Little Wonders: Eleven Small-Scale US Marathons

Featuring... Lost Dutchman, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, Avenue of the Giants, God's Country, San Francisco, Maui, Boulder Backroads, Lake Tahoe, Richmond, California International


Posted: 18 May 2009
by Bart Yasso

Everyone knows about the big, must-do US marathons: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston. If you haven't run them already, you've probably got them on your life list. And for good reason. They're the glamour races, with as many as 40,000 runners and even more spectators. But there are other, smaller marathons that offer a different kind of good time. The races on this list are all in super-scenic locales - from historic state capitals to remote state forests, from high desert to tropical island shores. Each has its own charms, such as pre-race campfires, mid-race junk-food stops, and bottles of wine to sip at the finish line. And with fewer runners, you can expect more individual attention from race organisers, aid-station volunteers, and enthusiastic fans.


The Lost Dutchman Marathon

When: January
Where: Apache Junction, Arizona
Who: 500 runners
Why: Scenic, if challenging, desert course
Info: lostdutchmanmarathon.org

Legend has it that in the late 1800s, an immigrant prospector named Jacob Waltz (the "Dutchman") found gold in the Superstition Mountains, 30 miles east of Phoenix. He went to his grave without divulging his secret source, but that didn't stop people from hunting for the Lost Dutchman Mine. Today's treasure seekers are runners searching for the perfect desert marathon. They'll find it at the Lost Dutchman Marathon. The starting area near the town of Gold Canyon is the most relaxed pre-race setting in all of marathondom, with roaring campfires, blankets to sit on, and your choice of hot cocoa or java as you watch the sun rise over the Superstition Mountains. The challenging point-to-point course, on trails, unpaved and paved roads, is net downhill, from 2,330 feet to 1,840 feet. Most of that downhill is in the first seven miles, on the Peralta Trail. There are rolling hills after Mile 15, but the spectacular scenery along the way is worth the work. Stick around after you finish in Apache Junction for post-race burritos.

Bonus: With a half-marathon, 10-K, 8-K trail run, and two-mile fun run, thereís something for every runner in your family.


The Little Rock Marathon

When: March
Where: Little Rock, Arkansas
Who: 2,000 runners
Why: The largest finisher's medal in the world
Info: littlerockmarathon.com

Race weekend in Little Rock rocks with a half-marathon, marathon relay, and 5K fun run in addition to the 26.2-miler. Now in its third year, the marathon features a challenging loop course that starts and finishes in the shadow of the state capitol, winds past antebellum mansions in the (hilly) historic residential area called Quapaw Quarters, and runs out-and-back along a scenic road by the Arkansas River. The Southern-hospitality support rivals that of any race - one volunteer went to a drugstore and bought a tube of Vaseline for an ailing runner. Youíll get your biggest reward when you cross the finish line - the finisher's medal is the largest of any marathon's at six inches by 4.5 inches and weighing half a pound. If you're up for a splurge, spring for the "perks tent", where you get VIP treatment, including a fancy feast and massage.

Bonus: Participants get two race T-shirts - a starter and a finisher version.


The Salt Lake City Marathon

When: April
Where: Salt Lake City, Utah
Who: 3,200 runners
Why: Mountain views in a dry climate
Info: saltlakecitymarathon.com

After Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, the city wanted to put on another world-class event, and in 2004, the Salt Lake City Marathon made its debut. In April, you get a great view of the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains while you run through the valley's floor in spring bloom. The relatively flat, net-descent loop starts at the Olympic Legacy Bridge at the University of Utah, the site of the Olympic Village, at 4,800 feet. The course goes through city parks and then heads south, with the Wasatch Mountains on the left, to the halfway point, then swings back through residential neighborhoods before finishing at Olympic Legacy Plaza. Participants get a long-sleeve technical T-shirt. Take a nap before the evening's post-race party - last year the B52's provided the "boogie". If your legs are up for it, you can even do the "bump" to complete the race theme of "Run, Bump, and Boogie".

Bonus: Super-healthy (and delicious) post-race refreshments are provided by the upscale natural-food retailer Wild Oats.


Avenue of the Giants

When: May
Where: Eureka, California
Who: 600 runners
Why: To run through the redwoods
Info: theave.org

Avenue is one of the few races where you get the best of both worlds - fast times and awesome scenery. The double out-and-back course starts in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and passes immediately through the impressive Rockefeller Grove. Giant redwoods line the road, and you can glimpse Bull Creek through the trees. You run uphill to the 6.5-mile mark, down to the halfway point, and cross two overpass hills in the second half, where you run alongside the Eel River. The redwoods offer plenty of shade most of the way, although the last few miles can get a bit sunny. There's a trade-off for this much solitude: very few spectators to cheer you on. The race has a fall counterpart called Humboldt Redwoods Marathon, which offers the same great shady cool temps and those awe-inspiring giant trees.

Bonus: Wade into the ice-cold Eel River post-race, and your tired legs will thank you the next day.


God's Country

When: June
Where: Coudersport, Pennsylvania
Who: 100 runners
Why: Extra attention
Info: godscountrymarathon.com

Volunteers outnumber runners at this small, low-key race with lots of community support. The point-to-point course traces Route 6 between the small towns of Galeton and Coudersport through the Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County in north-central Pennsylvania. You pass through the villages of Potato City, Black Forest, and Clamtown, and by local bars with signs like "Yuengling and Wings". This region at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains on the Eastern Continental Divide is known as Godís Country for its rural beauty. Good thing itís so pretty, because there are a few hills, including a big one at 17. Take in the views when you reach the top of Denton Hill, at 2,424 feet. After that, itís mostly downhill to the town square of Coudersport for the finish.

Bonus: This small race offers prize money. Run well, and you may take home some cash.


The San Francisco Marathon

When: July
Where: San Francisco
Who: 3,000 runners
Why: A chance to run fast - in summer!
Info: chroniclemarathon.com

There are very few places in the US where you can set a PB in the summer. San Francisco in July might just do it for you. At the 7am race start, temperatures are typically around 56 degrees thanks to the area's famous cooling coastal fog. It's like running 26.2 miles through a natural misting station. Now in its fourth year, this course takes you on a tour of all the famous tourist spots. Starting at the Ferry Building, you run along Fisherman's Wharf, past the Marina and the Palace of Fine Arts, and climb up to the Presidio at mile five (the first big hill) for great views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge - fog permitting - at 310 feet, the highest point of the course. Miles 11 to 15 are flat, along the Pacific Ocean, preceding a hill into Golden Gate Park. There's lots of downhill in the last 10K, through the famed hippie-hangout Haight-Ashbury and Mission districts, past the Giants' S.B.C. Park, and back to the Embarcadero for the finish. Finishers get a medal, a high-tech shirt and a runner's cap.

Bonus: The 3.25-inch-diameter finisher's medal has felt pads on the backside so you can use it as a coaster.


Maui Marathon

When: September
Where: Maui, Hawaii
Who: 1,450 runners
Why: 18 miles of Maui coastline
Info: mauimarathon.com

This beautiful point-to-point, mostly flat course offers the best of Hawaii. Marathon morning on Maui begins in Kahului with a traditional Hawaiian blessing, hula dancers, and musicians blowing conch shells in the pre-race darkness. The race starts at 5:30am to take advantage of cooler temperatures (in the 60s). Tiki torches light the way for the first half-mile. At Mile 6 you see the sun rise over the 10,000-foot volcano Mount Haleakala. After Mile 8 you run alongside the crashing waves of the Maui surf for much of the race. Off the coast you can see Molokini, an extinct volcano crater. As you run northwest, the West Maui Mountains block the sun. Enjoy the cool ocean breezes and the sun at your back, and take advantage of the plentiful fluid stations with iced sponges - by 10am temps can be in the 80s. On the flat section between Miles 14 and 19, you've got great views of two other Hawaiian islands, Lanai and Molokai, and the chance for some cooling crosswinds. You arrive in the historic whaling village of Lahaina before finishing at the Kaanapali Resort Area, where you are greeted with a lei and a medallion as you cross the finish line. Your traveling companions can take advantage of shorter options such as a one mile, 5K, or half-marathon on the same weekend.

Bonus: Your finisher's certificate and the race-results book are ready the very next morning. Go for a swim, then get a tan on the beach perusing the results.


Boulder Backroads

When: September
Where: Boulder, Colorado
Who: 650 runners
Why: Fall foliage in the Rockies
Info: boulderbackroads.com

This is a marathon that minimises the pounding on your legs. Eighty-five percent of the loop course is on soft-packed dirt roads just north of Boulder. The Colorado Front Range foothills, horses galloping across meadows, and yellow-leafed aspen and cottonwood groves provide the scenic backdrop. The weather is dry and cool, but there's not much shade. And flatlanders take note: the race starts at 5,173 feet of elevation and climbs to just over 5,500 feet at Mile 8. Scottish bagpipes and drums escort runners to the start, and at the finish at the Boulder Reservoir, vendors and sponsors offer food, drink, and postrace massages. Avery Brewing Company, a local microbrewery, sets up shop at the finish.

Bonus: Local legends Colleen De Reuck, Arturo Barrios, Frank Shorter, and Benji Durden turn out to cheer on the finishers.


Lake Tahoe Marathon

When: October
Where: Lake Tahoe, California
Who: 600 runners
Why: Turquoise lake, snow-capped mountains
Info: laketahoemarathon.com

Some marathons you run for time, some you run to have a good time. This marathon is one of the latter - you run for the panoramic views along the shores of the turquoise-colored Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, with the fall colors in the background. It's hard to find a more striking setting for a race. The course is point-to-point and hilly, and it's run between 6,225 and 6,800 feet, so don't go into it expecting a PB. As you run over Taylor Creek Bridge at Mile 24, the awesome vistas of Emerald Bay outweigh your slower-than-normal race time. It's a small crowd of friendly runners, and a race you can brag about finishing. The pre-race pasta dinner is a sunset cruise on the lake, and the post-race goodies include hot dogs, cold beer, and a cool lake to wade into to soothe your tired feet.

Bonus: Looking for serious bragging rights? Sign up for the Tahoe Triple and run the circumference of the lake - three marathons in three days (and two states) finishing with the regular marathon on Saturday.


Richmond Marathon

When: November
Where: Richmond, Virginia
Who: 4,200 runners
Why: America's friendliest marathon
Info: richmondmarathon.com

This marathon starts and finishes in charming historic downtown Richmond, once the capital of the south. The scenic, fast loop course takes in all of the city's old neighborhoods, travelling up Monument Avenue, past statues of Confederate soldiers and Richmond native and tennis star Arthur Ashe, through the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, then alongside the James River. Along with the typical water and sports drink stops, this is probably the only race in the country that offers junk food stops, at Miles 16 and 22, stocked with Gummy Bears, cookies, and soda. There are also two wet-washcloth stations, at Miles 17 and 23, perfect for cleaning up for your finish-line photo. Three party zones set up along the way with free food, prize giveaways, and noisemakers for spectators and family means lots of enthusiastic, cheering support. The last mile features a fast downhill to the finish in the trendy Shockhoe Slip area, where there are plenty of post-race goodies, including bagels, fruit, and pizza, and a band to celebrate your finish.

Bonus: A free bus tour of the course the day before the race.


California International Marathon

When: December
Where: Sacramento, California
Who: 5,000 runners
Why: To run really fast
Info: runcim.org

The California International Marathon is one of the fastest courses in the US if the weather is right, and many years the weather has been perfect - no rain, little wind, and temps in the 40s at the start, high 50s/low 60s at the finish. The point-to-point course has a net descent of 340 feet, with plenty of rolling hills in the first half, so don't go out too fast. The marathon starts in Folsom - an old gold miner's town and location of the prison Johnny Cash immortalized - and finishes at the steps of the state capital in downtown Sacramento. Pace yourself smartly, and you'll feel like you're descending to the finish line to visit Arnold.

Bonus: Pace teams led by local elites Rae Clark, Tim Twietmeyer, and Ginger Bryan.


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