Racing in the States – Which One is the Best?

There are 50 glorious states in the US of A, and all have their gems of running.  I’ve wondered many times which state has it the best (I’ve always been jealous of Washington, seems they have a marathon every day!) in terms of not having to travel too much to run a lot.  So which state is best to call home for frequent racers, marathoners or ultra runners?  Turns out the answer is not clear cut, and it depends on what you are looking for and what types of races you run.  So, I’ve saved you the trouble and have done a deep dive into some 2015 data to give you some perspective!

Every state has its perks to running, see how your state stacks up!

Every state is unique when it comes to running, see how your state stacks up!  Wherever you are, just don’t let that bear catch you!

In order to come up with something that makes sense, I went with a data driven analysis and looked at number of races.  In searches, I found a lot of opinion based lists, but none that focused on hard data (the engineer in me needs data!!).  So after finding what I deemed to be a pretty good data source, I decided to look at things a few different ways.  First, I did the analysis looking at number of races in each state (includes everything with a running event including triathlons/duathlons and all running distances), and then focused on two categories that would be of primary interest to my readers – number or marathons and number of ultras.  I then looked at the data from the events in three different ways.  First, I looked at it purely by number – that is – which states have the most events.  Realizing this isn’t fair (a large/populous state will have more events vs. a small state), I did a second analysis which attempts to normalize the data based on population.  Lastly, you’ll see some data that looks at it based on land area – that is – normalizes the number of events against the land area of the state.  I actually found the results to be quite surprising and got some very interesting answers.  Before I go further, I’d like to ensure I site my source, which is Running in the USA (www.runningintheusa.com).  You can find the data I used here.  State population and land area estimates are all based of publicly available data.  Also, note this does not take any qualitative information into account (i.e. how scenic races are, how flat, how hilly, mountainous, how good the food is in that state, etc.).  Feel free to leave comments as to why your state might be the best by more touchy/feeley criteria.

Lastly, I’ll say one last thing.  This analysis only considers how good you have it inside of a state’s geographic borders.  It does not correct for huge differences in population density, or the fact that it takes 12 hours to drive across a state like Texas, but only 30 minutes to drive across Rhode Island.  This kind of analysis is outside of my capabilities and the data I have.  For example, if you live in Washington, you have a boatload of races in short driving distance if you live in Seattle but fewer if you live in Spokane.  Or, if you live in Texas, you can race far more frequently without a huge amount of travel if you live in Austin vs. El Paso.  Or, if you live in New England, that is like living in one state if you are from somewhere west of the Mississippi, so you can travel very effectively from state to state with pretty short drives.  I wish I could be more sophisticated and break this down to something more meaningful, but that would require more time than I could ever have.

Total Races – Purely by Number

First lets look at total races and what states take the cake here.  The top 5 are not surprising at all, given that they are states #1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 in terms of population, neither are the bottom five which are states #46, 46, 50, 40 and 48 in terms of population.

Top 5 States

State Total Races Pop Rank
California 3031
1
Texas 3003
2
Florida 2699
3
Pennsylvania 2672
6
Ohio 2264
7

Bottom 5 States

Alaska 219
48
Hawaii 185
40
Wyoming 141
50
South Dakota 138
46
North Dakota 126
47

Again, no surprises.  California and Texas are clear winners and the Dakotas take the bottom.  Hawaii is in the bottom 5 despite not being bottom 10 in population, saying that Hawaii could use a few more races!  So if you are purely looking for totals, head west young man…but not so far west that you cross half of the Pacific!

How does this look if we look at number of marathons (note this includes all types of marathons including trails).

Top 5 States

State Marathon Pop Rank
Texas 98
2
California 97
1
Washington 71
13
Florida 41
3
Colorado 38
22

Much more interesting!  Texas edges out California as number 1, and Washington and Colorado jump into the top 5, with Washington being #3 despite being 13th in population!

Bottom 5 States

Alabama 6
23
West Virginia 6
38
Wyoming 5
50
North Dakota 5
47
Rhode Island 4
43

Big shake-up here too.  Shows Alabama is severely lacking in marathons given it’s population.  Same with West Virginia.  Alaska, South Dakota and Hawaii climb out of the bottom five showing that when those states run, they run long!

So, how about ultra distances, which have just exploded over recent years?

Top 5 States

State Ultra Pop Rank
California 132
1
Texas 64
2
Washington 59
13
Florida 48
3
Colorado 41
22

Very similar to the marathon in rank standpoint, except that California just blows everyone away, more than doubling the total of 2nd place Texas.  This is no surprise since ultra running was basically born in California and has some of the more famous races (Western States, Badwater).  Washington and Colorado hang onto the #3 and #5 spot despite smaller populations, showing that those folks prefer to run long and loooonger!

Bottom 5 States

North Dakota 3
47
South Dakota 2
46
Rhode Island 2
43
Maine 1
41
Delaware 1
45

A little shake-up in the bottom as well.  The Dakotas appear, but Maine and Delaware make their 1st bottom 5 appearance.  Looks like the ultra boom hasn’t quite made it to those states.

So – If you go purely by number of races, it looks like Texas, California, Florida, Washington and Colorado are the places to live if you like the marathon distance or longer!  But are they really the best places to live?  Let’s take the analysis a step further.

Number of People per Race

As I’ve said, the 1st analysis isn’t fair because it doesn’t account for the fact that large states with more people are going to have more events.  So let us look at this a different way.  What are the opportunities for someone to run a race?  I try to answer this by looking at the number of people in the state per race (or event).  Sates with fewer people per race (or event) theoretically have more opportunities to run vs. those with more people per event.  Think of this as the per capita statistic, just upside down.  To clear up confusion, this is not how many people run a race, this is simply the population of the state divided by the number of races (or marathons or ultras).

So let us start same as above, with just races:

Top 5 States

State Total Races People/Race Pop Rank
Vermont 297
2110
49
Maine 512
2598
41
Delaware 328
2852
45
New Hampshire 459
2891
42
Alaska 219
3364
48

Whoa!  Look at that shake-up!!  Small states, especially in the northeast take the cake here.  Vermont and Maine are large surprises.  None of the large states show up here…every state is bottom 10 in population.  So what this says at despite these states not having a lot of people, they put on a lot of races for each citizen to attend.  So if you live in New England, 3/6 states have plentiful options for running!

Bottom 5 States

New York 2147
9197
4
Mississippi 320
9356
31
Arizona 675
9973
15
Nevada 281
10104
35
California 3031
12802
1

Wow here too!  California shows its true colors by dropping to #50, basically saying that California has so many races because it has so many people.  New York and Arizona are somewhat surprising as well.  In these 5 states, you have far fewer choices (per person) as in other states.

How about marathons?

Top 5 States

State Marathon People/Marathon Pop Rank
Alaska 12
61394
48
Vermont 7
89509
49
Washington 71
99458
13
Montana 10
102358
44
South Dakota 8
106647
46

Here things start to get very interesting.  Alaska takes the win here and Vermont hangs in there.  Washington is the big star, being the state with the 3rd most marathons per person even with a pretty large population, proving there is no coincidence why the Marathon Maniacs started in this state and have the largest membership there!

Bottom 5 States

Georgia 17
593961
8
New York 30
658208
4
Illinois 19
677925
5
New Jersey 13
687552
11
Alabama 6
808230
23

Some very populous states are very poorly represented here.  Three top 10 population states make the bottom 5 list, all having only 1 marathon per 500,000+ people!

And lastly, Ultras:

Top 5 States

State Ultra People/Ultra Pop Rank
Vermont 10
62656
49
Alaska 8
92092
48
Utah 28
105104
33
Idaho 15
108964
39
Oregon 36
110284
27

Neat results here too.  Vermont and Alaska swap but are your #1 and #2 states.  These people love the long distance!  Utah, Idaho and Oregon all make their first appearance in the top 5, beating out other states that are more prolific in the marathon.

Bottom 5 States

Kentucky 6
735576
26
Mississippi 4
748520
31
Louisiana 6
774946
25
Delaware 1
935614
45
Maine 1
1330089
41

Interesting to note that none of the states in the bottom 5 for marathons per person are repeated in the ultras per person category.  Maine and Delaware again show up as way behind the curve on the ultra running boom.  The deep south also shows that they don’t like to run really looooong.

So some general trends here.  The northeast has a lot of races and northern New England dominates the top 5 when looking at total number of people/race.  Things shake up a bit in the marathon/ultra category.  New England largely disappears (with the exception of Vermont) and more western states take over the focus.  Washington pops out as a “marathon capital” given it’s relatively large population, but lower people/marathon.

So, lets look at it a different way.  How geographically accessible are races/marathons/ultras?  Next we will look at number of races vs. land area.

Number of Races per Thousand Square Miles

Let’s look now at some stats on the density of races.  The theory here is that races that are close together provide easier access for people to travel to them (and thus they can race more frequently).  So, the more races per thousand square miles, the better your state.  So, here it is based on total number of races:

Top 5 States

State Total Races Races/1000 Sq Mi Land Area Rank
Massachusetts 1768
167.51
44
Rhode Island 242
156.65
50
New Jersey 1338
153.39
47
Connecticut 788
142.15
48
Delaware 328
131.79
49

Small states in the NE and mid-atlantic top the list.  No shock considering these are pretty dense states and can support a lot of races in a small area.  So, geographically you can get to a lot of races quickly in these states due to their small size.

Bottom 5 States

Montana 268
1.82
4
South Dakota 138
1.79
17
North Dakota 126
1.78
19
Wyoming 141
1.44
10
Alaska 219
0.33
1

While Alaska and Montana are no surprise being in the bottom due to large land area, the Dakotas disappoint a bit.  The reason here is because they aren’t huge states.  Pretty difficult to navigate between races in these states.

How about the marathon, any differences?

Top 5 States

State Marathon Marathons/1000 Sq Mi Land Area Rank
Delaware 8
3.21
49
Rhode Island 4
2.59
50
New Jersey 13
1.49
47
Massachusetts 15
1.42
44
Maryland 17
1.37
42

Not a lot of changes, although Maryland shows up in the top 5.

Bottom 5 States

South Dakota 8
0.10
17
North Dakota 5
0.07
19
Montana 10
0.07
4
Wyoming 5
0.05
10
Alaska 12
0.02
1

Same 5 states, just a different order, so no surprises here.

What about Ultras?

Top 5 States

State Ultra Ultras/1000 Sq Mi Land Area Rank
New Jersey 14
1.61
47
Rhode Island 2
1.29
50
Connecticut 7
1.26
48
Maryland 13
1.05
42
Massachusetts 11
1.04
44

New Jersey wins here, and Delaware disappears due to only having one ultra.  Despite only having 2 ultras, Little Rhody holds on to the number 2 spot.

Bottom 5 States

Montana 7
0.05
4
North Dakota 3
0.04
19
Maine 1
0.03
39
South Dakota 2
0.03
17
Alaska 8
0.01
1

Only shake-up is to have Maine slide into the bottom 5.  With only 1 ultra, it is hard to compete with other states.

In summary, this analysis can be unfair to large states, but as you see with ultras a pretty small state (Maine) can be in the bottom 5 if it doesn’t have a lot of races.  In reality, the only unfair one is probably Alaska since the state is so damn big compared to every other state in the country, and most of the population is located in the southern coastal cities.  Sorry Alaska, but I don’t have time to correct for this in the analysis.

In general, we can see some interesting results when we compare the population analysis vs. the land area analysis.  States that do poorly in the population analysis tend to be states with high population and smaller land area.  This all flip-flops when you look at it based on land area (where densely populated states do very well).  This shows one weakness in this analysis, where I do not account for the size of races (again, this would be a ton of work).  One can believe that in densely populated states, they may have fewer races per person, but they probably have more participants per race than less densely populated states.  Given this analysis is more about options and determining the frequency of being able to race and the accessibility of races, I’m going to let this slide.

The Bottom Line

So how do we sort out this jumble above?  Well, I came up with a scoring system to determine which states are the best for racing (any distance), which states are best for marathons, and which states are best for ultras.  The scoring system is simple.  For each of the categories summarized above, I gave the state points based on where it ranked (with the exception of the 1st category looking at total number of races).  The state in 1st place took 50 points, the state in last place got 1 point.  I did this for each of the six categories above (People/Race, People/Marathon, People/Ultra, Races/1,000 sq mi, Marathons/1,000 sq mi, and Ultras/1,000 sq mi).  To do well, you would have a combination of the fewest number of people per race (more options/availability), and a high number of races per square mile (geographic accesibility/ease of travel).  So how does this all shake out?

Top and Bottom 5 States for Racing (Based on Races of Any Distance)

If you don’t care about distance, the states that win the race category are Massachusetts (95 points, having the 6th fewest people per race for 45 points, and the most races per 1000 square miles for 50 points).  Delaware was a close number 2 with 94 points.  New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont rounded out the top 5 with 89, 89 and 85 points respectively.  Go New England!!

The bottom states were Oklahoma (17 points), New Mexico (16 points), Mississippi (16 points), Arizona (13 points) and Nevada (9 points).

Top and Bottom 5 States for Marathons

No surprise here that Washington is #1, with 92 points.  Despite being a pretty large state with a pretty large population, with 71 marathons it offers a great combination of accessibility and availability (3rd in People/Marathon, 7th in Marathons/1,000 sq mi).  It is followed by Delaware and Vermont with 91 points each, New Hampshire with 81 points, and Rhode Island with 78 points.

The bottom states are Arizona (26 points), Missouri (24 points), Iowa (20 points), Louisiana (20 points) and Alabama (7 points).

Top and Bottom 5 States for Ultras

Vermont takes the cake for ultra distances, scoring 95 points.  It ranks 1st in having the fewest number of people/ultra and 6th in the most ultras per 1,000 square miles.  Washington is 2nd with 88 points, followed by Virginia, Oregon and New Hampshire (77, 75 and 74 points respectively).

The worst states for ultras are South Dakota (20 points), Kentucky (19 points), Mississippi (13 points), Louisiana (13 points) and Maine (4 points).

Comments and Final Thoughts

I’ve long wanted to do something like this to paint a picture of the state of running (specifically marathons/ultras) in each state.  While the analysis may not be perfect, some of the data supports long standing believes that I’ve had (like that Washington is the best state to live in if you are a frequent marathoner).  If you have comments, or thoughts that would help make this analysis better, I am very open to them!  I plan on tracking this data each year going forward to see how the picture changes from year to year.  Lastly, you can see all my data and the point scoring at the file linked here.  If you want to see how your state fares, just take a look and use the pivot table feature to sort.  The points tallies are located on the far right of the sheet if you want to sort by points.  So, which state is actually the best??  I’ve given you the data view, but we all know it isn’t just about date, so let the debate begin!

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2 comments

  1. 50in50marathonquest

    What a great analysis!! This is the kind of article I would expect in the awesome, but soon to be discontinued, Marathon & Beyond magazine. Super interesting and enjoyed walking through your weighting scheme. I’m fortunate that I live just north of Seattle – in one your best represented states. I can attest to the great selection of races and courses available in this region. The challenge for me however is that my goal is to run a marathon in every state, hence my blog title, so while living in WA is great, it also means a serious amount of traveling to get to all the other states and we rack up far more air miles than someone located more centrally!! Again, congrats on a super article…Cheers!

    Like

    • booch82

      Thanks, was very interesting to look at! In the end, I’m very happy with living in Texas as a frequent racer. There are lots of options in the Houston area and I can be within a 4 hour drive of a marathon or ultra on almost any given weekend!

      Like

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