How to Find Your Ideal Race Distance

16 Nov

I’m not qualified to write this post.  So you’re perfectly qualified to not read it.  BUT, if you don’t mind a good dose of theorizing and anecdotal evidence, then read on.  I think it will be good for all of us.  If you’re still not sure what is your favorite length race, then you’d better stick around.  I’ll give you some good things to consider in your quest.

I ran in high school—track and cross-country.  I ran any race from 800 meters to 5 kilometers.  The latter was the most common for me.

So I AM qualified to tell you that race any of those distances is excruciating.  I hate all of them.  Actually, maybe it’s my history and familiarity with these races that DISqualifies me from speaking about them.

This leads me to my very first point in this post:

Historical Precedence Hurts

What?  Okay, in high school I raced.  I raced until I thought my lungs would combust.  It didn’t feel right doing what I did to my body.  The resulting times are decent.  They are too good, in fact for my current fitness level to hope to compete with them.

I wish that I didn’t try to measure my current success by those old standards, but I find it nearly impossible.  I weighed 165 pounds in high school.  I was a buff cross-country dude that bench pressed 250.  Now I weigh 195 and probably bench 140.  I’m 5 pounds away from being considered a Clydesdale in the distance running world.  The fact that at this point in my continuing battle to lose weight that I’m even in the same ball park as my old cross-country 5k times should hearten me.

But it doesn’t.  So to you I say, if you have an old mark in a race that you struggle to hit and it frustrates you, move along.  Find another race without the pressure you put on yourself to perform.

I tell people that of all the distances I’ve run 5k hurts the most.  My extensive history with the race dictates that I WILL race them hard.  I have no choice in the matter.  History hurts.

Running FROM Races

One thing to consider with regularity is the question, “Why do I run?”  Most of the time my answer is easy and simple:  I run because I love running.  For me I want to keep it that way.  Anything, including races that detracts or taints the pure running experience has to go.

I’m competitive by nature.  I’m too competitive by nature.  I ripped a huge tree branch down after losing an athletic contest back in high school.  I’m not proud of this story, but I feel it’s important to show you where I’ve come from.  Friends stopped wanting to contest me in anyway.  I got help.  I’m sooo much better now.

Maybe that’s another reason running is a great sport for me.  I’ve never lined up for a race with the expectation that I was going to win that race.  I’ve never won a race.  I don’t race to win.  If you race to win, then I guess this post isn’t for you.

I’m not going to help you find your strength as a racer and capitalize upon it.

I’m going to help you find the distance that is most satisfying and enjoyable for you.

I really think that’s what it’s all about.  Races are expensive.  Make sure you enjoy the experience for all it’s worth.

Gotta Race ‘em All

Real men have Pokemon collections that they begrudgingly gave away to their nephew just last year when they turned 30…

Anyway, I guess you can’t really rule out a race distance until you’ve tried it.  Well, that’s not true I suppose.  If you find a race distance intolerably long, it probably doesn’t make sense to skip over that one and try the next length.  Let common sense trump anything you ever read on this blog.

As for me I’m still climbing the distance ladder.  I skip the rungs that sound boring.  Hence I went from marathon to 50 miler, jumping right over the 50k.  People that say 50k is just a longer marathon are wrong.  There is a lot that happens to the body from 26.2 to 31 miles.  I hate those miles.  When I break through them, running seems to get better.  Still, those people ruined the 50k ultra marathon for me.  It ceased to capture my imagination.

Likewise I’m skipping over 100k.  I guess I’m just all about dissing my European heritage.  I do think our American measurements are stupid and that we should go metric… just not in my generation.  I’m stuck in miles.  I can’t help it.  This rung is one that I feel justified in skipping because I think I could have traversed that length when I raced the 50-mile distance.  100 miles.

I will run 100 miles.

I will then tell you about it and you can decide if that’s a rung you ever want to reach for.

Approaching a New Distance

The biggest reason I’m not a good person to write this post is that beyond a 5k I’ve never raced any distance.  I’ve been climbing the distance ladder steadily since my return to running 4 years ago.  I’ve run every race up to 50 miles.  Once.

When you race a new distance I believe you can have a loose goal if you want, but I tend to err on the conservative side so that I finish.  After that you’ll have an idea of what it’s like and where and when to push it.

This was actually the impetus for writing this post.  I was wondering to myself that if I were to race for a particular time, what race would I choose to focus on?

Writing this post has made me realize a few things and come up with this list:

Good Reasons to Pick a Race

#1, Your Friends are Doing It

I’m a big believer in peer pressure.  I’m always trying to get friends to do things they don’t want to do.  Sure peer pressure gets a bad wrap these days, but I just don’t think that’s fair.  Peer pressure has its place.  Crazy running adventures are best shared.  Call it mob-mentality if you want, whatever… just let it take you and sign up for the race!

#2, Fun, Unique Atmosphere

Thank you race directors!  You’re getting it.  We the runners want to have fun.  Color runs, relays, obstacle courses… things are getting strange on the running scene and I love it.  Find a race that excites you.  Me, I just want pain… lots of pain for hours on end.  I’ve got issues and I like ‘em… well, my running issues at least.

#3, Bucket Lists

I don’t get this one, but I accept it as a valid reason for running a marathon.  Wait, no I don’t.  If you don’t enjoy running, don’t make yourself run a marathon just to say you did it.  That’s dumb.

#4, Keeping Yourself Accountable to Exercising

Be careful about this one though.  If you start to find yourself resenting your runs, tacking on miles to train for a race may be exactly the wrong thing to do.  BUT, if you find yourself waffling and bored, maybe it’s time to find a race with fun, unique atmosphere that your friends are doing and sign up.

Be Free, Mix it Up

This is especially good advice to people that just finished their first half or full marathon this fall.

Mix it up.

You might have a favorite length or a length that you feel defines you as a runner.  For some people that’s the marathon.  They are marathoners.  That’s fine, but don’t let that identity limit your running experience.

Run a 5k.  It’s not beneath you.  It will feel great.  It will make you a better marathon runner.  You’ll get speedy and strong.  You’ll come back to the marathon with greater zest and verve.  I promise.

Listen to your body.

  It’s become cliché, but that’s because it’s absolutely essential in the quest to make running a life-long sport.  You hear it all the time about injury prevention.

You don’t hear it as much in terms of avoiding boredom and burnout.  If I only run long I get so sick of running that it becomes repugnant.  If I only work on speed I burnout as well.  When I have no agenda at all I get bored.


This is a drum I’m going to beat in CAPS for as long as I write this blog.

I feel like I’ve really gone 180 on you in this post.  “Dialing in Your Ideal Distance?”  Gross.  Instead I’ll just say to you and mean it, “It’s all good man.”

2 Responses to “How to Find Your Ideal Race Distance”

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