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What is a Marathon Relay Race?

Marathons are often held up as the ultimate goal for runners - the thing you should be aiming towards each time you lace up your running shoes. 

However, not everyone wants to (or is physically able to) run a full marathon. Besides, there’s a massive time competent to consider as well. On average, marathon training schedules range from 16 to 20 weeks. That’s 4 to 5 months of rigorous training that not everybody can fit into their daily lives. 

Today, we wanted to let you into a little secret: you can enjoy the rewarding, competitive challenge of marathon running on a smaller scale without having to set aside months for regular training. This marathon method also has the added advantage of promoting team spirit. 

In this article, we will be explaining what exactly a marathon relay is and delving into the different types of marathon relay races you can sign up for. We’ll also provide a brief history of the marathon relay and a step-by-step guide to getting started in relay marathon running.

Ready? Set. Let’s go! 

What is a Marathon Relay Race

The History of the Marathon Relay

The relay race has been a staple of competitive running events since the days of Ancient Greece. 

Initially introduced as a religious ritual in honor of the goddess Hestia, the relay race quickly evolved into a team sport where runners would pass a flaming torch to one another in an effort to complete the race first. This traditional sport was known as the Lampadedromia, and the total distance came to about 2.5 kilometers. 

In late 18th-century America, relay racing surged in popularity. 1883 saw the organization of competitive relay races using flags instead of the traditional torch. In 1893, the flags were replaced by batons.

Eventually, in 1936, the relay race was integrated into the Olympic Games. The occasion was marked by thousands of runners who transported the Olympic Torch over 3,000 kilometers in 12 days. 

Due to its staggering length, the first Olympic relay could also be considered the first marathon relay. 

Since its inception, marathon relay racing has become more common. There are marathon relay events open for signups all over the U.S. But how exactly does a marathon relay work?

How do Marathon Relays Work? 

Put simply, a marathon relay involves a team of runners splitting the distance of a typical marathon into several ‘legs.’ 

Each team member is responsible for running 1 leg of the race as quickly as possible so that the team, as a whole, can cover the marathon distance (26.2 miles) in the fastest time. 

A single baton is provided per team, and the idea is for each runner, on finishing their leg, to pass the baton forward to the next team member. That runner then carries the baton to the next runner, and so on, until the marathon has been completed. 

Seems pretty simple, right? Well, it’s actually a little trickier than it sounds because of the distance rules carried over from traditional relay racing. 

You see, to keep things fair, certain distance regulations have to be imposed on the baton-passing front. These rules are essential because they ensure that each runner fully completes their designated leg. 

There are 2 critical distances to memorize before entering into a marathon relay: 10 meters and 20 meters. Each of these distances represents a ‘zone’ in the baton passing area. The ‘acceleration zone’ is 10 meters long. This is how far the follow-up runner is allowed to run before the baton is passed to them by the current runner.

But here’s the catch: the baton can’t be passed within the acceleration zone. Instead, the baton needs to be transferred from one runner to the next inside the ‘exchange zone,’ which is 20 meters long and immediately follows the acceleration zone. 

And distances aren’t all your team will need to think about. There’s also a specific method in place for passing the baton. In normal relay races, players can be disqualified for passing the baton incorrectly or dropping the baton.

Disqualifications generally don’t happen for dropping the baton in marathon relays, but doing so can significantly slow your team down and cost you the race.

To pass the baton effectively, the runner receiving the baton should be ready with their hand outstretched high behind them and an open palm.

The receiver should reach out their hand as they start running in the acceleration zone to save time, but the runner currently holding the baton must take care not to pass it until both runners are in the exchange zone. 

Passing the baton can be done overhand or underhand. There are claims to superiority for both methods, but ultimately, the method you use will either be dictated by the event or determined by the preferences of your team.

When passing underhand, the receiver should angle their palm towards the floor, and the current runner will swing the baton upwards into their hand. For an overhand pass, the receiving palm should be turned upwards, and the baton will need to come down from above. 

This probably all sounds a bit overwhelming, but once you’ve got some practice in, you’ll be nailing silky smooth baton transitions in no time!

Marathon Relay Lengths 

All standard marathon relays will cover a distance of 26.2 miles in total. There are some less intensive alternatives to this; for example, you could enter a half marathon relay to ease yourself in extra gently. 

On the other hand, if you’re itching for a challenge, you could dive straight in at the deep end with one of the 200-mile Ragnar relays hosted in 25 US States as well as Europe and the UK. 

If you sign up for a marathon relay, though, you should expect to run 26.2 miles between your team members. The fewer runners you have on your team, the more distance each team member will need to cover. 

In a 2-person relay, both team members will be running approximately 13 miles, although the split tends to be slightly shorter on the first leg and slightly longer on the second leg. So, the first runner can expect to run just under 13 miles, while the second runner will run just under 13 miles. 

In 3-leg relay marathons, leg distances tend to be split a little more unevenly, with the first 2 runners taking on the first 20 miles between them and the final runner picking up the remaining 6 or so miles. 

4-leg marathon relays typically divide legs into distances of just under 5 to over 9 miles. 5-leg events usually range from 4 to 6.5 miles per runner, and 6-leg races tend to allocate between 3 and 5 miles to the first 5 runners and around 6 miles to the last runner. 

Leg distances are liable to vary between marathon relay events, so make sure you check the individual race specifications of the event you’re thinking of entering to make sure everyone on your team has a designated distance that they’re comfortable with. 

A Guide to Getting Started 

So, you’ve read what we’ve had to say so far about marathon relays, and it sounds right up your street. Awesome!

But now you’re wondering how to get started. Well, don’t worry, because we’re about to cover that, too! 

Step 1: Build your Team

It goes without saying that if you want to participate in a marathon relay, you’re going to need a team.

Of course, you want a team of good runners to increase your chances of placing well in the race. But the wonderful thing about marathon relay racing is that, unlike a 1-person marathon, your ideal fitness level doesn’t need to be quite so high. 

A relay marathon is a great way to get yourself and others who fancy a challenge involved in a fun, lower-stakes race that doesn’t require peak physical fitness. You could ask your friends, coworkers, gym buddies, sports team members, or even your uncle Jerry who ran a half marathon in 1982 and hasn’t stopped talking about it since!

It’s an excellent opportunity to test your fitness and physical endurance while bonding with your teammates, having a good time, and creating long-lasting memories. 

You’ll want to have between 2 and 6 members in your team, although we recommend aiming for at least 4. Most marathon relays will either be co-ed or include co-ed divisions alongside exclusive male and female relays, so no matter what kind of gender balance you have in your team, you should be able to find a suitable race. 

Step 2: Choose your Marathon Relay

The next step is to choose a marathon relay event to sign up for. You could do this step first if you want, and many experts recommend it as the initial step. 

However, we feel that choosing your race around your team members instead of the other way around is the best way to maximize your chances of both succeeding and having fun. It also means you won’t find yourself signing up for a race only to find you can’t convince anyone else to join. 

Get your team members together and find a race in or close to the area. Of course, if you feel like turning your marathon relay into a vacation opportunity, you could sign up for an event out of state or even outside of the U.S.

Alternatively, you could always bring runners in from elsewhere if you have any long-distance friends or family who’d be up for it. 

When choosing the ideal marathon relay for your team, make sure to take everyone’s needs into account. Consider the time of year, location, travel arrangements, other commitments, leg distances, and entry fees. 

Step 3: Sign Up

Once you’ve settled on a marathon relay event that works for your team, it’s time to sign up! 

The amount of detail you’ll need to provide about your team will vary from event to event, but you should be prepared to provide some key information. This may include names, dates of birth, and any relevant medical history. 

At this stage, you may need to pay the event’s entry fee (if applicable). If you’re entering as part of a charity, this is something you’ll likely need to specify when signing up.

You may need to register your team under a specific charity category, so make sure you check all of the sign-up options beforehand and understand how to navigate the event website. 

Please make sure to read all of the event’s terms and conditions carefully. We know it’s so tempting just to skim over the small print, but the event agreement is likely to outline some important rules as well as grounds for disqualification.

If you don’t take the time to read and understand these terms, your team might show up on the day of the marathon and be unable to compete due to an unwitting regulation breach. 

Step 4: Divide up the Legs

You might already have discussed legs amongst your team, but once your place on your desired event has been confirmed and finalized, you can get properly started on planning your race. 

The first stage of marathon relay prep is deciding which team member will run each leg of the race. This is a strategic task, and if you want to place as high on the leaderboard as you can, it’s essential to select the right runners for each leg. 

Firstly, it’s a good idea to separate your long-distance runners from those who favor short distances. This way, you can easily decide who should take the longer legs. 

To set yourselves up for success, your team should try to start as strong as possible. A fast first leg is a great way to get ahead for the rest of the race, so we recommend assigning the first leg to one of your strongest runners. 

Your final leg should be completed by a strong runner who is able to perform well under pressure.

The last runner may end up being responsible for regaining a lost head start in the final few seconds or holding off another team’s last runner until the finish line, so you want someone who will rise to the challenge and give it their all when it matters. 

Step 5: Train

Now that you’ve got the admin sorted, it’s time to prepare for the big event! 

Of course, it’s helpful for all team members to train as much as they can individually. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment - going running a couple of times a week and staying active should suffice.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to have to run more than a half marathon; the longest relay marathon legs are usually a little over 10 miles. 

The whole team should, if possible, meet up together now and again to train. You could do this in a park, stadium, athletics track - anywhere convenient and available.

This will help everyone get the hang of passing the baton, and it will also help you get a sense of who runs best in which position. You’ll also be able to track and improve on your average speed as a team this way. 

Most of all, though, this is the time to get excited! Your first relay marathon is likely to be one of the most rewarding bonding experiences of your life, so enjoy, and good luck!


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