Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Does size matter?

A friend recently posted a question in a running group which set me thinking...
He asked peope to say Big or Small - whether they preferred the Big event or a Small race?
I've been mulling this over for the past few days and decided to jot down my thoughts, they are my thoughts, my personal opinion nothing more, and in no way judgemental.
My answer will always be Big, and here are some of the reasons why...

I have now completed 14 full marathons, 1 full ultra, a couple of ultra relays, a number of half marathons and 10ks and I have been fortunate to experience both Big and Small.  I guess the unasked question in amongst all the comments was quantify Big?  For me, Big is 35,000 people or more, lining up at the start in Chicago, New York, London or Berlin, these are, in most people's opinion, Big events.  However, it's not just the number of participants that make an event Big, it's the event itself.  My first ever full marathon was Chicago in 2007, I will never forget arriving at Logan international airport to be greeted by 12 foot high banners welcoming marathoners to the city!  Then when you get into the city itself, there's the thrill of spotting the banners which hang from the lamposts along the actual route, you see where you're going to be running!  Then, there's the EXPO... having been very fortunate to have travelled to many wonderful cities in Europe and N America/Canada, I still think that the Chicago expo is the best.  It's held in a huge exhibition centre and you start by picking up your bib and race packet then you wander round all the stalls, other races touting their race to prospective participants, stalls where you can try gels, drinks, get your gait analysed, have a massage, shops selling merchandise, selling other sports gear, celebrities signing their latest books etc etc etc... it's not uncommon to go twice to a big expo :-) Berlin expo is held on the no longer used airfield at Templehof, where you enter past the memorial to the pilots who flew in the Berlin airlift and where John F Kennedy famously proclaimed himself to be a doughnut :-)
The trip to the expo can be fun too, in the US and Canada you are often offered free transport as part of your entry and it is invariably a yellow school bus!  These are not overly comfortable, but you do get to meet other runners on the way and it's all part of the experience.  Then there's race day itself and the organisation of these events is something to behold... even just the sheer number of portapottis!! The corrals are all labelled and marshalled the baggage drops run with military precision, you get chatting in the queue for the loo, you share anecdotes and good wishes for a great run, with complete strangers but there is a camaraderie unlike any other I have experienced in my life. 
Then there's the support - if like me you are a slower runner and often near the back of the pack, it can be a long and lonely road in a small event.  That's not to say that I am not trying my very best, and if I pass specatators then I do get support from them and this is hugely appreciated, but in a big event there are many many more people in the same place as me, and the spectators give us the same if not even more support as they did to the front runners racing past at the head of the pack.  I can never write eloquently enough to explain how it feels but it is a very emotional experience to be swept along on the wave of support that I have been fortunate enough to experience, to have my name called out in many different tongues especially when you are getting a bit tired, is hugely uplifting.
I could go on and on because for me, it's not just about the race itself, it's about being taken to the hearts of the host City and it's people, to be encouraged along the whole 26.2miles and then to be congratulated by complete strangers as you hobble back to your hotel or appartment with your medal hanging proudly around your neck is fantastic, and if you're really lucky, in Chicago you can even get a free beer in a bar if you wear your medal :-)  In Barcelona, the day after the event we had a really enjoyable meander round the city the next day, spotting the 'blue line' and noticing things that we hadn't seen on the race itself... like where the blue line disappears into a film set!!  This wasn't there the day before when we ran down this street!

I have also taken part in small events, as well as many medium sized ones, and I enjoy them all, however it can get a bit lonely in a smaller event if your near the end - there aren't as many spectators, there aren't as many runners around you and whilst you still get your medal and your banana at the end, it's not the same... that's not to say there's anything wrong with it, it's just different.
So there you go, I did as I was bid on the original posted question which was to answer Big or Small, no opinions or explanations were to be given, but it has been bothering me since, I felt I had to try to write down my reasons - and maybe I've managed to do this here... and in conclusion, whilst I am happy to take part in small local events and will always support them if I'm not participating, it has to be for me the Big event for my first choice.  I hope that I will be fortunate enough to continue to travel and participate in many more Big events :-)
The caveat to all of this has to be that none of the above applies to the Ultra scene, by there nature, Ultra races are smaller, with fewer participants, but immense organisation and a 'family feel' unlike no other, this is a totally different world inhabited by some very strange but lovely people :-)


  1. Haven't been to a really big event yet. But looking forward to my first one. You've got a huge amount of running travel experience Helen and happily share it with friends. I have to agree being at the back of a race and seeing the marshalls packing up at the end doesn't make me feel good at all.

  2. totally agree. each big race has its own special moments, whether it is singing You'll Never Walk alone on the start line in Rotterdam, in New York its heading over the Verezano Narrows Bridge with New York New York thumping out on a masive PA or coming off the 59th Bridge (yes the feeling grrovy one) into a cauldron of a million cheering people, Berlin its the enormity of running through the Brandenberg Gate when in my lifetime the Wall separated East and West. It is finishing inside the Festhalle in Frankfurt. Or running past the vatican with the priests and nuns lined up cheering outside St Peters. It is about getting to meet and run with people like Kathrine Schwitzer, Fauja Singh, and Ed Whitlock. Its the helicopters, the tv, and the bands and dancers round the course. The thing which is common to all big races is that you are cheered to the rafters as an individual by crowds of people and your effort and suffering is rewarded with a level of support which is normally only offered to superstar sports stars. Yes you pay a pretty penny for the privilige in some cases but having someone lean over a barrier, spot you from 20 yards away and shout your name till they are hoarse; or having wee kids get so excited when you take one of their jelly beans and they see you are from a different country; those things make it worth every penny.