Small, Medium or Large: What Size Race Field Is Right for You?

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which size race is for you? Small, Medium or Large: What Size Race Field Is Right for You?

No matter where you ran your first race, in a small grassroots race set in the rural, rolling hills or in a corporate sponsored race set in the middle of New York, you quickly found out there was more than one option when it came to field size of a race.  While that’s an obvious statement, until you’ve experienced more than one, it’s hard to truly understand what about each of them is so different. Is it really such a drastic difference? Running a 5k is running a 5k right?

There are people who whole-heartedly stick to certain field sizes for their races. Some claim they don’t want to deal with the logistics associated with a very large race. Others miss the pomp and circumstance that some of the smaller races seem to be missing for them. Still others don’t even realize there are options and that each of those options offer a unique race experience. Is there a better field size over another? It all depends on what you’re looking for and what your needing from your race in order to help you achieve your goal. So what does each field size offer?

Large Field Races

Examples: Rock’n’Roll Las Vegas Marathon & Half Marathon (44,000), San Francisco Marathon (27,500)

Many choose the large races for their first step into a longer distance. The large race is a well-oiled machine, and it has to be. Registration is only online, months upon months away from the race and will be expensive, comparatively speaking.

By Mike Spille (Flickr: RaceStart) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Pomp and circumstance at its finest, large race have amazing expos since race day packet pick up won’t be possible. Plan to spend 1-2 hours at the Expo– aside from trekking through the massive facility the expos are housed in, there will be some cool booths to check out.

Race morning logistics will take some organizing. If any driving or use of a shuttle or train is involved it will be time-consuming. You’ll also need to plan to do the gear check for your post-race bag and choose a rendezvous point with your post-race group since non-runners won’t be allowed anywhere near the finishing chute once you’re past the line.

You’ll be assigned a coral for a wave start and will be able to follow along with a race provided pacer should you want. Seeing your support team on the course could be a challenge in a larger city and might only happen once or twice even during a full marathon.  Be prepared for little personal space while running in a bigger race; some races will not thin out. The aid stations will be fully stocked on course along with additional dedicated fuel stations. You will be entertained by the massive amount of spectators and on-course bands. If you want to run and not think about running while on the course, this is your race size.

Medium Field Races

Examples: Middle Tennessee Half Marathon (3,000), Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon (1,500)

Often the favorite sized field, a few thousand people feels like a lot of celebration but not enough to get in your way. Another added benefit is that swag in this size field is often at its best. More often than not, a medium sized race will have a “hook” for the course– it could be the flattest and fastest in the state, or it could be a theme race to the hilt or boast a fun, coveted medal.

With a race this size registration is typically pretty painless as is packet pickup. You are not going to have wave starts in a race this size but the start will be marked for runners to place themselves appropriately, so there is some potential for some bob-and-weave the first few miles. If pacers are an important aspect of a race for you, it might be worth checking on the individual race you are running. The smaller the race gets the less likely the chance of pacer groups existing.

Normally pretty easy for spectators, your group will easily be able to see you on the course and you’ll probably have a cheer station or two from the local high school band or cheerleading squad.  Aid stations will have both water and sports drink option but might not offer any fuel such as gels or chews.

The finishes at medium size races are pretty fun. They are the perfect size for the local town favorite to get on the PA system and call off each finishers name and possibly hometown. Expect a good amount of post-race fare and almost always a unique awards ceremony.

Small Races

Examples: Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon (300), Bucks County Marathon (<500)

A small race can be a gem in and of itself. Packet pickup is always easy and usually can be done on race morning.  Parking is almost always extremely easy and rarely will you find a volunteer who doesn’t have every answer to every question you could have.  No shuttles, no walking miles to the start line or having a friend drop you off “close” to the start.

The great part about the feel of small races is the genuine, thrill of the run itself that can get over shot by other distractions in larger races. Small races are great for times when you really need to focus on yourself, your run or you need to test some stuff out in a more private atmosphere.  That said, it is also not the race to be anonymous especially if you run it more than once. It is almost a guarantee the race director is intimately aware of you and possibly some other facts simply due to the size of the field.

Small races can be both bare bones on aid stations or the most well- thought out stations you’ve had the privilege of running past. It would behoove you to do your homework so you’ll know what to expect.

There are pros and cons to the spectator portion of this race. If you need constant roaring crowds, this is not for you. But if you need to see your one or two support team’s members quite a bit, often these races offer the easiest access to racers.

As your journey as a runner moves along its path so will your need and preference for the size field you choose to run in. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. It’s simply what environment you need at the time.