Large Races vs. Small Races

It has taken me a long time to gather my thoughts on this topic. I have run a total of 30 races, from the 5K distance to the marathon. Some of these races have been small, local races and some have been huge, big-name events. I go back and forth on my feelings as to which type of race is better. I’ve experienced some really great large races and some really terrible ones. The same goes with the smaller races – there have been some that were amazing and some that were less than impressive. No matter the size of the race, I believe a quality race really all comes down to good planning and organization. However, there are definitely some pros and cons of large and small races in general.

Large Races


  • There is usually good spectator support along the course.
  • Entertainment may be provided along the course and sometimes before and after the race as well.
  • A variety of amenities are offered (plenty of bathrooms, shuttles to and from races, discounted hotel prices, pre and post-race food/water/gatorade, post-race parties, medals, etc.)
  • Being surrounded by people while running can be very motivating and fun!
  • These races tend to use chip timing and timing mats at certain race splits for accurate results. Results are up quickly and may even go online live so your friends and family can track you.
  • Many large races have corrals that organize runners by predicted finish time, and release them in waves – if done correctly this helps spread the field out so that it’s not too crowded.
  • Large races usually offer expos that are free and open to the public with many brand name retailers, guest speakers, free samples, and other activities.
  • Large races that I loved: The New York City Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, Rock & Roll USA Half Marathon.

NYC Marathon


  • Large races are usually expensive and are only getting more expensive each year. Some of the big name race companies seem to be $$$ hungry and will charge you for every little thing – parking, packet pick-up fees, and more (Rock & Roll and Hot Chocolate did this).
  • They can be super crowded, which makes it hard to run fast and not get super irritated. This is what happened to me most recently in the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler. I think this is also sometimes another money hungry tactic for some race companies (Like the Hot Chocolate 15K). They just want as many runners as possible to make money, regardless of runner safety and organization!
  • Large races tend to bring with them traffic headaches- especially because they are usually located in some type of city or urban area.
  • Sometimes logistics aren’t managed properly when there are large groups of people to organize (i.e. timing the corrals, finishing areas, narrow courses that lead to bottlenecking, etc.)
  • They tend to sell out quickly.
  • Sometimes they do not have ENOUGH amenities for amount of people that are running. I’ve been to races where they have run out of food, water, even medals!
  • Usually you need to go pick up race materials the day before the race, which can be tough to do with busy schedules and if you are traveling from out of town.
  •  Large races that I didn’t love: Hot Chocolate 15K, Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, some aspects of the Rock & Roll series

Hot Chocolate 15K - I was not happy! Read the recap (linked above) to find out why.

Small Races


  • They are usually much less expensive than larger races.
  • These races usually support things in your local community, so your registration fee is going towards something good and not to a large corporation that is trying to make money off of you 🙂
  • You may have a chance to place in your age group, or even win! This is what happened to me in my town’s local Run for Autism 5K. It was amazing!
  • They are much less crowded so you may actually be able to RACE and not weave through people the whole time.
  • You are usually not required to pick up any race materials the day before the race.
  • You are able to sign up at last minute if you want to and they rarely sell out.
  • Great small races that I loved: The Air Force Marathon, Marine Corps 17.75K, Run for Autism 5K, The Veterans Day 10K

Autism 5K


  • There are not as many spectators out on the course, and not as much entertainment (if any at all).
  • These races are not always chip-timed, depending on the race. You may be timed based off when the start gun goes off, even if you don’t cross the start line for another minute or so.
  • Runners are not usually put into corrals and there aren’t any wave starts.
  • Sometimes the courses for small races are not great. This may be because they don’t have as much money for police support and road closures as larger races do. There tend to be a lot of simple out and back or loops. The NJ marathon was two identical loops and I really didn’t like it.
  • Since there aren’t as many people, you may run alone for part of the race. This doesn’t really happen in a shorter distance like a 5K or 10K, but it is really disheartening in a marathon to be running all alone at mile 20 (see photo below!)
  • Small races that I didn’t love: The New Jersey Marathon … that’s about it! I have really enjoyed all the small races I have participated in.

NJ Marathon - Running ALL alone!

These pros and cons are not true for every large and small race, but they are the patterns I’ve noticed in my experience running 30 races. Again, I really believe whether a race is great or not comes down to good planning and organization, no matter its size. I have had tons of fun at both types! That’s why I can’t really say what I prefer. I love them both for different reasons and I will continue to run both large and small races. However, I am definitely going to be more selective with the large races that I choose to run, because of my recent frustrations. The next few months will be interesting, because Kevin and I are signed up to run a variety of both large and small races… the Pittsburgh Marathon (large), the Delaware Marathon (small), Virginia Wine Country Half Marathon (relatively small), Rock & Roll Seattle Marathon (large), and a local 5K on the 4th of July (small). I guess we’ll see if I come up with anything new to add to these lists!

What do you think? Do you prefer large or small races? What has been the best and worst small race you have ever run? What about the best and worst large race?

3 responses to “Large Races vs. Small Races

  1. Pingback: The Delaware Running Festival Half Marathon | Run Inspired

  2. Pingback: Rock &Roll USA Half Marathon 2013 | Run Inspired

  3. Pingback: Spotlight on Speedwork | Run Inspired

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