A cool benefit of belonging to your local running club is that they usually have a club race series. The series is usually either mostly or exclusively for members. I belong to the Fort Collins Running Club, and our race series is called the Tortoise and Hare, and it's a series of handicapped races at which participants can earn points toward prizes awarded at the end of the season.
Here's how it works. There is a more or less standard set of courses over which races are run monthly from October through April. The courses range in length from 4-12K ( about 2.5-7.5 miles). The top ten finishers are awarded points ranging from 15 down to 5 points. All first-time racers earn 5 points just for racing.
In the Tortoise and Hare Races, runners don't line up en masse and start all at once. Rather, the times from previous races are used to predict times for the day and runners start in order from predicted slowest to predicted fastest, at intervals designed to increase the chances that everyone will finish at nearly the same time. The idea is to give everyone a roughly equal chance at placing and earning points. In reality, the system probably favors runners that are slower and improving rapidly, because they are more likely to beat their previous paces each month. That's ok, though, because it will generally award the people who are working the hardest to improve.
I participated in the first race of the 2010-2011 season earlier this month, in quite cool, rainy weather at Pineridge Natural area. The race was on dirt trails, with the first half on relatively flat single and double-track trails, and the second half climbing and descending over the rolling hills along the treeline at the base of the foothill on the west side of the Natural Area. As this was my first race, I was asked to predict my pace for handicapping, and since I am slower on trails, and had run 10 miles the day before, I predicted an 8 minute average pace.
As it turns out, I ran about 7:50 pace, doing better than I thought, but more importantly, I had a heck of a lot of fun. Part of the fun was post-race, when the club treats everyone to breakfast at a local bagel shop, and members have an opportunity to talk running, network, and just generally catch up.
You don't have to be a member to participate, but if you're not a member there is a $5 fee. Participating in one of the races can be a good way to meet some club members and learn about the club if you are considering membership, however, so I recommend it. If you decide you want to join, you can probably do so right at the event, as well.