Race directors dream big. How could you not when tuning into the likes of the Boston and TCS New York City Marathons, weekend-long events teeming with tens of thousands of people? They’re the crème de la crème of the endurance industry. But does size always matter?

Smaller, local races with less than 10,000 (or even less than 1,000!) participants should not be overlooked! These “little and local” races, whether a 5k or marathon, can be equally rewarding for both race directors and runners. We’ll walk you through the advantages and disadvantages of organizing such a race.

The Course

Chances are your local race won’t be able to snag a snazzy course like the United Airlines NYC Half, which runs through Times Square. In fact, some of your runners might be a little too familiar with your course if it’s part of their regular training route. In addition, a smaller race may not be able to obtain the permits necessary for total road closures – leaving your runners to race alongside cyclists and motorists.

This being said, the local course does have some advantages! With less people, security and equipment lining the course, your runners will have a clearer view of your course in comparison to the big city “mega-races” where participants are lucky to see the course barriers through the crowd. Less people means less noise, too, which makes for a much more relaxed run.

The People

A World Marathon Major sounds cool until you realize it means being responsible for close to 50,000 people – and that’s not even including spectators! The 2009 Chicago Marathon saw 33,703 finishers and a whopping 1.7 million spectators. If that number is enough to make your head spin, a smaller race might be right up your alley.

Of course, fewer people mean fewer everything else, including your own staff and volunteers. While it’s great to manage less team members, it also puts more pressure on each person to pull their weight. So be sure to pick the right people!

The Atmosphere

The aforementioned have a huge impact on your runners’ experiences. The larger races with screaming spectators, DJs at the start line, and entertainment along the course offer a highly energized environment while the runners’ villages and expos create an experience that goes well beyond the race.

While the crowds and fanfare can be a big motivator (and are a huge pull factor for these races) they can also be a huge pain for both race directors and runners. Besides waking up five hours early to beat traffic, runners end up having to slow down or dart around other runners to maintain their pace. For race directors, smaller races offer a close-knit vibe and better opportunities to have personal conversations with participants.

The Expectations

With a smaller race, you’re not expected to have the first-class runners’ expo, the smoothest course (hello, potholes), or even ample porta-potties. This being said, there are a few things that runners may expect from your race that they wouldn’t from a larger race – like porta-potties that are actually clean and well-stocked. When it comes to food, however, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Runners understand that small races don’t have massive funds to pull off a feast fit for kings, but they may expect something more than the dry bagel and banana slung out to the masses at mega-races (because if you have less people, you should have more money to spend per person, right?). We know the math doesn’t always add up, but you don’t have to do much. Investing in simple runner perks – even just free pizza at the finish line – will go a long way.

The Timing

One of the great things about smaller races is that, depending on the race, you can get away with old-fashioned hand timing. We only recommend this for shorter races with less than 100 or so people. The more people, the more complicated and erroneous hand timing becomes and the longer the distance (think half-marathon or longer), the more likely people will want their results to be accurate.

In talking about timing, one of the reasons runners may be attracted to your small race is that they actually have an opportunity to place. It’s easier to score 10th in your age group in a group of 20 than it is a group of 2,000, and easier to achieve a PR when you’re not squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Be sure to appeal to this competitive spirit in your race promotion!

The Costs

The final advantage of a smaller race is obvious: the costs! It doesn’t take a genius to know a race for 5,000 is cheaper than a race for 50,000. Just take a minute with our Race Management Cost Calculator to see for yourself.

There are benefits and drawbacks to races of any size and which ones you want to tackle are ultimately up to you. Ask yourself what kind of runners you want to attract and what kind of vibe you want your race to have. Just remember: you don’t have to go big or go home!

Have more insight on race management for small vs. big races? Share them in the comments below!

For more race management tips, contact ChronoTrack!