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Despite the recent explosion and game-changing influence of social media, running at its core is an individual sport. And arguably no decision is more personal than a runner’s preferred race distance. After all, your preferred distance is not only a direct reflection of how you view yourself as a runner, but part of the subtle (or not) courtship ritual by which other runners gauge your street cred—which distances have you run, and how many times have you run them?

Here we break down the pros and cons of the most popular race distances, to help you better assess your options in today’s crowded race landscape. No matter which distance you choose, keep in mind that a runner is a person who runs. There are no “real” runners, only runners. And the best race distance is the one that motivates you to get out there, run strong and challenge yourself. Which is why RaceRaves is dedicated to helping runners of all distances find the best races, across the country and around the world.

Photo (c) 2016 Fritz Olenberger

The mile
PROS: Not an intimidating distance, but a standard measuring stick for gauging speed and fitness
CONS: Few organized mile events in the U.S.; blink and it’s over; training & racing this fast leaves you susceptible to injury

Equal parts pain and exhilaration, the mile combines the explosive speed of shorter races with the endurance of longer events—all in under 10 minutes. No matter what their level of interest in the sport, the tale of Roger Bannister first shattering the four-minute mile barrier resonates with runners and non-runners alike. And nearly every runner has at some point timed themselves at the distance, whether as part of a high school fitness test or as a training tool for longer distances. So the mile is a convenient measuring stick to find out just how fast you can run relative to the clock, your fellow runners and history itself.

Unfortunately most organized mile events in the U.S. are treated as fun runs rather than competitive affairs, with notable exceptions being the Indianapolis Monumental Mile, the Medtronic Twin Cities 1 Mile in Minneapolis and Santa Barbara’s State Street Mile. But regardless of speed, you can cross the finish line knowing you’ve surpassed the fastest man on the planet—Usain Bolt’s agent, Ricky Simms, confirms that the nine-time Olympic gold medalist “has never run a mile”.

RaceRaves at Alive & Running Los Angeles 2016
The 5K distance welcomes all ages and skill levels

5K (3.1 miles)
PROS: Short but sweet distance will still earn you a medal at many organized events; great for running with friends; short recovery time
CONS: One man’s warmup is another man’s race; lower entry fee often means less desirable swag

No matter your preferred race distance, it’s tough to argue with the 5K. As the Swiss Army Knife of distances, the 5K can be either a great waker-upper on a Saturday morning or a full-fledged challenge when run at max effort. In either case the recovery period is short, and most runners who train with any regularity can run back-to-back 5Ks on Saturday and Sunday without limping into the office and falling asleep at their desk on Monday.

For most runners the 5K is their introduction to organized running, whether it be a local race with friends, a charity event for a worthy cause or as part of a larger event such as the Berlin Marathon Breakfast Run or the International Chicago 5K. For some their first 5K will ignite a lifelong passion culminating in a closet lined with tech tees and a wall lined with medals; for others, it will only further motivate them to shelve their running shoes and return to the comfort of their recliner. But if you choose your event wisely and play your cards right, you may just be able to convince your friend(s) to join you at your next…

RaceRaves pyramid of distances
Percentage of total finishers in each distance category for all U.S. road races in 2015 (source: Running USA)

10K (6.2 miles)
PROS: Enables sporadic runners to step outside their comfort zone, without the anxiety & demands of a half marathon
CONS: “Tweener” distance hurts more than a 5K without the glory of longer distances

As race distances go, the 10K is that awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in—not geeky enough for the nerds, not cool enough for the jocks. According to Running USA there were more half marathon finishers (1,986,600) in the U.S. in 2015 than 10K finishers (1,275,600), a surprising statistic given that the half marathon more than doubles the distance of the 10K. That said, the 10K is not without cachet—notable events include the Beach to Beacon 10K (whose 4,000 spots this year sold out in less than four minutes), the Bolder Boulder with its nearly 45,000 finishers, and the AJC Peachtree Road Race, an Independence Day tradition and the country’s largest foot race with over 56,000 runners.

Often overlooked and underappreciated, the 10K is a “tweener” distance—too far for beginners but too short for seasoned runners, more intimidating than a 5K but without the post-race euphoria that comes with longer distances. At the same time, it’s far enough to make inexperienced runners appreciate that their canvas Vans or Converse high-tops may not have been the smartest choice of footwear.

Tackling a 10K is typically not a spur-of-the-moment decision, as the distance requires some training to finish comfortably. As such, 10K runners may have a much harder time convincing couch potato or novice running friends to join them than they would for a 5K. But for those who enjoy the challenge of completing 6.2 miles, the 10K may very well act as the gateway drug to more hardcore challenges like…

With over 27,000 finishers in 2016, the Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon is the largest in the country

Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
PROS: for many it’s the ideal balance of speed & stamina; long enough to feel like a legitimate effort, but short enough to run hard without limping for the next three days
CONS: Requires focused training; snobby marathoners will still look down on you

Widely considered the “sweet spot” of distance running, the half marathon was the nation’s fastest-growing race distance in 2014 according to Running USA. And it’s easy to see why—after all, 13.1 miles is the threshold at which many enthusiasts consider themselves “serious” runners. And while a dedicated training plan goes a long way toward ensuring success at the distance, training for a half marathon requires significantly less time and mileage than longer events.

One key group contributing to the popularity of the half marathon is traveling runners. For these athletes, 13.1 miles seems to be the minimal distance for which they can justify—to themselves and others—the time and expense of traveling for a race. And several online communities have sprung up to connect and encourage runners looking to run a half marathon (or marathon) in all 50 states and on all 7 continents.

Given its popularity, and tired of caveating their effort with the disclaimer “just the half”, some devotees have called for a rebranding of the distance to help lift it out of the shadow of its parent race; proposed names include “Pikermi” (the halfway point between Athens and Marathon on the original Olympic marathon course) and “Thirteener”. But no matter the name, 13.1 will always be half of 26.2, and at some point it becomes increasingly difficult to turn a deaf ear to the siren song of running’s most tempting mistress…

Source: quickmeme.com

Marathon (26.2 miles)
PROS: for many it’s the ultimate proving ground, and the most celebrated distance among runners & non-runners; typically the best swag
CONS: requires rigorous training; no matter your fitness, those last 6 miles are going to hurt

Czechslovak running legend Emil Zátopek said it best: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” The marathon is the gold standard of race distances and the definitive measuring stick for most runners. And as the ultimate proving ground for distance runners, the 120-year-old Boston Marathon is perhaps the most iconic foot race on the planet. When non-runners talk about their crazy running friends, more often than not they reference their marathon exploits. The distance itself has even become a societal metaphor, with any task that requires patience and diligence being compared to “a marathon, not a sprint”.

But glory don’t come easy. And for those intrepid athletes looking to slay the 26.2-mile dragon, the most important advice we can offer is this: respect the distance. The marathon is the ultimate “tough love” teacher, and the lessons it teaches are humility, adaptability and don’t you dare give up-ity. Anyone can finish a race when they’re feeling good & running strong — but if you have a weakness the marathon will find it, exploit it and beat on it until you’re ready to throw in the towel. It’s like the bully who turns you upside-down, shakes all the money out of your pockets and then leaves you out in the middle of nowhere, wearing a barrel in the dead of winter.

Having said that, for a first-time marathoner few moments in life will rival the raw emotional high of crossing that finish line knowing all the blood, sweat & tears have paid off. Like lightning in a bottle, it’s a tough if not impossible feeling to recapture. But many will try, and some according to the simple math of the hardcore runner: farther + longer = better…

The farther you run, the more likely you are to forget your name by the time you reach the finish (photo Dan Solera)

Ultramarathon (>26.2 miles)
PROS: you’ll never run out of ways to challenge yourself; commonly features softer dirt trails, pristine scenery and a low-key “one with nature” vibe
CONS: the least social of all distances, you’ll likely spend a lot of time running alone; be prepared for hills and lots of them; requires above-and-beyond commitment to both training and racing

Though technically defined as any race longer than a marathon, grouping all ultramarathon distances together ignores the fact that, just as some marathoners look down their nose at half marathoners, so too do some hardcore ultramarathoners not consider the 50K (31.1 miles) a “real” ultramarathon. Nonetheless, the 50K is an excellent springboard for intrigued runners looking to test the waters of ultramarathon without cannonballing into the deep end.

After the 50K, though, the water gets deep in a hurry, with 50 miles being the standard next step followed by 100K (62 miles) and what many ultramarathoners consider the ultimate proving ground, the 100-miler. Starting at 50 miles, race day logistics must take into account the commitment of not just the runner but friends and family willing to act as “crew” for the day (or multiple days) or even as pacers when the going gets tough. And you’ll quickly get used to amazed non-runners telling you, “50 miles? I can’t even drive that far!”

Because most ultramarathon courses feature unpaved trails and plenty of hills, the pacing and strategy are distinct from your typical road marathon. Slow and steady wins this race, with careful attention given to nutritional intake throughout the day. As noted sports nutritionist Sunny Blende puts it, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in”. While not for the faint of heart, ultramarathons are the ultrimate challenge for runners hell-bent on finding their personal limits.

For serious runners looking to add a gold star to their racing résumé, no other running event can compare to the Comrades Marathon, an 89K (56-mile) celebration of South Africa and the world’s largest ultramarathon. Despite its intimidating distance, Comrades is the event we here at RaceRaves have dubbed (without exaggeration) “the race every runner should run”.

Agree or disagree? Let us know your favorite distance (and why) in the Comments below!

Find this article informative or entertaining? Please share it, and let others know RaceRaves is the premier online resource to DISCOVER, REVIEW & TRACK all their races and to CONNECT with other runners!

Other RaceRaves articles you’ll enjoy (trust us!):

Tested & Trusted Race Day Tips (Part One)
Tested & Trusted Race Day Tips (Part Two)
5 Half Marathon Series worth a full look
Favorite Races of the 50 Staters
Toughest road marathons in the U.S. & Canada
The race every runner should run

3 thoughts on “The best race distance?

  1. Pretty good summary!!! I gotta say that marathons make me suffer a lot more than any ultras. It’s the running on physical and mental edge, close to my limit, that makes marathons such a life transforming experience, the pain, the emotions packed in the three hours of running are intense. And don’t get me wrong, I love ultras, raced many 50-milers but they are just different, more mental, more fun, more subtle pain;)

Your turn – what do you think?