I've ran four marathons (!) and three of them were similar. Well, two of them were on the same course as I ran Surf City in 2010 and 2011. I also ran the 2010 San Francisco Marathon.
On April 9, I ran my fourth marathon but it was not the same experience at all. The Diamond Valley Lake Marathon was a much smaller, much different race. In some ways, it made me long for the big-city events, and in other ways I found myself endeared to the small-race crowd.
Comparing and contrasting the events...
Big races: Before the city events, particularly San Francisco, there was a buzz in the air. You could feel runners getting focused, mentally preparing themselves for 26.2 miles and a monumentally difficult challenge.
Small race: There wasn't much of an atmosphere to speak of. I walked to close to start line, making it there with about 10 minutes to spare. While I was focused and mentally preparing myself for the marathon challenge, it kind of felt like we were waiting outside a store to open its doors, not like we were waiting to tackle the marathon monster.
Winner: Big races
Big races: There were a sea of people everywhere. This caused problems. Honey Buckets (aka porta-potties) had ridiculously long lines and people darted in front of you at seemingly every turn.
Small race: I walked right into a Honey Bucket, walked out, went to see Mrs. LB, the girls and my bro and then walked back to the start line. I did all that rather effortlessly.
Winner: Small race
Big races: Unless you live near a big-city race (and actually in SoCal there are several that fit this bill) you are probably going to need an overnight stay somewhere. Even if you live within driving distance of the race, you probably will need to get up early, figure out what the street closures are, figure out where to park and either walk to the start line or take a shuttle there, and you are going to have to give yourself plenty of time, just in case. Well, you will need time to stand in the massive Honey Bucket lines, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be such lines.
Small race: I happened to live pretty close to this race so no overnight stay was necessary. There was zero traffic and street closures weren't necessary. I parked at about 7:40 or so, 20 minutes before the race started and I had plenty of time to spare. Also, and what was best about this, I saw Mrs. LB and all of my supporters before I finished the race and they were right there after the race. It took me about 45 minutes to find them after my first marathon, and they never even got to see me before I finished No. 3 because they'd gotten stuck in traffic.
Winner: Small race.
Big races: Hordes of people were along the course for all three of my city races. People held up signs, banged drums and gongs, handed out oranges, drinks and other assorted goodies, shouted words of encouragement and helped us at seemingly every step of the marathon.
Small race: Crowd support was all but non-existent. Aside from the start/finish area (we went one way for two miles, turned around and went past the start line on our way around the lake), there was nobody on the course save for the volunteers and race staff. Now, this may have been unique to our race since it was around a lake and not in open public land or whatever, but there wasn't a whole lot of fanfare regardless. I will say, though, that aside from one volunteer table, all the volunteers at all the aid stations were very supportive and cheered all of us on.
Winner: Big race
Big race: The expos for the three city races were large, crowded and had lots of stuff. I bought a fuel belt in San Francisco (still can't believe I forgot my fuel belt for that race!) but I didn't buy anything in the other ones, just picked up my race packet.
Small race: There was no expo. Packet pick-up began at 6:30 a.m. the morning of the race.
Winner: Push. It was nice not having to go out a day early to get my packet, but the expo gave each city race a feeling of anticipation, made me think 'Okay, this is really going to happen.'
Big race: I got some nice and unique medals. I also got some pretty cool bags that I use; Surf City bags are my grocery store bags and I use the SF Marathon bag for soccer; I carry stuff in there to practice.
Small race: I'm proud of the medal but it's pretty small. I didn't even bother getting the race swag because it wasn't a bag that was unique to the race. I don't even remember what it was, I think some ads for something, nothing that screamed unique race.
Winner: Big race
Big race: Pictures were available the Thursday after the race and there were plenty to choose from. Prices sucked, though.
Small race: Pictures were available the Thursday after the race and there were plenty to choose from. Prices sucked, though.
Big race: There were ways to follow me and my progress in each of the city races. I'm still honored and humbled that some of you followed me along my races and will be forever grateful to you! Results were in pretty much after I crossed the finish line.
Small race: No real-time results. I had to wait until Sunday to find out my official time.
Winner: Big race
Each race was unique - even Surf City 2010 and Surf City 2011. I enjoyed each and every one of my marathons and each had their pluses and minuses.
Do I have a preference? For a big-time event, nothing matches the city races. But for the ease of getting to and fro, for the lack of traffic and for a low-key approach, nothing beats the small race atmosphere.
I think I would have to run more small races, and perhaps even other big-city events like the LA Marathon and maybe an out-of-state marathon like Seattle or Arizona, to compare the two. So I can't say one way or the other definitively. I will say that if I have my family with me and they are going to be out on the course, I would probably choose the small race. But if I were to go it alone, I could probably deal with the logistics of a city race.