Which Marathon is the Best, Big City or Small Town? By Julie Benson

Running a marathon is a life-changing experience.

While both big city marathons and smaller marathons have 26.2 mile courses, both types of marathons offer distinctively different but equally exhilarating experiences.
There is something truly electrifying about toeing the starting line of a big city marathon. I’ve now run Boston three times and Chicago twice. The enthusiasm builds within the corrals, standing shoulder to shoulder alongside runners whom share the same hopes and fears. The vibration of feet on the ground as we set off over the starting pad adds more excitement.

There isn’t space to be lonely along the 26.2 course. With screaming spectators, cowbells, humorous signs and sometimes even an appearance by Elvis to entertain you along the course. The spectacle means a lot, especially during the challenging final miles, when your legs want to give out. This is the time you need to dig deep into your heart and finish what you trained for.

40,000 other people racing alongside you is quite motivating, but it can also be downright frustrating.

Gatorade in the face anyone? Or perhaps an elbow or two in the stomach? How about some impressive parkour to avoid the runner that abruptly stops right in front of you. Most recently, at the Chicago marathon, I played a bit of cat and mouse with my pace group as they continued to become swallowed up by the crowd.

It isn’t cheap either. Big marathons come with a big price tag, even with all the amazing swag and prestige they offer.

Large marathons draw a diverse field of runners from around the world. They give you an opportunity to connect with marathoners from all over.  Amazing athletes whom you may never had the ability to connect with otherwise. Listening to the various languages and stories they bring is pretty fascinating and unlike any other environment I’ve been a part of.

I also ran some quiet, hometown races as well.

They are the underdogs of the big-named marathons, receiving very little attention, social media nods, fancy shirts or medals. There is no lottery to be chosen from or qualifying time to be accepted into. In fact, most of these marathons you can sign up last minute if the weather looks just right.
Last weekend, I ran the Loco Marathon in Newmarket, NH. My friend picked us up an hour before the race started and we drove the 15 minutes to the starting area. We cozied up in a ballroom building, surrounded by a few hundred runners. Many of the runners I knew from my community and run club. We casually walked less than a minute to the starting line where I easily found my pace group.

What made this race truly special was Kathy, whom I met in the starting corrals of the Chicago marathon. We instantly connected in Chicago. To keep our anxiety at bay, we chatted about our race goals, pumped each other up with encouragement, and bonded through the journey that brought each of us to the starting line there. During Chicago, we ran together for a few miles until the thousands of runners separated us. I thought of her throughout the race and after I finished, hoped she ran the time she had trained so hard for.

Call it serendipity, but before I flew home from Chicago, our paths crossed once again at the airport.

In another brief encounter, I convinced her to fly to NH and run the Loco Marathon with me. She arrived the night before the race, and we spent the time together solidifying a truly special friendship that the big city Chicago Marathon brought to us. Three weeks later, we set off on the road to 26.2 once again. This time, we didn’t lose each other in the mass exodus of runners but stuck together as best we could through the majority of the quiet race. What a relief it was to be able to settle into a comfortable stride, never losing my group. The scenery of trees, cow farms, fall foliage, and a gentle quiet quickly calmed my overactive racing mind.

I hold a pretty good streak of PR’s and Boston qualifying times at smaller marathons. Conversely, I have struggled to run faster times at larger marathons.

In 2016, I ran my first BQ time at the Harrisburg, PA marathon.

My friend Jeff and his family were able to cheer me on along the course until he and his friend actually jumped into join me at mile 23! The 2017 Chicago Marathon was hot and crowded and I struggled to even finish. Weeks later, I ran a qualifying time at my first Loco Marathon and enjoyed the short stretch of trails and nature that was such the antithesis of the Chicago experience.

This year, Chicago once again did not bring me to my goal time, so I decided to give it my all at the Loco Marathon. I ran my 2nd fastest marathon, 30 seconds away from a PR that day. My husband and children were able to easily navigate through crowds and be right there as I turned the corner towards the finish line. Hearing their cheers and seeing their smiling faces brought tears to my eyes.

I still love the big city marathons with the prestige, excitement, media, people and bucket-list experiences. However the less known, smaller marathons speak louder to my runner’s heart, mind and soul.

So which marathon is better, the big city or small town? For me, both provide distinct experiences.


Julie Benson is an accomplished runner. In 2018 she returned to compete in the Boston Marathon. This was notable as Julie was stopped short in the 2013 event due to the devastating tragedy of the bombing.

Julie earned a dual Masters degree in Mental Health Counseling and School Guidance Counseling while attending the schools of Lesley University and Umass Amherst.  She works as a full time Elementary School Guidance Counselor.  Julie is very active in her running community and is currently a member of the Exeter Run Club, located in NH.



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