Our first family 5K, in our hometown.

I’m sure the fact that the event takes place in summer, during a well-known and longstanding festival, plays a big role in my revelation this weekend that smaller, hometown races are just so much fun. I mean, who doesn’t love running the last stretch of a race to happy, encouraging shouts and applause from people lined up on the streets? These spectators are there to nab a choice seat for the big parade later in the morning and watch the runners from both the 5K and 15K push through to the finish line. That’s just cool.

But it’s more than just the fun atmosphere of the National Cherry Festival that reminded me why I love running races in smaller cities, particularly my hometown of Traverse City, but really, any small town. The experience yesterday of running the Festival of Races 5K with Joe and our kids got me excited to do more races in our area–and hopefully beyond. We’re planning a camping trip to the U.P. in August and I’m now thinking why not find a 5K to add in?

Joe & Andrew, about halfway through the 5K. We all started out together, but these two were feeling it and kept a strong pace throughout. Emma found friends and ran ahead--she smoked us! :) -- and Alex and I found our own comfortable pace of running and walking. He loved the aid stations, though he couldn't believe we could throw our cups on the ground. "That's littering, Mom."

When you run a smaller race, there are definite perks:

Easier parking. The Festival of Races start in a parking lot at our community college, near the track of one of our high schools. It’s a popular starting point for races around here; the Bayshore races also get going here. We live about a 10-minute drive away, so it was simple enough to pile everyone into the van and head down. We knew we’d find a spot in one of the nearby parking lots, which is a great feeling. I know lots of runners, even non-locals who are staying at nearby hotels, who walk or bike to the start line.

Running friends are everywhere. This is especially true in your hometown–you’re bound to see people you know, whether you currently live there or are back home for a visit–and I think there’s just an especially low-key, fun feeling attached to small-town races. Families are everywhere. High school track and cross-country teams are using the race as part of their summer training. Who knows, maybe the visitors on vacation (our area’s population swells with tourists come summer) add to the laid-back vibe. It’s not that some people aren’t there to run a great race and strive for a PR–there’s definitely lots who do, which is awesome and that’s been me a couple of years at the 15K–but there’s also so many people just out to have a good time with family and friends. And you can feel it.

You’re famous! (For a moment anyway) When my 6-year-old, Alex, and I crossed the finish line together, the announcer (a familiar voice given he served as athletic director and game announcer during my high school days) said Alex’s full name and age. What a memory for Alex, who for the first time wasn’t on the sidelines cheering on Mommy during a race, but actually running one of his own.

Post-race happiness & silliness.

I wouldn’t trade my experiences racing in big cities for anything — San Francisco and Boston were absolutely amazing places to explore, especially by foot, and though smaller, Eugene, Ore. is a must-run city in my book given its running history, and  Boulder, Co. is stunning in its scenery. But keeping it simple and closer to home is magical in its own ways. And though I’ve run a fair number of races in northern Michigan, I’m dreaming about ramping up my Michigan race schedule. I’d love to explore our beautiful state through running, especially with my family. We’re contemplating a Labor Day 5K trail run in our area, and I’ve got my sights on a new 5-mile race–the Dune Dash–next month. And come October, I’ll be running the inaugural Lighthouse Half on Old Mission Peninsula.

What’s your favorite Michigan race?

What do you like most about small-town races?


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