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The marathon may be the paragon of accomplishment and grit to many road runners, but in the trail-running community, it often takes a backseat to ultramarathons. 50K, 50-mile, 100K and 100-mile races capture the headlines, and white oval bumper stickers appear on dirt-streaked cars, calling attention to drivers’ ultrarunning feats.
But, in reality, most trail runners race shorter distances, and completing a marathon is a proud running achievement for most of us, no matter how fast or how slow. An increasing number of marathon-length trail races can take you on breathtaking singletrack tours of the forests and mountains, all while leaving you a bit more energy and time afterward to celebrate than your average 50-miler.
We’ve compiled nine 26.2-milers, give or take a mile or two—these are trail races, after all—that are well worth the training, effort and travel.
1. Golden Gate Headlands Marathon
The San Francisco Bay Area is certainly not under the radar of trail runners. The city and its surrounding hills, shrouded in coastal mist, are home to a slew of top-flight runners, as well as The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship (TNF 50), a huge 50-mile trail race each December that highlights some of the best, most majestic trails in Marin County. But, before TNF 50, there was the Golden Gate Headlands Marathon, which ran for the 31st time this year.
“I’d say TNF actually learned some of the best trails from our race course,” says race director and founder David Horning of nearby Stinson Beach, who directs several other area races through the organization Enviro Sports. “You have great trails and great vistas—views of wildflowers, lots of greenery, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Pacific Ocean and the Marin coastline.”
The only older trail race in the area, he says, is the legendary Dipsea, which ends at Stinson Beach.
And there’s no need to fear the Bay Area’s heinous vert here—runners can expect the sort of sustained climbing more typical of mountain roads. Plus, Horning notes, you’ll have the benefit of running at sea level.
For the original tour of one of America’s great trail-running meccas, look no further.
Date: Late March – Early April
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Nearby: Limitless possibilities—urban and wild alike—await in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area.
2. Lithia Loop Trail Marathon
For much of the country, November marks the end of the prime trail-running season. But in Ashland, it’s just getting started.
“November is a beautiful time of year in Ashland,” says local runner David Laney, who won the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon in 2012. “It’s typically cool at the [race] start and perfect by the finish, and the trees are all changing color. Ashland is unbeatable in the fall.”
The race, organized by the local running shop Rogue Valley Runners, covers (as the name suggests) a large loop of the Ashland Watershed, an extensive non-motorized trail system officially designated late last year.
“The race gives you a great perspective of the main artery of the Watershed,” says Laney. “You do a giant loop around the entire drainage, and you get a chance to see a lot of the trailheads and split-off trails that wind up the mountain and around the rest of the watershed. It will make you want to explore more of these mountains.”
For its elevation gain and loss, Lithia Loop is a fairly fast course. A long, steep climb at the start is followed by a long, gradual doubletrack downhill; a steep descent back to town comprises the final few miles.
Most importantly, though: “Rogue Valley Runners races always finish with a good gathering and great food,” Laney says.
Date: Early November
Elevation gain: 3,600 feet
Nearby: Visit Rogue Valley Runners, a running specialty shop owned by Hal Koerner, winner of the 2007 and 2009 Western States 100 and the 2012 Hardrock 100.
3. Crow Pass Crossing
Girdwood to Eagle River, Alaska
Adventurers, wanderers and introspective personalities have long found their way to Alaska, and understandably so. In terms of wilderness access and remoteness, the 49th state is hard to beat.
It seems fitting, then, that hardcore adventurers would find appeal in the 24-mile Crow Pass Crossing, a point-to-point run that ends near Anchorage in Eagle River, Alaska, traversing the 3,888-foot-high mountain pass for which the race is named along the way.
“What makes the race unique is that it’s very Alaskan,” says race director Michael Friess. “Along the route you engage a lot of natural terrain and obstacles—things like stream crossings and possible inconsistent trail markings.”
Not to mention wildlife. “Oh, yeah, bears, stinging things and all other kinds of issues,” he continues. The trails themselves offer challenges all their own in technicality, uneven footing and erosion.
“There’s not too many steps along the way that you can handle in a smooth fashion,” Friess says. “You’re always in an unbalanced scenario.”
So if you’re feeling unbalanced, Alaska might be the destination for you. As a bonus, the state contains over half of America’s national parkland by area, and Anchorage sits at the center of five spectacular parks.
Date: Late July
Distance: 24 miles, “depending on the routing”
Elevation gain: 3,888 feet
Nearby: Visit Denali, Kenai Fjords, Katmai, Lake Clark and Wrangell-Saint Elias national parks.
4. Pikes Peak Marathon
Manitou Springs, Colorado
Standing 14,114 feet tall, Pikes Peak dominates the landscape in Colorado Springs and the surrounding area. Naturally, some people’s response is to run up it—and back down.
First established in 1956 by an anti-tobacco Florida doctor as a contest between smokers and non-smokers, the iconic race up and down Pikes Peak is the third-oldest marathon in the United States—only the Boston and Yonkers marathons are older. Pikes was reportedly the first in the United States to allow women to participate; in 1959, Arlene Pieper became the first female to officially finish a marathon in the United States, when she completed the race in 9:16.
“My mom ran the race twice when I was in grade school, so I was familiar with its rich history and challenging course,” says Kim Dobson of Eagle, Colorado, who in 2015 won the Ascent (for the fourth time) and placed third in the Marathon, winning the “Double” with the fastest combined time.
When she first ran the Ascent, in 2009, Dobson and her husband had a goal of tagging all 54 14,000-foot summits in the state. “Since we had been hiking and running uphill all summer, we decided to give the race a try,” she says. “I loved the grueling ascents, the thin air and the spectacular views of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.”
The Pikes Peak Marathon was also a launching pad for the career of famed mountain runner Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs. Carpenter won the Marathon 12 times, including a streak of six consecutive wins from 2006 to 2011.
Take note—due to the extremely demanding nature of the course, those wanting to run the Pikes Peak Marathon for the first time (or who have not run it for three years or more) need to qualify by having run a marathon—any marathon—in under 5:45 sometime after January 1, 2014.
“The considerable amount of time spent running at high altitude can cause dehydration, nausea, dizziness and/or a major bonk if you go out too hard or fail to fuel properly,” says Dobson. “Another challenge with the race is being able to switch gears from running solely uphill for nearly 8,000 feet to running solely downhill for 8,000 feet. The turnaround point is a welcome relief from the aerobic demands of the ascent, but figuring out how to move quickly downhill over rocky terrain is another ordeal.”
Distance: 26.21 miles
Other race distances: 13.32 miles
Elevation gain: 7,815 feet
Course high point: 14,050 feet
Trivia: Runners can opt to “double” by running the half-marathon Pikes Peak Ascent followed by the Marathon; total times are tallied.
5. Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon
Rochford to Deadwood, South Dakota
The Black Hills were not on my radar until I paced my friend John overnight at the Black Hills 100 Mile in 2012. The never-ending climbs, the intoxicating smell of fresh pine needles, the endlessly undulating topography, the constant warnings of mountain lions …
“It feels like we’re out West, doesn’t it?” said John, summing up our surroundings 70 miles into his race.
In less than a day’s drive from our homes in the Twin Cities, John and I had found ourselves in Sturgis, where the ground rises like a Mountain West oasis in the heart of the Great Plains.
Just to the southeast, farther into the hills, lies Deadwood, famous for its role as a frontier town formed during the 1870s Black Hills Gold Rush. It’s also the finish of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon.
“[The course] takes you from Rochford, an abandoned mining town, across railroad trestles, over a mountain, past monolithic rock formations and beside a babbling brook,” says Emily Wheeler, who heads up Wheeler Event Management, the organization that puts on Deadwood Mickelson, “and finishes in Deadwood, a town that is a historic landmark.”
Indeed, this is a race experience that will transport you back to the Wild West, while offering a mountain-running experience unlike anything else in what we’ll loosely define as the “Midwest.” Afterward, satiate your inner tourist, as well as your appetite for pizza and ice cream, by visiting the famous “Wall Drug” store-turned-visitor’s center just east on I-90, on the outskirts of Badlands National Park.
Date: Early June
Other race distances: 13.1 miles, 26.2-mile relay
Course high point: 6,200 feet
Trivia: The once-lawless frontier town of Deadwood was formed following the 1874 announcement that gold had been discovered on nearby French Creek.
6. Moose Mountain Marathon
Schroder to Lutsen, Minnesota
If there’s a way to describe northern Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail—on which the Moose Mountain Marathon is run—it might be “death by a thousand cuts.” That is to say, the elevation gain and loss isn’t obvious—there are no thousand-foot slogs or monstrous peaks—but it’s abrupt and frequent, and, before you know it, you’re worked over, with half the race still in front of you.
“[The course is] run on rugged, rooty, rocky singletrack with near-constant climbs and descents,” says race director John Storkamp. “It’s 100-percent singletrack and point-to-point, and crosses many beautiful rivers and beneath waterfalls, with great views of Lake Superior.”
Of course, if you try and take in the view of the ocean-like Great Lake to your right, you might find your face in the dirt, courtesy of the aforementioned obstacles.
“The Superior Fall Trail Races [including Moose Mountain] are very difficult and challenging races, and are probably not a good choice for your first trail or ultra race,” Storkamp continues.
“Moose Mountain is one of my favorite events each year,” says Ben Kampf of Minneapolis, who won the race in 2013 and 2014 and was runner-up in 2015. “[Storkamp] covers every detail and makes it a trail runner’s dream race. The course is one of the most beautiful yet challenging out there.”
The 2016 lottery for the race’s 325 spots has already taken place; next year, register early when the sign-up opens in late February/early March.
Other Race Distances: 100 miles, 50 miles
Elevation gain: 5,500 feet
Nearby: Visit the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area for pristine lakes, solitude and fall foliage.
7. Grand Island Marathon
Grand Island (from Munising), Michigan
Nestled off the Lake Superior shoreline of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Grand Island is a pristine mix of unpopulated beaches, towering sandstone cliffs and dense, deciduous forest.
It would be like a tropical paradise if the climate were, well, anything close to tropical. At least it’s plenty warm in July, when the island plays host to a marathon, 50K and half-marathon.
Half the fun is getting to the race.
“For starters, there’s no bus to the start line—you take a bus to a dock, and take a ferry the rest of the way,” says James Engel, 61, of Lakefield, Michigan, who has run (and finished) all 11 editions of the Grand Island Marathon. “But the best part of the race is that the unique beauty of Grand Island is unparalleled in the world.”
Racers encounter wooded service roads, abrupt singletrack climbs up 200-foot-plus sandstone bluffs and a mile and a half of beach.
“Much of the course is run atop cliffs overlooking Lake Superior,” says the race director, Jeff Crumbaugh, noting runners can stop to swim the in lake at miles 2, 8, 16 and 24, as well as at the finish. “It is crystal clear, which is even visible from 300 feet up on the cliffline.”
Date: Late July
Other Race Distances: 50K, half-marathon
Nearby: Visit the immaculate Pictured Rocks National Shoreline for awe-inspiring rocky shoreline and crystal-clear freshwater.
8. Scenic City Trail Marathon
City dwellers reading this magazine will know you don’t always need to venture out to the country to find a solid trail system. Some of the best singletrack is hidden in plain sight in the hills and bluffs surrounding the concrete jungle.
Hence, a lot of excellent races are run near the hearts of major cities. Among them is Chattanooga’s Scenic City Trail Marathon, where participants can run over 26 miles of uninterrupted natural surfaces surrounding the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant, only 10 minutes from the accoutrements of Tennessee’s fourth-largest city. (We’re thinking of the post-race food possibilities, in particular.)
“The trails offer well-groomed singletrack, very runnable climbs, fantastic downhill adventures and the most beautiful views of the Tennessee Valley below,” says Nathan Holland of Ooltewah, Tennessee, who finished second at Scenic City in 2014 and sixth in 2013. “The new additions to the full marathon will brand this as one of the country’s best.”
One easily overlooked aspect of a race is its family friendliness—whether your non-racing, non-crewing travel companions can find something to pass the time while you indulge in dirt. Scenic City could easily fit that bill—Chattanooga offers an array of museums, as well as a zoo and aquarium, where you can meet up with your entourage post-race.
“We love Chattanooga as a destination race city,” wrote William and Emily Ansick of Auburn, Alabama, who won the men’s and women’s races, respectively, in 2015, in an e-mail. “The race is always well-organized, and it offers some fast but moderately technical singletrack trails with gorgeous views. We will be back for years to come!”
Date: Late April – Early May
Distance: 26.37 miles
New in 2016: The course will incorporate the popular Livewire and High Voltage Trails, adding significant vertical gain/loss and technical boulder running, plus some great views.
9. Nipmuck Trail Marathon
NipMuck Trail Marathon race director Dave Merkt (pictured below) thinks Connecticut’s trails don’t get enough respect. “What we lack in solid climbs, we more than make up for in elevation changes,” he says. “You are always either climbing or descending on our trails, flats are few and far between and it all adds up.”
Even on the flat sections, he says, the technical singletrack can chew you up. “There’s always a rock or tree root waiting to trip you the second that you lose focus,” he says. “It’s challenging, but it’s loads of fun.”
The terrain at NipMuck—an out-and-back on a 13.2-mile stretch of trail outside Ashford, about 30 minutes from Hartford—will accordingly require your full attention. Rolling singletrack is supplemented by scrambles through piles of volcanic rock and a conifer-grove traverse. First-time runners get a neon sticker on their race numbers reading, “HIGH FALL RISK.” In 2011, beavers constructed a dam on the river adjacent to the course the night before the race, turning one section of trail into a brand-new pond.
And if the terrain doesn’t provide enough variables, just wait for the weather.
“We’ve had years where it’s in the 70s and sunny, years where it’s in the 40s and pouring and of course years where it starts rainy and cold and finishes warm and dry,” Merkt says.
In other words, adaptability is the name of the game at NipMuck.
Date: Early October
Distance: 26.4 miles
Trivia: In 1789, recently inaugurated President George Washington stayed in Ashford as part of his first tour of the young United States.
Alex Kurt has run only two marathons—both on pavement. He lives in Minneapolis. This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.