Starting Line of the Canaan Valley Half Marathon

21 Essentials of the Best Half Marathons

I decided it was time to put together a list of 21 Essentials of the Best Half Marathons. We all have seen the lists for the Best Half Marathons or the Best Half Marathons in the US. You know the lists that I’m talking about. The question is what characteristics, factors, or ways are we grading these Half Marathons. To me, this includes everything from the first search on Google or Facebook, packet pickup, hopping into your car after the race, and heading home. While I know that “The Best” is a matter of personal preference or experience, here is a list of the factors as a race director that I believe are important.

Social Media

Social Media is so important to the runner community especially with all of the hard work dedication that leads to the accomplishment of finishing 13.1 miles. For many Half Marathons, it’s a way to build a bond with their runners to share their experiences and journey with pages and groups. From smiling finish line pics, training pics, #medalreveal Monday, Social Media is an integral part of the build-up to race day and the entire experience. 

Website and Registration Platform

You hear the term UX in the digital world all the time and it literally can be the difference of someone registering for a race or not. Easy to navigate and enticing websites, as well as a smooth and easy registration process, are crucial. Prior to race day, there are only a couple of places for runners to interact with races, and websites and registrations platforms are on the front lines. 

Finisher Medal - AKA BLING

This is a HUGE factor when it comes to grading the “Best Half Marathons”. As a race director, I can’t tell you how many times people ask to see the bling before they will register. Is it Big Enough, Is it heavy enough, Is it original enough, Is it pretty enough, or is it the same size for each distance? Now it’s also becoming very popular to have an onsite custom engraving of their finisher medals with their times and other important memories. 

Finisher Medals AKA Bling


Runners LOVE swag and with so many Half Marathons out there it’s getting harder and harder to come up with original awesome swag. While the race shirt is the go-to item there is still much debate on whether it should be a tech shirt, blended t-shirt, or a cotton t-shirt. With race shirts sizing can be a deal-breaker and from a race director’s perspective is impossible to get right 100% of the time.

Communication with Runners

Great communication is key to a great experience. For this, I am mainly talking about pre-race communication and making sure you the runners have all the information you need without being overwhelmed. Clear concise emails with easy to follow instructions and information so that race weekend is a breeze. This also includes races responding to emails, Facebook messages promptly.

Packet Pickup & Race Expo

This is the first in-person experience every runner has with a Half Marathon and their race weekend. You know what they say first impressions are huge! Nobody wants excessively long lines and wait times to pick up their swag. Also for many of the larger races, the race expo can be an event entirely of it’s with vendors from every corner of the running industry. 

Essentials of the Best Half Marathons

Race Day Parking and Shuttle Service

Race day starts early enough and most likely the anticipation has led to very little sleep the night before. Speaking from experience on problems with shuttles and parking can get a race started or ending off on the wrong foot and leave a bad impression. In a perfect world, there would be onsite parking only feet from the starting line, but we know that’s not always the case. Either way parking and shuttles need to go smoothly and quickly. 

Bag Drops at Half Marathons

Every Half Marathon needs a well-organized bag drop or at least an option for runners to store their extra belongings while they’re out on the course. 

Porta-Potties and Bathrooms

If ever there was an important time to have enough bathrooms and toilet paper it’s on race day when 95% of the runners need to use the bathroom in a 15 minute time period. Also as important as they are before the race, not having enough Porta Potties or bathroom options on the course can be a deal-breaker too. 

Half Marathon Starting LIne Area/Chute

Energy and anticipation are high at this point! Having great music, a great Emcee(we will get to this more in a little bit) is very important to the overall runner experience. Well lit and not too crowded are also other factors that play into starting line experience. 

Sunrise at start of the Islamorada Half Marathon
Sunrise at the start of the Islamorada Half Marathon

Start of the Race

If the race starts too early runners might miss the starting gun and if they start too late the adrenaline could start to wear off. Everybody loves a race that starts on time. 

Half Marathon Course

Considering this is where runners spend the majority of their time and pretty much the entire reason they are here in the first place it’s really important. Several factors that come into play here and they are.

1. Course Description

If your course description says the course is flat, well it better be flat and not just your interpretation of flat(speaking from experience here). Make sure the course description is accurate.

2. Well Marked

No one likes getting lost and while you are running a half marathon you want to focus on running finding your way. Also important are the mile marker signs and if they aren’t placed properly can affect your run.


In the age of GPS watches this is more important than ever and can be the cause of great debate. You want to PR to count and not to find out you only ran 12.8 miles instead.

4. Waterstops

Plenty of well-staffed water stops and aid stations on the course are vital. Also, water stops can be a huge inspiration for runners if they have music and happy volunteers.

5. Crowd Support

 Most everyone wants a chance for their friends and loved ones to cheer them on following this huge accomplishment. Many of the signs you see are priceless and for some runners. Many of the larger Half Marathons are known for their crowd support and have as many spectators if not more than participants.

Results Posted Promptly

After months of training, you want to be able to see the official results from your accomplishments of running and the Best Half Marathons make these results available fast and easily. Who knows you may have won your age group and if you couldn’t find the results in a timely fashion you might miss out. 

Age Group Awards and Awards Ceremony

Let’s face it if you win something you want it to be awesome! Having great age group prizes ads a lot to the event and makes the hard work seem worthwhile. As for the awards ceremony, this is up for debate. While races don’t want to downplay the winners there are a lot more people who didn’t win and the ceremony sometimes can kill the vibe. 


A very important and often overlooked part of a great race! From getting runners pumped up before the race or being the first person to congratulate them as they are crossing the finish line. The Emcee can drastically affect the vibe of the entire race and make for an amazing experience. As a race director, not a runner may be partial to this one but I feel that emcees are vital to a great race.

Michael Bernier Emcee

Emcee Michael Bernier keeping the energy high at the finish line

Race Photos

Almost everyone wants to remember the race and great photos are vital. Without proper proof how are you going to show off your great accomplishments! Also, backdrops and signs to take your photos with friends and families are a great touch as well.  Whether they are free or paid finish line and other photos are a must.

Post Race Party

 You just finished 13.1 brutal miles and it’s time to celebrate and cut loose! Here are a few of the highlights of a great post-race party. I have broken down the party into 3 main areas of importance. 

1. Snacks & Food

You are hungry and you need carbs! Depending on the race this can be as simple as a banana and granola bar or a full-blown buffet. Either way, it’s very important that a race has plenty of snacks and doesn’t run out.  

2. Music

As I said before after months of training, it’s time to have some fun. Bands, DJ’s and music can make for an even better experience. 

3. Drinks

This isn’t a requirement, but when allowed a complimentary post-race beverage or 2 is a great touch. 

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Overall Organization of the Race

A well organized and thought out Half Marathon has such a huge effect on the overall runner experience. As they say the devils in the details and the more time and thought the race directors put into the planning in many cases the better the experience is for everyone. 

Volunteers and Staff

Volunteers and Race Staff are on the frontlines and have such a huge impact on the entire experience. Happy, thoughtful, and well-informed staff and volunteers help make the race.


This is another huge factor and ultimately can play a huge role in why people are even participating in a particular Half Marathon. Local races have a different vibe and experience than destination races where people from all over the country

Size of the Half Marathon

This is another one and it’s all up to the personal opinion. It’s hard to compare a great small-town race with 500 runners to a huge Half Marathon with over 5,000 because they are completely different experiences. So when judging the “Best” I think it is only fair to compare apples to apples.

The Best Half Marathons

There are so many different factors that figure into which half marathons are the “Best” and what makes them the best. Truthfully with so many great Half Marathons in the US that it comes down to personal preference and what you like. Also, there are a lot of great race directors working hard to produce great events. I hope this list of what I look at as a race director helps you out and is fun to read. Now go out there have fun and Keep Running! 

Picture of Robby McClung

Robby McClung

Robby is the race director of the Canaan Valley Half Marathon, 10k & 5k. He also produces the Islamorada Half Marathon in the Florida Keys. To learn more about Robby check out the about page on the website.

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