How to Pick a Marathon

Picking a marathon to do is not only a fine art, but also is totally determined by your needs and goals.  People do marathons for various reasons:  new challenge, motivation to workout, friend asked you to help them, and to run faster.  I’m going to discuss how to pick your marathon depending on your needs.


Don’t do it.  If you rely on signing up for a marathon you are basically setting yourself up for an event that you’ll be underprepared because you think having that finish line will make you get out and run over the winter, or even start your exercise program.

Time and again I’ve seen athletes only come to me saying ‘they’re not ready’, I’ve missed all my long runs, or I’ve hardly run at all.  

To run a marathon means that you have the ability and mindset to commit to something with something like a religious fervor.  Chances are if you’ve used this as an excuse to start training you don’t have that strong of a desire.  

Yes you have a desire to start training again, but don’t use a marathon as the ‘carrot’.  Instead focus on the local 5k and 10k’s because they will set you up for greater success in the future.  Plus they will never seem so overwhelming.  Think of it as one mile at a time.  Own the 5k and 10k, then move up to the 13.1, then after a couple of years of treating your body well with consistent training move up to the marathon.


Don’t do it.  Even if you’re an experienced marathoner, running that 26.2 miles and also training your friend will most likely help to stall your forward progress and speed as well.  We only have ‘x’ amount of marathons in us before our minds will say enough!

Notice I did not say ‘body’.  Our bodies can withstand a lot.  It’s our minds that rebel after awhile because they know how much work it takes to prepare, and that the desire just isn’t as great as before (see #1 reason).  

When that friend asks you again, just tell them that you will help them with some of the long runs, and you’ll support them at their race by being on the course and finish line to help them to their car.  They need to be able to do this on their own.  Tell them to put their ‘big girl/boy panties on’ and just do it…..because they can.


This one is a viable excuse.  You’ve already been training for a few years, been pretty consistent, and you’re ready for the next challenge.  I’ve seen this with athletes who are planning on doing their first Ironman as they want to see what a marathon feels like.  Trust me when I say that a stand alone marathon is way more ‘hurt’ than an ironman marathon.  Two different beasts.

The positives to doing a new challenge is that it opens up possibilities that you may have not realized before.  It allows you to push the boundaries of your life, and will teach you some important lessons as well.  

This is assuming though that you do have some mileage on the legs.  If not?  Start out with 5k’s and 10k’s until you own them before moving up because marathons can kill the leg speed, and going backwards doesn’t always work.  Be fast first, then do the long slower stuff.


YES!  You’ve made a decision to be fast, and you’re committed to racing the marathon.  Not just run a marathon.  

Yes, there is a difference.  Any monkey can run a marathon, but it takes someone dedicated to themselves to race a marathon.

What is the difference?  Well for one, you’re making a commitment to yourself that you are going to spend the time and energy to focus on one key race for that specific season.  You are going to do whatever it takes to get up at 5am to run in the winter, or at 5am in the heat of the summer to achieve your goal.  

To get to the finish line as quickly as YOU can.  This pertains to everyone, whether they are a 5 hour marathoner in the past or a 3 hour marathoner.  Your goal is just as important as someone who is always on the podium.  

Speed is relative.  Someone who runs a 10 min mile pace will most likely feel the same effort that a 7’ mile runner will feel in the marathon.  You won’t be chit chatting with friends the entire time, you’re going to be able to say a word here or there, say hi to people, but if you’re thinking that racing a marathon allows you to have long discussions about global warming while racing….nope.  Put that out of your head as your focus is going to be strictly on being the best you can be on race day.


If you are doing a new challenge,  and you’re experienced athlete?  I suggest finding a course that is scenic, that is in a location that is either easy for you to get to, or is someplace you always wanted to visit.  Might as well kill two birds with one stone and have a vacation with it as well.  Just make sure you get the marathon done first…then go vacation.  

Time of year is important as well.  You don’t want to do your first marathon where the weather is really iffy (March in North America), or extremely cold/hot.  Nothing says miserly like hypothermia or heat stroke to ruin a day or an event.

Course should also not be too hilly (unless you thrive on hills) or too flat either.  Both can beat the crap out of your legs if you aren’t prepared.

Size of the race is also important.  Do you feel comfortable being surrounded by crowds of people, or do you like the more spaced out race.  Because either can be more of a stress to each specific athlete and their needs.  If you are someone who likes their space, then having a few thousand other runners surrounding you may actually slow you down quite a bit because of the adrenaline suck that takes place, and the stress of the other bodies around as well.  

Then there are those who love the crowds, and thrive with all their ‘friends’ by their side for each step of the marathon.

If you want to be fast:  Here are the following guidelines for getting faster or have your first marathon be fast (holds true for new challenge as well).

  1. Pick a fall race (unless you live in the southern hemisphere of course) as it is easier for your body to be acclimated to cold rather than heat.  The climate in the spring is way to risky to put all that training to only have a race that is 80 degrees when you’re only used to 40 degrees.  You’ve gotten used to the heat in the summer so that if it does pop up in your race your body is going to be able to deal with it much more efficiently.
  2. Pick a race that is as flat as possible with as few turns as possible.  The only caveat on these type of courses is that they will have several thousand people running them, and all with the intent on being faster.  So you have to train your brain and body to be able to deal with more people around you.  This means you have to have racing experience with large races.
  3. Pick a race where you know you can find a back up race three to four weeks after your main goal race.  Why?  Because if on race day you aren’t feeling the magic (in other words there is no way a PR is going to happen) you can escape half way through the race, and live to race another day.   If you decide to suck it up you have to be aware that the legs you want for a PR will not be there a month later.  So you have to be able to really evaluate yourself and how you’re feeling while racing a marathon because the feeling of ‘UGH’ does not go away in a marathon magically, in fact that feeling turns into ‘UGGHHHHHHH’ during the last 10 miles.  
  4. Look at the historical weather reports for that weekend.  Go back several years and compare them as well.  What is the average temp of the day, the humidity, and also winds as well.  From there you can make a determination that you will have a decent marathon day. 
  5. Last but not least look at your work schedule/family schedule.  If you have a profession where marathon season is at your peak at work, then you don’t want two stresses at once.  Unless you’re really good at delegating, or you have a boss that doesn’t mind that you’re going to be trashed on some days, and that you won’t be in the office 100% every day mentally.

As of this writing (end of September) it’s a great time to start thinking about the next year’s goals.  It affords you time to see which races will work for you, but also gives you the time to mentally prepare for what it’s going to take to do your marathon.