, and tens of thousands of runners stretching out of view in front of and behind me, the 160-foot climb seemed to pass with the ease of a speed bump. The constricted span of the bridge made it hard to focus on things like incline, pace, and even breathing—my attention was locked on my steps and keeping them from overlapping with those of the runners packed around me as tight as a Lower Manhattan subway train at rush hour.

While the river of humanity proved stressful on the bridge, it was a major force behind the mile-22 kick on Fifth Avenue that pushed me past dozens of struggling runners, through the rolling hills of Central Park, and to a then-personal best of two hours, 48 minutes, and 23 seconds. For all the stress caused by signing up for, getting to, and running in the biggest races the world has to offer, they will forever occupy a very special place in my heart because there is no feeling on earth that can match the overwhelming experience of running a marathon amid the sometimes deafening roar of more than 2 million cheering New Yorkers.

From enormous—almost 47,000 people finished November’s New York City Marathon, making it the largest in history—to tiny—I was one of three people who ran the inaugural Mountain Circle Marathon in northern California’s Plumas County in August—I have toed the start line of every size of race out there. And although nothing can compare to the energy of a big race, there is a lot to be said for the peaceful serenity of a race with so few participants that they can be counted on a single hand with room to spare. For all of the benefits that accompany a race of any given size, there are drawbacks as well.

MINI MARATHONS

Small races—for the purposes of this blog, we’ll say events with fewer than 1,000 participants—are friendly, affordable, low-key, and oozing with character. At small races you can often register for less than $100, sleep in on race morning, park at the start line, and choose among a handful of clean, un-crowded porta-potties.

The Lake Tahoe Marathon’s Race Director, Les Wright fires a blank round from his hunting rifle to signal the marathon’s start, emails me throughout the year about other runners signed up for the race and my odds of beating them (an added bonus of small races is that locally competitive amateur runners such as myself stand a descent chance of actually winning), and lights up when we bump into one another at expos of other races around the country. The route is only partially closed to vehicle traffic, so mom, sis, and friends drive the course and stop every couple of miles to shower me and my competitors with cheers, honks, and plenty of cowbell—though, as everyone knows, we could always use more cowbell! At the beachside finish line I get to take a frigid plunge into the lake as a substitute for a traditional ice bath, cheer my buddies through their final steps of the race, and catch up with Burning Man friends who happen to operate the race’s beer garden.

But for all of the Lake Tahoe Marathon’s positives—and trust me, there are many—there are also negatives. Few moments in running can feel so lonely and disheartening as the 1.5-mile, 700-foot climb up the infamous Hill from Hell, whereas many of the notoriously difficult sections of big races, such as Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, are lined with thousands of cheering spectators. Miles 25 and 26 of Lake Tahoe are along a forested bike path that is shared with vacationing families aloof to the fact that their morning rides coincide with the final miles of a foot race, making for some potentially dangerous collisions. At big races, concerted crowd control efforts curb such accidental interference.

And while the folks behind the Lake Tahoe Marathon are as experienced as any big race staff and rarely make such missteps, technical glitches with timekeeping instruments, miscommunication at aid stations, and even mismarked and inaccurately measured courses are much more common at small races than at their larger counterparts.

MEGA MARATHONS

These are the big boys; races with more than 10,000 participants that typically include assigned starting corrals and the closure of major roads and even entire cities for the better part of a day. I often describe Boston as the Super Bowl of marathons as much for the prestige of the race as for the feeling that the eyes of the world are upon its runners. As The San Francisco Marathon Ambassador Courtney Alev puts it, big marathons provide an “overwhelming sense that you are part of something collective and special.” Courtney also points to the diversity of runners and the opportunity to interact with them as another draw to big races.

Still, being a part of something as meaningful as a major race comes at a cost. In addition to the literal expenses (I spent $207 just to register for the 2011 New York City Marathon and won’t even tell you how many Euros, Pounds, and Yen many international runners had to part with) there is the toll taken by the logistical nightmare of getting tens of thousand of runners to the start. New York City’s Staten Island start line requires hundreds of buses and the Staten Island Ferry to orchestrate a mass migration that would make Moses jealous, and runners begin boarding school buses as much as five hours before the starting gun to reach Hopkinton for the Boston Marathon.

The long waits associated with such massive transportation concerns can play havoc on nerves, nutrition, and hydration. Runner refugee camps (race directors like to call them runners’ villages) are overrun with incessant hordes of shivering, rail-thin people huddled around heat sources, anxiously queuing up for lukewarm coffee and stale bagels, and waiting in endless lines to use increasingly putrid porta-potties.

The lonesome, reflective miles that are hallmarks of small races are replaced at big races with a constant stream of runners in front and back, on either side, and occasionally defying the laws of physics and occupying the exact same space as you during the entire race. Though such crowds can help motivate, they can also wear on a runners’ patience. “If you’re not in the front of the pack,” Courtney says, “then bumping into people, jumping over them, playing red rover on the course, etc. can really get in the way of you trying to enjoy your run.”

MEDIUM MARATHONS

It seems that for every benefit of a large or small race, there is a corresponding downside, leaving runners with a major Goldilocks conundrum. Thankfully, like baby bear’s porridge, medium-sized marathons are often just right. Many races with runner totals in the mid-thousands take aspects from both small and large races to create events that are energetic but not overwhelming, friendly without being too casual, and organized without being overbearing.

While medium races such as The San Francisco Marathon are on average more expensive than many of their smaller counterparts, they tend to be more affordable than most big races. Events of this size typically strike the perfect balanced of affordability and professionalism—in other words, runners go home feeling that their money was well spent.

Courses of medium-sized races are neither desolate nor over-crowded, and when spectators are scant, there are almost always enough other runners to provide motivation. Some of my favorite memories of The San Francisco Marathon include the out-and-back across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Seeing the leaders pass as I started across the bridge in 2009 inspired me to push a little harder, and when I was close to the front of the pack in 2011, the cheers of runners making their way onto the bridge boosted my energy and reminded me how far I had gotten in the two intervening years.

The pomp and prestige of World Majors Marathons might be absent from medium races, but famous faces—such as The San Francisco Marathon Host Bart Yasso—and scenic, well chosen courses through some of the country’s most beautiful locales are on par with anything offered at bigger races. What’s more, mobs of other runners won’t prevent you from snapping a photo of the scenery or having a conversation with a running legend at medium races like they often do at big ones.

Some medium races even borrow surprising qualities from small races as well. The start of The San Francisco Marathon is a short walk or cab ride from many downtown hotels and is as easy to reach as any race I’ve ever run—even in the first wave, just behind the invited elites, I’ve never had to arrive more than 45 minutes before the start. And despite the City by the Bay’s notorious parking situation, mom and sis are still able to see me about five times during The San Francisco Marathon, which is unheard of at bigger races.

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Whatever size races you choose to run, don’t take my word for it. Every runner is different and every race is, too. I encourage everyone reading this—that’s right, all three of you—to find out the good and bad of the big and the small for yourselves. You may find runner refugee camps—sorry, “runners’ villages”—to be delightful. You might end up enjoying small races enough to overlook mismarked courses that end up being 25.9 miles (it’s an automatic personal best, at least). And, like me, you might come to the conclusion that big races are great, small races are awesome, and medium races are not too big, not too small, but just right.