Marathons in this century have spiked in popularity. The Smithsonian reports almost 2 million people finished a half marathon in 2014 and since 2000 marathon participants have increased by at least double digits year over year.
A good part of the uptick in interest is the availability of and proximity to races. If a runner is remotely interested in playing pin-the-tail on the US map, wherever he spins around and marks will feature an associated marathon at the destination point within 20 miles.
As one of my favorite running partners says, “There’s no better way to see the sights of a spot than to run it...and there’s no better way to find out where to get a beer than asking the local runners.”
Words to live by.
But there is risk inherent in packing the carry-on with extra sweatbands and socks and expecting to grab the key to the city along with your post-race burrito; race weekend can mean expensive-to-non-existent accommodations, traffic malaise and the flora and fauna of locals ruining your good time with road-closure stink face.
To paraphrase the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose wisely, for while a true locals’ race will bring you life, the false race will take it from you.”
...Or something like that.
Below, five of my favorite US Marathon trips or destination races.
I chose the races based on the following five criteria and with apologies to New York, Big Sur and Boston, those automatically appear on every runner’s Bucket List and thereby are exempt from this one.
My top-five picks are based on:
- Hospitality: Are the natives friendly?
- Course: Is it fast? Challenging? Scenic? Unique? The course as well as its surrounds must stand out and truly be “destination-worthy.”
- Easy in/out: Is there a major airport nearby? Easy public transit? Are the hotels going to be full?
- Walkability: Is the race start/finish close to beer/music/packet pickup/hotel
- Race organization: Do the organizers have their together and the volunteers pumped? Is it worth the price of entry?
Santa Barbara Veterans Day Marathon & Half: I’ve done this race twice, once in 2011 and again in 2014. While I encountered a smattering of folks the first time around filing into the true Mid-century treasure that is the moored spaceship of the Earl Warren Fairgrounds for packet pick-up underscoring the race’s start-up status, the second trip through this past November was a different story. The race had been discovered. Call it one part marketing one part Santa Barbara and one part “I can’t believe I don’t live in Santa Barbara”, the race simply works. Running crowds are starting to descend on the banana belt between LA and San Francisco, and yet the race is still not at capacity (in other words: there isn’t a Big Sur-like surge to sign up within the first four hours or suffer through a wait list—though that day may soon come). My second effort, I did experience some of the race organizers’ growing pains in the form of my time corral not being well managed (I stood for three minutes on the start board, activating my chip and throwing off my chip time). A change in course, especially the first half, may benefit this race greatly as the first ten miles snakes through the bowels of Isla Vista. And on a Sunday morning the smell of Doritos and still-foamy beer patches permeates the hinterlands of the UCSB campus. Fortunately, the co-eds who did pry themselves from their bed-buggy dorm rooms come out in full force with homemade signs, sun bleached hair and more cowbell spriting runners along to the second half through the tony-but-attainable neighborhood of Hope Ranch. This is where sunny dispositioned families erect their own feed stations and real negative splitsville can be attained on bike path and open road. After a sneaky hill climb around mile 24 (200 feet never felt so daunting) it’s an easy glide on the oceanfront to the finish area, about a half-mile from the Stearns Wharf, State Street and associated easy-to-book boutique hotels, not to mention the best post-race burrito you ever laid teeth on at Monys Mexican Food in SB’s new yuppie hipsterfied Funk Zone (art galleries and wine bars...delish). If race organizers can add a little more beach to offset the grueling initial dash through the student slums, they’ve got something special under their feet. As soon as I got a Figueroa Mountain Paradise Road Pilsner in my hand, I knew I would be back again.
Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon & Half Marathon: One of a pair of locals’ races I have listed here, there’s no better way to see Alaska than from the roads that traverse Anchorage where a running and endurance ethos courses through the town year-round. You may see a moose or a reindeer, or at least enjoy a post-race pizza at Moose’s Tooth garnished with reindeer sausage. Want to know what runners’ mecca looks like? Try stepping into Skinny Raven and getting outfitted for the flat and fast Midnight Sun run—the vintage photos of Pre should be enough to get you going but their world-class staff (many of whom are former or future Olympians, mostly of the Nordic variety) will leave you prepped and pumped. The race itself is a Boston qualifier and though Alaska in mid-June is light all day and then some (sunrise at 4:21 a.m., sunset 11:43 p.m.), expect to do the actual run in 62-degree temperatures under a blanket of clouds. Perfect. Running. Weather. Check your ego at packet pick-up because Alaskans, men, women and children, are fast, funny and full of energy. Many of this race’s participants have an afternoon mountain bike or five-hour hike on the agenda before they crack that first ale and since it doesn’t get dark till midnight, the festivities to follow will take you well into the morning light where you’ll be expected to get up and do it all over again.
Country Music Marathon Nashville: One of my best friends from college, himself avid runner when he decides it’s time to stop buttoning his work slacks with a safety pin, invited me out to do the Nashville full about five years ago. I can only say two bad things about this race: 1) It’s not on a Friday afternoon, because by Friday night all you’ll want is a beer and a backer tucked into a honky tonk pretending you know everything about Hank (in other words, do yourself a favor and fly in the night before the race and spend a few extra days after.) And 2) The second half careened through mostly warehouse district which was sort of stifled by the last recession pre-Nashville-is-the-new-Brooklyn infusion of artisanal everythings. Apparently those neighborhoods have since woken up and turned into skinny-jeaned lofts/artists spaces/brick-and-beam-heavy small plates restaurants, which, you know, presents its own set of problems (gentrification). This aside, it’s easy to understand why the race is so wildly popular and has been for some time. It’s at a great time of year to run in the not-too-humid South (late-April). It’s organized beyond critique, from packet pick-up to corral to finish, everything in its right place (though there was definitely a car ride from the finish area back to the beery lights of Music Row). And, most importantly, I’ve never had a more fun night out than post-Nashville where runners literally took over the four-block strip of southeast downtown and traded fuel belts for cans of Calfkiller, compression tights for boot-cut jeans and zero-drop, 8-oz flats for a pair of sh*tkickers hanging on the wall at Robert’s Western World. Don’t ever underestimate the convivial nature of more than 20,000 of your new besties swaying shoulder-to-shoulder screaming Friends in Low Places deep deep into the neon blue Tennessee night.
Rock ‘n Roll Las Vegas: Vegas for a race is so obvious a destination, it often gets overlooked. The course, however, presents a couple conundrums: One, you’re running (likely) sober while everyone behind the rope is Piña Colada guitar-sipping zombies pouring into the Strip casinos and the M&Ms store. It’s so jarring, you start to think about how this is the end of humanity and why am I doing this and how many call girl fliers have I stepped on and how did all these monuments to spiriting away Jr.s college fund come to be in the first place? The other is the feeling that the Luxor is “right there—we can walk it” you have when you’re a little buzzed skipping down The Strip. Well, multiply that by 10 when you’re thinking, “Mile 11 and I’m only at Treasure Island? When will it end?!” Existential runner inner-monologue aside, Vegas Rock ‘n Roll totally nailed the desired demo when they moved the race’s start time to 4:30 p.m. Genius. That gives most runners time to finish, chase the race down with something hoppy or sticky sweet, get back to the hotel, shower, change and be on the floor with Ginger and Sam Rothstein by the completely Vegas-worthy hour of 9 p.m. I’ve never been quicker to recover (about eight minutes) than after the Vegas marathon. Soon you’re wondering if that’s 4 a.m. or p.m. and deciding to press on into the night (day?). The only post-race problem(s) are: By the time you rally for goodbye brunch you’ve forgotten you even ran a marathon, or if it was a marathon you did run, that was only the first leg...and you’re not just sore, you’re sore, dehydrated, sleep-deprived and possibly missing a couple hundred dollar bills from your wallet replaced with a fistfull of wrinkled receipts. No matter, from the skeevy Strip to the revamped covered wagon lights of Fremont Street, a Vegas full is a one-time must-do. A word of advice for the Competitor Group: There should be a finisher’s medal for those who show up to toe the line slightly buzzed who’ve not slept from the night before. Yes, it does happen and it’s beautiful.
Park City Mid Mountain Marathon: The only trail marathon on my top 5, the MMM blows doors on the previous entries when it comes to scenery, organization and post-race (yes, in Utah) fun as well as ease of course. The municipality Park City first came to be when Abe Lincoln sent out a bunch of Irish Catholic miners from the East during the Civil War to stake claims, so it has always been the single non-Mormon or secular stronghold in the Beehive state. Its tradition of bucking the predominant culture has kicked the door for in world-class events (the Olympics and Sundance come to mind) to take root on the back side of the Wasatch Mountains. Though the state’s draconian rules for alcohol consumption apply in PC, (just try getting something more than 3.2 on tap and don’t even think about not smuggling a bottle of your favorite Cab across state lines for the post-race toast) the Main Street bars and eateries are festive, convenient and you will have your fill. Timing is everything and nearby hotels are relatively empty—and cheap—in early fall. Spotted on the calendar during shoulder season before a hint of a flake to fly, the MMM is mostly known as a locals’ race and you won’t be one of the many (no pink tutu runners), rather one of the few. Entry fees are extraordinarily cheap for a full marathon ($70!) and all the proceeds go to help build and maintain Park City’s (ready?) more than 400 miles of trail. The race’s sponsor, Mountain Trails Foundation, is charged with just that and what better way to showcase their mission than on some of the most scenic and flowy single-track in North America? If the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, running through Aspen groves in the fall will. Yes, the race is at a place I like to call way up high, but the start is near the course’s apex, 8100’ in Deer Valley Resort. The course quickly peaks at 8400’ before a long-but-turnover-friendly descent through Park City Mountain Resort to the leg-burner downhill finish at 6800’ near the base of Canyons. I have never been more happy or less sore days after a race and though I feel a bit like a turncoat for even promoting this one and letting the secret out. Once you step on those trails you’ll know there’s something special going on in Park City that has nothing to do with indie cinema or Roots berets.
...And if you have your first post-race beer at O’Shucks, be sure to make it a schooner. Completion of these five marathon trips means you burned it and you earned it.