“I run, therefore I race”.  As far as I know there has never been a philosopher who’s said that but I know most of us have thought it!  But with so many races how on earth can you choose between them, especially if you are racing overseas or don’t know many other runners?  Well never fear, Andrew McDonagh is here to tell you how a little research can go a long way

It’s pretty much impossible not to notice that we are in the middle of a running boom once again.  The streets, parks and riverside walks are jammed with people of all shapes and sizes running and jogging their way to fitness.  And – people being people – their thoughts often turn to the idea of racing.

Naturally enough race organisers are capitalising on this and it seems like not a day goes by without an announcement of a new road race at every distance from 3kms up to Ultra marathons.  And that is great; it’s not that long since I began running and there were literally only two or three road races a year within an hours drive of my home.

But the choice can become bewildering.  How can a runner – especially an inexperienced runner who may not be in a club or have many running contacts – choose the best races to enter?  And does it matter?  After all a 10k is a 10k, right?

Well no, actually.  Like any product or service the standard of races varies from excellent to shoddy and price is no guarantee of quality.  Many excellent races are small, local affairs with low entry fees and any profits being re-invested in the running club that put the event together.  And some flashy, high profile events with high entry fees can leave an awful lot to be desired.  But don’t worry, picking the right one to enter is just a case of doing a little reading and research.

Let’s suppose for example that you were interested in doing a marathon in Ireland in the mid to late summer.  Two races that would immediately spring to mind are the Galway City and Longford marathons.  Galway City is on the 28th August and is a very high profile event having hosted the IAU World 50km Championships last year.  It had extensive coverage in the local and dedicated running press, has a slick website and has a fairly hefty price tag at between €60 and €80, depending on when you enter.  The Longford marathon on the other hand is on the following day (29th August) and the website is a little less glossy.  It is clearly a lower profile event – no grandiose claims about Dublin and Cork needing to watch out for example – smaller numbers, lower prizes and a price tag to match (from €48 – 60, again depending when you enter).

So on the surface the Galway race looks the better option.  It’s more expensive but you pay for quality, right?

Well one of the best places to get the inside track on the quality of a race is from online running forums.  The Boards.ie website has an excellent section dedicated to road races, mainly in Ireland.  And the opinions of last year’s events are very informative.  Roughly 90% of the people who voted in the poll rated the Galway City race as “Average” or below (with 11% saying it was “Terrible”).  By contrast Longford (though with far fewer voters) scored a perfect 100% “Excellent”.

Where these websites really come into their own though is by reading the opinions of the people who did the race.  Looking at the Longford discussion the biggest objection seems to be the quality of the portaloo’s before the start.  Otherwise everyone is very positive – a flat course,  and with great food afterwards “Well done to all in Longford for another very well organised race” says Ath36 and Art_of_Noise chips in with “I did the marathon yesterday and really enjoyed the experience. It was my second marathon overall and second in Longford. As a local I know I might be biased but I thought the atmosphere, course, goody bag and in particular the race organization was very good. There were numerous water stations and all junctions were very well marshalled.”

So what did the runners think in the Galway conversation?  Well they were a little less enthusiastic…  “organisation was poor…Stewards were light and some of them disappeared completely for the second loop. I wonder if the 4+ hour full marathon runners saw a single steward in the last few miles” said one poster, another agreed adding “Marshalling was mixed. Some of them were super but at salthill before we turned down to the golfcourse at a major junction I got clipped by a car while four stewards had the chat in the middle of the road. Cars were coming from all directions and runners didnt know where to go . We followed each other and had to squeeze in between cars coming towards us and those travelling in the same direction”. Sadly there were other issues, with many runners complaining of a badly delayed start, lack of water stops or stops running out of drinks, the timing mats being lifted before the last runner had finished and issues with the results.  They even posted a link to a radio interview with one of the Race Organisers a few days later who – in response to the complaints – says “look, nobody died…”!!

Now of course it is the nature of life that people complaining will make more noise and I am sure the organisers will have learned their lesson for this year.  But having this kind of background information certainly helps you make a decision armed with all of the facts.

So that’s an example of how you can compare two events but what if you aren’t in Ireland?  Well there are plenty of other options.  In the UK the brilliant Runners World forums also have a dedicated Events section (here) and if marathons are your thing then you need to be reading the Marathon Guide, which has a calendar, search function and loads of User Reviews.  And Google is your friend.

So take your time, read more than just the organisers website and try and make an informed decision on where you will spend your racing money.  And share your own experiences – if you enjoyed a race then tell your running buddies, write about it online (we love to get race reviews here!) and share the news.  Likewise if a race lacked something then let others know but most importantly tell the Race Organisers; without our feedback they cannot fix the issues.  With our support the good races will thrive and the bad ones will either improve or wither.

[Editors Note 04-04-2011]

Within a few hours of this article being published I received an email from Richard Donovan, the Galway City Marathon race organiser.  In it he described the article as “libellous, unbalanced and…malicious“.

The article reprints publicly available facts as observed by participants in the Galway City marathon and does so in the public interest.  Race directors – like a McDonalds or your local shop – provide a service to customers.  The Internet has empowered consumers to share their experiences with goods and service both positive and negative and this is a very good thing – how many people now check TripAdvisor before they book a hotel?  The Running Review was specifically established to allow runners to share experiences – “by runners, for runners” – opinions from people you can identify with.  For the site to have any credibility it must publish negative as well as positive comments if that is the genuine experience of the participants.

Mr Donovan implied that the comments on the Boards website were from people who did not actually participate in the race.  Based on the sheer number of people who registered their dissatisfaction, the consistency of the complaints and the fact that they are echoed on other review websites (for example Marathon Guide where posters also mentioned poor marshalling and “FO” described being clipped by a car) I am satisfied that the quotes are representative of genuine participants who are reporting factually on their experience.  This is reinforced by the fact that Mr Donovan appeared on local radio after the race to discuss the traffic problems.

However in the spirit of balance I offered Mr Donovan a right of reply and invited him to send through information on the steps he was taking to rectify the issues raised.  He has declined that invitation.


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