Criteria For A Great/Bad Race Experience

What is your criteria for a great or a horrible race experience?  I’m not talking about your performance, getting a PR, or crashing at an event.  Today I want to discuss what factors about a race make for a good experience or a terrible one.  This topic came up the other day as we were figuring out our Turkey Trot plans and I thought it was worth a post and wanted to hear your thoughts.

Great Experiences:

Aid Stations:  One of the best races, in my opinion, is the Chicago Marathon.  Race Director Carey Pinkowski has worked to cover all of his bases to ensure that every runner has a great time on the course.  Several years ago the weather was terribly hot and as the race went on, they ran out of water.  They also had a shortage of port-a-potties on the course one year.  Now he makes certain they have more than enough water and there is an abundance of facilities throughout the course.


Chicago has so many aid stations and so many options that you almost feel like they are the cheerleaders of the course.  Even if there wasn’t a single spectator along those 26.2 miles, the amenities alone would have you covered.

Swag:  A great way to start a good experience is to hand out sweet swag at packet pickup.  Grandma’s Marathon had custom socks.  The Cherry Festival Half Marathon handed out wine glasses.  Give me something sweet before I even get to run and you win my heart over.


Post Race Goodies:  Hand me just a water bottle at the end of a race and unless I got to run for a very low registration fee, I am going to be super disappointed.  One of the first races that my husband and I did together was the Hudson Valley 15k in Upstate New York.  The race finished in the parking lot of a restaurant.  There was an awesome spread of eggs, pasta, sausage, and garlic bread.  Feed a hungry runner and they will definitely leave happy.

Beautiful Courses:  Even if there isn’t a lot of support along a course, if the scenery is great, I will definitely enjoy myself.  Both the Charlevoix Marathon and Run For The Red Pocono Marathon are smaller and head into quiet areas where there are very few crowds.  However both races have gorgeous and very different views.  One rolls through the mountains and the other along Lake Michigan.


Show Your Racers Some Love: The Chicago Spring Half Marathon has first aid support via bikes along the race course.  While coaching one year, I had multiple people ride by and ask how I was doing because I was 20+ weeks pregnant.  The Pocono Marathon had age group awards and I had to leave before they were handed out.  Within days, my award arrived at my door and was big and beautiful.

Bad Experiences:  

Where Did The Facilities Go?:  Runners have one thing in common.  We all have to go and we all want to hurry up and go.  Nothing is more infuriating than waiting in line for an hour and nearly missing your race because there aren’t enough restrooms.  Grandma’s Marathon in 2016 was one giant hot mess.  They actually had plenty of facilities but placed them in such a manner that half of them were unreachable.  It also happened the year before too!

Congestion:  You are going to see a theme here in the next few bullet points.  Several years ago I ran the Hot Chocolate 15k in Chicago.  When a race has almost as many participants as the Chicago Marathon, zero corrals, and 5k and 15k participants running the first two miles together, you are going to end up with some very pissed off runners.  I love the 15k distance, but don’t expect a PR at this event unless you shimmy yourself up to the front of the line.  The finish was slightly redeeming with chocolate everything.

Painful Packet Pickup:  While I lucked out and did’t have this experience, many of my runners had a horrible experience at the Hot Chocolate packet pickup one year when the computers went down and people were waiting in line for hours for their packets.  The Chicago Marathon again takes the cake for this one when you walk in and out of there in 5 minutes with your packet and shirt at the giant expo.  No one needs to be on their feet all day before they run.

Annoying Crew On The Course:  My first experience was actually at the Charlevoix Marathon when a volunteer nearly tripped me running across the course to hand someone water.  Next, it happened at the Hot Chocolate 15k when the aid stations created narrow tunnels to hand out marshmallows and other goodies.  Stand to the side and give people space.  If we want sugar on the course, we will come up to you!

Not Taking Care Of Your Runners:  Look out for a huge rant here.  Ram Racing (the same company that does the Hot Chocolate races) hosts the North Shore Turkey Trot 10k on Thanksgiving and it has become a family tradition.  Every year a large group friends and family meet to do this event.  I love to eat and this is the perfect way for me to break a sweat and feel a tad less guilty about my overindulgence later in the day.


This is a pricey race for a 10k ($50+)  and you don’t get a whole lot in exchange.  As their signature, they do give you something cool at packet pick up.  In years past it has been a bright yellow fleece hoodie, turkey flannel pants, a crazy furry hat, and last year a black pullover.  I will hand them this.

However, amenities on the course have become sparse.  The first year there was coffee and hot chocolate before the event.  Runner’s World raved that you receive a small individual pie at the finish.

Last year there were no pies, no coffee, and no hot chocolate.  There are no medals at the end  and the only thing you can look forward to is someone handing you a bottle of water as you walk to your car.  (Note that I am okay with no medals at the finish of a 10k).

I personally am pretty bitter because two years ago I placed 2nd in my age group and was sent a great medal in the mail.  Last year I PR’ed the 10k and placed 3rd in my age group.  After I inquired about my age group award, I was told to wait a few weeks and it would arrive.  After a few months I e-mailed and was told there was a hold up in China with their medal distributor and to please be patient and not e-mail again.  Finally, I e-mailed 10 months after the race and never received a reply.  For a pricey 10k with sparse amenities, one nice piece of swag, and no age group award, I can’t justify doing another Ram Racing event.

This year we will be doing a much smaller event with our family and friends and keeping it chill.  But I am still going to be bitter about that age group award!

What are your criteria for a great/bad race experience?  Care to share your best and worst race experiences?

14 thoughts on “Criteria For A Great/Bad Race Experience

  1. Great race experience
    Indoor facilities = luxury: The other nice thing about Run for the Red is that it starts at a high school, so there’s a warm place to wait and plenty of indoor bathrooms.
    Funny, well-written pre-race emails: Steamtown Marathon is famous for their hilarious emails. People eagerly open and read those emails because they have you in stitches for the rest of the day.
    Free pre-race coffee: Beach to Beacon has free coffee for runners. I always drink coffee beforehand, but having a little extra caffeine to top off is never a bad thing.
    By runners for runners: Part of the reason why I prefer smaller races is because they’re often organized by runners who care about the runner experience. The races don’t have a corporate feel. Instead, you really feel cared for and that your opinion matters.

    Bad race experience
    Stale bagels = SAD
    Not having Gatorade on the course for a marathon
    Disorganization: I can forgive mistakes. I get that things can get messed up because we’re only human. Admit fault, apologize, and have a plan to fix it in the future and I’ll forgive and forget. I’ll still support the race and have nothing but love. But if the mistakes are constant, the same ones happen over and over again, and systemic, I blow up.
    Having a course that’s USATF-certified, but it’s mismarked: Poor Milwaukee Marathon! Having a mismarked 5K is annoying, but you can find another one to race the next week. Marathons are a whole ‘nother animal! I feel bad for the race director of Milwaukee because based on what I read, it did seem like he really tried to fix the mismarked course this year by having two sets of organizations make sure the course was right. It’s heartbreaking for the wouldabeen BQers.

    • Yes, indoor facilities are the best. A major bonus for any race! I also completely agree that if things go wrong, apologize and admit you messed up. I once ran a race where the course was a complete mess. The 15k was almost 13 miles and people got lost in the woods. Nothing was ever said to participants. I recently saw that company no longer exists. I’m not surprised.

      I always enjoy your race reviews because you are honest and cover all of the important details.

  2. Great Experience:
    – Focused on the runners – my first marathon was teh Corning Wineglass … and every single detail felt like it was done to make life better for runners. I have run it four times and that feeling only increases over time! It is all the stuff you say – porta-potties, heated waiting areas, great, clear communications, fun swag, reasonable pricing, great after-race food, well marked course, amazing volunteers, and plenty of space for cheering!

    – Learning – my first half marathon was a race that had too few bathrooms and mediocre water table placement (on an out and back course they blocked part of the path), and so on. The next year, ALL of it was improved – and from what friends say, it is even better now.

    Bad Experience:
    – ZERO porta-potties … yes, I ran a 5K with NO bathrooms! Worse yet, I expected bathrooms because it started at the high school sports stadium in a town nearby, which I knew had bathrooms since we were there the previous weekend for a marching band competition. The following year, still no bathrooms at the start … but at least I was prepared.

    – ‘Open to the public’ – you know how it sucks when you get to the end of a race and there is nothing left in terms of snacks, etc? While I will never be ‘front of the pack’, I finish in the top 10-20% in pretty much all of my races, and yet there was one half-marathon where when I got to the end the food was empty. I got water and hot broth … since it was cold, the broth was appreciated. The reason? It was cold and they had the end area open and people just wandered through and ate everything. SO yeah, maybe it was the non-racers who sucked, but still …

    – Lying race director – ugh, I LOVED the trail marathon I ran a few years ago in so many ways … but there was so much BS being spewed about the numbers of runners, the support, the course, and on and on! The race was supposed to be ‘huge’ and sold-out … but had about 250 runners. Which was great – but a lie. There were TWO places for cheering along the course … and also two water stations and 1 porta-potty on the route. All of those were counter to what was told. Also, the course map talked about a 200-ft elevation change (making me think it was a rim-run on the outside of the ‘canyon’, but no, there was 200ft between start and finish, but more than 6500 ft elevation change!

    Great topic – I feel every race can learn, and I am willing to always forgive quite a bit if the race organizers have their hearts in the right place and try.

    • I am totally with you about forgiving most things. But no port-a-potties?! That could cause some major panic. When I was pregnant this summer I emailed a race director to confirm that there would be plenty of facilities. And a lying race director is neither cool nor professional. Just be honest so we know what to really expect!

  3. I think great aid stations is my number 1 pro. I also love race day packet pickup, sometimes with my schedule or the schedule of someone I am running with we can’t get to the out of the way packet pickup without major inconvenience so race day packet pickup is huge for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a big expo with free samples and great deals when I can make it to one. Parking!!!!! This is huge! Great planning for parking is a huge plus to me. And free photos.

    • You are so right. Great packet pickup is a major bonus. Chicago is so fast and easy. It is so impressive for a huge race in a big city. On the other hand, I once did a half marathon in Boston and the packet pickup was way outside of the city at a running store. It took us an hour to drive there. Can you imagine if you came in by plane or train and didn’t have a car?!

  4. I second everything Elle said. When a race is put on by runners, that’s best-case scenario because runners know what other runners want and need. Organization can either make or break a race. I also like smaller races because they tend to be better-organized, although the bling can be on the smaller side (not an issue for me). I ran a half marathon where there were zero port-a-potties before, during, or after the race. For a half marathon, this is huge. Good food after the race is also a big deal to me. I ran a half where there wasn’t any food at all after the race. Not even water. The food after the Kiawah Island Marathon/Half is outstanding. The absolute worst was when my daughter won 2nd in her AG at a 5k and the race director only announced the fastest three males. I went up to the director after the “awards ceremony” and told her that the females deserved recognition as well as the males and she reluctantly called out the females who had won, but by then all but maybe 10-15 people were still there (everyone else had gone home). Then to top it off, when we went to pick up her gift certificate from a local running store, the race director hadn’t even told the store manager how much the gift certificates were for! We had to wait around for the rd to call the manager back. This race had multiple organizational problems from start to finish thanks to the terrible race director.

  5. Whoa, not recognizing the female runners?! That is super lame! I also completely agree that when races are run by runners, they are far better. Smaller races, especially marathons are my personal favorite. Just enough to give you that adrenaline boost, but not enough to force you to weave around people. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Best:
    Aid Stations-St. George. Holy cow man, each station is like a freaking spa, lol!
    Crowd and Medal: MCM-I love that race.
    Post Race: Phoenix Marathon-Kneaders french toast ftw!!!

    Aid Stations/PortaPotties/Crows: RnR Madrid Spain–I’ve done a few RnR races and not all have these issues, but man, Spain was unreal. There were NO bathrooms along the course and we were given water BOTTLES at the stations. It was crazy to se people take a sip and then throw it down on to the course 😦 Oh and women runners had different bibs with a big fat F on it for Female. I thought that was strange.
    Price: Any RAM race-I like Hot Chocolate but their prices are just insanity

    • I’ve heard nothing but great things about St. George. Tempting!

      I remember you posting about the water bottles. What a terrible waste. I wonder why they thought that was a good idea.

      I also agree about RAM Racing. Prices are nuts and you don’t always get much for it. They definitely lost our business.

    • You know, I just looked online and it doesn’t appear to be annual anymore. It was for awhile. I would do it next year too! The North Face Endurance Challenge in the spring at Bear Mountain is awesome as well as a great trail 10k on the Rockefeller Estate in Tarrytown.

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