A Great Marathon

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A local group of runners was recently discussing our local marathon, Charlotte's Thunder Road and if it was 'a great race'. This made me wonder what characterizes a ‘great race’ and how Thunder Road measurs up.

1 Defining Greatness

There are many reasons for running a marathon, so there are many definitions of what constitutes greatness. Some people are looking for fun, so music, scenery and other distractions are important. Some are looking for particular locations or timing, such as those going for a marathon in each of the 50 States or Marathon Maniacs. Others are looking for a race as part of a vacation (Kilimanjaro Marathon anyone?) However, for this question, I’m going to focus on the marathon as a race. Those racing the marathon are looking for a particular performance, perhaps a Personal Record or to qualify for Boston. Therefore a 'great marathon' should be one that maximizes your chance of a fast time.

2 Characteristics

These are the things I would look for in a Great Marathon.

  • Certified Course. If the course is not certified, I would argue it’s not a true marathon. There are some great races out there that are not certified, such as Grandfather Mountain Marathon, but I’d argue that their greatness comes from their differences. For a good article on course certificate, check out http://www.hamptonrockfest.com/hamptonhalf-GPS.html
  • Cold Weather. For most runners, warm weather is the biggest barrier to good performance. See Impact of Heat on Marathon Performance for more details.
  • Flat or Rolling. If a course is hilly, it will be hard to perform well. A sufficiently hilly course can provide a challenge which makes for a great race, but those types of races are sufficiently different to make a comparison with other races meaningless. Pikes Peak Marathon is one of the most extreme examples. Some people prefer a flat course, others a slightly rolling course which provides variation in muscle usage. Theoretically I’d argue that flat should be faster, but anecdotal evidence suggests this may be overly simplistic.
  • Lack of Wind. Running in a strong wind is a horrible experience and detracts from performance. Some races are more exposed than others, and it is typically the flatter courses that are prone to wind.
  • Low Stress Start. High stress before the race starts drains a runner both mentally and physically. A race that is easy to travel to, easy to get to the start, and is not too crowded at the start is ideal.
  • Good Aid. Having regular access to fluids is obviously beneficial. You may not want to drink every couple of miles, but having the opportunity is important.
  • Uncramped Course. If there are too many runners for the width of the course, you can't run your own pace, reducing the chance of a good performance.
  • Course Previews. The ability to train on the course you will race on should not be underestimated. It helps prepare you for the race both mentally and physically. If you can’t run on the actual course, having similar terrain can act as a substitute.
  • Mile Markers. Having accurate mile markers lets you check your pace. A GPS watch can help, but they tend to be inaccurate.
  • Downhill Finish. This probably does not make a lot of different to the absolute time, but it does leave you with an impression of success. It also allows you to look good at the end ;}
  • Good Pacers. A good pacer can help you achieve your goals. They reduce the mental load of having to pay attention to your pace and can provide encouragement.
  • Crowd Support. I’m ambivalent about this. For many runners, crowd support can help them dig deep and perform better. However, a bigger crowd usually comes at the expense of a larger and more stressful race. On the whole, I’d argue that few races have good crowd support and the other characteristics that allow for a good performance.

3 Evaluating Thunder Road Marathon

As a worked example, let me evaluate our Thunder Road Marathon against these characteristics.

  • Certified Course. TRM is certified (NC08081PH).
  • Cold Weather. Charlotte in winter is typically ideal running conditions. With any race, the weather varies, so it is possible to get awful weather as well.
  • Flat or Rolling. TRM is a rolling course, and maybe hillier than is ideal, but only slightly. Given how well the experienced marathon runners I know perform at TRM, I’m inclined to say that the hills are with the range that can provide an optimum performance.
  • Lack of Wind. Charlotte is rarely windy, and the course is sheltered.
  • Low Stress Start. The start of the race is easy to, with plenty of room at a nearby convention center so you're not waiting in the cold for a long period. If you live near Charlotte, it's a nice, low key start.
  • Good Aid. Like most mid to large races, TRM aid is nicely spaced and well manned.
  • Uncramped Course. I've paced people from 3:15 to 5 hours and within the first mile things have opened up so I could hit the right pace. I’d contrast that with the London Marathon were it was mile 14 before things opened up.
  • Course Previews. The race organizers for TRM actually put on two preview runs, which is outstanding. The layout of TRM, a sort of figure-of-eight makes these preview runs much easier. For $15 you get entry into both runs, a technical shirt, Aid Stations with water and sports drink.
  • Mile Markers. TRM had mile markers and timing boards.
  • Downhill Finish. One of the few failings of TRM is that the last .2 mile is slightly up hill.
  • Good Pacers. TRM is unusual for a midsized race in that it proves multiple pacers for each pace group. This allows the pacers to split up if there are those that want to go slightly faster or slower, as well as preventing problems if a pacer has to drop out. (Full disclosure – I am one of the TRM pacers.)
  • Crowd Support. There is little crowd support at TRM, but I believe the tradeoff from a low stress start makes this acceptable.

4 What does this mean to you?

If you are looking for a marathon, consider what is important to you. If you are looking for a fast time, then I’d suggest evaluating the candidate races against the criteria above.