I vomited at the end of my first road race—a 5K in 2000 when I was seven years old. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking as the barf poured from my mouth and splattered on to the sparkling asphalt of the empty parking lot 100 feet from the finish line, but I imagine it was something along these lines: “Well, this kind of sucks.”
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I have had a version of that thought pop in to my head at least once during most of the 40 or so road races that I have completed since then. Depending on the rigorousness of the course, the amount of training I completed beforehand, the amount of support along the way, how accomplished I feel after, and the amount of beer in the finisher’s chute, I’ve determined that the precise level of suck varies by the type of race I’m in.
According to Running USA, 30,400 road races were held in America in 2016. If trends hold steady, there will be slightly more in 2017. The organization groups the data into six distance categories. By far the most saturated is the 5K, with 17,000 events. The least is the marathon, with 1,100.
Here, I’ve used my totally scientific “suck coefficient” to rank each distance category, based on 18 years completing races of varying length. Feel free to argue, but my ruling is final.
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6. The Random Distances
Do you know what your 8K PR is? Neither do I. And I don’t really care to know.
These are the races that require a gimmick to exist. There’s the 4.2-mile weed themed race in San Francisco. An “ironic” 0.2-mile mini-marathon for Brooklyn hipsters.
Sure, they can be fun. But running really isn’t the sole purpose for doing them. Plus, I only have so much room in my brain for PRs and mile splits for certain distances. I will never remember how fast my third mile of the 15K Hot Chocolate Run was. Though, I guess I will thoroughly enjoy the chocolate.
There is one major exception to this, which nearly edges this category up: San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers. More party than footrace, this 12K bonanza is infamous for absurd costumes and hordes of drunk people who bring up the rear. Several years ago, it had to publicly decry nudity during the event. You do you, San Francisco.
Credit: David Goehring / Flickr
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True, two of the country’s largest and most historic races are 10Ks—the BolderBoulder in Colorado and the Peachtree Road Race in Georgia.
The distance is the forgotten middle child, stuck between the 5K and the half marathon. It’s too short to feel a full, adequate sense of accomplishment (caveat: unless it is your first or a PR) and too long to feel fast (caveat: unless you are in phenomenal shape, which I am perpetually not).
I forget the 10K exists. He gets the hand-me-down clothes and is expected to flourish on his own. Nobody runs their first race at a 10K. They ease into the sport with a 5K, or they go out guns blazing with a half or full marathon. You run a 10K because your co-worker is signing people up for a team and needs bodies.
Unless you live in Boulder. In that case, you run a 10K for the many slip 'n slide and beer stations along the race. OK fine, the 10K goes up a notch because the BolderBoulder is amazing.
Credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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Part of the running population treats the 5K like Olive Garden breadsticks. They finish it because it’s there. They fill up and up and up until they are too stuffed to eat the rest of the meal. But after your fourth “The Center for Dinosaur Extinctions Awareness’ T-Rexathon 5K for Fossil Prevention,” don’t you want to spice things up? Go for the meaty half marathon or all you can eat marathon?
There is another segment of the running population that will warn you how truly painful a 5K can be. Some elite runners say they’d rather race a marathon than 3.1 miles. That’s because a marathon is a slow burn, doled out in slightly more manageable spoonfuls. The 5K is a firehose of lactic acid. It has the unique ability to twist mere minutes into hellish eons.
In 2016, there were 17,000 5Ks held in the U.S., more than quadruple the second most popular distance. So the good news is there's probably one being organized around the corner from you this weekend. The bad news is you will pay the price around mile 2 if you sign up. Ouch.
Credit: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
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It gets all the glory. And it should. The race is a beast, will make you unable to train properly for three weeks after, and takes a third of the year to prepare for. It’s lower on the list, frankly, because it’s such a life-altering event to train for and recover from.
Well that, and it’s starting to cost more than a plane ticket. Seriously, the cost for entry in the New York City marathon for non New York Road Runners members was $295. That’s more than 10 bucks a mile. I do not like my suffering to cost that much money.
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1. Half Marathon
I love participating in things where I get all the recognition for doing only half the work. It’s why, during college group projects, I always offered to be the lead presenter. My face would be front and center in the professor’s eye—it looked like I was a real contributor—even though I was being fed much of the dirty work by classmates.
This is precisely how it feels to finish a half marathon. It has the word “marathon” in it so it sounds big and impressive and scary. But it’s half that. A nice, perfect 13.1 miles—long enough to feel like you’ve really accomplished something, but short enough to not ruin your entire day.
You can wear a half marathon medal around at the bars the night after the race and people will be impressed. You can stuff yourself with a greasy burger and fries and not feel too guilty about it. But you won’t suffer the waddling, immobilizing next-day pain that comes from finishing a full.
The rest of the country seems to agree. After the 5K, the half marathon was the most popular race distance in 2016.
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