How to pick the perfect first 5k

Honestly, I could sum up this blog in one sentence. Make sure your first race is going to be FUN!

If you’re looking to sign up for your very first 5k, you’re most likely just beginning to run. I started trolling for the Perfect First 5k almost immediately after deciding to try out running. I wanted a concrete deadline of when I needed to be able to run 3.1 miles to keep myself from slacking off. I’m cheap enough that shelling out $35 to run around my own city is plenty of motivation to stay on track.

My only goal (and yours should be too) for my first race was to not walk. I am not in the elite athlete category, so I passed over any races that even mentioned qualifying for anything, course records, age group finishers, etc. And I found the perfect one: The Ugly Sweater Run.

That is a child's skirt. Billy is sporting a women's plus size turtleneck. Gotta love K-Mart.
That is a child’s skirt. Billy is sporting a women’s plus size turtleneck. Gotta love K-Mart.

Its name should give you a hint as to how seriously people take the race (which was not at all, unless you count how important having an awesome costume was). It was exactly what I was looking for: a laid-back, fun introduction to running races.

While the Ugly Sweater Run returns to many cities every winter, all you really need to look for is a race that looks more like a party than a gathering of disciplined athletic individuals. If there’s a theme to the run (and especially if you’re encouraged to show up in costume), you’re on the right track.

Some people might complain that these races are SO popular that running is miserable with all of the people you’re packed in with. But in my opinion, popular is good, especially for your first time.

A well-run race will release everyone in staggered groups, and being surrounded by other runners (many of whom are also beginners!) helps keep you going when you start feeling tired. Because you will. The adrenaline rush you get at the start line (or was that just me because they played Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”?) will start to fade, but the herd mentality will help ward off your desire to walk.

Photo from Ugly Sweater Run's Pinterest
Photo from Ugly Sweater Run’s Pinterest

Most of the time, picking one of these goofy themed races automatically means they are catering to beginners, so the course will probably be easy. It doesn’t hurt to check it out, though. You can always do a trial run of the course (as long as its not along a major road ordinarily dangerous for runners…like the Ugly Sweater) and at the very least, you can get a sense for where the course goes, how hilly it is, and how easy it is to know where you’re going.

I will say that last year’s course at the Ugly Sweater was a little misleading since I hadn’t memorized all the turns. I thought I was running up my last hill and on to finish line glory, so I laid on the gas all the way up the hill. Once reaching the top, I realized, to my horror, that I had to turn and go another quarter of a mile. So find an easy course. Or make sure you actually remember the course.

If you’re going to a different city for your first race, doing your research on the course (or just the city’s geography in general) is even more important. I inadvertently ran the hardest 3.1 miles of my life when I assumed that a 5k in Omaha would be flat and easy. Don’t my mistakes – Omaha is freaking HILLY, y’all.

My last piece of advice is also a pretty obvious one – make sure you get something awesome from the race! Finishers medals are always fun, but make sure you’re going to at least get a cool t-shirt out of the run. The Ugly Sweater Run gives you an awesome beanie, plus had a Sam Adams-sponsored after party that entitled you to two free post-run beers.

Yep, that's Warren Buffett in a track suit running to victory
Yep, that’s Warren Buffett in a track suit running to victory

So when you’re looking for your first race, make sure you find a fun-loving, awesome prize-giving hell of a good time! Make your first race a party – crossing the finish line is all the more sweet when you’re running through fake snow and a giant inflatable igloo.

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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