The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Runner: Running ALL THE RACES on a Budget


If you’re going to be a terrible, occasionally hungover, inconveniently sick, low-gear, slow but enthusiastic runner, you should at least have the benefit of being rich to even those deficits out. Unfortunately, rich I am not. I greeted the New Year with $211 after six months of unemployment and $537.00 in mandatory bar dues, but damn if I didn’t spend ninety of those dollars on a tiny race I’ve been dying to run since before I ever moved to Oregon.

This one, objectively poor budget decision aside, I do actually consider myself something of a financial ninja. In 2012, I managed to pay off 45% of $65,000 in student loans, all while being a featured athlete in the Arkansas Lawyer for running six half marathons, a marathon, and a 10k in six states in seven months. How did I pay for all that travel, those loans, and my race entry fees? I ate oatmeal every morning and had peanut butter sandwiches for lunch almost five days a week. I know poor– I grew up in subsidized housing on food stamps with a single mom and two younger siblings. Of course, as Evelyn Tooley Hunt said, my mother taught me purple, and I’ve used the financial skills, thriftiness, and make-do/can-do attitude she taught me to succeed and prevail despite that rocky start. Here is my semi-comprehensive list of nine ways you too can RUN ALL THE RACES despite low funds or higher priorities in your 2014 budget.

  1. Roommates. My old boss used to joke that I had five or thirty roommates. I actually only had two, and our house was fairly large by my minimalist standards. Rent was just a magical $250.00/month each because we lived in a neighborhood one tier down from the neighborhood I actually wanted to live in. This freed up hundreds of dollars per month for travel and race fees, all while paying down my student loans.
  2. Plan ahead. 2014 is still hot off the presses, but if you’re just reading this now and you haven’t come up with a list of and paid for the races you’re going to run this year, you’re already late. When running ten, twenty, or more races per year, procrastination devastates your budget. Sign up for a race the day it opens, because it will never be cheaper than that brief introductory period. Happy Girls Forest Grove is an excellent example of the huge price hikes a race can experience over time: it starts at $55, jumps to $75, then $85, then an astounding $100. Likewise, if you wait to sign up for the Portland Half at $125, you may find yourself paying $250 for a charity entry. Don’t forget– don’t delay– commit on day one. BONUS POINTS: early sign up means that you get to be one of the cool kids at the race with a low number on your bib.

  3. Subscribe & Save. Way back in the day, races were funded not by race entry fees but by club fees. You would join a club, and get to run all the races hosted by that club for free or at a nominal price. That old school vibe is still alive with organizations like Clark County Running Club or Columbia Gorge Running Club, where a $10 annual membership gets you a series of free races. In a modern twist on that theme, there are also series you can subscribe to like the wildly popular ORRC 10k Series. For $90 (member price)– the price of two or three 10ks– you can subscribe to a series of six great 10ks spread out over the year. Attend them all or just three, and you’re still saving money.
  4. Carpool. If you can’t drive to your race, then it is too far away to be racing on a budget– end of story. When I first started racing, I was an unemployed lawyer waiting tables at a dim sum restaurant. My friend Scott and I carpooled to races together, driving hours and hours after work on Fridays to reach races in Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas. I remember one particular race I was convinced that the straight winds across the Mid-West plains were going to rip his boxcar Jeep in half, but I wouldn’t trade those two hours of terror for the money I saved, even today. NOTE: This tactic obviously involves belligerently harassing your friends into attending races with you
  5. The Gear Trap. You could easily spend hundreds of dollars per year on running gear, costumes, fuel, recovery tools, and more. Don’t. Sometimes I think I need more gear, and then I look back at how I made do when I had less money. In 2009, I entered multiple metric century bike rides and even completed a century (100-mile) bike ride on a thirty-two pound commuter bicycle. I wore the same bike jersey and shorts for every single training ride and race, and just washed it a couple times a week. Look at it this way: do you really need that $50 tech tee when you get dozens for free with race entries, or $120 for that Nike jacket when that same $120 could buy you two races? Given that choice, I’ll take the race any day of the week.

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  6. DIY Food. Have you ever been on a train going somewhere far away, and the little old woman beside you pulls out a complete, succulent lunch that no doubt exactly meets all her food preferences and dietary restrictions (and is tasty, to boot)? That old lady is killer smart, and you can be, too. When traveling to races, you may find yourself barely able to remember to pack all your clothes and toiletries. Stop for a second– and also pack an insulated container of the foods you love so you can save money by not eating at some greasy dive while in transit or at 10:30 pm when you finally get to your hotel and pizza delivery is your only, desperate option. Do this, and you’ll also have the foods or snacks you prefer waiting for you at the hotel or car when you finally find yourself hungry after a race. Save money, time, and save yourself from the Hangry Thunderdome.
  7. Go the Distance. When you have to travel to a race, there are several budget-friendly options. If you’re a morning person and the race is less than two hours away, you can head down that same morning, saving yourself the money for a hotel. If your race is farther away and/or race day packet pickup isn’t allowed, there are still several ways you can save a ton of money on your race night sleep pad. First, travel with friends (see #4 above) to split the cost of a room. Check Groupon, Travelocity, and Expedia for local deals or sales, at least two if not four or so months in advance (be prepared: 1. watch for blackout days and 2. the higher the savings, the further away you probably are from the start line). Even if you screw up and forget to book a hotel until the last minute and the only thing available is the Penthouse at the Ritz Carlton, there are still options.  Stay with friends or family. Cash in on a favor from a friend of a friend. Or if you’re a more private person like me, try AirBnB who offers full apartments and private rooms, treehouses and houseboats in 192 countries. The AirBnB that I booked for my San Francisco race was a quarter the price the downtown hotels were asking, and my host even sent me a Christmas card two months later. BONUS POINTS: My affordable, private suite was also decently close to the finish line. 

    Image Credit: The Oatmeal

    Image Credit: The Oatmeal

  8. Or don’t. Let’s say you’re not a morning person, and you really need to stay near the start line because you know being close means the difference between making it or not making it to the race. There’s still plenty you can do to save money in advance of the race from the comfort of your home computer.  “Like” various race pages on Facebook– there are often great coupon codes and price hike warnings year round from races’ Facebook pages, in addition to just general motivation and inspiration. Similarly, “liking” Run Oregon on Facebook and following the blog is a sure fire way to stay abreast of the same information, without having to like dozens of pages.
  9. Volunteer. Even if you can’t run it, whether that be due to cost, injury, or readiness, get out there and volunteer with your local races– that’s always free. Four years ago, I decided to volunteer at the Little Rock Marathon for three days, putting packets together, making goodie bags for elites, taking empty dishes away from fancy people at the VIP party, and finally handing out medals at the 5k and marathon. I never thought I would be a runner, but seeing the look of gratitude, exhaustion, and pure joy on the finisher’s faces– some of whom were my friends– inspired me to start running and finish my first half marathon that same year.  BONUS POINTS: Because, Karma. DOUBLE BONUS POINTS: Sometimes being nice pays off. Bald Peak Half Marathon recently offered their Facebook users half-off registration to those who volunteered at Cause + Event; Energy Events has a standing offer that any two volunteer shifts of at least four hours lets you register for your next race FREE (15k or less);  Rainshadow Running lets you volunteer ahead of time, bring a volunteer with you to the race, or attend a Trailwork Party to get a FREE entry for the race of your choice;  Level 32 Racing and Pink Buffalo Racing offer “chips” in $20 increments each time you volunteer, which you can put towards your race entry fee; and ORRC gives $5 “ORRC Bucks” for volunteers that can be applied toward entry fees for ORRC races. (h/t Geli Heidelberger, Joe Dudman, & Jessica Cross Mumme for this intel!). All of these volunteer opportunities are a great way to have fun, be inspired, and give back to the running community at the same time. 

Did we forget anything? Share your ways to save money on racing in the comments on Facebook.