Looking to tackle your first 5K, half-marathon, or even your first tango with 26.2? Check out the best courses in America for first-time runners
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Billed as the “World’s Fastest 5K,” the Carlsbad 5000 in Carlsbad, CA is home to 16 world records and eight U.S. records, along with numerous age-group and wheelchair bests. The current world’s best for men and women were notched there. But locals also call it the “Party by the Sea.” What does that mean for first-timers? A fast, fun, and scenic course perfect for newbies. Looking for a bigger challenge? Try the All Day 20K and run in four consecutive 5K heats for 12.4 miles total. Then stick around to watch the fastest runners in the world compete in the professional races. This year, the Carlsbad 5000 celebrates its 30th anniversary—there will be ‘80s cover band playing the finish line party and free brews at the Pizza Port Beer Garden.
Photo: Carlsbad 5000
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The Honolulu Marathon is a beginner’s paradise, with 35 percent of the 22,000 runners tackling 26.2 miles for the first time. Come for the stunning oceanfront course through Hawaii’s capital, Waikiki Beach, and Diamond Head, and stay for the post-race luau. With no field size or time limit, the race welcomes anyone and everyone to go the distance, no matter how long it takes. The Honolulu course stays open until the last walker crosses the finish, usually past the 14-hour mark. So it’s no wonder the race has the second slowest median finish time in the U.S. (behind only the Bataan Memorial Death March through the New Mexico desert).
Photo: Honolulu Marathon Association
Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon Weekend
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Ever said you’ll run a race when pigs fly? Head to the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon weekend of races to take your pick among 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, relay, multi-day challenges, and kids races. You can even Pump N’ Run with a bench press challenge or run with Fido at the Flying Fur event. Walkers are welcome too. The courses aren’t flat, but 150,000 spectators, known as “squealers,” keep things lively, along with 125 entertainment zones and pig puns aplenty. Finish line? Nope. At Flying Pig, it’s a “finish swine” and the pasta party is a “Pig Out.” Plus, local training groups in Ohio and Kentucky will coach runners to prep for the race. Best of all, runners are guaranteed late checkout at host hotels, so there’s no pressure to finish fast.
Photo: Michael E. Anderson
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The runDisney series of eight race weekends at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California are a first-timer’s dream. There are distances for everyone, including 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, multi-day challenges, and kids races too. (Is it even safe to run 3 Races in One Weekend?) A whopping 52 percent of the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon participants completed their first 26.2 miles there. Disney also owns the five slowest half-marathon median finish times in the U.S. at Disney Princess, Tinker Bell, Disneyland, Disney Wine & Dine, and Walt Disney World half-marathons. The reason? An emphasis on fun. With no pressure to finish fast, costumed runners stop for photo opps with Disney characters that line the pancake-flat courses. Plus, free training plans and tips by run-walk guru Jeff Galloway make it easy for beginners to go the distance.
Zions Bank Ogden Marathon, Half-Marathon, & 5k
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Looking for an easy course and relaxed vibe for your first big race? Run downhill all the way at the Zions Bank Ogden Marathon and Half-Marathon in Utah, or choose a flat, fast 5K course. With only one hill to speak of, the 26.2-mile race loses 1,100 feet of elevation as participants run down Utah’s bucolic countryside, including Ogden Canyon, which boasts a waterfall at mile 22. Tackle it alone or as part of a relay. The half-marathon drops 700 feet and the 5K shares the last 3.1 miles of the marathon. A one-mile Mayor’s Walk and Kids Kilometer round out the races. Need to train? The Strider Winter Race Circuit—including a 5K, 10K, 10-miler, half-marathon and 30K—prepares runners for the main event. Come race day, Clif Bar Pace Teams are on hand to help runners coast through the finish line.
Photo: Bryan J Smith/Only in Ogden
OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon & Finish Line 500 Festival 5k
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The OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon and Finish Line 500 Festival 5K in Indiana put speed front-and-center. The flat and fast 13.1-mile course takes 30,000 runners around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500. About 40 percent of them are first time half-marathoners, and another 4,000 run the flat, easy 5K. The 500 Festival prides itself on creating a low-pressure, high-octane experience with more than 80 bands along the course and runner perks, like free Michelob ULTRA at the finish and tickets to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Plus, the 500 Festival Miler Series of 3-, 6-, and 10-mile races lead into the event to help runners go the distance.
Photo: 500 Festival
Marine Corps Marathon & MCM10K
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Known as “The People’s Marathon,” the Marine Corps Marathon in Virginia and Washington, D.C., celebrates endurance newbies. One-third of the race’s 20,000 runners are first timers, and organizers even throw a First Timers Pep Rally to pump ‘em up for the big day. If you’re not quite ready for 26.2 miles, the MCM10K runs parts of the course the day before, with the same meticulous organization that has become a hallmark of the event and the Marine Corps itself. Unlike most major races, the Marine Corps Marathon kindly allows bib transfers and deferrals, perfect for first-timers who might be overwhelmed by pre-race jitters. (Prep with this Mental Marathon Training Plan.) But a scenic tour of the nation’s capital on a flat to gently rolling route is ideal for runners looking to make the 26.2-mile plunge.
Photo: Marine Corps Marathon
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The BolderBOULDER 10K welcomes 45,000 runners to the mountain mecca of Boulder, Colorado where many professional endurance athletes—like Olympian Kara Goucher—live and train. You can run among them at this race for the people, where an astonishing 93 waves of runners— organized by pace—start over the course of two and a half hours. Bands (30 of them), belly dancers, and other entertainers line the route roughly every 0.2 miles to spur runners on. But the real dazzler is the finish in Colorado University’s Folsom Field, where 100,000 fans wait to cheer you across the line like an Olympian. If that doesn’t get you hooked on racing, we don’t know what will. Plus, the event offers free 10-week training programs, including couch to 10K, accompanied by training videos with tips from pro athletes. (Check out The Best Running Tips of All Time.)
Newport 10 Miler
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If you’re looking for a low-key experience for your first long-distance race, the Newport 10 Miler and Fort Adams Fun Run in Newport, RI offers one of the best destination races on the eastern seaboard, earning rave reviews from runners. Instead of screaming spectators, you’ll find stunning vistas of crashing waves and Gilded Age mansions along the relatively flat oceanfront route. Just a few small, rolling hills challenge the 1,500 runners who finish in historic Fort Adams, where they enjoy a free post-race beer from Harpoon Brewery. Runners can also opt into a 10-week training plan, complete with coached group runs, online support, race day assistance, and tutorials on form, fueling, and more. A new June date ensures stunning weather during Rhode Island’s peak season. (So, what exactly are The Best Foods to Eat Before & After Running a Marathon?)
Photo: Newport 10 Miler
Runner’s World Half Marathon & Festival
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Nestled in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, the Runner’s World Half-Marathon & Festival of races—including 5K, 10K, multi-race challenges, kids races, and a dog run—is a bit like attending running camp. A full program of seminars with Runner’s World editors turns the weekend into a master class in the art of running. The 10K and half-marathon courses through historic Bethlehem and the former Bethlehem Steel Complex offer gently undulating hills and picturesque scenery, while the 5K is relatively flat and fast—perfect for newbies looking to race. The atmosphere is both supportive and festive, with all the perks you’d expect from an event produced by runners for runners—pace teams, pasta dinner, movies, and more. Coupled with excellent organization, it’s an ideal weekend for first-timers looking to toe the line.
Photo: Ryan Hulvat