Running has gotten longer, cooler and more dangerous in recent years, as part of its multi-decade apotheosis into an adventure sport. On the whole, this is great: we support everyone out here joining nighttime track clubs, knocking down ultras, chasing FKTs, or following in the footsteps of Shackleton in a pair of Brooks instead of boots.
But let’s remember how running spread across the States in the first place, and the surest way that the sport can engage with its community, raise lots of money for charity and encourage casuals to turn their practice into a passion: via the road race. There are some fantastic ones all across the country, with many of them turning 50 in the coming years, as America approaches a half-century since its love affair with running truly began.
These events weathered a tough couple years of “virtual racing,” but all have come roaring back, from local 5Ks up to international marathons. We figured it was well past time to sing their praises, and we rounded up the 10 worth traveling for throughout the country, from Joan Benoit’s hometown race in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to the laidback Hapalua Half on Oahu.
Dash to the Finish Line 5K in New York, NY
When: First Saturday of November
Why: The New York City Marathon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Problem is, millions of runners are fighting to have that experience every year; getting in requires a massive requirement in hours or dollars. Or plain luck. On a year you’re definitely not running 26.2, the Dash to the Finish is a fair compromise. You get to cross the same finish line in Central Park, after 3.1 miles run through Midtown, and then hang out the next day for what is not-so-secretly the best Sunday of the year in New York City. The race is both competitive (last year’s winner clocked a blistering 13:24) and a family affair (an eight-year-old and an 89-year-old were among the 2022 finishers).
Crazy 8s 8K in Kingsport, TN
When: Second Saturday of July
Why: For those who didn’t run cross country in college, an 8K is exactly five miles. It’s a nice gateway distance before you take the plunge on a big-time 10K, and you’ll find no race finer than the Crazy 8s in Kingsport, a town located on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. Dubbed “the world’s fastest 8K night race,” the course is lined with over 2,000 luminary candles (oh, it’s a night race) and finishes at a raucous J. Fred Johnson Stadium. The race is part of part of the larger Kingsport Fun Fest, a summer festival aimed at promoting community participation.
BolderBOULDER in Boulder, CO
When: Memorial Day
Why: Another one that ends at a stadium, except in this case it’s the University of Colorado’s gargantuan Folsom Field. This 10K is as festive as it is famous; last year’s near-29,000 finishers were entertained with over 30 bands, orchestras and DJs (and at least one slip-n-slide, at a designated “fun station”) along the course. The fun — and the verdancy of the early-summer Rockies — mask the fact that at 5,000 feet above sea level, this is a pretty difficult entry-level 6.2.
Crescent City Classic in New Orleans, LA
When: Saturday of Easter Weekend
Why: One of the oldest 10Ks in the country, there were less than 1,000 participants when Crescent City was first staged back in 1979. That number’s since ballooned up to 20,000 runners, and fortunately, some among their ranks are extremely fast — once the first runners cross the finish, about a half-hour after the start, a concurrent festival is allowed to begin in NOLA’s City Park. (Hence the event’s electric branding: “The Original Party Race.”) For more experienced runners, this is a great place to PR. New Orleans is flat and runs fast.
Beach to Beacon 10K in Port Elizabeth, ME
When: First Saturday of August
Why: This race was founded by Joan Benoit, one of the greatest runners in American history. She won the first women’s marathon at the Olympic Games (Los Angeles 1984), while her Boston Marathon mark a year earlier (2:22:43) stood for almost three decades. Benoit was Maine through and through; she was born in Cape Elizabeth, went to Bowdoin, ran her first Boston in a Red Sox cap, and eventually settled in Freeport. She founded this race in 1998, which meanders through state beaches and concludes at the iconic Portland Head Light. If inclined for a New England two-fer — Falmouth’s 7-mile road race is always just a week later.
Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, CA
When: Third Sunday of May
Why: The 12K (7.46 miles) that’s been covered by mermaids, wolly mamoths and Italian dinner tables. The San Francisco Chronicle summed it up well in a headline 15 years ago: “Hordes run, walk or stumble in Bay to Breakers.” It’s a block party masquerading as a footrace that’s been going strong since 1912, when it made its initial debut as way to soothe a city still reeling from the emotional aftershocks of the 1906 earthquake. Most races represent an opportunity for the running community to welcome the city at-large. This one’s a chance for runners to give San Francisco a hug…from The Embarcedero to Ocean Beach.
Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in Washington, D.C.
When: First Sunday of April
Why: Cherry blossom’ing in the capital is an essential pilgrimage — running 10 miles through the District in early April ensures you see them from every angle. This one, mind you, will require a bit of preparation. It operates on a lottery system to account for its popularity, which typically announces the lucky runners the December prior to the race. If 10 miles sounds too long, anyway, sign up for the 5K, which goes live right around the New Year and fills up pretty quickly.
Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, GA
When: July 4
Why: More runners than the New York Marathon?! Yep. At 60,000 entrants each year, Peachtree is the largest 10K in the world and a beloved Independence Day tradition in Atlanta for 50 years. This is the least “easy-entry” option on this list — you have to qualify to run, and about 10,000 runners are turned away each year. There are dozens upon dozens of local-ish, USATF-certified road races through which interested runners can qualify, though. If you do, you’ll get your hands on the race’s precious commodity: the limited-edition raceday T-shirt, chosen each year through an Atlanta Journal-Constitution-sponsored contest.
Hapalua Half-Marathon in Honolulu, HI
When: Second Sunday of April
Why: Half-marathons can trend a little tense at times. Too many entrants trying to get a read on how marathon training is going. But there isn’t much risk of that at Oahu’s premier half, which follows the volcanic tuff cones of Waikiki’s coastline, before wrapping at the large and lush Kapi’olani Regional Park. (Like Crescent City, a post-race festival with local food and live music awaits.) Our favorite detail about this race is “The Chase”: pro runners line up behind amateur and age-group runners, and the first person across the finish line, regardless of when they started, takes home the overall win and the prize money.
Big Sur International Marathon in Big Sur, CA
When: Last Sunday of April
Why: This marathon has never taken a bad photo. If you must run 26.2 miles outside one of the well-supported World Majors, you can do worse than hours of redwoods and rugged coastline. The race takes place entirely on the Pacific Coast Highway, which the area shuts down for “the day,” reopening it to the public at 1 p.m. Big Sur, unsurprisingly, is very hilly and windy. But its operators make their best effort to inspirit the 4,500 runners, with a live pianist on the Bixby Bridge and fresh strawberries at the finish. The participation pool is kept to small to respect local towns, so if you’re jonesing for a tussle with Hurricane Point, start planning now.