How to Choose Your First Marathon

An expert guide to picking your first 26.2-mile race

Congratulations! You’ve decided you want to run your first marathon. Even just declaring the goal is an applaudable milestone, but from here there’s lots and lots of work to be done.

Much of that work will involve running (duh!), but before you even begin to think about training (and unless you want to cover 26.2 miles all on your own), first you have to pick a race. According to Running USA’s annual marathon report, last year more than 1,000 marathon races took place in the U.S.

That means the pool of races you have to choose from is rather large and no doubt, quite varied. To help you figure out which will make for a great first-time marathon experience, I sought out the expert advice of Jason Fitzgerald.

 Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the founder of Strength Running. His first ever marathon was the New York City Marathon.

“It's not the easiest course, but it's also not too difficult either. The crowd support is unreal and it's a journey to run through all five of New York City's boroughs so I'd definitely recommend it,” he said.

Of course, New York City won’t be the best choice for all first-time marathoners, so when it comes to choosing a race that will work best for you, Fitzgerald offers runners the following general guidelines:

  • The marathon is hard enough so to feel your best, try to choose a fall race where the temperature and humidity will be lower. Spring races tend to be warmer with less predictable weather.
  • An easier course with few or zero challenging hills (like Chicago or Philadelphia) also makes the first marathon easier to conquer. While it'd be impressive to run a difficult course well, save that for after you have more marathon experience!
  • Finally, consider travel logistics. Local marathons are easier to get to and there's less stress with traveling to the race, arranging lodging, and dealing with different time zones. Worry about your race, not the logistics of getting there!

Keeping the above factors in mind, Fitzgerald noted that he feels weather is the number one factor to consider when you’re choosing a race.

“You can control how you run a tough course by slowing down or taking walk breaks, but even those strategies don't work well when you're overheated in a hot and humid marathon,” he said.

As noted above, both the Chicago and Philadelphia marathon courses are considered generally easy and Fitzgerald also recommended The California International Marathon as another race that might be a good choice for first-timers.

“It’s notorious for being a fast course—it's a net downhill with virtually no up-hills so it can be very quick,” he said.

Of course, there are plenty more marathons with less challenging courses that can be categorized in this group. You can use sites like or to compare race courses and other event characteristics.

And a few other factors that you’ll want to keep in mind when making your decision include, entry-fee cost (how much are you willing to spend?), the size of the race (how many other runners will you be comfortable sharing the course with?) and race extras like t-shirts, medals and post-race festivities.

Once you find your ideal race and register, get ready to start training. What’s the number one thing you should know before you embark on the journey of running your first marathon?

“It takes a lot of preparation,” Fitzgerald said. “26.2 miles is no joke—train appropriately and give yourself enough time to train. I recommend 16 to 20 weeks of dedicated marathon training, but make sure that you're already in good shape when you start. If your longest run is 4 miles, you still won't be ready in 16 weeks.”