From fancy medals to T-shirts to garish headwear, road races will sometimes go to extreme lengths to attract prospective entrants. But while such ephemera is usually fated to end up in a yard sale, there is one race-day acquisition that runners can keep for the rest of their lives: a fast time. Many a race organizer knows that there’s no material substitute for achieving that coveted personal best, and they're not above luring motivated runners with the promise of a fast, PB-friendly course.
We took it upon ourselves to assemble a list of the fastest of fast courses. No matter what distance, here are the races where you’re most likely to walk away with the that PB. The only drawback of running one of these: afterwards, you’ll have no excuse.
One Mile: New York Road Runners’ Fifth Avenue Mile
New York, New York; September
For a city that stages races pretty much every weekend of the year, New York is generally not known for an abundance of fast courses. The NYC Marathon includes a couple of steep bridges, and Central Park Drive—host to the majority of Gotham running events—is deceptively hilly. While the NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile isn’t entirely flat either, it’s probably still the best race in the country to crank out a quick road mile: the course runs twenty straight blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the southern end of Central Park and only includes (very) slight undulations for a net downhill elevation change of just under 50 feet. Perhaps most crucially for a distance as short as the mile, Fifth Avenue has over twenty different heats—including pro, local elite, kid, and wheelchair races—so course congestion is kept to a minimum.
5K: Carlsbad 5000
Carlsbad, California; April
The self-proclaimed “World’s Fastest 5K” is held each spring in San Diego County. While that tagline might sound a little hyperbolic, the results don’t lie: the Carlsbad 5000 is where the current road 5K world records were set for both men and women. But even if you’re not planning on joining Sammy Kipketer as the only person ever to run under 13 minutes in this event, this flat race, part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll race series, is good for runners of all different abilities. Good crowds and ocean views provide extra motivation.
10K: Boston Athletic Association 10K
Boston, Massachusetts; June
In recent years, the Boston Athletic Association has added a half-marathon and 5K to expand its offerings beyond its marathon. The newest addition is the B.A.A. 10K, an out-and-back affair along historic Commonwealth Avenue. This race celebrated its inaugural running in 2011 and has since drawn U.S. running royalty like Shalane Flanagan, who won in 2016. The fact that Flanagan set a national 10K road record in her win bolsters the B.A.A.’s claim that this is one of the fastest 10Ks in the world.
Half Marathon: 3M Half Marathon
Austin, Texas; January
The point-to-point course of the 3M Half Marathon features a net elevation drop of nearly 300 feet, as runners descend from north Austin to the center of town. Additionally, the course includes few turns and no serious climbs, and the 3M Half typically has an early start (7 a.m.) during the coolest month of the year for Central Texas. In other words, expect perfect racing conditions.
Marathon: Baystate Marathon
Lowell, Massachusetts; October
A rule of thumb: the longer the race, the more the weather becomes a factor. While the flat courses of Chicago and Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth have the potential to yield extremely fast performances, both of these races have a history of being very hot. If you’re looking for a marathon PR, the better option is the lesser known Baystate Marathon. This race takes place in Lowell, Massachusetts, in mid-October, where the historic average high temperature for the month is 62 degrees. From its inception, the Baystate Marathon was intended as a race for runners to achieve their Boston Marathon qualifying time. Rather than being totally flat, the course includes a few gentle, rolling hills, as runners make two loops along the Merrimack River. Every year, the race has one of the highest percentages of Boston qualifiers among its finishers—roughly 25 percent make the cut.
50 Miles/100 Miles: Brazos Bend 100
Brazos Bend State Park, Texas; December
Depending on whom you ask, the pursuit of chasing a PR might start to lose its appeal once you get up into ultra territory. Or, rather, the focus shifts towards running a course PB, since so many of the most renowned trail races are famous precisely because of how challenging and varied their terrain is. That said, if you’re dying to see how fast you can run 50 or 100 miles on an entirely flat course, head to Texas's Brazos Bend State Park in December. In both races, runners navigate around the wetlands and forests of this lush nature preserve located 45 miles from Houston. Just be sure to look out for alligators.