These are the places to go for your next PR.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
So, you want to set a marathon personal record? That means you’re going to have to get fitter than you were when you set your existing PR. It also means you’re going to have to apply everything you learned (probably the hard way) about marathon race execution, from pacing to hydration. But your first order of business is to choose a marathon that is conducive to fast times. We’ve done the research for you and chosen the six best U.S. marathons for PRs.
Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon
The Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon is just a few years old, but already it has a reputation for producing fast times. The best evidence comes from the half marathon, held at the same time on essentially the same course, where New Zealand’s Kim Smith set an all-time record for this distance on U.S. soil, running 1:07:36 in 2011.
What makes the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon so fast? It’s not just the pancake-flat course and the predictably cool weather in early March. It’s also the energizing live bands performing jazz, Cajun, and other Big Easy music at almost every mile.
The Chicago Marathon is one of the flattest major marathons in the world—the closest thing to running a marathon on a track. It’s also one of the largest marathons in the world, but the city’s wide avenues afford each runner plenty of space to get in a good rhythm at PR pace. And no matter how fast you are, there are plenty of people to run with and push you along.
The weather in Chicago in early October is hit-or-miss. Some years, it’s cool and dry, and on those days, records are set, as when Joan Benoit Samuelson ran an American record of 2:21:21 in 1985. Other years it can be too wet, too windy, or way too hot to run fast.
The Boston Marathon had a reputation as a slower marathon until two years ago, when Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot smashed the course record with a time of 2:05:52. But that was nothing compared to what Geoffrey Mutai did the following year, completing the fastest marathon ever run in 2:03:02.
What gives the Boston Marathon the potential to be a very fast race is that it’s a net-downhill course and the competition level is very high (qualifiers only, please). The unparalleled crowd support also can’t be discounted as a performance enhancer. And when there’s a tailwind on the eastward-heading point-to-point route, you’d almost have to try not to set a PR.
But those tailwinds are rare. In fact, most years there’s a PR-thwarting headwind in Boston. Rain and heat are also all too common. Even when the weather does cooperate, success on Boston’s unique course requires specific preparation. The long and often steep descents are just as likely to slow you down in the long run, by beating up your legs, as the notorious Newton Hills.
California International Marathon
The California International Marathon is one of the most popular West Coast marathons for runners seeking Boston qualifying times. Like the Boston Marathon itself, Cal International, which takes place in Sacramento in December, features a net-downhill point-to-point route and a lot of competition at any pace to push you along. Like Boston also, however, Cal International is frequently marred by stiff race-day headwinds.
Bay State Marathon
The Baystate Marathon, held in mid-October in Lowell, Mass., produces a higher percentage of Boston Marathon qualifying times than any marathon besides the Boston Marathon itself. The flat, double-loop course is the main reason. The weather is usually close to perfect—dry, with temperatures in the 50’s. Although there are often blustery fall winds, you’re never heading in the same direction in the Bay State Marathon, so they aren’t as frustrating as headwinds on point-to-point and out-and-back marathon courses.
The Chevron Houston Marathon has quietly emerged as one of the most popular marathons for PR-seeking runners. Performances such as Ryan Hall’s American record of 59:43 in the concurrent half marathon have enticed thousands of others to go after records of their own.
If you’ve ever been to Houston, you know the marathon course could only be flat, and it is. January weather in Houston is typically perfect for running, and the crowd support in America’s fourth-largest city is surprisingly strong.
The only small negative of the Houston Marathon as a PR event is that it requires runners to be in top shape at a time of year when most of us are not. But all it takes to work around that issue is a little planning.