A Runner’s Bucket List

There have never been more races that tempt runners to the starting line. Consider creating your own bucket list—a list of must-do races to complete before kicking the bucket—to get the most out of your running experience

By Jeff Banowetz

The 2007 Rob Reiner film “The Bucket List,” in which cancer patients Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman travel the world to check off a list of must-do things before they die, didn’t get much critical acclaim. But it did manage to popularize the idea of a bucket list—compiling a list of things to do before kicking the bucket. 

Runners, let’s face it, are already pretty good at writing down data and following lists, so the concept makes a lot of sense. The sport is filled with a huge variety of races that incorporate various distances, geographies and challenges. Why not put together a list of events that give you a chance to sample all that running has to offer?

That’s just what we did.

We’ve narrowed our list to include 10 categories—from the most historic to the best party atmosphere. We picked our favorite for each category, plus some other events that are certainly worth doing and are possibly more geographically desirable for you. As with any bucket list, it involves lots of personal choices. But we hope you’ll take this as a starting point to write your own.


Historic Race

Boston Marathon

Next race: April 18, 2011

Why it’s a classic: The Boston Marathon celebrates its 115th running next spring, making it the longest-running marathon in the United States and one of the oldest running races in the world. The race was conceived by Boston Athletic Association member John Graham in 1897 after he saw the first Olympic marathon in Greece a year earlier. Fifteen men ran the first 24.5 miles from Ashland to Boston on Patriots Day, April 19. John McDermott won with a very respectable winning time of 2:55:10. Other marathons were founded in the United States around this time, but only Boston stuck. The starting line was moved to its current location of Hopkinton in 1924, and the distance was increased to the Olympic standard of 26.2 miles in 1927.

“To me, and to the people of Boston, the race has become a rite of spring,” says Mark Buciak, who has run the race every year since 1980. “It’s like Easter and the Masters and baseball. It’s a great event—a great marathon—but it’s become more than that. It’s the mecca of the running world and a celebration of the sport.”

The race continues to be held on Patriots Day each year, the third Monday in April, a Massachusetts holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War.

How to get in: Unlike most marathons, Boston requires that runners qualify to participate. Qualifying standards begin with a 3:10 for men age 34 and under, 3:40 for women of the same age. Registration opens this year on October 18, and is limited to 25,000. A limited number of runners are able to enter by raising money for charity.
Similar events: There’s nothing like Boston in the United States. But the second-oldest marathon is the Yonkers Marathon in New York, which turned 85 this year (yonkersmarathon.com). On the west coast, if you’re looking for a 100-year-old race that’s hard to get into, The Dipsea Race (dipsea.org), a 7.4-mile trail run north of San Francisco, has been run continuously since 1905. Or if you really want a sense of history, head to Europe for the Athens Marathon (Oct. 31, athensmarathon.com), which celebrates its 2,500th anniversary this year.
Info: baa.org

Relay Race
OfficeMax Hood to Coast Relay

Next race: August 27-28

Why it’s a classic: Relay races, where a group of runners take turns running segments of a point-to-point course, have exploded over the last 10 years. But the largest and most prestigious remains the OfficeMax Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon, in which teams of eight to 12 runners compete along a 197-mile route from Mt. Hood to the Pacific Ocean. The race is divided into 36 different legs, varying between 3.7 and 7.4 miles, and runners must run at least three legs each. Team vans transport teammates forward along the course until their next leg.

Bob Foote, a 35-time marathoner, founded the relay in 1982 in which eight teams of 10 runners competed. By 1998, a cap of 1,000 teams was enforced to keep things manageable. In 2006, Felicia Hubber, Foote’s daughter, took over as race director.

Hubber thinks the scenic course and strong running community have contributed to the race’s popularity and longevity, but the relay format is what really sets Hood to Coast apart.

“A relay race is completely different from a normal event,” she says. “For most teams, it’s about the camaraderie and just being together over the course of the weekend. It’s a way to spend time with people and yet still be running and celebrating the sport.”

How to get in: Teams must submit a registration postmarked on October 14. Any entries with an earlier postmark are discarded. Entries go into a lottery to choose the winners. If your team loses out, it does get preferential treatment the following year. It’s possible to join a team that is looking for additional members. Check out the website for details.

Similar events: On the East Coast, the Reach the Beach (Sept. 17-18, rtbrelay.com) takes teams of 12 runners from Franconia, N.H., to the Atlantic Ocean at Hampton Beach, N.H., a distance of 200 miles. In the Midwest, the River to River Relay (April 16, 2011, rrr.olm.net) in Illinois takes teams of eight on an 80-mile route from the Mississippi River to the Ohio River. And finally, the Ragnar Relay Series (ragnarrelay.com) offers 12 team relays across the nation.

Info: hoodtocoast.com


Running Festival
ING Bay to Breakers

Next race: May 15, 2011

Why it’s a classic: Next year will be the 100th running of San Francisco’s ING Bay to Breakers, perhaps the race that’s most famous for everything about it that has nothing to do with running. But let’s start with the basics. The Bay to Breakers was first held in 1912 to help raise the city’s spirits after the devastating earthquake of 1906. The name describes the course, which starts near the Embarcadero on the bay side of the city and finishes its 12K route by the breakers of Ocean Beach. The popularity of the event grew to huge proportions in the 1980s, and was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest footrace when it attracted 110,000 people in 1986. This year the race attracted about 60,000.

In addition to its massive size, the race has become better known for its party atmosphere and San Francisco-style outrageousness. Many runners are dressed in costume (or, in another Bay to Breakers tradition, wearing nothing at all). Others team up to form centipedes, or groups of 13 runners somehow tied together. Floats of runners pull up the rear of the race as the mass of humanity makes its way to the “footstock” celebration in Golden Gate Park, which includes wine, beer and live music.

How to get in: Registration for the 100th running has yet to be announced.

Similar events: You won’t find the same nudity and heavy drinking (at least during the race) at these events, but Bay to Breakers isn’t the only massive running race in the United States. The annual AJC Peachtree 10K in Atlanta (atlantatrackclub.org) routinely draws more than 50,000 runners on Independence Day each year. The Dick’s Sporting Goods Bolder Boulder 10K (bolderboulder.com) in Colorado on Memorial Day attracts nearly 50,000 each year, while the Lilac Bloomsday 12K Run (bloomsdayrun.org) in early May attracts about the same number in Spokane, Wash.

Info: baytobreakers.com


Ultra Marathon
Western States Endurance Run

Next race: June 25-26, 2011

Why it’s a classic: Running 100 miles, especially on the trails of California’s Sierra Nevada range, is never going to be a mainstream event. But as far as ultras go, Western States attracts a big field for one of the oldest, most prestigious and definitely most challenging races in the United States.

The history of the race dates back to 1955, when Wendell T. Robie rode the Western States Trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn to prove that a horse could travel 100 miles in a day. He later founded the Western States Trail Ride—a one-day ride for horses. In 1974, a runner, Gordy Ainsleigh, joined the horses to see if a human could run the same trail in 24 hours. He did, with 18 minutes to spare. By 1977, 14 runners took part in the first Western States Endurance Run, and the event grew from there.

Since 2000, about 400 runners have taken part each year (with about 1,500 volunteers to support them). The 100-mile route, which is run on original trails used by miners from the 1850s, must be finished in 30 hours to receive the coveted belt buckle that serves as a race medal.

How to get in: Participants must meet a variety of criteria to enter Western States, including one performance-based qualification, such as completing a 50-mile ultra in under 11 hours.

Similar events: Western States is part of the Grand Slam of Endurance Running, which also includes the Vermont 100 Endurance Race (vermont100.com), Wasatch Front 100 (wasatch100.com) in Utah and Leadville Trail 100 (leadvilletrail100.com) in Colorado. Looking for something even harder? The Badwater Ultramarathon (badwater.com) is considered the world’s toughest—a 135-mile trek through Death Valley, Calif.

Info: ws100.com


International Race
Comrades Marathon

Next race: May 29, 2011

Why it’s a classic: To call Comrades the “Boston Marathon of ultras” might help describe the historic nature of this South African race; but in some ways, Comrades eclipses even Boston in scale.

Vic Clapham, a World War I veteran, had the idea of organizing a 56-mile footrace between Pietermaritzburg and Durban to honor his comrades who were killed in the war. He was denied permission for several years by the League of Comrades of the Great War, a veterans group, which deemed the race too difficult. But Clapham argued that if a sedentary person could be recruited into service of the war, given a rifle and 60-pound pack and marched thousands of miles over Africa, then a fit person could complete the course. In 1921, the League relented, and the first Comrades Marathon was held.

This May, the race celebrated its 85th running (the race was suspended during World War II), and attracted 23,565 runners. Most ultra races can be measured in the dozens, but Comrades is bigger than all but the largest urban marathons.

The course flips each year: The “down” course begins in Pietermaritzburg and finishes in Durbin; the “up” course goes in the opposite direction. Participants have 12 hours to complete the course—no exceptions.

How to get in: The 85th running drew a near-record number of participants this year. Registration is not yet open for 2011, but participants will be able to register online. International ambassadors, including one in the United States, are available for questions about the process, and travel agencies provide organized trips to the race each year.

Similar events: If 56 miles (or South Africa) still seems too far for you, there are plenty of international marathons to choose from. The Virgin London Marathon (April 17, virginlondonmarathon.com) and Real Berlin Marathon (Sept. 26, real-berlin-marathon.com)—both part of the World Marathon Majors—attract the best international runners each year, as well as plenty of Americans.

Info: comrades.com


Big Urban Marathon

ING New York City Marathon

Next race: November 7, 2010

Why it’s a classic: The race that takes runners on a tour of all of New York’s five boroughs has become a classic for several reasons. Like most things in New York, it’s big. Last year, more than 43,000 finishers made it the biggest in the world by a comfortable margin. The race, organized by the New York Road Runners and held each year on the first Sunday in November, also features the best crowd support (nearly 2 million spectators), an amazing start that takes runners over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a strong elite field and a postcard-worthy tour of the diversity of New York City.

“It’s just a beautiful way to see the city,” says Dave Obelkevich, who has finished every race since 1976.

The race was a product of the ’70s running boom. New York Road Runners president Fred Lebow started the race in 1970, with a multi-loop course in Central Park that attracted 127 runners. In 1976, to celebrate the bicentennial, the course was changed to incorporate all five boroughs.

“I keep doing it because it’s still a lot of fun,” says Obelkevich, who usually runs four to five marathons a year. “There’s nothing like it in the world and it’s in my hometown—why wouldn’t I keep doing it?”

How to get in: Despite the huge number of participants, the ING New York Marathon is in such high demand that it relies on a lottery system to determine entries. If you’re not lucky enough to win a lottery slot, some entries are reserved for runners raising money for charity.

Similar events: Most urban marathons have seen huge increases in their numbers over the last 10 years. The Marine Corps Marathon (Oct. 31, marinemarathon.com) in Washington D.C. and the Honda LA Marathon in Los Angeles  (March 20, 2011, lamarathon.com) both attract more than 20,000 runners.

Info: ingnycmarathon.org



Scenic Race

Big Sur International Marathon

Next race: May 1, 2011

Why it’s a classic: Almost every survey for the most scenic marathon in the country lists the same winner—Big Sur. The point-to-point course starts in Big Sur, Calif., and follows Highway 1—the first nationally designated Scenic Highway—to Carmel, Calif. Big Sur is best known for its views of the Pacific Ocean from high atop the bluffs along the ragged coastline of central California.

The two-mile climb up to Hurricane Point between Miles 10-12 gets the most attention from wary runners; but in truth, the course is mostly downhill. Among the scenic highlights is running over the historic Bixby Creek Bridge, near the halfway point of the race.

Founded in 1986 with 1,800 runners, the race has grown to its current size of about 4,000 marathoners. Additional runners participate in other distances, including a 21-mile, 10.6-mile, 9-mile, 5K and kids 3K race as well. New for this year (and returning for 2011) is the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, which encourages runners to complete both the Boston Marathon and Big Sur, about a week apart.

How to get in: Registration is now open on the race’s website.

Similar events: It’s tough to beat Hawaii for great scenery, and the Honolulu Marathon (Dec. 12, honolulumarathon.org) doesn’t disappoint. On the mainland, the San Francisco Marathon (late July, thesfmarathon.com) shows off that beautiful city, while the Avenue of the Giants Marathon (May 1, 2011, theave.org) offers a tour of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California. On the East Coast, the Adirondack Marathon (Sept. 26, adirondackmarathon.org) takes runners on a scenic loop around Schroon Lake.
Info: bsim.org


Set a PR

Bank of America Chicago Marathon

Next race: October 10

Why it’s a classic: Like the ING New York City Marathon, Chicago got its start during the ’70s running boom, and it has grown to become the second-largest marathon in the country and the fourth largest in the world with more than 33,000 finishers in 2009. But while Chicago offers plenty of spectators (more than 1.5 million last year) and great views of the city, the race has been known for one thing—speed.

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon has become a destination for elites who want to break records and age-groupers who want to qualify for Boston. Apart from a few overpasses, the Chicago course is almost uniformly flat. The start and finish of the loop course is in Chicago’s Grant Park near the downtown hotels, which means it’s easy to get to—no long bus ride to the start. The large number of runners means you’ll find plenty of people, and pacing groups, to keep you on target. And, for the most part, October temperatures are conducive to running a PR.

Both the men’s and women’s world records were at one time set on this course, and this year Ryan Hall will be running Chicago as he attempts to break the American marathon record.

How to get in: First come, first served to those registering on the race’s website. This year the race’s capacity of 45,000 was reached on March 23, a new record. Entries may still be available through the nearly 100 charities that have a relationship with the marathon.

Similar events: The California International Marathon (Dec. 5, runcim.org) in Sacramento tends to get a fast field for its point-to-point net downhill race. The St. George Marathon (Oct. 2, stgeorgemarathon.com) is run in the Pine Valley mountains of southwest Utah and is basically a downhill course that ends 2,600 feet lower than it started.

Info: chicagomarathon.com


Obstacle Race

Tough Guy

Next race: January 30, 2011

Why it’s a classic: Part obstacle course, part military training exercise and all macho, the Tough Guy race near Wolverhampton, England, is for runners who want obstacles to overcome.

Dubbed “The World’s safest, most dangerous taste of mental and physical pain, fear and endurance,” the Tough Guy features an eight-mile course filled with war-zone-style barriers to keep runners from the finish.

We’re not exaggerating. Unlike most obstacle races in the United States, the Tough Guy revels in the serious danger involved. While the course is changed each year, past obstacles have included flooded, 40-foot tunnels, balance beams across a fire pit and lots of honest-to-goodness barbed wire.

While it’s hard to image that U.S. lawyers would allow the Tough Guy to be held once, organizers have actually been staging the race—along with a summer version—for more than 20 years. This year, more than 3,700 people finished the course.

If mud, rope climbing, heights, cold water, confined spaces, fire, explosions and electrified fences scare you, stay far away from the Tough Guy. But if you’re looking for a truly unique challenge to test your mettle, you won’t find anything else like it. Just make sure to read the waiver before you sign it to know what you’re getting into.

How to get in: Online registration is available through the website.

Similar events: A number of U.S.-based races are now involved in obstacle courses—although on a much safer scale than Tough Guy. The Warrior Dash (warriordash.com) offers six races across the country that combine running with crazy obstacles. The Columbia Muddy Buddy (muddybuddy.com) features two-person teams who run and bike along a 10K off-road course with obstacles along the way.

Info: toughguy.co.uk


Party Race

Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon and Half

Next race: December 5

Why it’s a classic: A horde of running Elvises, Bengal tigers, weddings on the course, shutting down the Vegas Strip and a post-race concert by Bret Michaels. Yep, that sounds about right for a perfect marathon experience in Sin City.

If qualifying for Boston is your goal, you can certainly do that at Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas with its relatively flat and fast route—but it’s kind of missing the point. Like other races in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series, the course features a band at every mile to entertain runners along the route. Runners looking to tie the knot (or renew their vows) can do so at run-though wedding ceremonies. And after the race, a free concert will be headlined this year by Bret Michaels.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas—unless you set a PR, which is good anywhere.

Similar events: Fourteen Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons and half marathons are held throughout the country with a similar music theme (minus the Bengal tigers). The original Rock ’n’ Roll race is held in San Diego (June 5, 2011) and the Country Music Marathon and Half (April 30, 2011) in Nashville offers a country twist to the race. (Full disclosure: The Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon series is owned by our parent company the Competitor Group, so we’re biased—we get to attend them all.)

Info: runrocknroll.com


Create Your Own Bucket List

Ready to make your own list? Here are some suggestions.

 Write it down. Sounds obvious, but lots of people keep this stuff in their heads. Chances are it will stay there if you don’t take some action.

Be realistic. It’s fine to include some dream events, but put items on there that you can achieve without crossing an ocean. It’s more fun to cross off items than wait until that dream trip finally happens.

Make a plan. If your goal is to do a race like the Western States Endurance Run, you can’t expect to do it right away. Build up to the distance with shorter races that prepare you for the big one.

Challenge yourself. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest, but put a few events on the list that are outside of your comfort zone. Expand your horizons with how far or how fast you think you can go.

It doesn’t have to be expensive. A bucket list doesn’t need to be filled with expensive trips. The items can be performance-based, like break 18 minutes in a 5K or qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Don’t forget small races. Almost all the events on our list are bigger, established races with an interesting history. But smaller races can be just as rewarding. Look for the hidden gems that the rest of the running community hasn’t discovered yet. You’ll be a trailblazer.


Does “The Bucket List” Deliver?

How can you resist a voice-over from Morgan Freeman? The 2007 film “The Bucket List,” directed by Rob Reiner, was a success at the box office despite mediocre reviews from critics. How does it stand up now?

Let’s just say it doesn’t need to be on your movie bucket list. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson are both cancer patients who meet while sharing a room in the hospital that Nicholson owns. The fact that Nicholson must share a room is used as a critique of the health care system emphasizing profits over patients. (But before long, the two are best friends and helping each other through chemo. So maybe sharing a room wasn’t such a bad idea in the first place?) The twosome spend the movie crossing items off their own bucket list—things like skydiving and visiting the pyramids and the Great Wall of China—and while they talk often about the cancer that will take their lives, they act pretty healthy.

Freeman and Nicholson are talented enough that by the third act, you’ve grown to like them, which gives the ending some punch. Worth watching on TV? Sure. But if you’re looking for inspiration from a Morgan Freeman-narrated movie, stick with “The Shawshank Redemption.”

The Boston Marathon should be on every runner's list