On Christmas Eve morning, we laced up our Nikes and headed to the starting line of the Chiang Mai Marathon in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was our second marathon of this trip and our seventh ever. The race was definitely more of a cultural experience than it was a quality marathon, so having a good race in Chiang Mai was all about setting the right expectations.
My expectations for this race were low, given the $20 price tag and photos I’d seen of the race online. I needed to treat this race as a training run and the best way to get me to get a solid long run in before the Tokyo Marathon in February. You see, we ran the Budapest Marathon in October and then I didn’t go for a single run after that until Chiang Mai, so I really needed to get some miles in.
The Chiang Mai Marathon did just that, and for that reason, it was a fine race for me. But if you’re considering running the race in the future, there are some things you should know. In this post we’ll cover the full experience of the Chiang Mai Marathon.
This race is an absolute steal (although you do get what you pay for). Registration cost a measly $20 USD. For comparison, registration for the Chicago Marathon this year set us back $185 USD.
You actually get a decent amount for the money, too. The registration included a singlet, draw-string bag, chip-timed race, medal, finisher shirt and post-race Thai food (which sadly wasn’t vegetarian).
What it lacks, though, is substantial aid stations and sufficient street closures. More on that in a bit.
Packet pick-up is conveniently located at Thapar Gate (east gate to the Old City) and was open for two days before the race (12/22 – 12/23 from 10 AM – 6 PM). You can also pick up your bib on race morning, but with the early start, that is not your best option. The process was pretty straight forward and there was no line when we went on 12/23 around noon.
You will have to validate your bib at packet pickup, which is something we’ve never had to do before. Bring your bib to the validation table and scan it on their sensors. Your name and information will pop up and you just have to confirm it’s correct. There are people watching the exit to make sure you don’t miss this step, which we almost did.
Once you get to Chiang Mai, you’ll quickly see that it’s not that big. There’s not a lot of sights to see, and the main landmark is the city walls that enclose the Old City. So you will also quickly realize that the course is not going to be very exciting.
The course starts by taking you around the full square of the Old City walls and then is basically just an out and back, with a few spokes to tack on distance. A majority of the course is along a highway through the countryside where you’ll pass by some local restaurants, a few neighborhoods and lots of roosters.
The best thing for this midwestern runner is that the course almost entirely flat, and I mean that. I know flat, and I don’t appreciate when people say “mostly flat” and I still find myself running up hills. This course is actually flat. There is only one small hill on the course around the 29K mark as you loop past Royal Park Rajapruek.
An Early Start
The race begins early at a dizzying 4 AM. This was a stark difference from the Budapest Marathon which didn’t start until 9:30 AM, but we’ve run plenty of RunDisney events which also start well before sunrise so this wasn’t exactly a dealbreaker for us.
There’s no formal corrals so there’s no reason to get there too much before 3:45 unless you’re checking gear. When we arrived at the starting area at 3:40, the line to check gear was pretty long and looked to take about 15 minutes to get through.
Pro tip: Plan to stay in the Old City or near the east gate. This way, you can easily retrieve anything you need from your hotel/guesthouse after the race instead of using gear check.
I quickly realized how much I loved the early start because we were well past the halfway point before the sun even started to rise. The temperatures were relatively cool, around 65°F all the way up until about 7:30 AM and then got up into the 70s throughout the end of the race. Starting much later would have lead to a pretty hot and miserable race day.
Another unexpected treat from an early start time for a non-Disney race is that you get to catch the late-night party crowd still coming home from the bars. We passed a couple groups of drunk people who were as amused to be stumbling across a marathon as we were to be crossing paths with them.
Running in Traffic
From the start, we could tell that this course was not going to be runners only. As we ran around the Old City, there were cones along the middle of the street and cars were allowed to drive in the opposite lane. Since there were few cars that early and so many runners crowded together at that point in the race, runners spilled out to mostly fill both lanes of the street. That was as close to full street closures as this race got.
Throughout the course, mostly along the highway portion, runners were in one lane (or on the shoulder or sometimes sidewalk) and cars were flying by in the other, although, it was not uncommon for cars to drive in the runners’ lane while trying to make turns or pass other cars.
There was often a line of cones down the middle of the road to separate the runners from the cars, but it wasn’t always clear which side runners should be on and which side cars should be on. Specifically near the 16K mark, there were runners and drivers on both sides of the cones and no one seemed to know where either was supposed to be.
The course also had runners crossing over lanes of traffic at several points. These crossings were monitored by traffic police but barely seemed to favor runners. At several intersections, we had to stop and wait for cars to pass by.
The worst part by far was as we closed in on the Old City again near the end of our race. By the time we got back toward the city, it was about 9AM and the streets were filled with traffic, pedestrians and street vendors. There was absolutely no formal road closures here for about 2K.
There were cones lining a few feet of the street for runners, but these were mostly ignored by motorbikes and tuktuks. There were no crossing guards in this section and we mostly just had to cross streets with lights and hope that people gave us some leeway and let us run through so we didn’t lose too much time. This was pretty rough, but fortunately gave way to a more protected route for the last 2K.
There were very few spectators watching the race; as in I remember about three. I didn’t see a single sign or person watching the race who wasn’t working at it or running it. There was one cop on the course who was cheering people on at his traffic crossing and a couple runners who’d already finished who were cheering on runners near the finish line. Other than that, no one seemed to care that this marathon was happening.
Aid & Medical Stations
The aid stations weren’t great. There were 15 waters stations, only a few of which offered a sports drink as well. The sports drink was carbonated and served with ice, both of which made it really hard to consume. Two aid stations had watermelon and what looked like a meat jerky, but that was it for refreshments.
The aid stations were also weirdly spaced, leaving long gaps in much needed parts of the race. We brought candy with us for fuel which was absolutely necessary for us. The payoff for the weak aid stations is that you actually run past a lot of 7-Elevens, so you can pick up drinks or fuel if needed along the course. Bringing cash is a good idea.
There wasn’t any formal medical stations along the course. There were some bike medics riding along the course, and a few points throughout where volunteers were spraying an Icy-Hot type muscle reliever. Kenny tried it on his IT band and said it worked as well as that type of thing usually works.
There were many u-turns along the course which technically would allow cheaters to relatively easily cut the course. Why anyone would bother running a marathon but then cheat out a couple miles is beyond me, but I understand the need for precaution. At each U-turn, you were handed a different colored band to show you passed through the farthest point. You could easily keep it on your wrist or in your hair.
It did look like they casually checked for these before giving you your medal, but it didn’t seem too strict. It’s likely most important for the race winners, which we were not.
I was actually surprised that this race had pacers, given how small it was (about 1,500 finishers). There were pacers for finish times every 30 minutes, I think ranging from 3 or 3:30 up til 5:30. There were about 4-5 pacers for each pace group, marked by balloons with their target finish time.
The pacers all started the race together at the front before any of the runners started. Runners then had to catch the pace group to run with them. I had never seen it done this way, but it worked fine for this size of race. I’m not sure how exact the times were though, given the pacers and runners didn’t start at the same time. We didn’t run with a pace group.
This race wasn’t the best race I’d ever run, but for $20, I honestly can’t complain. I didn’t expect a lot coming into it this race and had planned to treat it like a training run for the Tokyo Marathon which is exactly what I did.
If you’re looking for an international race with a great course, lots of spectators and great aid stations, run Berlin (my favorite international race to day, which we ran in 2016). But if you’re looking for a cultural running experience and a good way to fit in some mileage while you’re in Thailand, Chiang Mai is a perfectly fine option. Plus, it’s just a great excuse to go to Thailand, so if this is what it takes to get you there, you should absolutely do it because Thailand is amazing.
Have you run the Chiang Mai Marathon? What were your thoughts?