How to Choose Your Fall Marathon

My good friend Adam recently chose Detroit Marathon as his big fall race. Unlike me, Adam is pretty serious about training for a fast time, and he usually does one all-out effort per season. I, on the other hand, and more likely to do half a dozen races per season, but just “for fun” and not as races. Let’s face it, running in a marathon is a great excuse to go see a new place :)  I know that most people do not take the crazy approach I do to running marathons. But, the good news is that having done so many races, I’m really good at helping people compare races that they’re considering!

With summer almost over (yikes, I hope you don’t hate me for reminding you of that), it’s time to start finalizing marathon schedules for the fall season. Since most training plans run for about three months, it’s still not too late to train for a late-fall marathon (assuming you already have a decent running base built up)! But how do you pick from the hundreds of amazing marathons out there, to find one that perfectly suits you?

How to Choose A Fall Marathon

Photo taken by me at mile 5 of the Adirondack Marathon, which I’d highly recommend as a really well-run small fall marathon

First, figure out when exactly a marathon would best fit in your schedule. If you have a lot of big work deadlines, weddings, christenings, weekend getaways, etc, of course that rules those weekends out… but also don’t forget to consider how your training will be impacted by those commitments. Theodora just made the difficult decision to drop out of her planned half Ironman, since the training was coming in direct conflict with other things that were more important to her. And even when I was pursuing my 50by25 goal, I made a conscious effort to pursue all my normal activities as best as I could, even if it meant that I wasn’t turning in particularly fast or well-rested race performances. I’ve long said that it doesn’t really matter how much sleep you get the night before your race, but two nights before is critical – so make sure you don’t have any conflicts there. It’s also a good idea to layer your preferred training plan over your calendar, and take note of any conflicts. Sure, you could squeeze in your 20 miler in the morning after a wedding (cake = carb loading?)… but be honest with yourself about whether you’re actually going to do that and whether it’s going to make you happy to do so.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to a handful of weekends and are ready to browse the Marathon Guide race calendar, you need to figure out if you’re willing/able to travel to get to the race. Most areas only have one marathon a season (if that), so if you need to stay local, that’s pretty much going to decide all of it for you :) But whether you’re willing to travel to a race isn’t just a binary question… there’s also the question of how far you’re willing to go and what mode of transportation you’ll take to get there. If you know you’ll need to drive, that limits you to about a 200 mile radius from your home, whereas the possibilities are endless if you’re willing to fly. But how far are you willing to fly? You’ll need to consider whether it’s possible for you to take time off work, and if not, how long you feel comfortable sitting on a plane for a quick weekend away. I’m perfectly happy to go all the way to Japan for a weekend, but I realize that not everyone feels the same :)

Even if you only choose to do one marathon in the fall and make it your big trip of the year, cost is a pretty important consideration for most of us. However, I want to reiterate something that Adam said in his own fall marathon post: the cost of the race entry is so negligible in the grand scheme of things, you might as well ignore it. The New York City Marathon is known as one of the most expensive marathons in the world to enter, but when I lived just a few blocks from the finish line, it was one of my cheapest races of the season! I could stay at my own apartment, cook a pre-race dinner using groceries instead of being forced to go out to eat (although let’s be honest, I relished the opportunity to go get some good Italian food at a restaurant), and take the subway to the start for only $2.50. When looking at the cost of a marathon, consider whether you know anyone in the area who would be willing to let you crash at their place, the nightly rate of hotel rooms, and how expensive flights/other ground transportation will be. Once you get to town, do you need a rental car or is everything within walking distance? (I’ve written before about tips for saving money traveling to the race, so make sure to check those out.) All of that should be considered in your budget before you label a particular race as cheap or expensive.

Now – what about climate? If you spent all summer training in Maine, I wouldn’t really recommend going to Florida for a September race. It’s still going to be pretty hot and sticky! Similarly, if you’re from Arizona, it might be a bit of a shock to do a November race in New York, where you don’t know if race day will be 60s and sunny or gray and snowy. Chances are that if you’re not from somewhere too far north or south, you’ll do okay just about anywhere, but if you’re really gunning for a PR where every second counts, it’s something to consider. And something that I have to point out since moving to Colorado: if you don’t live at altitude, you probably shouldn’t pick a high-altitude race for your PR attempt. It’s just stacking the deck against yourself.

Another thing that’s really important to a fast time is the mental component. Running laps around an indoor track may limit the wind resistance and hills, but the monotony might make you slow down rather than getting inspired by the pretty course around you. You may also want to consider how important it is to you to have family/friends at your race. Are you comfortable traveling solo? And on race day, does it matter whether the people cheering you on are those you know or strangers? To use my previous example, part of why I loved the then-local-to-me New York City Marathon so much was that I usually ended up seeing dozens of people I know along the course (as spectators or even as runners), and it’s fun to get to see friends/family/acquaintances I haven’t seen in years. One race that is definitely on my bucket list is the Warsaw Marathon in Poland, because I’d love for my family there to see me run! However, even if you go to a race totally solo, you can put your name on your shirt (or some races even automatically do that on your bib) so you’ll still have people calling your name. Check out the Marathon Guide reviews to get an idea of how many spectators come out to cheer and whether you can expect outside encouragement or if you need to mentally motivate yourself.

Next up: terrain. We’ve already covered how training in a different climate can impact your time (hint: if you live in South Carolina, I wouldn’t recommend the mile-high Rock N Roll Denver Marathon for your PR race, even if you’ve enjoyed other Rock n Roll Marathons). But you should also take a really good look at the course profile and make sure that you’re ready for its challenges. Trail marathons are generally slower than road marathons, though as Emily recently pointed out, the road will trash your feet/legs if you’re used to training on trails. Make sure you also take a look at the elevation profile. (If the race website itself doesn’t have an elevation map, a Google search will usually turn up the data from someone who ran the race last year… as long as the course hasn’t changed.) However, don’t be too scared off by hills. I actually think it’s easier to run fast on a rolling course than one that’s pancake-flat, since it means that you’re changing up the muscles that you’re using instead of pounding away with every step the same as the last! Just make sure that your training is similar to what you’ll find out on the course, so that you’re not encountering your first hill after three months of completely flat runs.

What kind of race day experience are you looking for? Some people prefer big races (15,000+ runners) and other prefer smaller races (less than 2,000 runners) – and of course, there are a whole bunch in the middle too. I’ve come to have a slight preference for smaller races myself, but everyone likes different things! In general, bigger races tend to have more spectators and more hoopla at the finish line – but I’ve found that the runner camaraderie, quality of swag, and finish line food tends to be better at smaller races, where the race directors really go out of their way to provide a personal touch. Case in point: at the medium-sized Akron Marathon, the race director stands at the finish line and shakes the hand of every single finisher as they cross the line! I love the little things like that to make a race day special.

Finally, let’s consider what for me is one of the most important factors in choosing a race: what are the post-race festivities like, and what’s the food/drink situation? I’ve run the Country Music Marathon three times despite it having kind of a boring course, in large part because Nashville is such a fun town and the organizers host an awesome post-race concert that is totally free for runners. Free tickets to see a big-name country star plus a really fun downtown bar scene? Sold! I also love when races have something extra yummy at the finish line, like the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that inspired me to do my very first marathon in Vermont. (However, grilled salmon and homemade cookies at the Prince of Wales Island Marathon in Alaska still wins hands-down for best post-race food.) Small and medium-sized races usually tend to have better food at the finish line, even though their entry fees are usually cheaper. (Dear NYC Marathon organizers: partially-frozen plain bagel + a bottle of Gatorade does not cut it for $250.) Generally, races will advertise their post-race spread pretty prominently if it’s good; otherwise, Marathon Guide reviews will tell all.

So – what fall marathon(s) are you running? Need any help deciding on one? Ask away in the comments!


  1. Berlin to try and get a BQ, although I’d probably be better with a few hills for the reason you mentioned above, using different muscles.
    Then 5 weeks later New York…. mainly going for a holiday to NYC with a marathon chucked in! :)

  2. I’m planning on running a triail half in Louisville in October. I will have been in Colorado for three weeks, so it’s my motivation to get running training in at altitude for an easier race :)

  3. Excellent list of things to think about when registering for a marathon, not just a fall one. When you lay it all out, you realize how much goes into picking a race!
    Brooke @ wreckingroutine recently posted…Kitchen Sink QuicheMy Profile

  4. Great post. So much to consider when signing up for races and you certainly have the extensive experience to write knowledgeably on this.

    Looks like I’m going to do both Baltimore (my first time) and Philly (my 6th), but neither as goal races since I’m expecting my firstborn any day now and not sure what training with a newborn at home will be like. Philly is hands down my favorite marathon and can’t wait to do it again. As much as I’d like to diversify and run different marathons, whenever I set a time goal, Philly makes the most sense because it’s my hometown race so I don’t have to add the stress of travel. I’m also so familiar with the course now which helps mentally.

    A few years ago I did a tiny marathon in Delaware that had the best post race spread I’ve ever seen. Both a breakfast and a lunch buffet with unlimited beer from a local brewery. But any race with beer at the end is ok in my book.

    Best of luck to you in future travels/races.

    • Oh, Scott, I have done Rehoboth Beach three times now because their awesome spread is so great! (Or do you mean one of the trail ones in Delaware, since you said tiny?) Sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into what works for YOU this fall, which is perfect.

    • Yup, it was Rehoboth Beach which I did in 2010. That was the closest I ever came to joining the Marathon Maniacs when I did Atlantic City, Philly and Rehoboth all within 90 days of each other. Haven’t been that intense since.
      Scott recently posted…On pregnancy and marathoningMy Profile

  5. No marathons for me this fall, but I’m doing two half-marathons: Hershey and Philadelphia (moving to Philly in a few days!) and the 18-mile run on Long Beach Island. My grandma used to live on LBI and unfortunately passed away this year, so one of my brothers, one cousin, and I are running to remember her. A few other cousins are going to relay it – family reunion!

    • Congrats on the Philly move! That is so nice for your family to do the LBI 18 miler as a memorial run; what a touching way to honor your grandma.

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