Good Races vs. Bad Races

Last week the weather was amazing and it had me in a great mood for running.  In fact, I got outside for a fantastic 8 miles in shorts on a warm, sunny day.  Friday morning I woke up to another few inches of snow and it ruined my running inspiration.  So today I am not chatting about my best races or my worst races….I just can’t get into the racing mood quite yet.  Instead, let’s talk about what makes for a really great or a really bad race.

Bad Races:

Lack of Facilities:  Nothing will put you in a bad mood right from the start than feeling pressed to find a port-a-potty.  Last year at Grandma’s Marathon, we arrived an hour before the start and spent the whole time waiting in line to go once!  There were actually plenty of facilities but they placed them in a bizarre “U” shape that locked many of them out.  Runners were furious and many missed their start corrals (including myself).  As I mentioned before, it wouldn’t be a heinous crime if it hadn’t been an issue the year before.


Totally Inaccurate Courses:  A few years back, we suckered a bunch of family members into running a 15k trail race with us.  Not only was the course advertised to be in Chicago and then later wasn’t, but the course was off by several miles!  We were supposed to run 3 loops to make 9.3 miles but after the second loop I was already at 8.5 miles.  I ended up quitting at 2 loops and feeling like a failure.  Only later did I see that most of the runners did the same thing and some were awarded prizes!  The only thing making the situation worse was a lack of advertised beer and no apologies for the crappy course.


Nonexistent Prizes:  Last year I ran the RAM Racing Northshore Turkey Trot.  I actually had a 10k PR and felt incredibly proud of my performance.  Even better, I placed 3rd in my age group.  I contacted the race officials and was told that I would receive my medal within 4-6 weeks.  In January I contacted them again and was told that the medals were delayed and not to contact again, that they would arrive at some point.

As someone who runs a sports program and hands out medals for various events each year, I know that medals are neither expensive nor difficult to purchase.  For a 10k, this race is actually on the pricier side.  To wait over 3 months to receive an age group award is a major bummer.


Awesome Amenities:  I loved that the Run For The Red Poconos Marathon not only had plenty of port-a-potties at their start, but they also had an indoor location with restrooms near the start.  The finish was lined with plenty of support and people ready to assist you.


I didn’t take a pic of that but enjoy my big old maternity throw aways that made me so happy at the start.

Awesome From Start To Finish:  For a complete race experience, to me there is nothing better than what you will find at the Bank Of America Chicago Marathon.  From the buzz (and plenty of facilities) at the start, to the crowd support along the entire course, you will have a blast the entire time.  Aid stations nearly ever 2 miles keeps you fueled and hydrated (and lubed).  When you finish the race you will be handed a sizeable medal and a big glass of local beer.  It seriously doesn’t get much better.

Post Race Refreshments:  One of our first races a few years ago was the Hudson Valley 15k.  One thing that was super impressive was the home cooked spread at the finish line.  Eggs, breakfast items, potatoes, and pasta were waiting at the finish catered by a local restaurant.  Everyone gathered in a tent to enjoy the spread and receive local food treats for age group prizes.


I once placed first in my age group and won a bag of chips and salsa!

Make It A Local Party:  A race doesn’t have to be big to be awesome.  One of my favorite races was in Alden, Michigan set along the coast of crystal clear Torch Lake.  Check in the morning of and receive your tickets for post race drawings.  The race runs along local roads and even a few dirt paths.  As you finish right downtown, the local men’s club hosts their annual rummage sale fundraiser.  Scour the unique finds before gathering on a lawn nearby where prizes were handmade by a local artisan.

What were your best and worst race experiences?  Do you prefer big or small races?

24 thoughts on “Good Races vs. Bad Races

  1. Totally 1000% agree with everything you said!

    I prefer smaller races. Some awesome race experiences that I’ve had were the pre-race pasta dinner at Wineglass Marathon/Half, the s’mores bonfire at the Bird-in-Hand Half, the post-race party at Rehoboth Marathon/Half, and many more. I also prefer it when the prizes are food instead of medals. I have enough stuff, but I can never get enough food. Once I got local maple syrup for my 2nd AG award at a half in New Hampshire.

    • You had me at s’mores bonfire. What a brilliant idea! I sort of want to make a fake, impromptu race that ends in my backyard just to use that as an excuse. Food prizes are fun. The time I won food, the race was benefitting a local food shelter, so that was perfect.

    • They used to do maple syrup as prizes at Timberman triathlon too. Fantastic idea! And I agree. I’d rather have food, or booze as a prize. Something I can eat or drink and then be gone. I have a box stuffed with medals that I’m trying to figure out what to do with.

    • You beat me to Wineglass … I think I was spoiled with that as my first marathon five years ago …because there are plenty of ports-potties, also some woods by the side of the starting area, ports-potties in a couple of locations along the way, great water stops with loads of volunteers, and a fantastic post-race experience with custom glass medal, wine glass and bottle.

      For ‘not great’ I think about our local ‘Selfless Elf’ charity 5k run – there have been three courses, none of which have been 3.1 miles. The first year there were no facilities AT ALL … and over a half mile walk to the nearest ones! BUT. – they took that feedback and the last couple of years have been better.

      I think that the one with the ‘delayed medals’ echoes the feelings I had with the first PA Grand Canyon Marathon – it was the inaugural year, so I didn’t stress too much. But a friend warned me about the race director from his own past experiences … and while I had a great time overall, it seemed obvious that the director was less than truthful about many things – an apparently this came back to them as they were blocked from part of the course and had to do just a half-marathon for two years before re-establishing a new course.

  2. When I started racing I shied away from big races thinking they wouldn’t be very personal. But I’ve learned “size doesn’t matter”. LOL! It really comes down to the RD and his/her ability to organize, communicate, and act on feeback. As you mentioned Run for the Red was awesome. One of the best run events I do every year is the Steelman Triathlon. The RD’s attention to details is legendary . . . to the point of nearly daily e-mails describing any issues with the bike course. They also have unique giveaways for entry instead of a shirt. They’ve done bag chairs, blankets, and all sorts of other creative things. The race is run in mid-August and instead of finishers medals you get an ice cold, wet, take-home towel draped over you by a volunteer. While they have bagels, pizza, etc. the finishers tent has piles and piles of cold, fresh fruit. I am not particularly hungry after a race, but nothing beats ice cold watermelon after a hard, hot race effort.

    Conversely, when I did the Bassman triathlon . . . the “highlight” of the race was the dog running around in transition. The lowlights featured part of the fencing around transition collapsing on people bikes and other equipment, and virtually no security checking to see that those leaving transition with bikes after the race actually owned the bikes.

    As you said, having ample facilities is always a challenge but I’ll gladly give up my un-needed finishers medal if it helps pay for an extra porta-john.

  3. What/when is the race in Alden? I am in Bellaire pretty much every weekend in the summer and could use a fun race to mix things up.

    I just signed up for a race that boasts homemade cookies at the finish line. Really can’t go wrong with a nice post race food spread!

  4. One time I ran a half marathon that mailed the finisher medals, but didn’t tell anyone they were doing that beforehand. So I crossed the finish line and was walking around all confused looking for my medal. None of the volunteers knew what was going on either, some said they had run out or that they weren’t being given out. I finally got a medal a few days later in the mail but by then I didn’t even care about getting one.

    I’m glad you think Chicago is great from start to finish, I’m so excited about doing it for the first time this year! It will be my first major marathon.

    • Oh, I love Chicago. I think you will find it to be pretty awesome. That is a really bizarre situation with the medals. I can’t stand when the volunteers haven’t been informed and don’t know what to do when a bunch of annoyed runners want what they were supposed to receive.

  5. Great points Sarah…totally agree and I’m with you on Chicago – that is still my absolute most amazing marathon experience (it’s still my PR so might be a little bias too). I would give shout-outs to Route 66 in Tulsa and the Missoula marathon…both do a fabulous job catering to the runners, with awesome post-race parties with food/beer. Route66 do a big thing for the Marathon Maniacs and 50-Stater, including a custom medal. Missoula had free photos and fabulous local beer and a super friendly atmosphere. Agree on small races too…we did ran a very low-key event a couple years back on the Columbia River called Bridge of The Gods, scenery was incredible as was the food that was put on at the post-race buffet/picnic. One thing that annoys me though is when races get too big for what they can accommodate, cramming runners into trails or paths that are too narrow by over-selling the event to make extra $ then running out of shirts and medals and expecting us to pay for coffee and food at the end, yeah right!!

    • Wow, you have run some amazing races. Missoula might be on my to do list now. Excellent point about races trying to cram runners in. RAM also did this with Hot Chocolate. Expensive race, tons of runners for the 15k and the 5k in the same one corral. People were shoving and hopping on curbs for the first few miles because it was so congested. If you are going to do that, you need to rethink your corral systems. Thanks so much for sharing!

      • I would add another peeve of seeding us all based on estimated times that we fill in during the application so we can be aligned into corrals and then letting runners line up wherever they want! btw, Route 66 actually had people at the corral entrances checking bib assignments…I think that’s the only time I’ve seen that. One more…letting non-runners access the post-race fare so the line is huge and then we you do get there, it is completely picked over and great post letting us vent 🙂

  6. I can’t believe how many of these I read and was like, OMG YES THAT IS THE WORST EVER! What a great post.

    Bad Races:
    Lack of Facilities: Yup, Grandmas and the lack of bathrooms is on my list. I refused to wait and peed behind a bush!
    Totally Inaccurate Courses: Our local Celtic Fest 10K – not only was the course inaccurate, but it wasn’t clearly marked. I was the first female, and I got lost.
    Nonexistent Prizes: I LOVED the Knoxville Marathon. But when I ran it, I found out after that I placed 2nd in my AG. I live in PA and was already on my way home so I called the running store where they had the prizes for winners who didn’t get the medal at the awards ceremony (I never even considered I placed so I didn’t look until after). They promised to send me my award (who knows what it was) and it never came.

    Good Races
    Awesome Amenities: I agree with Run for the Red! Also, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon had plenty of porta pots and lots of indoor locations that allowed facility usage!
    Awesome From Start To Finish: Chicago and BOSTON!!!!
    Post Race Refreshments: The Garden Spot Marathon
    Make It A Local Party: I loved the post race party on the lawn at Chicago but we had a BEAUTIFUL day for it. Not sure how cool it still is but the Mardi Gras Marathon (actually a Rock n Roll race, which I am normally not a fan of) had a steller party after!

    • Yes. I forgot how fun Chicago is after the race. Lounging runners hanging out in the grass and drinking beer. Almost everyone is smiling (and hobbling). Sorry to hear that you missed out on an age group award too. I think that is really lame. What’s really annoying about RAM is that they don’t hand out awards at the race and instead supposedly mail them. Thanks for sharing all of these. Indianapolis Monumental is on our list so I love hearing good things about it.

  7. Totally agree with everything in your post. Nothing is worse than having to take care of business before a race and not enough potties are available. I typically choose bigger races for a longer distance, I guess misery loves company (I tend to struggle more at the end of a longer race and need people to try to pace off of) and potty issues become magnified the further you run. When I’m doing a shorter race, like a 5K, I’d rather do a small, well run race that has either quirky/unique awards or different post-race festivities. Since there are so many race options anymore, I’d rather vote with my feet for the ones I love and continue to support.

  8. I absolutely love Phoenix Marathon even though the course is ugly after the first 6 miles. It’s small but it’s a fun race and they have a great post-race party.

    They def need to fix their Porta-potty game though.

    • I’ve been trying to reply to this for a whole day and it wouldn’t let me. So let’s try this again. I’m totally checking into Phoenix, but certainly don’t love hearing about the facility issues! 🙂

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