I Ran a Marathon on a Shoestring Budget—and You Can Too

Here’s everything I bought (and a few things I skipped) to train for and run my first marathon.

by Kelley MacDonald
Oct 9 2018, 4:40pm

Illustration by Daniel Zender

In 2016, I was an excited first-time marathoner ready to run the historic New York City marathon after five months of training. I started running after college as a way to stay active and de-stress, but it wasn’t until two years ago when my friend Ella raved about how exhilarating it is to run through all five boroughs that I decided to conquer my first 26.2-mile course.

Running had always been the least expensive sport I participated in since all I really needed was a decent pair of shoes. Compared to multiple seasons of co-ed soccer leagues costing up to $300 per season just for field dues, running was a low-budget way to stay active. But running has given me so much more too. It’s one of my favorite ways to see and explore new places, and it’s also an important part of my alone time when my mind can wander and think about anything or nothing at all.

But I quickly learned that marathons cost much more than the price of an occasional pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a long training run. When you factor in everything from extra running shoes and gear to the cost of registration and transportation, some people spend up to $5,000 per race. I didn’t spend anywhere near that much, in part because I trained on my own, used a simple foam roller to recover my sore legs, and ran in a local marathon. I’m also conscious about shopping for gear on sale and only buying what I really need.

With the 2018 NYC marathon just around the corner, you might wonder how much it costs to make it across the finish line yourself someday. And while it’s certainly not cheap, you can do it for well under $1,000—especially if you don’t have to pay for a flight to get there.

Here’s how much I spent to run the 2016 NYC Marathon:

Registration and fees: $267

This was my single biggest expense, which would have been lower if I had chosen a race in a smaller city. For example, 2019 marathon fees range from $200 in Boston to just $95 in Roanoke, Virginia.

Shoes: $170

A new pair of Brooks Launch 3s ($100) got me through about three-quarters of marathon training, and I got my second pair for 30 percent off since a new version had been released by then. I often save money on shoes by buying the previous year’s version. I always keep an eye out for running shoes on sale, and I’ve even purchased two of the same older-version pair at once.

Feeling good after finishing a half marathon a month before the big race.

Half marathon training run: $97

I ran the Rock 'n' Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon as a training run. The registration fee was $87, and my travel costs were around $10.

Running tights: $60

I’ve been running for years, so the only thing I needed to upgrade in my running wardrobe was a new pair of moisture-wicking Nike running tights, which I got at TJ Maxx. I had more than enough tops from past races, and my Bombas socks (about $10 each if you buy in bulk) and budget-friendly Coobie sports bras ($22) were in good shape. Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy are all great for discounted athletic clothes.

By the time I ran the marathon for the second time in 2017, I was totally prepared.

Hydration tablets: $42

Halfway into training, I discovered the electrolyte tablets by Nuun, and I bought them in bulk to save a little money. You can often find them on sale at Target and other local retail shops too.

Fundraising: $30

Instead of taking my chances of gaining entry to the race through the lottery, where I had less than a one in five chance of success, I joined a fundraising team and raised $4,445 for Back On My Feet, a non-profit aimed at helping people who are currently homeless. The $30 came from transaction fees I paid for the cash donations from friends and family that I added to my Crowdrise campaign.

Transportation: $25

Traveling from my apartment in Brooklyn to Staten Island on race day, along with earlier group events with my fundraising team in Manhattan, was another small cost.

Runner’s water bottle: $23

Training for a fall marathon means a lot of miles are covered with the summer sun beating down on you and hydration is key to getting through workouts. I purchased this NATHAN handheld runner’s waterbottle with a hand strap so I could drink without having to stop.

Energy chews: $23

I splurged on some organic Honey Stinger energy chews with electrolytes, which I bought in bulk. A handful of skittles or gummy bears will also give you that needed boost during long runs and races for a fraction of the price.

Cash: $20

I stashed numerous one- and five-dollar bills in my armband during long training runs for when the inevitable donut craving hit.

Sunscreen: $11

My everyday SPF did not make the cut—hello SWEAT—so a sport performance sunscreen was required.

Foam roller: $10

If you’re like me and don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on weekly messages or acupuncture or cryotherapy or whatever is the newest (read: pricey) rehab option, then $10 will get you this “Lux” foam roller that’s essential for recovery, even if you’re on a first name basis with your acupuncturist.

Bandages and neosporin: $15

When you sign up for a marathon you sign up for months of training AND months of blisters and random patches of raw skin.

Balm to prevent chafing: $10

When you run a lot—especially in hot temperatures—you can get chafed anywhere your clothes rub against your skin or there’s skin-on-skin contact (armpits!). I used Body Glide Original Anti-Chafe Balm, a deodorant-look-a-like stick, to help prevent that. If you want to go cheaper, good old Vaseline gets the job done for a quarter of the price.

Here I am wearing my $9 armband on race day.

Armband: $9

A sports armband for race day enabled me to strap my phone to my arm so I could take pictures and contact friends and family at the finish line.

Training plan: Free

I used the 18-week FIRST Marathon Training Program, which involves three running days per week plus weekly cross-training. For budget-conscious runners like me, there are tons of free online training plans available, like the popular Hal Higdon, Hansons Method, and Galloway Method.

Fitness tracker: Free

My Garmin Forerunner 10—a birthday gift from a few years earlier—would otherwise have cost around $130. (Fitbit Alta is another affordable option for around $100.) I also signed up for Strava, a free fitness tracking app and community for runners, and synced my Garmin with it. If you want to track your training at no cost, start with free apps like Strava, RunKeeper, and Map My Run, then upgrade to watches and paid trackers with advance performance metrics only if you feel like you need them.

Total Cost: $812

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