Over 19 million people finished one of 28,200 U.S. road races in 2013, according to the most recent report from nonprofit stats keeper Running USA. Yes, those are records for participation and events. And the numbers keep rising as the sport finds new enthusiasts and spawns more organized reasons to run. Here, we pay tribute to 10 races that have set the standard over the years--both on city streets, and in the wild backcountry--with cool courses, fascinating histories, and unforgettable atmospheres.
Peachtree Road Race: Established in 1970
The world’s largest 10K is held every year on Independence Day in Atlanta, Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ATL’s major daily newspaper, took over sponsorship in the mid-‘70s, which gave the race big-time media exposure and caused an exponential rise in interest. With a participant cap currently set at 60,000 runners, Peachtree has a larger field than any marathon, and one that includes some of the world’s premier talent; past winners include legends of the sport like Frank Shorter and Grete Waltz.
Bay to Breakers
This 12.1K (7.46 miles) runs west through the heart of San Francisco, from the Embarcadero waterfront to the edge of the Pacific. The course hasn’t changed since 1912–hence the race’s claim of being the “oldest consecutively run annual footrace in the world.” Many participants will try to outdo each other in the lavish costume category, while others go the opposite route and wear nothing at all, much to the chagrin of local government and glee of fellow racers and spectators.
Though not as renowned as New York or Boston, the Chicago Marathon is one of six World Marathon Majors and boasts a course that is flat and fast. Over the years, four world records have been set here, including the first-ever sub-2:06 effort, set in 1999 by young Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi.
Western States 100
There’s no trail run like it. Formerly the Western States Trail Ride, this burly 100-mile course from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, is the legendary ultramarathon of the Sierra Nevada. The time limit for completing the course is 30 hours, but do it in under 24 and you will be rewarded with a hand-made, silver belt buckle–the most coveted prize in all of ultra running.
3M Austin Half Marathon
More under-the-radar than any other race on this list, Austin’s 3M is a favorite among those looking to run their fastest half marathon. The point-to-point course from north Austin to the finish in front of the Texas State Capitol, includes an average elevation drop of 41 feet per mile, according to race director Jon Conley.
Fifteen runners lined up for the first Boston Marathon in 1897, one year after the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, whose marathon served as inspiration for Bean Town’s marquee event. Held every year on “Marathon Monday” (aka Patriots’ Day), Boston is the oldest annual marathon in the world.
“The World’s Toughest Foot Race.” 135 miles from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California, for a cumulative vertical ascent of 13,000 feet and a cumulative vertical descent of 4,700 feet. As if that all weren’t insane enough, the race takes place in July, when temperatures in Death Valley soar to more than 120 degrees. Runner’s World’s Bart Yasso ran the race in 1989 and wrote about it afterwards, increasing the awareness of this desert sufferfest and drawing elite ultrarunners like Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, and Lisa Smith.
Fifth Avenue Mile
If the New York City Marathon is the New York Road Runners’ most prestigious event, the Fifth Avenue Mile is probably the most fun to run. Bomb down one of the most famous streets in one of the most famous cities in the world–it’s a straight shot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the southeast corner of Central Park–to run your fastest 5,280 feet. (And, yes, the race is run in age-group heats so you don’t have to worry about jostling with 5,000 other runners at the start.)
This lightning-fast 5K in swanky Carlsbad, California, offers participants stellar views of the Pacific Ocean, and annually attracts a world-class field. Previous winners in the elite category have included world and Olympic champions, while the Masters division is as competitive as any in the country. If you want to run your fastest 5K, this is a good place to do it.
New York City Marathon
The race that needs no introduction. With 50,000+ runners in recent years, this is the largest marathon in the world. The course leads through all five boroughs of the Big Apple, beginning with a dramatic ascent of the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island and finishing in Central Park, the heart of Manhattan.