Tuesday 21 November 2017

Bigger isn't always better when choosing a competition

The women's mini-marathon which can attract up to 40,000 participants. Photo: Sportsfile.
The women's mini-marathon which can attract up to 40,000 participants. Photo: Sportsfile.

Deirdre Hassett

We always assume bigger is better. I went straight to a monster event with my first ever road race 15 years ago, the Dublin Women's Mini Marathon.

The excitement of lining up with 40,000 of my closest friends was one thing; realising I'd have to run through all of them was another. It's always a thrill to take part in a big event, like one of the marathon majors, or a triathlon - especially when it's your first time covering the distance.

The support lining the streets, the booming music, the roar of the crowds at the finish line… On the other hand, there are expensive race fees, horrendous portable toilet queues and tiresome early morning race day travel logistics. Not to mention, as I found, the challenge of trying to run at pace amid the shuffling hordes.

The big branded triathlon events are often considered to be the ultimate (and for some people the only) long distance triathlons. The IronmanTM brand has the lion's share of the market. It's true that the big branded events know how to put on a finish line party, and the bigger numbers racing mean greater support on the course. If you're trying to get value for money, have limited time to travel, have already clocked a couple of major events at the same distance, or you're looking to hit a new personal best and want a less crowded start line, then it's worth looking at smaller local events. Logistics and cost aside, it's also great to support a local athletics or triathlon club event instead of a big commercial race.

In a big race, unless you're an elite athlete, you're probably a very small fish racing hard to stay ahead of the oceanic midpack. "Racing" in a large event like a big road race is usually not a question of even being close to the top for most of us, so it's really just a big long time trial, hoping conditions allow you to set a personal best. In a small local race, the mid-packers get a chance to be a bigger fish, chasing maybe a top-10 place or even a podium spot, and this is where the fun begins.

It's happened, not especially by design, that all of the middle-distance (half "Ironman" distance) triathlons I have done - seven at last count - have been non-IronmanTM branded events. Not particularly by design, but branded events are usually more expensive and further away, so I've picked local races which meet my season's race plan but happen to be smaller.

As with the race I did last week, which ran over an identical course through the North California vineyards to the previous month's IronmanTM branded Vineman 70.3 and which was even run by the same company, but was a smaller, non-branded women's race which raises money for cancer charities called 'Barb's Race'. I was admittedly tempted by the 70.3 race but date commitments meant that I plumped for Barb's Race. I still got to test out the Vineman 70.3 race route, while raising money for charity and enjoying the extra space afforded by a smaller start line. It's fun to compete in a women's only race as the focus is usually on the front of the men's race. With the smaller field I found myself in contention for a rare overall podium spot and I thoroughly enjoyed the spotlight from the cheering supporters as I battled the 36°C heat to swim, bike and run my way into third place.

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