There are many reasons why people take up running – for fun, health or a sense of achievement – and many find motivation in training for a race. There are hundreds of races every year in the US alone, for runners of every ability. Each has its own character, a combination of people and location that makes it special. Some courses, though, are truly extraordinary, taking place among the most stunning scenery in the country.
Bar Harbor Half Marathon
Bar Harbor is a picturesque town, but that’s not what makes this race so special. After leaving the town, the course enters the nearby national park; this is one of only a few half marathons in the US that does so. Acadia National Park in September sees lovely weather over the challenging course, which follows the carriage roads – hard-packed dirt trails that wind through the dense forest. A highlight is Eagle Lake, with its pristine beauty. Afterwards, runners can look forward to a local specialty – lobster rolls. Signing up can be done on the Mount Desert Island YMCA website. There’s also a 5k for any runners who are just starting out.
Big Sur International Marathon
Famous for being the first nationally-designated Scenic Highway in the country, Highway 1 at Big Sur has prime views of the dramatic coastline. In April, marathoners can take on the world’s largest rural marathon here. Being a point-to-point race, it’s important to plan what to do with bags, but transport is provided to the starting area. It’s a hilly course, overlooked by redwoods on the landward side. One of the most gruelling is at Hurricane Point, but once at the summit runners are greeted by a pianist playing a grand piano, wearing a full tuxedo – a long-standing race tradition. Registration is available on the official website.
Mammoth Half Marathon
In June, runners should make their way to the Mammoth Lakes region, near Yosemite National Park. The annual half marathon takes participants through the scenic High Sierra mountains and the Inyo National Forest, with an elevation change from almost 9000 ft to around 7800 ft. The world-class course naturally shows off the best of the area’s lakes, starting at Horseshoe Lake, and skirting around Lake Mary. Runners can sign up on the Mammoth Half Marathon website.
Rocky Mountain Half Marathon
The Rocky Mountains are iconic, and simply enormous. So, although this race doesn’t actually enter the national park, runners can still get the majestic view. The course does border the park; it starts on the Lake Estes Trail and circles back round to the lake, via Dry Gulch and Devil’s Gulch. On a calm day, the lake is the perfect mirror for the towering snow-capped mountains. While there isn’t much change in elevation on the course (some parts are flat), it’s a challenging high-altitude run. The race is one of a series organised by Vacation Races. They have a cup-free policy to reduce unnecessary waste and keep the courses clean; hydration is managed at self-serve stations. It takes place in August, and registration is here.
Napa-to-Sonoma Wine Country Half-Marathon
For another unique experience, runners can race through Napa Valley, surrounded by lush vineyards and a landscape dotted with farm animals, from horses and sheep to llamas and chickens. It starts at Cuvaison Carneros Winery with a steady uphill climb dubbed “Butt Burner Hill”; after that are beautiful views of the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Preserve, and San Pablo Bay. There’s plenty for supporters to do – even if they don’t like wine! – so this is a great one for bringing family and friends to cheer, too. Registration for this July event, the third of six in Wine Country across the US, can be found here.
Lake Powell Half Marathon
Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made reservoir in the country, and its inviting blue waters make an incredible landscape for running in. The course starts in a residential area in Arizona, but soon enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and along its beautiful trails overlooking the water. Spectators can take to boats here for a unique cheering experience. It’s a downhill course, with some loose sand areas in the middle, and it finishes right by the lake, so everyone can jump straight in to cool off! This is another Vacation Race, so the cup-free policy applies. It’s in late October, and runners can register on the Vacation Races website.
Everglades Half Marathon
In what might be a first, the Everglades Half Marathon takes place entirely within park boundaries – and it can’t get much more scenic than that. It only started in 2016, so the course could still change, but the inaugural race was a gentle one for late in the year (December). It remains at sea level the whole way around, following the Shark Valley Tram Road through the “river of grass” and past the iconic Observatory Tower. This time of year is great for spotting wildlife among the lush greenery, adding another amazing aspect to this race. Similar to other Vacation Race events, registration is here.
Beautiful scenery can be another great reason to run, and there are some truly amazing races in the US that are an inspiration to do just that. Runners can get a mental boost from the clean air and beautiful views, and afterwards there are many chances to enjoy all kinds of post-race fun and relaxation.
About the author – Andrew Lowen and his family have been a part of the June Lake community since 1968, where they now own a Yosemite Gateway Chalet. They love June Lake and are eager to share the experience with those who appreciate the grandeur that the Eastern Sierras have to offer.