10 races and marathons that prove West Coast running = best coast running

January 28, 2016                 6m read time
Nadra Nittle

Between Boston and New York, the East Coast can lay claim to some of the world's best-known marathons. But the West Coast can hold its own in the running world, offering something the classic Eastern seaboard races just can’t beat: Pacific Coast views that take your breath away (because you needed that extra challenge while running). Get the facts on the top races in California and the Pacific Northwest with these 10 scenic, outrageous and demanding runs.

1. Big Sur International Marathon, California

Big Sur International Marathon in California Big Sur International Marathon

Big Sur International Marathon in California

Big Sur International Marathon


Established in 1986, the Big Sur International Marathon draws about 4,500 runners annually and sells out in the blink of an eye. The stunning seaside course starts at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, winding beneath redwood trees, past peaceful green ranches and along the cliffs of one of the world’s most famous coastlines—all in crisp Pacific air. “When you drive the coastline, you're going around 45 miles an hour. You see great sights, but it all happens pretty quickly,” says ZOZI Guru Dean Karnazes. “When you take it in on foot, you just see so many new and incredible views.”

Consistently ranked as one of the best in the world, this April marathon features a variety of distances, including a 3K fun run, relay and 21-miler. Plus, its six-hour course limit makes Big Sur an official qualifier for the Boston Marathon. On race day, Highway 1 North closes to traffic after 6 a.m., so head out early if you want to take part.

2. San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, California

San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon Nathan Rupert

San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon

Nathan Rupert


If your idea of getting into a running groove means literally busting a move, the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon is your jam. This musical 5K, relay, half or full marathon kicks off in Balboa Park, San Diego’s pride-and-joy park bursting with trails, museums and the San Diego Zoo.

Rock out to a new musical act after each mile of this marathon, where headline acts in past years have been an eclectic mix of ‘80s and ‘90s feel-goods like Seal, Pat Benatar, Sugar Ray and Hootie and the Blowfish. DJs also spin pop, rap and rock tunes as you hustle toward the finish line—and a free concert at downtown Petco Park. If San Diego’s June event (the original in the series) isn’t enough, sign up for another; the race goes to nearly 30 cities including New Orleans, Seattle, Montreal and Chicago, so there are plenty of chances to rock and roll.

3. Los Angeles Marathon, California

Los Angeles Marathon in California Los Angeles Marathon

Los Angeles Marathon in California

Los Angeles Marathon


Need a little entertainment to distract you while you sweat? Tie on those trainers in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world. The L.A. Marathon has become a rock star in the running world: Valentine’s Day 2016 marked its 31st year and the course doubled as the qualifier for the 2016 Olympic trials.

Dubbed the “Stadium to the Sea” route, the course runs from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica. Along the way, world-famous landmarks like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Sunset Strip, Rodeo Drive and, of course, plenty of bands, cheerleaders and spectators are on-hand for the fun. The last few years have sold out, with 25,000 runners representing all 50 states and more than 55 countries.

4. Napa Valley Marathon, California

Napa Valley Marathon in California Napa Valley Marathon

Napa Valley Marathon in California

Napa Valley Marathon


Calling all grape-growers, wine-drinkers and rookie marathoners! The Kaiser Permanente Napa Valley Marathon awaits. This early March race winds through wine country's most gorgeous vineyards...and it’s mostly downhill, making it a great choice for first-timers. Limited to 3,000 runners, it’s one of the West Coast’s most intimate competitions.

Race prep is easy: while hydrating is essential (for obvious reasons), there’s no need to make a two-hour Spotify playlist—race officials make you lose the headphones at the starting line. But don’t worry about getting bored by mile 13. All those gorgeous grapevines keep you plenty distracted the whole way through. And once you reach the finish line, rejoice with sips from nearby wineries.

An added bonus for the 40-and-over-crowd: if you win the masters competition, you’ll score an oversized bottle of wine commemorating your achievement. As if you needed more incentive, you’ll also get a case of your “weight-in-wine” donated by Clif Family Winery. And for those seeking maximum vino and minimal mileage, there’s also a 5K option.

5. Ragnar Relay So Cal, California

Ragnar Relay in So Cal  Ragnar Relay Series

Ragnar Relay in So Cal 

Ragnar Relay Series


Spanning some of the most amazing coastline in the U.S., Ragnar Relay So Cal covers some seriously good ground—in both senses of the word. Each April, runners journey nearly 200 miles from Huntington Beach to San Diego, all in two days and one night.

If that sounds like an overwhelming distance to cover on your own two feet, have no fear: Runners assemble in teams of six or 12. Teams ride along in decorated vans, taking turns jumping out so that one member is running at all times. You’ll jog through the night, so suit up with a headlamp and reflective vest for safety.

Ragnar is a true bonding experience, as teams dress in crazy costumes, deck out their rides with wacky embellishments and cheer each other on. Bask—or just sweat—in the moonlight, hear the crashing waves and feel the salt air on your skin as you conquer this stunning course, and of course, celebrate with an all-out bash at the finish line.

6. Smith Rock Ascent, Oregon

Smith Rock Ascent in California Smith Rock Ascent

Smith Rock Ascent in California

Smith Rock Ascent


Oregon’s Smith Rock Park is known for thousands of rock climbing spots and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Located at 3,000 feet above sea level on high desert plateau, rivers carve through compressed volcanic ash to form dramatic canyon walls and spires that reach up 550 feet.

One weekend each May, runners converge on the rocky park for the Smith Rock Ascent. Test your lung capacity with gains of up to 4,100 feet in elevation and expansive views of the Cascade Mountains. Saturday is trail day, so stretch those ankles and get ready to conquer switchbacks up rocky cliffsides and forested dirt paths as you wind through the park. Or if you’re more of a roadrunner (beep, beep), pick a race on Sunday for some flatter, paved track.

Choose from a range of race lengths—there’s a 50K, 15-mile, half-marathon, 10K, 4-mile and even a free kids race—so there’s no need to pass up seeing the park’s amazing jagged rocks just because you’re not an Iron Man (yet).

7. Catalina Island Eco-Marathon

Catalina Island Eco-Marathon, California Catalina Island Eco-Marathon

Catalina Island Eco-Marathon, California

Catalina Island Eco-Marathon


With plenty of snorkeling, whale-watching and basking on white sandy beaches to be done, Catalina Island is more like a vacation getaway than a race destination. Factor in the island’s subtropical temperatures and chilled-out beachy vibe, and you’ve got the most relaxing running conditions imaginable.

The Catalina Island Eco-Marathon starts and ends in the city of Avalon each November, following single-track trails and dirt roads over rocky terrain to 360-degree Pacific Ocean views. Runners can catch glimpses of wild seals, buffalos and bald eagles, plus miles and miles of breathtaking blue ocean. With a variety of race lengths—a half marathon, 10K and 5K are all options—and this gorgeous island landscape, there’s really no valid argument for not participating. Plus, finishers take home a buffalo-shaped medal—in honor of the island’s famous bison herd, of course…

Don’t head home after you’ve crossed the finish line, though. Hang around a few extra days to cruise the scenic Skyline Drive into a protected wilderness area, zip down 600 feet on a zip line eco-tour or glide through the Pacific on a Navy SEAL Ribcraft boat in search of dolphins and sea lions.

8. Bay to Breakers

Bay to Breakers in California Bay to Breakers

Bay to Breakers in California

Bay to Breakers


Imagine all the racket, ruckus and merriment of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, then picture that whole crowd running seven miles, all together. That’s the annual Bay to Breakers race: a true party on the move.

Covering 12 kilometers each May, Bay to Breakers stretches from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Coast, which means it basically covers the entire city. Roughly 50,000 people completed the course in 2015, an impressive number considering the city’s calf-pain-inducing topography. The route snakes up the infamously steep Hayes Street Hill, along the Panhandle, through Golden Gate Park and ends at Ocean Beach.

Anticipation for the race builds all year long, and locals know this is no time to just whip up a five-minute costume from your closet. With runners in zany, whacked-out outfits ranging from cave men on woolly mammoths and bushy-haired Bob Rosses to solo runners streaking along in birthday suits, this 104-year-old event perfectly captures SF’s offbeat character.

9. Lilac Bloomsday Run, Washington

Lilac Bloomsday Marathon in Washington Lilac Bloomsday Run

Lilac Bloomsday Marathon in Washington

Lilac Bloomsday Run


Inspired by James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” the annual Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, Washington, is a local institution. Each May, a whopping 50,000 participants hit the pavement for the 12K, making it one of the nation’s largest road races.

The annual springtime event is practically a holiday in Spokane—maybe because the city gets a bit more sunshine than the rest of Washington, or because lilacs are everywhere at that time of year…but definitely because it’s an unbelievable bargain. Just 18 bucks gets you access to a race route with 30 musical acts along the way, a beer garden at the finish line and a requisite race-day T-shirt. Kids age 13 and older are encouraged to participate as well, which makes this race all about family fun.

While the soothing scent of lilac wafts onto the course, hear the sweet tunes of more than two dozen bands ranging from student jazz ensembles to oldies to blues-funk groups. All grooved out and smelling like potpourri (or sweat), a post-race party awaits in the heart of downtown Spokane with live music, food stands and activities fit for young and old.

10. Badwater Ultramarathon, Los Angeles

Badwater Ultramarathon in LA Badwater Ultramarathon

Badwater Ultramarathon in LA

Badwater Ultramarathon


While technically a timed race, the Badwater Ultramarathon is more accurately just a struggle for survival. This outrageous endurance test, set in one of the most grueling environments imaginable, is dubbed the “World’s Toughest Foot Race” for good reason. Runners trek a sweltering 135 miles from Death Valley—the lowest elevation point in the U.S.—to the Whitney Portal—the trailhead to Mount Whitney’s summit...and the highest point in the continental U.S. To put that in perspective, you end up nearly three miles higher than where you started, and there are no elevators involved.

But distance is only half the story, because this race happens amid scorching July temps that can top 120 degrees. With a two-day course limit, runners compete through the night—but who needs sleep anyway? When ZOZI Guru Dean Karnazes ran the race, he hallucinated dinosaurs marching across the desert (although we’re not convinced they don’t actually still exist in that bizarre habitat…). Gluttons for punishment and lovers of pink elephants, this is the race of your dreams.

Want to jog 26.2 miles through lush vineyards? Head to Napa Valley. Prefer a coastal setting? Sign up for 360-degree views of the glittering Pacific on Catalina Island. Whether you’re down to run on a dirt trail in the forest or in the unforgiving desert of Death Valley, the West Coast won’t disappoint with its runner-friendly routes.

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She's written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, Vox Media and About.com. Follow her on Twitter @NadraKareem

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