What Runners Want in a Race

If you didn't know, I am working on becoming a Race Director and designing a few of my own races. Since being a runner is helpful, it isn't only my opinion that matters when planning a race.

I have been surveying runners on different running forums, both in Utah, Nationally as well as various Facebook pages of all things runners:) and have decided to share with you what I found. Because its kind of interesting in a way, at least I think so!  Some of you may have even over the past 6 months seen some of my random questions on these pages, if you did now it may make more sense on why I asked:)

Why did I do it?  Well information is gold in a business, and racing is a business.  You do it wrong, you can be out a lot, and I mean a lot of money!  I needed to know if my thought process on it was aligned with what the majority of others, or if I was an anomaly:)
Especially since, to make my Half Marathon work, on my current estimates I need 250 runners to break even, and 400 participants to make it really worth doing.  (Those estimates could change, I am not finished with all the numbers just yet.)
The fact is, runners aren't just going to sign up to run a race because you create one, you need to make sure you are creating ones they want, that can compete with the large market out there that they can choose from.

I am not going to share every detail that was discussed on each topic, but here are the more important or highlights on each.  


Do runners care if the race they entered gives a portion of the proceeds from their race entry to charity?
My opinion, no I do not care nor do I pay attention if one I enter does or not.  I'd rather have a great race experience and have plenty of what I need on the course.
What did others tell me?  Well I had quite a few responses on this question, over a hundred actually. About 3% actually responded that they cared or only enter races that support charities.  The rest thought along the same lines as me, they wanted good race support, plenty of port-o-potties at the start, they want to feel taken care of and have nice finishers goodies after.
VERDICT: I am normal in my thinking on this, so unless it becomes a huge tax benefit, then I don't think I will deal with charity runs right now!


Do runners want medals for half marathons, 5k's and 10k's?
My opinion, while I love my medals for my 26.2's, and I can see why others want them for Half's.  I personally wouldn't care to get one in a 5k or 10k, although I do like them if I place in the top 3.  Truthfully, until last year I never even knew smaller distances gave finishers medals.  I am new to this medal craze, this I understand:)
What did others tell me?  This one I had quite the response on, and it varied so much depending on which different type of runner groups I asked.  The majority of marathon and ultra runners who responded told me they wouldn't want one for a 5k and if they get them, they toss them or donate them.  But then the majority of Half Marathon said definitely they like them and register races for them!  The shorter distance runners predominantly told me they do like them, and only choose races that offer them. They do put them up on their award walls and display them proudly.
VERDICT: Although I may be normal compared the most distance runners, I was very much NOT normal with shorter distance runners.  In the end, fun run runners do like them, and display them proudly.  The ones who don't care for them, most told me they donate them to special needs Olympic charities who give them to the participants. (Which I thought was a very cool idea!  I also learned that is what most races do with their left over medals after a race.)  So, races should definitely hand out finishers medals as most run for a medal these days!  Which means in my own planning, looks like medals for all races.


Do participants want a guaranteed shirt at packet pick up, or do they want a shirt given to them at the finish line after they cross?
My opinion, I am actually good with both.  I see why races give them out at packet pick up, it's less hassle for them race day.  But I also sometimes like that finishers shirt that is a little different and earned.  In a way I don't really have a strong opinion either way, but to be honest part of me had been leaning towards a shirt given at the finish.
What did others tell me?  This also varied depending on the distance running group I asked.  Overall, about 60% polled like the shirts given at the expo so they have less to carry after the race.  Some said they are okay with either, with no opinion either way.  A smaller percentage would only prefer them at the finish for finishers only.  I also had several tell me they didn't necessarily care for a shirt, but liked hat's or jackets or other unique items they could use.
VERDICT: Runners like nice soft technical shirts that actually fit, and like to have less to carry after they finish unless the race is giving them a finishers bag, with finish supplies then they are fine to load up:)  Overall, it seems most prefer them at packet pick up.  Still undecided on this once since it varied a little, so I'll probably go with what ends up being easiest.


Do runners like photo companies to come to races and take the possibility of several photo's to then go home and choose from later spending what I have noticed is $7-$15 for one picture.  Or would they like a slightly higher race entry fee to have 1 picture mailed to them, not taken by a race photo company, but the race themselves?  Or do they care about a photo at all?
My opinion, I have run a few that your race entry includes 1 free photo of you in the race.  I have also run many that you pay to purchase photographs after.  Understanding that this is only possible for those who wear their bib correctly.  I travel a lot for races so I do like one photo of me, and I always cringe when I have to pay $15 or more for just one picture to be sent to me, but I do it to have one photo if I don't have someone snapping one of my on the course.  I do love it when one photo is included in my race entry fee.
What did others say?  A huge majority almost 90% of responders told me they would love a slightly higher race entry fee, to have one photo mailed to them after the race.  A smaller majority said they didn't care for a photo at all.   If a race doesn't offer a free photo, about 40% of those who responded to my questions said they may order a few photo's depending on the race.
VERDICT: Like myself, most runners like a memorable photo of a race.  But most hate the expensive fee's for them after.  If the price is included in the race entry, they would really like this and not mind a slightly higher fee into the race for this.


How do runners pick a race location?  What draws a person to choose a new race, or location? What types of courses are favorites of runners?  What types of courses are not favorites?
My opinion, if I am traveling I pick races with high reviews in area's where there is plenty to do.  I like courses near National Parks, Mountains, Beaches.  Sometimes I will enter a race not just because of location, but because the race just sounds fun, or I have heard amazing things from other runners.  If it's a local race, I like mountain and canyon runs.  I am not scared away by hills, although I do dread flat courses as I find them boring.  I like point to point courses.  I hate loops or courses that require me to run circles.  I don't like to pass a finish line around half way knowing I can't get to it for a long while. I don't particularly like out and back courses where I can see everyone ahead of me, or behind me.  Unless it is just for small portions of the race.
What others said:  They like scenic locations, although some told me they really only go to race and don't spend too much time exploring much of the area, they fly in and fly out if it is a destination race.  Downhill or flat seemed to be the majority favorite, although a small percentage did say they prefer a challenging course.  Many choose races because other runners raved about it or because they feel they get their money's worth.
The majority said they prefer point to point courses.  Courses that they said they didn't like were ones that the organizers messed up and notified the participants after that the distance was different than what they originally declared.
VERDICT: I think I am pretty much in the norm with what others think as far as this.  So since I am planning a quite scenic half marathon on a downhill canyon course, I think I have hit the majority of the target audience of runners I am after.


Do runners like these?  Does it make a difference if you enter a race that has them or doesn't?
My opinion, I had one race massage after my 3rd marathon and it was heaven while I was getting it. After when I had to get back up, it was terrible only because I was so relaxed.  I only had to wait a short time in line which is why I decided to do it.  Usually, when I finish I don't stick around for too long, so most the time I don't give them a second thought.
What others said: A small percentage said they do make sure to always get one.  But most said it depends on the line.  A large majority said they don't really think about it or could careless especially on distances shorter than a marathon or if the line is longer than a 5 minute wait.
VERDICT: I think I am in the norm.  It would be a nice perk for those who like them, but it probably won't detour or entice any additional runners whether they have one or not.  So will I have them?  Probably not if I have to pay for the service.  If I can aquire it through the powers of marketing for free service, then I will have them.


Specifically addressed to those who run half marathons.  If you're a back of the pack runner, or run/walker what do you consider a fair cut off time?
My Opinion, I honestly never thought about this until I started planning my own race. Initially, my thought was 3 hours was a fair cut off time.  That is a 13:44 pace, which seems like a fair run/walk pace.  But then I read that most of those who train to run/walk, train to walk twice as much as they run.  So they are closer to a 15 min mile pace so my second thought was 3:20?
What others said:  This one was a pretty overwhelming agree in response.  Almost all who answered told me 3 hours was a fair cut time. About 5% told me 3:30 was a fair cut time.  Many said they do check the race website cut off time information before they enter to make sure they can comply.  I did have one person say they don't care about cut off times, they will just finish as they want to finish even if course support is removed.
VERDICT:I think if permits are possible without too much additional cost , 3:30 would even allow for those who enter and choose to walk most the race.
I did search various race sites, it looks like larger races even allow for a 4 hours cut off time, but smaller races generally are 3-3:30.
For my race, its going to depend on how much extra it's going to cost to keep the course open.  I might try for 3:30 because it seems like there are a lot more run/walkers these days and that might increase entrants to meet my quota.  But pretty sure paying an extra $1000 just to keep the race open for 4 hours for walkers only, is not going to happen.

I should mention I did not poll runners on themed race forums or pages or those who mainly only run fun runs.  I polled runners both in Utah specific pages, and a few larger national pages, most of which on the national pages were marathon and half marathon runners.  I am sure I may have gotten a different response to some of the above if I did poll a themed race page.  The reason I didn't was because what I am organizing is not a themed race.

I actually sent out polls on several other topics.  I will have to share them at another time, to help keep this post only as lengthy as it is.
So if you're a runner and you've read through this, I'd love to hear your opinions or thoughts too. Does your opinion on these subjects fall with what others thought in the polls?  Or are you like me and think a tad differently (It's okay different is good, right:)


  1. I think this is fascinating information! It's great that you have so much data. I think I fall in the middle in most of these. I definitely look for course closure times and won't enter a race unless it's 3 and a half hours or more. I've finished my last 2 half marathons right under 3 hours but I like having that extra cushion just in case something goes wrong. I don't care that much about massages, shirts, photos or medals. They're all nice but I'm not going to make my decision based on them. The main things I look at are logistics, the course, the price, and the reputation for having a well organized race.

    1. This is just a little of the questions I put out there. I am glad you found it fascinating as I did.
      I think a lot of people think like you, and look for 3:30+ cut off time, especially first timers. It was definitely something I was really glad I researched a little!
      But I totally agree, logistics, course and price is a biggee... Since I will be a first time race, I won't be able to have reputation to go on, but I can hopefully make up with that with what I can offer.. we shall see:)

  2. that is a lot of info! I love destination races and I go and stay for an avg of 3 days or so- so I like cool cities, hotels, destinations etc. I love a nice scenic run. I like fitted shirts not unisex shirts and nice expos with lots of goodies. I think the time for a half is nice to have 3 1/2 hours, that does not discourage the newbies from trying. Can't wait to see what you are planning!

    1. I do the same thing when I travel to a destinations race, I have always stayed 3-5 days depending on where it is.
      I am glad you like scenic runs, I am exactly the same way!!!
      Thanks for sharing what you like too, I am right now compiling any and all info to consider, it sounds crazy but it is very helpful as I am making certain decisions on things.

  3. This is SO interesting and Yes, I read through it all. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts.
    1. I am glad you decided to give finisher medals for all distance. There are some runners who will only ever do a 5K and to them it's a big deal.
    2. I could really care less about the shirt. Especially in local races. If not having a shirt will make the entry fee cheaper than I'll go that route. But then again I know some people that run just for the shirt! Especially if they are collecting them for a race quilt or something.
    3. It doesn't matter to me if the race is for chairty or not. Although if it is a very expensive race ( like Disney) it's good to know that you are also helping out a good cause.
    4. It's nice when races offer pictures but I never buy the package unless it's a Disney race. I think you could save yourself the expense of hiring a photographer and just have a few nice backdrops after the finish line where people can get a finishers picture with their medal. This was people can use their own phones to take the pics. I would like that better.
    5. If a race has massages for $1 a minute, I always get them. It's better even if it's free. Honestly, as much "post race" activity you can get, the better. I love when races feel like an "event" and not just a run and then go home.
    6. I don't have much of an opinion on the time limit as i've never been close to pushing the limits. Most races have half marathon limits of 4 hours which seems to be a good time because it gives first timers confidence. I knew my first half I ran, my goal was to come in before 4 because I didn't know if I could do it. (turns out I came in around 2 something..lol). Anyway, I think the longer the better as it will encourage more people, but on the other hand if you have to pay for the course to stay open later you may want to mention that the course support will end in 3:30 hours but participants are able to finish at their own risk type of thing.

    Ok, this comment is getting really long. I'm just so excited for you. TTYL!

    1. I love your long comment:)
      You know, I hadn't thought of it like that, but it's true. Some runners may only run a 5k, and they do deserve to get a medal. This is why I have really enjoyed polling other runners. It's been so helpful, especially since I am more of a runner who is okay with less thrills, but a great course and scenic race and good logistics of course.
      But a lot of runners now days, are in it for other reasons. Like you said some just like a great event, and to feel like they are well taken care of and their money was well spent.
      I am kind of an old fashion runner in my thinking, and one of the biggest eye openers has been how much so many now days just enter and run/walk to say they have done something big and just finish something. Not as many newer runners to the sport are in it to place or go for PR's and some could care less about that aspect.
      Truthfully, there is only 1 winner, and a PR is a personal thing. So one of the things I really want to take into consideration are all the middle of the pack runners, as they are kind of the bread and butter of the race. A race couldn't do it without them, unless it's a race like Boston. So that's why I want to make it a great experience for runners of all speeds and even the run/walkers.
      Thanks for all your thoughts, I really appreciate them!!!!

  4. The weather weighs heavily in my decision making process. Obviously this ties in with time of year but also with location. I LOVE a downhill scenic course. I prefer either point to point or one large loop. Let me know when you pick the date. If there is any way to work it out, I will come!

    1. I agree, weather can be a big thing!
      I am planning a summer run, so one thing I am making sure is that it starts early enough that most can be finished before the heat of the day begins.
      I will definitely let you know about the race, I'll even give you a personal invite:) It will be a scenic and downhill canyon course, which may be right up your alley:) It's also going to be point to point! Right now I am aiming for June 1016, but specific dates are permit pending:)

  5. So much interesting info, and certainly a lot of these topics are things I consider when looking at races to register for. I'm a huge fan of photos being included in the registration cost. One of my favorite local running stores, that also hosts a race series, includes photos and posts them post race on a Flickr page. This makes it really easy to download photos.

    1. Because I travel to run a lot of races, a photo is something I always get because usually I am alone and if I don't get a race photo then I have no visuals I was there:)
      I am looking into hiring a photographer to take pictures, that at least 1 will be included in their race cost. If it's at all possible, without too much additional cost. I think it might be a fun momento, and great race entry perk...

  6. This is all great info and I agree with a lot of what you had to say. I am also a huge fan of photos included in registration cost. I think I have only bought a race photo once. They are just too expensive but if they are included I take that into account when registering for a race, it makes the race more appealing, at least to me.

    1. Ya, I like a photo too. I am really going to try to do this, I think if I hire a individual photographer or two, instead of a racing photography company then this could be definitely something with a small cost to add, but be a possible good race entry perk? Hopefully!

  7. This is all so interesting.
    & I agree with you for the most part.
    I have to say I always worry about cut off times since I'm a back of the packer :)
    & yeah, its new but I'm seeing more & more 5k & 10ks giving medals. I always will be swayed for a race with a medal :)

    1. I am not the fastest runner at least not inthe past few years. Even when I pick a full marathon, I like ones that offer a 5:30 finish time just incase I need the extra. I think half marathoners need the same, I just had no idea until I started surveying what others thought of as good times or not:)
      You're not alone in the race medal thing, it sways a lot of runners!

  8. I didn't know smaller races offered finishers medals either until recently haha. I'm with you though, I like the idea of finishers medals for long races, but honestly, if it's a really small and short race, I don't want the medal unless I place in the top three. I guess we are just both critics of ourselves lol. But that is totally a personal preference. I think someone who only does 5ks deserves to get a medal even if they never go up in distance, because to them that's a huge deal and just as awesome as doing a half marathon or marathon and effort is all relative anyway :).

    I've never gotten a finishers shirt. I think that would be pretty cool! I totally see the hassle with carrying something though. I can hardly function enough to grab my medal at times ;).

    I'm undecided on photos. I have maybe two good ones haha. But I do like the idea of a small fee being included with registration and receiving one free photo after the race :) This would probably be impossible and super super expensive, but it would be kinda cool if races had screens where you can see at least your finishers photos after kinda like how they sell those pictures of roller coaster rides at amusement parks :)

    After race massages. I'm such a weird one with this one. I feel so awkward with people touching me when I'm super sweaty haha I know that's crazy because obviously they're being paid to do it and are probably used to it.

    This post was so fun and interesting! Thanks for sharing it with us! :) Your race is going to be great because you're putting all of this effort in it to make sure it's something that people will really enjoy!

    1. You know, I actually didn't even realize half marathons gave out medals until about 2 years ago. Even then, it wasn't until over the past year that I realized runners really like and enter them for them.
      I have run several half marathons, and I have only been given 1 medal in all of them and I was fine with it. But I do like and expect them in a marathon.

      It's actually one of the reason's I am so glad I have been doing survey's, I am so old fashion when it comes to why runners these days enter races. There is nothing wrong with why they do either, it's just a completely new concept and I am just glad I am learning and gaining the knowledge because I do want people to enter my race:)

      I have to be honest, I am really leaning toward the finishers shirt. It's been one of my favorite aspects of certain races that do that.

      I had only gotten the one massage at a race, but I have to admit. When she asked me to take my shoes off to do my feet. I even asked her, are you sure they can't possibly smell good, LOL she said, no worries, after the first few massages I lost my sense of smell today:)
      Glad you liked the post, thanks for your comments Hailey!

  9. I worked for the Rock n Roll series here in DC for a while and I was really surprised by how much more goes into planning a race than people think. It's quite the undertaking! Good luck!

    1. It's really blown my mind all that goes on. In fact when you take into account everything else that has to be done, it's like less than 10 percent that is actually running related. I imagine most race directors don't even see much of the actual race they put on on race day themselves at all.
      That would have been a fun company to work for though!

  10. Count me in for a scenic downhill race! I will look forward to seeing your race series coming to an area near me!

  11. I've only ever run one race (Nike Women's Half! :O Of course, now it seems so long ago that I'd be surprised if I could even run 3 miles nonstop without dying), but...I like races that support charities (but it doesn't make or break whether or not I'd choose to participate in one) + getting cool tech shirts, race pictures with the entry, and a pretty course!

    I had no idea that they had free after-race massages at the end of some races! :O Race medals are awesome, and I like that they donate the rest to Olympic charities!

  12. This is a fascinating post! I loved reading your poll results and found the info super interesting. A lot of the stuff I never really considered. Like finisher medals at the end or post-race massages. But I know plenty of runners that, like the runners you polled, pick races specifically because they offer finisher medals. A reason I can see for having them for shorter distances is for kids - I think every kid deserves to feel special for finishing a race!


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