Lessons of the Marathon: Course Selection

Running the marathon is the easy part.

Planning, preparing, and performing quality training for 14-18 weeks is the tough part.

Selecting a course – one that closely aligns with your race goal – can make or break the race experience.   Personal preferences – temperature, number of marathon participants, and time of year, among many factors – are important to consider when selecting your next marathon.  Add adequate training time (12-18 weeks for a marathon, dependent on individual) to the list.  And “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” applies too.

Here are the steps I take when selecting a course for a marathon.



Identifying the goal(s) for a marathon is very important to course selection.  If you are trying to set a new personal record (PR), it would not be in your best interest to sign up for a hilly marathon or trail race.

The goal for my upcoming marathon is to qualify for the Boston Marathon for 2020.  A very good running friend has qualified for the race 5 times, but has yet to run the actual Boston Marathon due to life circumstances.  Another friend and I have run Boston multiple times.  The three of us would like to share the experience of Boston Marathon 2020 on April 20, 2020 together.

As a 41-year old female, I need to run a 3:40 or faster marathon time to qualify for the Boston Marathon.


FIfteen marathons in various geographic locations have provided many opportunities to race different courses.  Through those experiences, I’ve learned that I have the following personal preferences:

Number of marathon participants:  Less than 500 participants in the marathon, preferably with a different starting time from the half marathon.

Weather: Overcast and cool, between 45-60*F.

Time of year: Spring.  My best marathons have all been between the months of March and May.

Travel:  Local races mean I sleep in my own bed before and after the race and keep much of my pre-race routine intact.  Quality sleep and my regular routine are important to me.

A race doesn’t need to meet every criteria, but meeting most of them is ideal.

Yuengling Shamrock Marathon, Virginia Beach, VA

I’ve selected the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, VA.  Utilizing data compiled by FindMyMarathon for this specific race, most of my personal criteria will be met – March race, historical average temperatures in the mid-40*F range with overcast skies, located one hour away from my house.  The marathon field is larger than I prefer, but other races in the area do not meet many of my personal criteria and don’t fully support my race goal.

Training time

A great course doesn’t mean anything if you do not have time to physically prepare for the demands of the marathon. Current fitness, race experience, overall health, and recent recovery time are all factors to consider when deciding how much training time is needed to be race-ready.  As a coach and athlete, my goal is to remain injury-free.  Back-to-back races with minimal recovery time between each can lead to exhaustion and poor race performance while increasing the risk of injury.  It also goes against my coaching philosophy of smarter, stronger, and faster.

As of today, race day is 15 weeks away.  My recent longest run is 15 miles.  Fifteen weeks is adequate of time to be race-ready with appropriate recovery weeks and taper built into my training plan.


We currently live near the Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Virginia.  It’s F L A T here,  so I prefer a flat course to increase the likeliness of achieving my goal.  The marathon course needs simulate my daily training conditions.

Yuengling Shamrock Marathon elevation profile

With any elevation profile, pay attention to the scale for elevation in feet, the vertical axis.  Many do not start at zero feet, but at the lowest elevation of the entire course.  Due to scaling, large elevation changes can appear minimal.

When I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, mountain running was part of my weekly training.  Running a flat marathon course was never a problem.  The reverse – flat training, hilly marathon – rarely works out well unless the goal is to just finish a marathon.

A marathon course doesn’t much more flat that this one.  The elevation profile fits my training profile,  making this course a good choice.

Evaluate the Course

All courses are not created equal!

There are point-to-point, looped, and out-back courses.  There are courses where the half marathon and marathon share the first 13 miles of the marathon course, creating crowded conditions.  Other courses pass the finish line area mid-way through the race, providing an unexpected mental challenge.

I encourage athletes to mentally ‘run the course’ and identify potential issues.  After that evaluation, list the challenges that will arise and start planning for how to physically and mentally prepare to overcome them.

 Challenge #1:  The Yuengling Shamrock Marathon and half marathon begin at the same time, sharing the first ~13 miles.  That means the course will be crowded, not my favorite situation, but I like to start conservative and get settled into my pace.  The sheer amount of people will make these miles pass quickly, but it is also easy to get ‘swept up’ in a faster pace than I need to run for my goal time.

Game Plan to Overcome Challenge #1:  Start with the pacing group slightly slower than my anticipated finishing time and allow the pacer to work for me, but check mile split times to ensure my personal race plan is intact.

Shamrock Marathon

Half and Full Marathon courses diverge between mile 12 and 13

Challenge #2:  The half marathon runners split from the marathon course between mile 12 and 13 (seen circled in yellow on the map below).  The half marathoners that provided distraction and company – and crowded the course – are gone, and so are their cheering supporters.

At this point, the marathon really begins.  The upcoming miles are where fatigue sets in and mental strength is challenged.  Add in potential head or tail winds from the Atlantic Ocean to provide an additional factor to consider.

Game Plan to Overcome Challenge #2:  The second half of the marathon is a loop, so the wind will be a factor early or late is this section.  I hope for a tail wind into the finish, but mentally prepare for a headwind.  Low expectations pay off here.

I will ask my support crew – family and friends – to be at strategic points along the second half of the course.  It’s amazing how seeing my people along the course perks me up.  Plus, I’m usually ready for something different to drink going in to mile 20.  I’ve found that a beer in a to-go cup with lid and straw provides a nice change of taste over water with no adverse side effects.  Just a few sips revitalizes me to push through the last 10k.

In training, my long run routes will include passing by my house/neighborhood later in the run, simulating the temptation to ‘finish’ – giving in to the physical fatigue and mental discomfort – then choosing to pass by and complete the long run distance.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right course that supports your overall race goal is an important decision.  The course also impacts the training plan, dictating specific types of training to meet the demands of the course.  Defining your race goals, knowing your personal preferences, and finding a course that meets those preferences increases your probability to achieve your goal.


Find My Marathon

Boston Marathon qualifying standards

Yuengling Shamrock Marathon

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