More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers of marathons, trail races and other running events to shut down or go virtual, runners are back – in person.
“Spring of 2022 looks to be the beginning of a ‘normal’ year,” says Mike Koon, director of Sports, Events and Film for Visit Champaign County, a central Illinois destination that hosts a Boston Marathon qualifier and several other running events. He noted, however, that multiple changes have been made in his county to accommodate safety procedures. Additional waves have been added to spread out runners further along courses, and race registrations are capped to ensure safety.
While some events (such as the New York City Marathon) report participation numbers returning to pre-pandemic levels, others are still working toward that goal.
“I am aware that early this year, shorter distance running events did not have as many participants as the years prior to the pandemic,” says Bob Dunfey, volunteer race director for the Gorham Savings Bank Maine Marathon, Half Marathon and Relay in Portland, Maine. “Longer distance events have typically done well this year. I am guessing as infection levels go down and stay down, the shorter distance running events will have greater participation.”
For this article, we traverse the country from Maine to California to catch up on what’s happening in eight desirable running destinations.
State of Maine
One of the northernmost states in the country is situated in the northern corner of New England and offers diverse road and trail routes along coastal, mountain and rural scenery. As Sheila Brennan Nee, director of the Maine Sports Commission says: “Miles run in Maine will long be remembered for their epic backdrops, authentic Maine-style post-event gatherings and connectivity to our passionate running community that supports these events all four seasons.”
Maine will host several major community runs, trail runs and marathons in 2022. They include September’s Bruiser 12 Mile Trail Race at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, a twisting loop of single-track trails pocked with rocks, roots, bumps and hills; October’s Gorham Savings Bank Maine Marathon, a Boston Marathon qualifier that takes runners along rolling hills with views of the Portland skyline amidst peak fall foliage; and December’s Millinocket Marathon, a free race certified by USA Track & Field that has been held since 2015 in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin. Runners are encouraged to donate to local nonprofit groups that help sustain the town after its massive paper mill shut down.
Running event organizers in Maine had no doubt events would return to their state, and they’re optimism is rooted in the commitment of participants. “Marathon running is the common person’s Mount Everest,” says Gary Allen, co-founder of Crow Athletics, which hosts the Millinocket Marathon and other running events in Maine.
Huntington, West Virginia
Head south, and you’ll find plenty of trail running and marathon opportunities in Huntington, West Virginia, located in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Marshall University Marathon, held every November, is the largest marathon in West Virginia. It begins outside Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium, and participants are offered a football to carry into the stadium for the race’s final 100 yards. The race is a Boston Marathon qualifier and also includes half marathon and 5K options. Race logistics are a breeze, according to Anna Adkins, sales manager for the Huntington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, with parking less than 100 feet from the start and finish line.
“Running and walking became great ways for people to get out of the house and destress during the pandemic. The paths in our local parks were full of runners all day, showing an increase in running and outdoor exercise during lockdown and throughout the pandemic,” Adkins says, noting that the boost has resulted in more events happening in Huntington. “We have seen an increase in 5K events. Outdoor activities continue to be very popular with locals and visitors, and we do not see that changing any time soon.”
The Florida panhandle city of Tallahassee has expanded the running opportunities it offers, thanks in large part to the world-class cross country course at Apalachee Regional Park. The park can host small and large running events, and the facility features several course and distance options through rolling hills, lowlands and pine forests.
“The capital projects at the park include an operations building, an awards stage and a permanent finish line structure, as well as some amazing local partnerships that give us the flexibility to go after the largest cross country meets in the nation,” says Ryan Zornes, senior sales and sports director at Visit Tallahassee, adding that the park hosted the 2021 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships last November. “It was the first time the NCAA had ever run the DI championships in the state of Florida.”
Later this year, Tallahassee will welcome such high-profile meets as the Florida State University Cross Country Invitational, the Florida High School Athletic Association’s State Cross Country Championships and the Tallahassee Community College Cross Country Open. The city also will host some collegiate events for the first time in 2022, including the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I and Division II Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships. And Tallahassee also has bid to host the 2026 World Athletics Cross Country Championships.
Another destination with a championship-caliber cross country park is Aurora, Illinois, where the new Northwestern Medicine Cross Country Course is specifically designed to host youth events (2K, 3K and 4K races), high school races (3 miles and 5K) and collegiate events (6K for women and 8K for men). The grass course is 10 meters wide for the entire course, with an 80-meter-wide curved starting line.
In 2022, the course will host the National Intercollegiate Running Club Association (NIRCA) Great Plains Regional and the NCAA Division III Midwest Regional, and discussions are underway to host the 2023 and 2024 NIRCA National Cross Country Championships. Additionally, the course is adjacent to a minor league baseball stadium and a minor league hockey ice arena, with which it shares a 2,500-space parking lot.
“Since cross country events are typically in the morning, this provides parking availability that no other cross country course can match,” says Al Edgecombe, chair of the Chicago Area Track & Field Organizing Committee and operator of the Northwestern Medicine Cross Country Course.
Cross country has a long and rich tradition in Aurora and Chicago’s west suburbs, with local high school teams reaching the podium at the Nike Cross Nationals seven of the past 15 years, according to Edgecombe.
“The pandemic caused a one-year delay for the initial season on the Northwestern Medicine Cross Country Course,” adds Pete Garlock, director of sales for the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. ”But since its first event on Aug. 28, 2021, everything has been full speed ahead, with prudent personal measures but no major restrictions on athletes or spectators. This is an area that understands the sport of cross country and appreciates the opportunity to see regional and national events.”
Champaign County, Illinois
Less than three hours south of Aurora is Champaign County, which epitomizes the general perception of the Midwest being flat.
“If you ask any runner why they love doing races in our community, the answer will likely be our flat landscape,” Koon says. “While being flat may sound boring, it gives many runners an opportunity to hit their personal record. Our largest running event, the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, is a Boston Marathon qualifier, and we attract runners from around the world to run our race — as they often PR here and have a better chance of qualifying.”
That event, which also includes other shorter races, brings in about 13,000 runners every April. The county also hosts the Allerton Half Marathon & 10K Trail Run, during which hundreds of runners traverse the 14 miles of trails at Allerton Park & Retreat Center. Second Wind Running Club, a local organization, coordinates several other trail and road races throughout the year, as well as specialty events like The Color Run.
“More specialty runs are popping up in Champaign-Urbana and our surrounding communities,” Koon says. “As more people discover the landscape and the ease of running in Champaign County, we anticipate more long distance and specialty runs coming to the community.”
Lubbock is located in West Texas, just south of the Texas Panhandle, and it is a prime location for trail and road running. Competitions include the annual Lubbock Mayor’s Marathon in April, which takes runners through the trails inside Mackenzie Park, past Dunbar Historical Lake and into the city’s downtown district. Other races include the Palo Duro Trail Run with 50-mile, 50K and 25K distances around the second-largest canyon in the United States (behind the Grand Canyon). Lubbock also hosts the Ironman 70.3 race each summer.
“Lubbock offers big-city resources while fostering a small-town feel,” says Scott Harrison, director of Lubbock Sports. “We have a strong and active group of runners that are part of the West Texas Running Club, which sponsors annual runs like the Red Raider Road Race — a marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K fun run through Texas Tech University’s campus.”
Tempe is another destination with plenty of experience hosting high-level running events. The scenic city, located in the heart of the Phoenix metropolitan area, is the longtime home of IRONMAN Arizona and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona marathon, and Tempe also has several running clubs that the Tempe Tourism Office coordinates with to assist with running events, according to Kelly Bassett, director of marketing and communications for the Tempe Tourism Office.
“Tempe is a vibrant city that continues to grow and offers visitors a variety of things to do,” she says. “The city embraces an active lifestyle and a laid-back atmosphere, and it’s a place where community matters. It’s partly why our longstanding partnerships with high-profile running events have been so successful. We feel this success will continue as running events come back 100 percent.”
Santa Clarita, California
We complete our coast-to-coast “run” in Santa Clarita, which is surrounded by three different mountain ranges and “literally” tens of thousands of acres of open space, according to Evan Thomason, economic development associate for the City of Santa Clarita.
“The city is particularly very popular for trail races, cross country and obstacle course races,” he says. “As the third-largest city in Los Angeles County, Santa Clarita has the infrastructure to host large-scale events, and the running community here is very strong.”
Indeed, the city’s 2022 running calendar includes events as diverse as the Los Angeles Spartan Sprint, the Valencia Trail Run, the Grit OCR, the Sugar Daddy Marathon, and the Spacerock Half Marathon, 10K and 5K — which is promoted as “the final trail running frontier” and takes place at Vasquez Rocks Natural Park.
“Combine all that with the fact that Santa Clarita is home to Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor, and runners of all ages enjoy extending their trips and having some fun — either here or using Santa Clarita as a home base to explore L.A.,” Thomason says. SDM