Recently I was talking with some runners who had done a variety of marathons and half-marathons but no one single race of the shorter distance type. In addition, they had only run races, and only expressed a desire to do so in the future, those of the mega-marathon variety. You know the type: ones with bands at every mile, gigantic expos, chip timing, and the like. This is a shame.
Do not misunderstand me—there is a time and a place for these types of races, and I can find pleasure in being in a crowd of 30,000 runners. However, to eschew the smaller races is to do so at the risk of missing out on a wonderful part of the sport of running.
My first race after high school, when I was a slightly heavy law school student, was a 5K that perhaps 30 people took part in. As I ran a few more races, all the way up to the half-marathon, I got to enjoy the look and feel of a race that used pull tabs on the bottom of bib numbers to place the runners; relied on about 10 volunteers to keep the event smoothly running, and occasionally had awards for the runners. Sometimes the awards ridiculously outclassed the field. In one instance, I won my age group in a small 5K in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where a hand-carved wooden Impala was my award. The race benefitted Ethiopian refugees, and the refugees themselves carved these awards. It is one of my most prized racing possessions ever.
These races often have the feeling of a family picnic where a footrace broke out in the middle for half an hour or so. Awards are often home-baked goods or other personalized gifts you can never get anywhere else. But just as often there are no prizes and that is just as well. When I lived in Virginia, a local running club put on a 5K every week so runners could test their fitness. Popsicles during the summer were often the award for finishing the race with the race registration fee being maybe a $1 to be given to a local food bank.
Does it make sense to fly or drive hours to participate in one of these races? Well, no, not really. The travel and vacations built around the races with thousands of participants are what keep those races going. But undoubtedly a look at the local race calendar in your area will unearth dozens of inexpensive, frills-free opportunities where you can test out your running shoes. Sure the medal you get bragging rights for to your friends who can then praise you for your awesomeness on your Facebook status is nice every once in a while. But another thing that feels awesome?