Coach Mike Mead

What to Look For in a Road Race - November 2006

It seems like there are as many road races these days as there are runners. Yeah, the Peachtree Road Race draws their 50,000-plus runners every July 4th, but many races just do not draw an ample field. As a road racer, there are some things you need to consider when selecting your next road race and things race directors need to consider in attracting runners.

The No. 1 concern for a road racer is how accurate is the course being advertised? I recall one road race I ran while in college that advertised the distance a 10K. It was a fairly hot day in Michigan in early summer, so we knew times would not be fast and that was reinforced by our five-mile splits. Yet as we turned a corner and suddenly saw the finish line just a couple of minutes after the five-mile split, the top few of us ran sub-28:30 for 10K. Heck, I have a certificate that states I ran a 28:30-something 10K. Most of us knew by our effort that the course was considerably short. Ironically, a politician running for state office sponsored the race. He sponsored several races across the state that summer. I don’t know whether he won the political office he was seeking (I moved to Georgia that fall) or the accuracy of the other races he sponsored, but the race distance I ran was short.

The best way to know you’re on an accurate course is one that is USATF certified. These courses are tediously measured. To know if a course is certified, contact the race director or see if the USATF certification number is mentioned in the race information.

Just as important, how safe will the course be? If one of the supporters or sponsors is the local police, then you should be in good hands! Will EMT personnel be on call? Safety is crucial for any race run on the roads. Again, do not be afraid to ask.

The next crucial area to consider is finding out about the timing/finish line management. Besides having an accurate course, you want to have accurate timing and results. You need to know if they are using chips or Popsicle sticks? Both can be efficient, depending on the size of the field, provided the race management folks have several races under their belts. Look for races that use an experienced race management team and don’t be afraid to ask.

Another consideration is how long has the race been going on? If it has been going on for many years, chances are the race is well run. Some established races might lose their luster if they haven’t been trying to keep their race fresh. For example, they give the same T-shirt every year, or their awards are cheap looking. New races might offer you some change and may try hard to put on a good race so that you’ll come back next year. The down side to new races is the folks putting them on might not be runners and don’t have a clue about the details that show up on race day. Ask if they have put on road races before.

The cost of the race can be a clue as to the quality. Remember, you get what you paid for. Most entry fees run about $20 these days. Some offer lower cost fees if you do not want the T-shirt, which can be a bargain if you already own a closet full of shirts. Of course, look for the perks like goodie bags, drawings and finish food. I am not aware of too many inexpensive races these days. The Atlanta Track Club puts on an annual series of races that are $5 for non-ATC members that usually do not give T-shirts, but provide a safe, fun, racing environment.

Next are the awards. Are the awards something you’d be proud to display? The good races will try to describe the awards in their promotional materials. Usually, the bigger the race, the better the awards. However, I’m sure there are some exceptions. Small races sometimes do not play up their awards or the tie-ins. I was just at a race last month that gave nice age group awards, but failed to mention the $10 gift cards from Chick-fil-A that were also included. Might have attracted more runners.

Many races held these days are fundraising for a particular charity or cause. If that is the case, see if your entry fee is tax-deductible. Is the cause legit? Usually, the bigger the cause, the bigger the race will be. Again, be sure they have organizers with road race management experience. Some charities think putting on a road race can be a big “money maker” for their cause, but are unaware of the pitfalls and race day details.

The coveted T-shirt is another thing to consider. If the race logo is sharp, most likely the shirt will be, too. But if it’s a very plain logo design, then buyer beware!

The size of the race may or may not matter. Obviously, the bigger the event, the better the chances that the perks and competition will be, too. Some folks like the smaller races to be able to have room to race and go at a more comfortable pace at the beginning. Of course, a race like the Peachtree finds many folks walking at the start because of the crowd. Smaller races can give those who seldom win in their age group a chance to pick up a trophy. Also, a smaller race will give you a chance to try something different in your racing strategy that can be applied in more competitive races in the future. Larger races should help you to faster times because you should find more competitive runners in the field.

The quality of road racing has drastically declined in the last 20 years. I can recall when most 5K races were won in under 17:00 and usually it took a low 16 to high 15 to win most competitive 5K races. I just ran in a road race where the winning time was 19:20 for 5K. I think the main reasons are that more average people are running and more road races are available. If you’re trying to get more competitive, you have to race less and get in more competitive events. If you’re just getting into racing, pick a few small races until you’re ready for the big ones. Good luck!