You've seen friends do it. You know it's within reach, but the steps to get there seem overwhelming and you're not quite sure where to start. Hundreds of thousands of people complete road races each year, with the marathon and 5K the most popular events. You could be among those crossing the finish line. Take baby steps towards reaching your goal. Don't be intimidated by the challenge--lace up your workout shoes, and let's get started!

1. Discover your reason for running.
Why make the effort to complete a marathon or 5K? It's hard to pick just one reason. Whether you're a beginner or a more experienced athlete, the aerobic exercise you'll get while training for and participating in a race promotes healthy fitness. Not to mention the satisfaction that comes with setting, moving towards, and accomplishing a goal.

If it's fun that you're after, many races offer a festive experience, providing food, music, t-shirts, finisher medals, and photos of your race. It can also be a great way to meet new friends or training partners. And if those reasons aren't enough to persuade you, some events double as fundraisers for worthy causes.

2. Choose your distance.
You've decided you want to complete a road race. Now that you're committed, choose the length you'd like to run or walk. Two excellent choices for goal setting are the 5K (3.1 miles) and the marathon (26.2 miles).

If you're a beginner, start small: you can successfully train for a 5K in just eight weeks. If you're a more seasoned athlete looking for a new challenge, a marathon might do the trick. Depending on your level of fitness, you can train for a marathon in 12 to 16 weeks.

As part of your first step, you should also decide whether you want to run your distance or walk it. If you're new to the race scene, walking can be a great way to get your feet wet. But if you already have a base level of fitness, training to run your chosen distance can be a satisfying challenge.

3. Find a race and sign up.
Now that you've decided on a distance, the next step is to pick a race to enter. This will give you a concrete deadline--race day. By registering for a race at the start of your training, you're giving yourself extra incentive to go the distance.

Choose an event that's far enough in the future to allow you adequate training time. If your target is a 5K, choose a race that's at least eight weeks away. For marathoners, choose one that's a minimum of 12 weeks away to ensure you don't cut your training time too short. For an excellent list of road races in the United States, visit RunningintheUSA.com.

4. Commit to a training plan.
A training plan can help you chart your progress and keep you on track towards your goal. There are countless types of training plans available to help runners effectively prepare for both 5Ks and marathons. Many are obtainable free of charge online through various running websites.

A particularly good source for free training plans is available at Runningtimes.com. The Running Times' site features plans tailored to beginning, intermediate, and advanced runners. Walkers can consider following the beginner's schedule, and modifying the workouts to walking.

5. Work your training.
The most important step of all is to do the work. You could have the best training plan in the world, but if you don't follow it, you won't succeed in reaching your goal. During the course of your training, many conflicting priorities will be vying to take over your time. If you find your motivation waning, remind yourself of all the reasons you set this goal, and the rewards that await you at the finish line.