9 Destination Trail Races (mostly) Outside the TALON Region for Family, Friends, and Beautiful Dirty Fun
It is so easy to race locally. And thanks to various venues we have in our 5-state TALON (TX, AR, LA, OK, NM) region, we have plenty of races to pick from within driving distance and run our hearts out, whether as intermediate “training” races, or as goal races of the season. The distances are also well represented, as are the terrains, from flat smooth wide trails and dirt roads, to roots to rocks (and more rocks, loose and embedded ledges), to hills, to even some mountains (Arkansas and especially New Mexico represent those well).
That said, many of us share a love for travel, for exploration, for more challenges, for goals that are almost too far to reach for, and are wondering what’s out there.
When I offered an idea to David to write a bit about races around the Big Ol’ USA, as someone who had done over 90 ultras all over, from West to East, from North to South, and anywhere in the middle, he shot me an email with potential outline of what he would look for in a “travel destination race” – and as I read it, I couldn’t agree more:
- Family friendly – travel with a running or non-running spouse and kids, things for them to do, shorter distances available to run for fun while waiting for the “longest racer” to finish
- Easy access to airport within relatively short driving distance with accommodation availability
- Beautiful views – May be different from what our Southern Region allows us to see in our regular lives, Mountains of all kinds.
- Crew friendly (if family/friends choose to commit to help a racer out as opposed to have that fun mentioned in #1)
- Old school, low key races – community support
- Terrain description fitting for fun
It was great to have those guiding points, because if it was simply suggesting you to jump on the plane for a race, I’d send you to Zane Grey 50 (we have perfect training grounds in Central Texas, if not for long climbs and altitude, then for rocks and attitude!) or to Hardrock 100 (but I won’t tell you about that one, I am 1 for 7 so far and absolutely need all the juju to get in next year, so back off!).
But I will include races that I, personally, am interested in – and that fit the above criteria as well.
Bear Chase 100km/50M/50km/13.1M/10km
This is a late September race (and you can still get in!), and the variety of distances is awesome! I haven’t gone there, but keep putting it on my calendar. Located in Lakewood, Colorado, it is only a few miles from Denver airport, making travel and lodging blissfully easy and not even worth mentioning – as well as “what to do in the area”. It’s Denver! It has everything a metropolitan city can offer, AND it is 30 minute drive from a Front Range mountains! The race itself is on a single track, relatively flat (4,000 feet of gain in a 100km) and at a mere 5,000 feet of altitude, making running from sea level very possible (if a bit tasking). Fast course, non-technical, with great views! It’s a well-sponsored event and rumor is, a lot of fun.
Devil Mountain 50M/50km/13.1M/10km/5km
Another Colorado race – and on the same weekend as Bear Chase! A little different location though – Pagosa Springs, and the nearest airport – Durango – is 60 miles away. Makes it more of a destination travel. Durango is a University town with all that comes with (I traveled there for five summers to get to Hardrock 100 “adult camp”, so became a little familiar). I don’t do exploring of towns beyond grocery stores and seek mountains – and this area has it in bunches! Drive 20 minutes – and you are in heaven, San Juan mountains at your feet. Embrace! The weather in September is perfect, and the course is running through some of the most remote and pristine old growth of the US – in Fall colors! The climbs are steep and topping at about 9,800 feet, with 8,300 feet of elevation gain for the 50M version. This is a “graduation” run, but what fun! A Must do on my personal bucket list. And all sweet single track.
Free State 100km/40M/26.2M/13.1M
This is a Kansas state race, very near-by, and some of us TALON runners can actually drive there. You can also fly to Kansas City – a big airport with affordable fare, and then drive to Lawrence, Kansas, where the race headquarters are, in 40 minutes.
The race is put on by a group Trail Nerds lead by Ben Homes. Ben has been a great friend of mine for many, many years. He organized this group and began putting on races (non-profit) a couple decades ago, and they travel in groups, volunteer as a club, and do an amazing job wherever they step. The terrain is pure single track around a lake – at times smooth, and at times rocks and roots remind you of Texas and Arkansas – a typical fair of mix. The aid stations are well stocked, and your crew can get around to any of the locations easily to see you – and enjoy the views of the lake. It’s a late April date for this race, nice mild temperatures, and don’t let the flatness of the course fool you – the times are not fast. But the trip is well worth it, and you’ll get a great hug at the finish line, as well as hot food and music. A very family feel on that one.
Mokelumne River 50M/50km/26.2M/8M
Just so you don’t think I am hung up on high altitude mountains (I kind of am, but I see beauty in many places and love it all!), here is another April race worth exploring – in Camanche Lake, California, a striking distance by car from Sacramento airport.
Brief description of race: The out-and-back course runs along the Mokelumne River Coast to Crest Trail and winds along the Mokelumne River past California’s historic mining towns and old mines. This is a wild flower season for the Coastal West, so you get treated to the beauty of it as much as the infamous Miwok 100km runners do a week or so later.
Website: http://pocatello50.com (looks like having website issues)
This is one of my all-time favorite races, and I ran inaugural 50M version, as well as 50M in 2012. The 50M is not really a 50, more like 52, and it features some 14,000 feet of climbs. The race is held on the first weekend of June (sometimes it’s the last one of May), and one year it had a snow-blizzard, but both years I ran it, the weather was hot, sunny and beautiful. The course is laid rather high in the mountains for the flat-landers, but not enough to feel the negative effects of the altitude: it goes between 4,500 and 7,500 feet and tops at 8,500 feet towards the end. A majority of the course is on single-track trail, with sections of dirt road in some spots (but very little, and still high and pretty).
A crew can meet runners in four spots, while enjoying the scenery as well. The organizers had done an amazing job designing and marking the course and staffing the aid stations with the best ultrarunners of the country.
Last year they went eco and chose to be a cup-free race (and plate-free for post-race festivities, so bring your own). They do an awesome cook-out right at the start/finish camp area – yes, you can camp a few feet from the line! For free! So, bring your tent – of course, you can choose to stay in a motel within a 15-minute drive to Pocatello.
Pocatello has a University and some playgrounds, but mostly I would encourage you to check out the mountains. For the “how to get there”, you can fly to either Pocatello, or for cheaper option, to Salt Lake City, which is an hour and half drive away. The race is not for profit, and money goes back to community.
Another one I ran twice (the 100M version) and another one of my all-time favorite old school races (I wouldn’t have gone back if it wasn’t, right?). A paradise!
Bighorn is running out of Sheridan, a small town in the middle of nowhere, a very welcoming one for tourists and guests. It doesn’t have huge attractions, but the main street is open to walking with places to eat and shop for Wild West memorabilia.
The race starts as you get dropped in the middle of the road five miles out of town (the 100M) and it is an out-n-back course that covers absolutely stunning mountain “hills” (up to 9,000 feet, again) during prime wildflowers bloom. The rest of the distances get bussed out a certain amount of miles out on the course (different for each race distance, of course), and runners start their trek towards the finish line located in a community town park next to the raging, wonderful cold river where the barbecue and other food is aplenty.
This course is a bit tough on crew driving, but not impossible. Mostly, you want to get there because you want to see amazing colors, Wild West as it was, and challenge yourself with some awesome single track. Flying can be done into Sheridan itself, but it’d be cheaper to get to Billings and drive an hour and half on easy empty highways. Plenty of motels in town and lots of camping places.
Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50km/12M/7M
Another gem in Colorado! Yes, I do love mountains, and since we don’t have them much in 4 of the 5 TALON states, I keep offering to go visit them. Held in the first weekend of June, it is a “shorter” offering of distances and takes place about 40 miles from Denver (and its airport), located in Golden Gate State Park. The course is 95% single track between 7,500 and 9,000 feet of altitude running through aspen groves, pine forests and rocky ridges. For the 50km you get almost 7,700 feet of elevation gain, so hiking will be a must skill. All three courses are a combination of fast smooth running and technical rocky trails. This is a spectacular place to visit and get a taste of Continental Divide Trail.
Jemez Mountain 50M/50km/13.1M
Not quite a “destination” for those of TALON living in New Mexico, but worthy of a shout-out. Held at the end of May, Jemez holds a special place for me. There, on the trails, I made a special connection with a guy who later captured my heart and for whom I moved across the country – from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas! Must be love…Anyway. Back in those days Jemez course was different, and a raging fire took a bunch of it out, but I still would encourage you to go and visit Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, an hour drive from Albuquerque airport.
The place has lots of lodging, and many offer discount for the race. It’s a very tight community out there with a homey feel to it, and they give back to the place they live and play in – all the local organizations. The course is hard for flatlanders, as it goes between 7,000 and 10,000 feet and gains a whole bunch (it was 12,000 feet when I did the 50 miler). Lots of nice single track, although dirt roads and some cross-country is involved as well. It is scenic and tough, indeed.
The post-race party is awesome as well, and many great runners frequent this course in their prep for high-profile 100M races.
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50M/50km/26.2M/13.1M/10km
I was going to try and pick a destination out of these series because they offer so many distances – but they also offer so many destinations and time of the year options, I will let you do the honors!
This one is a corporate series though, so it’s different from all the above described non-profit, old-school community organized events. However, the variety is great, and from what I hear (besides the occasional poor marking of the course and an odd feel at the end of not a very tight family atmosphere where RDs are concerned, which you can make “family” with your own fellow runners!), it’s mapped out in beautiful places on ragged terrain and are worth giving a shot to visit a place you may not have otherwise visited: Georgia, Missouri, New York (Bear Mountain was my first mountain range for backpacking when I moved to the country 20 years ago), Wisconsin, Washington D.C., and California as a grand finale.
All this, OF COURSE, doesn’t even scratch the surface of what our country has to offer!!! But what I wanted to do with this article is to peek your interest in some travel, some exploring, and find a new place you want to go to and run for a bit – and maybe start a conversation on what are YOUR favorite destination races or ones on the bucket list, so we can all benefit!
– Olga King