Fitness, Running

5 Things To Consider When Choosing Your First Half Marathon

Photo by Paul Ward.

Have you ever thought about running a half marathon but felt overwhelmed about where to start? You’re not alone! There are thousands of races out there to sign up for. How do you choose?!

I’m going to give you some of my best advice on how to find the best race for you.

How do I know all this? I’ve completed 6 half marathons! I’ve done 4 in person and 2 virtual races.

My very first half marathon was the 2016 San Francisco Half Marathon and it’s still to this day one of my most favorite and treasured memories. When I decided that I wanted to attempt running my first half, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever want to do another one again. So I wanted it to be epic!

Turned out that I loved it SO much that I couldn’t wait to sign up for my next one. But I’ll always be thankful I picked such an awesome race for my first.

First things first!

Before you do anything else, you need to decide what kind of race you want to run and when. How long you need to train depends on what kind of shape you are currently in. This has a huge impact on what races you can sign up for.

What exactly do I mean by what kind of race? Aren’t all half marathons basically the same? Nope!

Here are 5 things you should consider when searching for a race:

1. Budget

There’s a wide range of entry fees out there. Typically, the larger and more popular a race, the more expensive it is to register. So, consider what you are willing and able to spend.

Also, the larger and more popular a race, the more likely there is a lottery drawing to enter for a spot. This means that you can only run the race if you qualify by time (which you can’t if this is your first), win a spot in the lottery drawing, or snag a spot running for a charity for which you will be required to raise a certain amount of money leading up to the event.

2. Location

Location and budget kind of go hand in hand. Obviously, if you choose a destination race then you will have to factor travel and lodging into your budget. For me, it was important for my own personal experience to choose a destination race and save up for several months to make the trip more feasible.

If the destination doesn’t matter as much to you or you can’t make room in your budget, consider choosing a race that is local or semi-local where you don’t have to drive more than an hour or two and won’t have to spend the night. It’s also important to remember that the race will likely start early in the morning! So don’t make yourself have to drive too far the morning of the race.

3. Date

Choose a race that will give you a reasonable amount of time to train. If you’re reading this on January 1st, don’t choose a race that’s in February or March. Unless you are already in really great shape and used to running higher mileage, that’s not going to give you enough time to train safely and effectively.

If you want to choose a destination race but you need time to save up for the travel expenses, then start looking for races that are 4-6 months out from now. Need more time? Try 8 months. I signed up for the San Francisco Half in late January I believe, and the race was at the end of July.

Tip: Sign up sooner than later. The race could sell out and if you’ve already paid your registration fee, you’re less likely to back out when training gets tough! They are also usually cheaper earlier on.

Some races offer deference to another year or allow you to transfer your bib number to another runner if you get injured, or in case of an emergency that causes you the need to cancel or no show. But NOT all of them do, so make sure to read all of their rules before you sign up.

4. Size

Do you want to run a small race with 1,000 runners or less? Or do you want to run one of the largest half marathons in the world with 50,000 runners? It’s all about preference. There are certainly pros and cons for both. If you choose a smaller race then you will likely have a lower registration fee and better lodging prices if you travel out of town because of the lower amount of people coming into town for the event. Remember to consider parking availability and prices if you are driving into town or flying in and renting a car.

The opposite is also true. Larger events usually have more expenses and it’s harder to find parking and travel prices go up due to the demand. However, large races can be SO FUN. The atmosphere is electric and inspiring with flocks of spectators, cool swag, and many awesome amenities. Small races are fun in a different way. Less stressful for sure if you’re not a huge fan of large crowds.

Tip: Another great option is public transportation! If you’re racing in a larger city like Chicago or Atlanta just to name a few, using their metro rail system is a great cheap option to get from your hotel to the race instead of paying to park a car. Many larger races will have special deals and incentives to use this option. Just remember to always be aware of your surroundings and stay safe!

5. Terrain

Do you want to run a flat course or a hilly course? This may not matter as much to some people, but to others it can be a make or break decision. I wanted to do San Francisco badly enough that I didn’t care about the hills when I signed up, but it was VERY hilly. The location and atmosphere though, were more important to me than the type of course.

It is still something you should consider in case you’d rather skip the hills on your first half marathon race. For most people, the goal is just to finish the race unless you are already a competitor in shorter races. Then on your second, you can work toward a faster time because then you will have a benchmark to beat!

Big Beach Half Marathon 2022, Gulf Shores, AL.

Need some ideas? Here are a few that I recommend!

  1. The San Francisco Half – Very hilly, a bit pricey, worth every penny. Large race with high energy (around 30-40k runners). Moderate temperature for a summer race at the end of July.
  2. Big Beach Half Marathon – Very flat, affordable, beautiful scenery. Small race in late January with a local feel (around 1k runners). Can be pretty cold and windy.
  3. St. Jude Rock N’ Roll Nashville Half Marathon – Pretty equal uphill/downhill ratio. Lots of fun, but historically pretty hot and humid, even in April. Large race with live music (around 20-30k runners).
  4. Kentucky Derby Festival mini & Marathon – Run through Churchill Downs, mostly flat, fun atmosphere. Medium sized race (around 12k runners). Weather a little unpredictable in late April/early May. Could be chilly in the morning and get pretty hot a few hours later.
  5. Publix Atlanta Marathon & Half Marathon – Very well organized, a few hills, moderate temperature in late February. Large race, often hosts elites and championships.

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