Races, Bonfires, Slacklining, Beer: Why the Trail-Running Festival Is Trending

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Five years ago, noted ultrarunner and photographer Luis Escobar invited a bunch of runners to hang out on a friend’s ranch near Santa Barbara and run a 20-mile trail loop in a figure-8 pattern, for 30 to 100 miles.

Running was the main attraction—but lots of revelry ensued, too.

“We had a bonfire, guitars, beer and food, camping, dancing and a biker doing tattoos,” Escobar recalls. “The vibe was really cool.”

That multi-day party-with-a-side-of-running, known as the Born to Run Ultra Marathon Extravaganza, grew from 67 participants its first year to some 1,200 people in 2015.

The Born to Run festival’s popularity—along with the appeal of supported multi-day running events that include socializing at night, such as the TransRockies Run—has sparked a growth in trail-running festivals, as race directors recognize that trail runners and their non-running partners seek fun, different trail-running events for weekend getaways.

This October, Matt Gunn of UltraAdventures—the outfit that puts on a number of trail races in the Southwest, including the Zion and Bryce 100-milers—is partnering with the organization TAUR (Trail And Ultra Running) to produce the inaugural Grand Circle Trail Fest in Kanab, Utah. The event will feature three runs over three days, on routes ranging from 12 to 19 miles along the edges of Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks.

“The running component will definitely be high quality and worth coming out for, but it’s everything else that really makes it a festival,” says Gunn, listing a number of social activities planned for the three days, including trail-running film screenings, yoga, a kids’ camp, nature walks for non-runners, slacklining clinics and top-level runners as guest speakers, along with good drink, food and camping.

One of many non-running activities at the Born to Run Ultra Marathon Extravaganza.

Gunn adds that the Trail Fest is planned for October because it’s intended to be a celebratory “culminating event” following the goal races that most runners will have scheduled for the summer. He’s also eager to spotlight three of the region’s most scenic destinations. Rather than running an ultra distance in a single place, he says, “runners will get a taste of each of Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon, in a dose that allows you to enjoy it.”

In Northern California this May, another trail-running outfit is moving into the festival realm with the Ancient Redwood Running Festival. It will take place in the wine region of Mendocino County and feature a variety of family-friendly activities and running distances for both ultrarunners and shorter-distance runners.

“We want to get people someplace they haven’t been, to a rich experience that elevates their sense of the world,” says Adam Ray, founder of Scena Performance, which is hosting the event in Hendy Woods State Park, “a hidden gem” with old-growth redwood stands, where participants can choose to camp overnight or stay in lodging nearby.

Activities that appeal to a runner’s spouse or friend—who may not want to run as much, if at all—is part of what elevates a trail-running event to a full-on festival. Perhaps no other event does this as creatively as Born to Run. “We’re trying to include those who are standing around while their partner is out running,” explains Escobar.

In addition to planned and spontaneous activities such as archery, art, hatchet throwing and even a homecoming prom with a king and queen, the event organizes the “Born Not to Run 0.0.”

For $40, participants get a bib number, a shirt and a blue ribbon. At noon on Saturday of the festival, they assemble at a starting line, where they line up their beers. Escobar says, “Ready, set, don’t go,” and shoots a gun, then everyone laughs, claps, drinks and wanders off.

Ready … set …

… don’t go!!!

“It’s hilarious,” Escobar says, adding that people can register and participate remotely. Last year, several Born Not to Run remote participants took pictures of themselves sitting and drinking a beverage of choice (usually beer), while wearing the event’s T-shirt and bib, and then posted those photos on the event’s Facebook page.

Here is a rundown of several trail-running festivals happening around the United States, organized chronologically. Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments!

Gemini Adventures Desert Rats Trail Festival, April 15-17

Fruita, CO

5M, Half Marathon, Marathon, 50K, Double Marathon

Now in its 14th year, this event is less a “festival” with activities and camping than a two-day running event on rolling, rugged, high-desert trails. But the weekend does feature a Friday-night group dinner, a Saturday-night party and a great deal of socializing in between each day’s running events.

Born to Run Ultra Marathon Extravaganza, May 11-14

Los Olivos near Santa Barbara, CA

4 Day, 200M, 100M, 60M, 30M, 10M

Located on a large, private cattle ranch in the hill country outside of Santa Barbara, this event has runners follow a 20-mile figure-8 loop, which gains about 2,300 feet. The main camp and an aid station are located in the center of the figure-8, with two smaller aid stations at opposite ends.

Jenn Shelton camping out at the Born to Run Ultra Marathon Extravaganza

“I’ve never heard of anything like Born to Run. It’s its own animal,” says director Luis Escobar, noting he may have to cap attendance this year so it doesn’t grow beyond last year’s size of approximately 1,200 (split between some 600 runners and an equal number of guests). Given its reputation as ultrarunning’s version of Burning Man, he adds, “Some people are almost intimidated to come because they think it’s a wild naked party, but first and foremost it’s a run.”

Ancient Redwood Running Festival, May 21

Hendy Woods near Mendocino, CA

5M, 6 Hour, 12 Hour, 20M and 50M Relays

“Hendy Woods is a perfect location for a variety of formats,” says Brian Wyatt, race director of Scena Performance. The festival is for everyone from “the casual runner who may want to go the five-mile distance while the spouse and kids hike around the redwoods, and then go spend the afternoon wine tasting, to the ultrarunner who wants to try a 6- or 12-hour timed event.” Optional activities include a short rogaine (an orienteering group event that stands for Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance) and overnight camping.

Salomon Trail Running Festival at Pineland Farms, May 28-29

New Gloucester, ME

5K, 10K, 25K, 50K, 50M

This Memorial Day Weekend event promises “an extravaganza of trail races, beer drinking, old timey music and fun family fun.” In addition to a regular 5K, there’s a barefoot 5K and a “canicross” 5K for runners who want to team up with their dogs. The 25K/50K/50M route follows a hilly, twisty “roller coaster” on smooth, wide, non-technical trails through bucolic farmland. Pineland Farms is home to a YMCA, and during both days of the event, organizers set up an elaborate “kids’ zone” with obstacle courses, a bounce house and other fun stuff. Participants can choose to camp at Bradbury Mountain State Park, five miles from the event headquarters, or stay at local hotels.

Born to Run-ners


Jay Peak Trail Running Festival, Sept. 3-4

Jay, VT

5K, 25K, 50K and Kids’ Race

This Labor Day Weekend festival, next to the Vermont-Canada border, might appeal to kids more than any other event on this list: It’s located at a ski resort with a giant waterpark and ice rink. The 25K and (double-loop) 50K trail races take place on the resort’s slopes, climbing 3,800-foot Jay Peak. Most participants stay at the resort’s lodging and receive a discount on the rates.

Woodstock Festival, Sept. 9-11

Pinckney, MI

5K, 5M, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, 50K, 50M, 100K, 100M

The website bills Woodstock as “an event-filled weekend, but lots of time to mellow, meditate and make out … join us as we trip back to a bygone age of nature and love, cen­tered around a mantra of miles on beau­ti­ful trails in Michi­gan wilderness.” The long weekend takes place on a ranch, where everyone camps, and offers a full lineup of music, yoga, hiking, dancing or doing nothing. Behind the mellow, hippie-themed event, race directors work hard to put on well-supported runs at all distances. The festival’s Hallucination 100-Mile Run is the last stop in the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning series.

The Grand Circle Trail Fest, Oct. 13-15

Kanab, Utah

13M (Bryce), 12M (Zion), 19M (Grand Canyon)

The inaugural Grand Circle Trail Fest will set up its home-base campground in a large park in the southern Utah town of Kanab, and each morning, organizers will shuttle runners to that day’s race location. The race courses are not actually in the national parks (which do not permit organized running events), but rather on remote, scenic trails near the park boundaries. Participants have different options for registering, depending on whether they want to run one, two or all three of the events. Activities back at camp throughout the day include a kids’ trail-running clinic, yoga, film screenings, bonfire, a beer garden and a gear swap.  Camping, included in the registration fee, is optional; participants can opt to stay in nearby motels.

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner who plans to attend the three-day Grand Circle Trail Fest.

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