Do you want tons of support without the chaos?
Fargo MarathonFargo, North Dakota - May 21, 2011
Loop, flat, urban, shuttle buses, kid's run, music, pace teams, schwag
Let's look at the numbers: 20,000 registrants, 53 entertainment acts, plus 80 percent of the course is lined with screaming spectators. It all adds up to a race with the energy, support, and atmosphere of a big-city event. But stellar organization keeps it from feeling overwhelming. The FargoDome, a 466,000-square-foot indoor auditorium, is where the expo, pasta feed, and the start and finish all take place. The expo is well-staffed (so lines are short) and well-signed—you're never wondering where to go. Plus, there are only 2,500 marathoners (everyone else races the 5K, 10K, half, or relay), and there's a separate marathon start time to reduce crowding. The loop course has a few mild hills and is a mix of residential, university, and downtown areas. Enjoy the finish-line spread: chocolate milk, pizza, chocolate-chip-cookie dough, chips, bagels.
Heads up: Traffic to the start can be congested; allow 90 minutes travel time.
Veteran tip: Book your hotel early to get one near the start; this way, you can roll out of bed and walk there.
Do you want a small, quiet event?
Steamtown MarathonScranton, Pennsylvania - October 9, 2011
Point-to-point, hilly, rural, shuttle buses, music
Let's face it: Your first marathon can be stressful, and the mania of big-city races can sometimes contribute. Steamtown is the antithesis of the large, loud race. Here, relaxed yet efficient hospitality reigns. You'll enjoy one of the best staging areas of any point-to-point race. Two rows of cheerleaders greet you when you exit the bus at Forest City Regional High School. A student hands you a bottle of water and directs you inside the warm auditorium where you'll wait to start. The boom of a Civil War cannon sends runners onto a scenic route that winds through Small Town USA: Families line porches, wave American flags, and bands and cheerleaders try to outdo each other. Last year, the race sold out for the first time in 15 years, so log on April 1 to be one of the 2,500 who will run this year.
Heads up: The course's 955 feet of net elevation loss occurs in the first eight miles. Hold back to have enough steam for the rolling hills of the final miles.
Veteran tip: Just after mile 24, look left for inspiration. Kids from St. Joseph's Center, a home for mentally and physically challenged children, cheer runners on.
Do you love the laid-back, Pacific Northwest vibe?
Portland MarathonPortland, Oregon - October 9, 2011
Loop, flat, urban, kid's run, music, pace teams, schwag
Portland might be the perfect first-timer event. It offers a mostly flat course with a not-too-big but not-too-small field (8,000), and events for other family members, in a city worth visiting. The average race-day temp hovers around 55 degrees, and the fairly fast course shows off the city's waterfront and the trendy Pearl District. The course also features 78 music acts and 20 cheerleading groups, and it's one of the few races that doesn't discourage headphones. Officials keep the course open a full eight hours, and announcers welcome nearly everyone personally by name across the finish. Convenience is also a plus: You can walk from a number of hotels to the start, and the start, finish, expo, and pasta party are all within 200 yards of each other. You'll leave Portland with some stellar schwag, including two technical T-shirts, a necklace, and a pot with a pine- or fir-tree seedling, which symbolizes the race's green commitment.
Heads up: The course goes over train tracks around mile 11. If the train is on time, no problem. If it's late, there's a chance you'll wait 30 seconds. The delay will be deducted from your time.
Veteran tip: As you cross St. Johns Bridge, look to the right for a view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens.