How Do Marathon Relays Work?


While runners are passionate about running, not every runner wants to run a marathon!

Some runners may just be beginning their running journey and aren’t at the point where they can run a full marathon. Others just simply might not take an interest in committing to the distance and the training time.

But if you want to experience the excitement and camaraderie of a marathon – without training for and actually running the full distance – marathon relays might be your best bet.

What is a Marathon Relay?

Marathon relays are a simple concept. Just like a relay race in track and field, a team of runners shares the distance. Rather than running together, they take turns, running one at a time.

This means that the team works together to get a good time. The total of the distances covered by all team members adds up to the same distance of a full marathon. In fact, you’ll be running the same course at the same time as other individuals and teams.

The first team member begins the race at the starting line, and when they reach their teammate, they’ll pass over the bracelet or timing chip in the shape of a baton or bib.

Each runner has to pass this on, until the last teammate crosses the finish line. But the relay baton has to be in-hand for the team’s marathon relay time to qualify.

Not all marathons offer a relay event – especially larger ones. Marathon relays are more common in smaller to medium-sized events. They are run at the same time, or side-by-side with the regular marathon.

Why Should You Sign Up for a Relay?

If you’ve been considering marathon running but you’re not entirely sure whether you want to run marathon distances, then running a relay will be a good way to get a taste of what running a full marathon really entails. There’s a lot of excitement and electricity in the atmosphere of even a small running event. They’re fun. But a marathon is also a big time commitment – especially in training. Not everyone has the time for that.

If you’ve just started running and you’re not ready to do a full marathon on your own, you’ll still get the feeling of running the race. This will help keep you motivated. In the longer term, it might motivate you to run a full marathon.

One of the biggest benefits of relay marathons is that you’re not alone! You have team members that you can train with, and this can help to improve your overall running performance. You may even find that after the race, you still have a running buddy who can help you achieve other running goals.

Marathon relays are run with a minimum of two and a maximum of eight runners in a team, depending on the race.

For the whole team to succeed and achieve a good running time, there needs to be clear and good communication among the team members. The team members often develop strong relationships and have fun while training and running the relay.

Following the Process Step-by-Step to Sign Up

More than 150 relay marathons take place every year. And while you may be eager to start running, there are a few steps to signing up.

Create a Team

The first step is to create your relay team. Then, select a team captain who will be responsible for organizing everything.

Get creative with where you find your team members. Your local running club is an obvious choice. But ask around your office, too. If you are active in other organizations, such as a church, there are likely others who could join your team. If you have kids, ask other parents at school.

Teams are usually co-ed, and there’s no age restriction, which means you can get your younger sibling to participate. You’d want to make sure that you have some back-up runners, as there’s always a chance of a team member pulling out of the relay at the last minute.

It’s important to check the team categories when you sign up for the relay, as they can differ.

Some relay marathons will set up ways for strangers to join a team that’s short on runners, too. Or, they can create a team of their own on the day. But not all relay races do this, so find out whether the option is available before you arrive for the race day.

Sign Up After All Runners Are Confirmed

Once you’ve found your team members and every one of them has confirmed that they’ll be running the relay, you can sign up for the race.

Don’t have a specific race in mind? Have a look at websites like ahotu Marathons that lists upcoming races.

This will allow you and the team to choose a race on a day where everyone will be available. While you’re looking at the race, make sure to check the distance and number of legs of the race. Not every relay out there is a marathon.

You may find that there’s a race that’s longer or shorter than a marathon that’s offering relay options. This could be a great opportunity to run as a team before taking on a full marathon relay.

You’ll also be able to see if there’s a race in your region. Maybe your team wants to stay local, or maybe they want to make it a destination race. When looking at a weekend away, check and see if the relays offer camping or hotel options. Often, race participants can get discounted deals on lodging from race sponsors.

Gather Everyone (once registered) Virtually or In Person

Now that you’ve signed up for the race, it’s time to do some team building. Get everyone together so that they can all get to know one another. Start planning ahead for the race and decide their roles. Who is going to start? Which runner will tackle the hills in the middle of the course? Who gets to cross the finish line?

Find who the fast runners are and who would run slower. Decide as a team if the faster runners are going to run the longer legs of the race and who can support whom at which point. This needs to be flexible until you start training with each other, as changes may need to be made before race day.

Out-of-town races complicate the logistics. The team should discuss how they are getting to the location, how lodging will be arranged, and more. It’s not just a race – it’s a mini-vacation. Hotel/Airbnb deposits need to be arranged, balance payments settled, and so forth.

Once that’s been taken care of, then there’s the training schedule that needs to be created. Are you going to train as a team or individually? If you’re going to be training as a group, you’ll all have to reach an agreement on what days, times and where you’ll be meeting.

Make sure that you write down everything that’s discussed and what’s decided upon. If you want to, you can type up the notes from the meeting and email them to everyone.

Before Race Day

Communication is vital when running a relay race. You’d need to get the team together either the day before the race or the morning of the race so that everyone is briefed on what needs to happen.

You’ll need to let each team member know what time they need to be in their transition zone.

It would be better to have them ready and waiting earlier than the expected transition time, as a team member could run faster and arrive earlier than expected.

Often, transition zones are in hard to reach areas of the course. This means logistics and figure who needs to get where and when. Many relays offer shuttles to relay points, but some don’t. Figuring out where you need to be and when will save many headaches on race day.

You should also figure out where and when you are going to meet up after the race (or before if you are planning on arriving as a team).

Run and Have Fun!

There should be only two rules for a relay race. Rule number one should be don’t lose the baton/timing chip. Rule number two should be to just run and have fun.

Every team member wants to run the race and better their racing time, but there should be no expectations for anyone.

By not having any expectations, you can avoid frustration. Celebrate each team member’s victory as they complete their leg of the relay race.

Average Leg Distance for Each Runner

Distances can vary depending on the marathon and where the transition zones are. You’ll need to know your team very well and have a good understanding of what each individual can or can’t do.

If there are fewer team members than legs, then each runner will have to run more than one leg. This might require consulting with race organizers, to understand how runners will get from transition to transition.

Whatever your arrangements, make sure your runners know what to expect, distance-wise. For a marathon, here are the average distances per runner, based on team size:

  • 2 runners: 13.1 miles each
  • 3 runners: 8.73 miles each
  • 4 runner: 6.5 miles each
  • 5 runners: 5.2 miles each
  • 6 runners: 4.3 miles each
  • 7 runners: 3.7 miles each
  • 8 runners: 3.2 miles each

Common Relays Races

There’s a relay race for every type of runner. A 10k relay gives a trio a chance to run just 2 miles each. Ultramarathon relays challenge larger teams to run beyond 50km or beyond, often on trails and varying terrain.

You’ll find relay races like the Ragnar, which has a distance of roughly 200 miles, to half-marathons that have a distance of 13.1 miles.

One of the more popular, muddy, obstacle course races is Spartan. While it’s not really a relay, you still have to complete the course together as a team. With this there are always different challenges and every race course has a different distance and a variety of obstacles.

You could even look at doing a triathlon relay, where each team member completes one discipline before tagging their teammate.

Some Great (and Longer) Relay Races in the US

Texas Independence Relay, April

This relay race is almost 200 miles in distance, has 36 legs of varying length, and the race is completed overnight. But what makes it truly unique is that it’s steeped in history.

The race starts in Gonzales, where the revolution started, and finishes at the San Jacinto battleground, where Texas won its independence.

American Odyssey Relay, Washington DC, April

This relay race starts in Gettysburg, PA, and ends 200 miles later in Washington, D.C. The race is divided into 36 legs, and requires a team of 12 people, who each run three legs.

The race is designed by runners, and has a staggered start. Legs very greatly in difficulty. Some are dead flat, and others inflict 1200 feet of elevation gain on the runners. While you’re running, you need to keep a lookout for Freddy the flamingo. This is a game that’s played within the race, and if you’re lucky enough to find one of the Freddy cards on the course, take it with you, as you’ll win a prize.

Golden Gate Relay, Santa Cruz, April/May

The Golden Gate Relay has been run for the last 26 years! Teams of 12 runners cover 3 legs each, starting in Napa Valley, running through 36 cities, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Santa Cruz.

If 36 legs sound too long, you can choose to participate in a shorter relay of 30, 24, or 4 legs. You can also choose to do a virtual race if you aren’t able to travel to the destination.

What really makes this race unique is that for the last 26 years, every runner who has passed the baton on to a teammate has been a symbol for the transfer of an organ from a donor to a recipient.

The Golden Gate Relay, with Organs R Us, supports 125,000 Americans who are waiting for organ donors. This race isn’t just challenging and fun. It saves lives, too.

Top of Zion Relay, Utah, June

The Top of Zion Relay is technically the same as others. You and your team of 12 each run 3 legs of the 194-mile race. The difference is that this relay race features some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

The scenery includes mountains with amazing views, quiet forests, beautiful lakes, and even small rural towns. As well as running almost 200 miles as a team, you will ascend over 14,000 feet during the run, and then come back down again.

It starts at Capitol Reef National Park and finishes at Zion National Park. After the race, there’s a party where runners can share their experiences while having a meal and drinks.

A portion of the race fees goes towards

Great Lakes Relay, Michigan, July

The Great Lakes Relay was hosted by the Lakeshore Striders Running Club for almost 30 years, but the club closed down this year. The relay race has been taken over by new management and renamed the Michigan Outback Relay, and you can participate in teams of up to 10 runners.

You’ll come out of this rough, rugged race very dirty after running through mud, rivers, and more mud. Some legs will have you running alongside the Great Lakes, while others will be pushing yourself up and down hills. The course is never the same two years in a row, so there’s no way to fully know what you’ll encounter.

Hood to Coast Relay, Oregon, August

This relay is extremely popular and has been a sold-out event for the past 30 years. It’s 199 miles from the top of Mount Hood to  Seaside, Oregon.

A 2011 documentary film followed four teams who participated in the 2008 HTC race.

A big part of the race is fundraising for the Providence Cancer Institute. HTC is the second largest road race fundraising program for cancer.

Reach the Beach Relay, New Hampshire, September

This is the East Coast’s oldest relay, and the whole community takes part in the finish line celebrations. You can choose to participate as a team of 12, or a team of 6 if your runners can handle longer distances.

Mountain Twosome, Truckee, September

If you’re looking for something to do as a couple, with your best friend, or with your running partner, this marathon only allows 2 runners in a team. Each runner will run a 13.1 mile leg, on mixed terrain.

Lake Tahoe Marathon Relay, Nevada, October

This 4-person marathon relay has been going for 26 years, and becomes more popular each year. If you’re not used to running in areas with a high elevation, you may want to arrive a few days early to acclimatize.

The elevation can make it tricky to decide who’s going to start and who runs which legs. The four legs are 7.9 miles, 5.1 miles, 7 miles and 6.2 miles.

Partner Up, Green Bay, WI, October

This event is hosted by Bellin Women’s Events, so teams of two ladies are allowed to enter for the partner relay. Each runner will complete half the race.

Special awards are given to the top three teams in the Mother/Daughter, Sisters, Co-workers, and Girlfriends categories.

Kentucky Bourbon Chase, October

The Bourbon Chase runs for 200 miles through the iconic Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Runners 21 years or older can participate and will get to experience the serenity of beautiful Bluegrass country while stopping in at some of the finest bourbon distilleries along the way.

Teams cross the finish line together and can continue their celebration with the post-run party, complete with bourbon, of course.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.