My Top 5 Most Challenging Courses

The countdown posts continue! I wanted to throw down my top 5 favorite race shirts, but I’ll be a good blogger and wait until I have pictures of those.

Instead, I’m going with the Top 5 Most Challenging Courses that I’ve run. And I’m talking about the course itself, not the weather conditions on race day. So as much as I’ve whined about the heat at the Lincoln and Pony Express Marathons, and the storm at Shamrock, you won’t find them here. Those courses were easy courses.

And a disclaimer. I’m aware that compared with others, I haven’t run THAT many courses that would be considered “challenging.”

It won’t surprise you that you’ll see a lot of trails on this one.

#5 – La Jolla Half Marathon – Two days in a row the La Jolla Half comes in at #5 on my list. I will clarify this one by saying that if you lived in SoCal or somewhere with real hills (aka not central Iowa) this course may seem more tame.

Still, the 400+ foot climb up to Torrey Pines is a brutal one that can really derail your race. Take it too slow? Your time is shot. Take it too fast? Your legs are shot. If you haven’t run a hill like this one, expect lots of pain. And one thing the elevation chart doesn’t show you is that you get some rolling and gradual uphills the next few miles. You can’t relax at the top of Torrey Pines, because they keep coming.

If you read my post yesterday, you saw me mention the two 200+ foot climbs in the race. Personally, I think the one at mile 12 is the most brutal. It’s late in the race and has a false top as well. The first year I ran the race, that hill was an absolute soul crusher.

#4 – Mount Desert Island Marathon – I said this yesterday as well, this was a hilly course. If you can pick up almost 2,000 feet of gain in a road race, you know there are hills. MDI keeps you going up and down most of the way with most of the steepest parts being downhill.

The second half of the race (in my recollection) is more flat than the first 13. However, the climbs in the second half are larger and longer. If you haven’t done training runs on hills leading into this race, you’ll have a bad time. But at least the scenery is nice!

But to be fair, I firmly believe if you train on hills this could be a PR course. No climbs are extreme, they’re just never ending.

#3 – Living History Farms – Ben, how does a 7 mile run in Des Moines get into your top most challenging courses? Run this and you’ll find out.

The first three miles are extremely tame as you run on jeep roads and through fields. Then you hit the single track. Descent into the rivers, crossing the rivers (and this is in November…COLD), and crawling up steep inclines to get back to the fields. And do it all over again.

The first time I ran LHF, I planned it as an easy run. My heartrate was absolutely hammering in the second half of that race all to maintain what would otherwise be an easy race. This is a challenging course for sure. But at only 7 miles, just about anyone should be able to slog through it.

#2 – Music City Trail Ultra – When a race makes you question what you’ve gotten yourself into at Mile 1, you know you’re in for a challenging day.

The climbs in this race are steep and massive. Throw in some segments that are off trail altogether and you’ve created quite the adventure. And let’s not forget about the 8 mile loop which most consists of off trail water crossings.

You almost dread the back of the out-and-back because you know what’s coming for you. Those steeps downhills early in the race? Now they’re steep uphills. And vise-versa.

#1 – Maryland HEAT 50k – This was a debate for me between the MCTU and the HEAT. Ultimately, I went with the Maryland HEAT, held in Patapsco Valley State Park, just west of Baltimore.

The course is definitely challenging, but honestly probably a little less so that the MCTU. So why is this number 1? Well, because there is a wall on this course. A literal 15 foot wall. And in the 50k you encounter this at miles 15 and 30. Have you ever tried to climb a wall 30 miles into a race? It sucks.

The wall does give you two options, though. Over or around. And wait, why not go around? Well, that entails wading through the river. Going over is faster and dryer.

Honorable Mention: Afton 25k, Louisville Trail Half, Icebreaker Indoor 5k

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