Large or Small Half Marathon Race Size – Which is better?

You’ve got the run bug and now it’s time to figure out what type of half marathon you want to run. Half marathons are usually divided up into 2 different categories. You have large and small half marathon races. There are several factors that you will want to consider when signing up for your half marathon race. Let’s take a look at both types of races below based on a variety of factors.


Racing in a large size race will invite thousands of runners to which you will have to compete with. If you want a better chance of placing for the overall or race or specifically in your age group, usually a smaller local hometown race is what you’ll want to aim for.

If you don’t care about where you’ll place and you simply want to finish your half marathon then either sized race will be suitable for you.

Runner Support

With the larger races, you’re going to get more support than you can shake a stick at. Thousands of people cheering you on – most of them you don’t know. Signs littered throughout the crowd with a message that may make you want to laugh or cry.

The smaller races will have support but on a smaller scale. You’ll also have the advantage of probably knowing some of the staff and volunteers that make you grin from ear to ear. It’s also much easier to find your family and friends at the end of the race when the sheer size of the race is microscopic compared to large city races.

Race ambiance and location

Simply the name of a race such as the New York Half Marathon is enough to fill your head full of visions of race day, while the thought of a smaller race could leave your head a little empty and yearning for more. City locations such as New York, Fort Worth, or Boston instantly make you thing big size.

If you’re yearning for the crowded streets, the hustle and bustle of a busy pre-race environment, and the endless corralling before and after the race then you want to go “Big Size.”

If the thought of being surrounded by thousands of other races makes you squirm, then stay clear of the bigger races. You will be corralled with them and attempt to fight out of the crowd whilst running your half marathon. Battling through that many people can waste precious time and energy.

Swag and goodies

Bigger races tend to give away more stuff, better Tech T-Shirts, slicker medals, and juts more needless swag. Your packet pickup bag will be loaded down by the time you get through the packet info pickup. When the races are big, you’ll normally have some time of convention center expo with hundreds of vendors giving away their wares and sample products.

While smaller races might not have all of the goodies that a bigger race has, you can still treasure the fact that your participation medal is more rare and unique than that of the bigger races. Most smaller races will use a local store such as a running store for packet pickups.


Big City Race = Higher Price

Small City Race = Lower Price

Even though you are paying a higher price in the big city races, normally you do receive nicer tech t-shirts and medals, and often benefiting a large presence charitable organization. Higher prices are reflected in the sheer number of police officers and rented convention floor space.

Small local races also benefit smaller local charitable organizations that are probably more desperate for donations than the bigger guys.

Overall Race Organization

The overall organization tends to be better for bigger races but not only for the registration process but for the support if there is a problem. After running for 2 hours during my 3rd half marathon local race, I was labeled not with a chip time but a DNF (Did Not Finish). I showed them my race time per my watch and she texted someone to put it back in the system and it never got fixed! They claimed that they were having issues with some of the bib chips being broken. It was frustrating.

At a much larger race, I needed to switch my race length from a half marathon to a 10K the day of the race. A couple clicks on her computer and wallah, I become a 10K racer 1 hour before the race.

I’ve raced 14 half marathons and I will have to say that the organization just seems to be a little bit above the smaller races. The top-level organization, however, is reflected in the price that you pay.

Crowd Size

Having to deal with thousands of runners, corrals, and delayed corral starts is enough to make your head spin.

Weaving in and out of the muck of people in a large size race, even in your corral, waste your time and energy. A small local race, on the other hand, will have fewer people therefore there is more time spent focusing on keeping your pace rather than playing slot car racers around runners.

Water stations

The larger races will tend to have more have water aid stations and tons of volunteers passing out water cups. A big drawback when it comes to bigger races is again more racers which equal way more collision possibilities at the water stations. (This is a big reason to carry your own water during a half marathon). I’ve actually seen someone get injured at the water stations when someone came to a standstill in the middle of the water station line.

The smaller races should have an ample amount of water stations. This is where the smaller local race is favored a  little bit. Fewer racers equal less possible collisions and more water to be available to handout to the racers. I’ve witnessed actual races where they ran out of the water at one of the later water stations at a smaller race.

Normally water doesn’t run out unless you’re walking a half marathon or marathon and the time is growing near to the race cutoff time. If you’re interested in walking a half marathon check out this detailed post, can I walk a Half Marathon in 4 hours?

Aide Stations

I’ve noticed at larger races that they have medical staff that runs parts of the race with the racers. They tend to enroll a larger amount of medical professionals because of the size of the race and the number of race entrants.

The smaller races will sometimes only have EMTs or firefighters/EMTs on-site in case of a medical emergency. They are normally stationed somewhere on the racecourse. Smaller races courses tend to make up for this by having golf carts run back and forth throughout the race with walkie-talkies in case of a medical emergency.

Another benefit of smaller local races is that you’ll see more familiar faces, especially at the aid stations.


Safety is usually beefed up at larger race sites. Hundreds upon thousands of volunteers, medical staff, and police officers are littered throughout the racecourse.

I’ve run several small local races where there weren’t any volunteers or police officers conducting traffic while the racers crossed several intersections. Sometimes the smaller races cannot simply afford to pay local law enforcement to help or there simply aren’t enough volunteers to help out.

Local economy support

When you run smaller home town races, you’re helping to support the local economy and local charitable organizations. You’ll also know where the great places to eat after your well-deserved half marathon finish.

Do you like lotteries?

The bigger races will generally have to have a lottery to ensure all fairness of people getting to enter the race. Luckily the lotteries are done way in advance so that you’ll have ample time to train for a specific race.

With your smaller races most of the time you can show up 1 hour before a race and register. An hour later you’re racing.

Race Advantages

Small, local races give you a race advantage.  You know the routes, where the bad hills are at and know when to kick it into high gear to make up time.

In the bigger races, it might be next to impossible to run the race because the city is so crowded on a normal basis that you would have to have barricades put up in order to test run the course.


If you have an early race and you have to get up even earlier because of traffic getting to the race, it might be time to look at smaller local races. The Bigger the race, the more racers, the more crowded subways are as well as traffic. Trying to park can also be a big pain if you’re driving in from the suburbs.

You shouldn’t have to worry about traffic in smaller local races and the parking should be plenty to choose from so that you don’t have to walk half a mile to get to the starting line.

Race/Fitness Expos

If you want to see all of the new running gear, foods, and technology you might want to attend a bigger race. Most bigger races put on fitness expos that can last days. You might also be able to stock up on plenty of your racing gels that might be given away as samples at the expo. I wrote a detailed test review on the performance of different energy gel brands.

Sometimes they’ll have on-site running coaches as well as 10-minute massages to loosen you up for race day.

Other things to consider

My first half marathon race was a small hometown race in Texas. Since it was smaller in size competition in each group was less aggressive. I was able to place in 2nd in my first race. If I would have run the same chip time in a larger race I wouldn’t have placed in my age group.

I think everyone should race both a small race and a large-sized race. The experiences are both awesome and you will distinctly remember both races and their differences.

Deciding which size race to run your first half marathon is just as important as where should you run your first half marathon.

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

 To sign up for a FREE half marathon training schedule, log sheet, and pace predictor CLICK HERE.

Recommended Running Gear

Recommended gear for runners

 Connect with me:

Amazon Author Page
Coach Scott

12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan based on your current fitness level!