As I approach the Milwaukee Marathon (less than four weeks now!) it seems like a good time to start unleashing some Top 5 countdowns on the blog.
I actually thought of this idea just yesterday while I was trying to convince a friend to join me for the Music City Trail Ultra in Nashville this spring. I told him the race was in my Top 5 favorites. That got me thinking: What are my Top 5 favorite races?
So here’s what I came up with, from #5 to #1:
#5 – La Jolla Half Marathon – Ben, you’ve said this is the only Half you would do as a destination race. You’ve said that the 2015 shirt is one of your all-time favorites (that’ll be another list, folks). How is this only your #5 favorite?
Well, simply put, I like four more races more than La Jolla. But this is an absolutely excellent race. It’s easily one of the bigger Half Marathons I’ve run, and the organization is second to none. The waiting area to start is HUGE and there’s definitely no shortage of bathrooms at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The course itself is absolutely spectacular. You’ll get some spectacular views of the ocean, and most of them at points in the race where you won’t be in too much pain. And boy are there points of pain. There are two big climbs (miles 4 and 12) and one HUGE climb right in the middle up to Torrey Pines. Running along the ocean, through Torrey Pines, and through neighborhoods is great, and the course support is the best I’ve had in a Half.
The finish area in La Jolla Cove is also a huge party. How many races have chips and guac for finishers? Answer: not many. Plus there’s plenty of drinks food, and other things for you when the race is over.
It’s a pricey race for sure, but well worth it, especially if you make this into a vacation. Or are out there for work, like I have been
#4 – Mount Desert Island Marathon – I’ve had friends tell me that this Maine race is their all-time favorite, and it’s easy to see why. This race typically sells out, and that’s no surprise either. Easily the most scenic race I’ve ever run, and it isn’t even close. Maine in mid-October? The changing leaves are breathtaking.
The race is a point-to-point adventure (actually…four of my top five are point-to-point) through Mount Desert Island. Yes, it’s a hilly race, but if you hill train, that’s not a huge deal. You’ll run through some mountains and see entire forests of multi-colored leaves. Then there are the parts where you run along the water and through some small fishing towns.
Frankly, I could write an entire post just about the scenery here. Spectacular.
Getting to Bar Harbor can be a bit of a hassle (and expensive), but again it’s totally worth it. The small town is extremely welcoming of the influx of runners, and there’s plenty to do when you aren’t running 26.2. Put this one on your bucket list.
#3 – Music City Trail Ultra – Ok, so maybe I should have told my friend that this race was in my top 3. But this is an awesome (and challenging) 50k adventure in the Tennessee mountains. And it’s about as low-key as you would expect from a group of people getting set to run 31.1 miles through the mountains.
This is probably also the only race I’ve ever run where I thought in the first mile “What have I done?” The biggest hill you descend and then ascend is when you hit mile 1. It’s a beast, and a taste of what to come.
A good chunk of the race is on single track or jeep roads, but there are significant portions through the forest where you are guided by small orange flags. Oh, and don’t forget the water crossings! John, the race director, made a comment this past year that his races demand blood. That’s not exactly a joke. I don’t think you can make it through the MCTU 50k without leaving some blood in those mountains.
Oh, and this is the only looped course in my top 5.
And how tough is it? No one has broken 4 hours on the course, and typically only five or six runners run under 6 hours each year. It’s brutal. But awesome.
#2 – Twin Cities Marathon – I actually made the comment on Sunday that I was a little sad I wasn’t running Twin Cities again this year. This race bills itself as the most beautiful urban marathon in the US. And it is. The leaves are changing color in Minnesota in early October, and the race takes you around multiple lakes and across the Mississippi River.
I mentioned earlier that the crowd support at La Jolla is very good. Twin Cities leaves that in the dust. There is rarely a time you’re on your own and without support. There’s one stretch by the river where the crowds disperse a little, but they come right back once you cross the river and ascend the hill.
The finish line is also the most epic marathon finish I’ve run. And yes, that includes finishing inside Lincoln Memorial Stadium in Nebraska. The finish to Twin Cities sends you down a hill directly toward the picturesque cathedral in St. Paul. There’s a big screen showing all the finishers, and there are bleachers (that are filled) lining the road. Epic.
And yes, I might be a little biased about this one, since my Marathon PR is here. But really, this is a premier marathon that I would highly recommend.
#1 – Gopher to Badger Half – If you know me, or read this blog, then my #1 race is no surprise to you. I LOVE this race. And yes, a HUGE part of this is because this was my first Half, and I get to see a lot of friends each year when I run this.
But this race seriously gives you everything. Hills, flat, neighborhoods, country roads, river roads, bike trails, and a bridge crossing the St. Croix. Plus you run from one state to another, and how badass does that sound?
The finish line area is also excellent. Live music that goes into the afternoon, and plenty of food and water for finishers. I don’t want to rant about how great this is here, because I’ve done it so many times on this blog. But this is a superb race.
Honorable Mention: Dam to Dam, Living History Farms, Grandma’s Marathon