Destination trail races worth the journey — and the training (psst…start now).
Any runner worth her salt is willing to take to the road on the quest for ever more challenging races. If those races happen to be in some of the most stunning landscapes in the West? So be it. Here are the iconic races—and amazing experiences—that keep us motivated through even the gnarliest long-run days.
Cruise The Desert
Dead Horse Ultra- Moab, Utah, November 16, 2019
Choose from a 30K, 50K or 50-mile out-and-back tour of the Magnificent Seven trail system out of the Gemini Bridges area; breathe in spectacular red-rock views of Arches National Park, the Moab Valley and the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
Pain meter: “The course is on the easier side [for an ultra] and perfect for first timers,” says Kylah Ricks, who, as the daughter of the race directors and one of Utah’s premier high school runners, helps with race organization and setup.
Training tips: This race has the most singletrack of any footrace in Moab, so don’t skimp on the singletrack training. Given the slick rock on the course, make sure you hit a fair amount of hard surfaces to prep your body.
Race strategy: Take it all in. It’s a fast course, but don’t forget to enjoy the enchanting red rock formations rolling into the horizon. Let the desert sunrise spur you on at the start, and, if you’re running the 50-miler and hit sunset, take a moment to appreciate the surreal beauty of twilight. (Remember to pack a headlamp and layers.)
Fun fact: The surface on the ground around you is actually a living organism called cryptobiotic crust, which takes thousands of years to form and suffers greatly from human disturbance. Translation: Stay. On. The. Trail.
Stay here: Want the true desert experience? Grab a campsite (they’re plentiful) around the Moab area. Want an actual bed after hoofing it for 50 miles? Try one of the Mad Moose Events sponsor lodges, like Big Horn Lodge or Aarchway Inn. Want a decadent full-body massage to recover? Splurge at the Sorrel River Ranch.
Get Up to Get Down
Imogene Pass Run – Ouray to Telluride, September 7, 2019
A very difficult 17.1-mile haul on a (mostly) four-by-four dirt road from Ouray to Telluride via Imogene Pass, which tops out at an elevation of 13,114 feet; you could be treated to magnificent vistas of the San Juan Mountains or to snow squalls, gusty winds and foul alpine weather.
Pain meter: High. Ten miles (and more than 5,300 feet of elevation gain) up, followed by seven quad-busting miles down, with a steep and gnarly descent that slides into almost an 18 percent gradient over nearly a mile.
Training tips: “Find an option with some good vertical that is going to force you to power hike for a good portion,” says Denver runner John Trierweiler, who tackled the IPR—his first trail race—in 2015 at age 32. “Because unless you are planning on winning, you will be doing a good bit of hiking on the course.” Also: Work in prolonged downhill runs.
Race strategy: Endurance, not speed. Let the energy of your surroundings carry you when you need it (and you will), whether it’s the inspiring views or the camaraderie of the IPR community. “Getting cheered on by a fellow runner or volunteer at 13,000 feet picks you up in a way that the incoherence of hundreds of people screaming every block of your standard road marathon doesn’t,” Trierweiler says.
Fun fact: The original trail over the pass was most likely forged by prospectors and their burros in the 1870s. Over the years, small mining communities popped up along the arduous route; on race day, you’ll know these ghost towns as aid stations.
Stay here: Ouray may be convenient for the start, but your post-race exhaustion and/or celebratory antics will thank you for a home base in Telluride—there’s a shuttle bus to the Ouray start line in the morning.
Go For Gold
Ute Mountaineer Golden Leaf Half Marathon- Snowmass to Aspen, September 28, 2019
A 13.1-mile, moderate run from Snowmass Village to Aspen through some of the most killer fall-foliage views in the West.
Pain meter: “It’s a net downhill race so it should be easy, but it’s not,” says Paul Perley, general manager of Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer outdoor specialty store and the name sponsor of the race. “The hardest endurance part is the first hill [about 900 vertical feet], but what makes it difficult is the footing—rocky routes, stream crossings, frequent mud, and slippery leaves.”
Training tips: Get your miles in on singletrack and hills. “I would also really recommend practicing downhills, because that’s where the injuries occur,” Perley says.
Race strategy: “Pace yourself on the first big hill as there are quite a few difficult ups and downs as you traverse the Snowmass ski area,” Perley says. “Once you get to the six-mile aid station it [becomes] a bit of a cruise so you don’t want to be spent prior to that. In the last 10 years, we have seen a lot more injuries and incidents of dehydration.”
Fun fact: One racer, Basalt’s Ronald Lund, 61, has completed every race in the event’s 39-year history.
Stay here: The race begins in Snowmass right outside the Westin, making it a good choice for convenience and a stress-free start. But downtown Aspen will give you more dining options and a livelier atmosphere if you don’t mind shuttling to the start via (free) RFTA bus or CME shuttle.
Try the Terrain
Bull of the Woods Trail Races- Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, September 14, 2019
Three race lengths—10 miles, half marathon and full marathon—climb and dip between the ski valley’s peaks, offering exhilarating woodsy stretches, rolling singletrack and breathtaking alpine scenery (most of it between 10,000 and 12,500 feet in elevation).
Pain meter: Fairly high, especially on the longer distances. “The difficulty should not be overlooked,” says race co-director Tze Yong. “There are areas on the Kachina Peak Marathon with climbing that hit 50-percent grade—around 8,000 feet of vertical for the marathon, 4,000 feet for the half.”
Training tips: Find a route that requires climbing at altitude, if possible. And work on your mental stamina; you’ll need it to last that many miles above 10,000 feet.
Race strategy: “[This race] was designed for maximum trail-running joy,” Yong says, “encompassing as much forested and high-alpine singletrack as possible. It’s not endless miles on dirt roads; it’s about getting into interesting terrain, maxing out incredible views of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, and whoopin’ and hollerin’ on fun singletrack.”
Fun fact: In only its fourth year, Bull of the Woods is a still-evolving race with an appealing, laid-back, grassroots feel and it donates the majority of its racer registration dollars to local nonprofits in the Taos area. Bonus: You cross the finish line right into Taos Ski Valley Oktoberfest.
Stay here: Try the Blake Hotel in Taos Ski Valley for sweet racer deals, or the Rio Hondo Condominiums, which are 100 feet from the race start.