7 Distinctive Trail Races that Break the Distance Mold

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“This is a weird way to start a trail race,” I mentioned to a runner by my side.

We were striding out on a paved road and dodging cars in the first mile of a marathon, which took place several years ago in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. The route featured 1.2 miles out and back on the road before embarking on a scenic 25-mile trail loop.

I understood the race director’s need to tack on extra distance so the course would measure 26.2 miles, but there is an alternative to contriving a route that fits a standard race distance: Let the trail system and landscape dictate the course length.

Running a race that’s an atypical distance can feel liberating insofar as it’s something different, and it avoids comparisons to performances at regular distances. What’s more, the route likely has a scenic or satisfying reason for its distance, whether it’s to get from one special destination to another, to bag a peak or to complete a loop.

Below you’ll find a sampling of quirky, destination-worthy trail races in the United States, under 100 miles, that measure an uncommon distance. Some have already passed or may be sold out for 2018, but they likely will be held at the same time next year. They’re organized from shortest to longest distance.

Rabbit Peak
22 miles (shorter option available)
October 27
Southern California

This race measures sub-ultra but demands ultra-distance stamina. “Fear the Rabbit” is the race’s motto, and its 11-mile route tags a summit and features sheer cliffs and a narrow, faint trail choked by cacti and jagged rocks. The elevation gain totals approximately 8,000 feet, and the trail is so challenging that the cutoff time stands at 10 hours, allowing for a 27-minute per mile average pace.

Rabbit Peak rises from the desert floor in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park south of Palm Springs, revealing views of the Salton Sea. The peak’s elevation reputedly measures a fiendish 6,666 feet, but another source puts it at 6,643. Along the way, runners and hikers pass the 5,756-foot Villager Peak. (A shorter division of this event features a 15-mile out-and-back race to Villager.)

Trail Runner contributor Jade de la Rosa has raced Rabbit Peak and heartily recommends it, describing the scenery in a race report as looking like “an underwater garden,” complete with “coral” rocks and cactus “sea life.”

If the regular Rabbit Peak race doesn’t sound challenging enough, consider the event’s “Bad Ass Division,” which starts in the dark the night before and requires wearing a weighted pack of approximately 50 pounds for men and 30 pounds for women. States the website, “Life insurance policy suggested. Only the truly ‘insane’ need apply!”

Quad Dipsea
28 miles
November 24
Northern California

In 1983, a small group of ultrarunning friends decided to host homegrown ultras on trails near their neighborhoods. John Medinger lived in Mill Valley (north of San Francisco) at the time. He suggested they run the famed seven-mile, point-to-point Dipsea out-and-back. Twice. The Quad Dipsea was born, with Medinger, the past publisher of UltraRunning, serving as its race director for three decades.

Perhaps the shortest well-known ultramarathon (an ultra being anything longer than a 26.2-mile marathon), the Quad Dipsea packs some 9,200 feet of climbing into 28 miles, ascending numerous flights of stairs built into the hillside above the woodsy town. The trail traverses slick, rooted redwood forest and wind-swept grassy bluffs with ocean views, until it reaches the hamlet of Stinson Beach.

Turning around at Stinson Beach to repeat the route three more times takes mental as well as physical fortitude, as does achieving close-to-even splits. Most runners slow significantly with each lap.

The race is always held the Saturday following Thanksgiving. “It’s kind of a runners’ Thanksgiving party … a celebration of the community racing year after year, with individuals enjoying and coping with their own and each other’s highs and lows,” describes 2017 women’s champ Penny Macphail. “And while it cherishes familiar faces—indeed, it rewards those who have participated for 10 consecutive years with a coveted jacket—it is engagingly friendly and welcoming to newcomers.”

Telluride Mountain Run
38 miles (shorter options available)
August 25

A box canyon of majestic peaks reaching 13,000 feet, bisected by the ribbon of a waterfall, frames the historic mining town of Telluride in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. This stunning backdrop showcases the Telluride Mountain Run, an extremely challenging 38-mile route that circumnavigates the town in a counterclockwise loop. The route gains some 14,000 feet as it ascends four major passes through aspen and alpine tundra, traverses scree-topped peaks and ridgelines and finishes with a plunge down a ski slope.

Founded in 2013 by top-level ultrarunner Dakota Jones, the race went on hiatus last year. Then Jones transferred the event to Telluride-area ultrarunner and mountain guide Jared Vilhauer, who moved the date to late August.

The 13,00-foot ridge nicknamed “the Mile and a Half of Sky” in the Telluride Mountain Run. Photo by Photo by Jared Vilhauer

Vilhauer made one significant course change: He modified one and a half miles of course near the middle, so a portion now follows the fin of a ridgeline between the 12,785-foot Ajax Peak (the mountain looming over town, viewed to the left of Ingram Falls when looking at the box canyon backdrop) and Imogene Pass. The entire stretch runs above 13,000 feet and includes the 13,509-foot Telluride Peak.

“We’re calling this new section ‘the Mile and a Half of Sky,’” says Vilhauer.

The Telluride Mountain Run is limited to 75 runners. If the race sells out—or if you aren’t sure you’re up for the full course challenge—then Vilhauer encourages you to consider the event’s two shorter races on the same day, 13 and 22 miles long, both of which feature courses that loop around the town’s ski area and reach the 13,300-foot Palmyra Peak.

Highlands Sky
41 miles
June 16
West Virginia

Runners in the point-to-point Highlands Sky 40 (which is actually 41 miles) journey through an ecologically diverse wonderland known as the Monongahela National Forest, “some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain in West Virginia,” according to the website of the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners, which organizes the race.

“You’re sure to enjoy the varied trail terrain through northern hardwoods, stunted red spruce and heath barrens, running over woodland paths, ancient sphagnum bogs and boulder-filled plains,” states the event’s course description. The route includes a portion of the highest plateau in the eastern United States, in a wilderness area known as the Dolly Sods, which features a landscape of rocky terrain, stunted trees and mountain-top meadows.

Ultrarunner Sophie Speidel of Charlottesville, Virginia, recommends the race and says, “It’s a 40 that runs like a 50 with an incredible variety of surfaces and technical spots, as well as a seven-mile dirt road section.”

The race organizers do “a fantastic job,” and the finish area at Canaan Valley Resort State Park “is easy and fun for families,” adds Speidel.

(Related: “A Day in the Life of Dan Lehmann,” a profile of the founder of the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners and the Highlands Sky trail run.)

Whiskey Basin
54 miles (shorter options available)
April 14

Ultrarunner Jamil Coury launched the Whiskey Basin Trail Runs three years ago through the race-directing company he leads, Aravaipa Running, to showcase the entire 54.5-mile Prescott Circle Trail.

“This will become a classic Southwest race in a couple of years because it’s so pretty,” Coury predicts, noting that the mile-high town of Prescott, Arizona, is becoming an endurance mecca for running and mountain biking. “The race starts and finishes at Watson Lake near the stunningly beautiful Granite Dell rock formations and follows the trail through high-desert grasslands, up to over 7,000 feet in elevation, and thick ponderosa pine forests.” The course elevation gain totals about 5,500 feet.

Whiskey Basin Trail Race. Photo by Nick Roush

The event awards UTMB points and also features a 35-mile, 19-mile and 10K race. After the race, runners are encouraged to pub crawl the town’s infamous Whiskey Row.

Laurel Highlands Ultra
70.5 miles (shorter options available)
June 9

The Laurel Highlands Ultra, now in its 39th year, began in the late 1970s after brothers Joe and Paul Butchko discovered the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, starting at Ohiopyle State Park in Western Pennsylvania.

“The two brothers began running sections of the trail and soon decided to try and run the entire length in one day,” describes the event’s site, “so they invited a few friends to join them, and the race was born.”

The hiking trail meanders through state parks and forests, and toward the end it rewards with views of the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown.

“If you like a diverse course with 1,000-foot-plus climbs, loads of single track, varying scenery and weaving in and out of giant 15-foot boulders, while not minding an old-school/bare-bones vibe, then sign up for this race,” writes last year’s winner, Michael Heimes, in his race report. But, be prepared to mail in a form with a check the old-fashioned way, and then wait to see if you gained entry by whether your check gets cashed.

“Don’t let the whole ‘mail in a check with a paper form’ thing turn you off,” Heimes adds. “It’s kind of exciting and a throwback to a time where you didn’t get instant gratification.”

Heimes describes the route as “a bit lopsided” in terms of packing the most climbing and difficult terrain into the first 30 miles, and then delivering runnable miles in the final 20, but that’s part of its charm and challenge. The event also features a relay team division and a 50K.

Georgia Death Race
72-“ish” miles
March 31

“Time to Die!” screams the website for the Georgia Death Race, the most competitive race on this list because it rewards coveted “golden tickets” for entry to the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run to the top two male and female finishers. Its precise distance is something of a mystery, with its website advertising “70-ish” or 71.2 miles, and other sources measuring it closer to 74.

Undisputed is the extremely challenging nature of the point-to-point course, which traverses a swath of national forestland in the North Georgia Mountains between two flagship state parks, Vogel and Amicalola Falls, with almost 28,000 feet of elevation change.

“The climbs were ridiculously steep, and the descents were steep, rocky and covered in leaves, so it concealed rocks and branches,” describes runner Soon-Chul Choi of San Francisco, who finished the race in about 19 hours recently (the event has a 24-hour cutoff).

Additionally, race organizer Run Bum Tours has fun playing with runners’ minds, according to Choi. In one 11-mile stretch between aid stations, late in the race (and in the nighttime darkness for mid-packers), runners spotted a sign that falsely said the aid station was a half mile away when a few miles remained; then, a fake aid station played music to trick runners into thinking they had arrived, but the real aid station was another mile up a hill.

Longtime “Beast Coast” ultrarunner Andy Jones-Wilkins notes these additional special features about the race: several miles on the Coosa Backcountry Trail, “one of the epic loops on the East Coast,” and an end-to-end traverse of the Duncan Ridge Trail, “one of the most technical trails in the Southeast.” In the penultimate mile, the route “puts a nice kick in the teeth” by making runners ascend over 800 stairs to the top of Amicalola Falls before a screaming 1.2-mile descent to the finish.

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor for Trail Runner and author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. She has run two races on this list, the Quad Dipsea and Telluride Mountain Run, and personally recommends both.

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