In June 1998, Elite Racing ushered in a new era of running with its Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego, a raucous 26.2-mile party. Now owned by the Competitor Group, Rock ‘n’ Roll has grown into arguably the best-known race series in the world, with half marathon events in seven countries and 29 cities. And though R’n’R may be the original half marathon series, these days it’s far from the only one. Here we profile five half marathon series worth raving about, each with its own unique take on the country’s most popular race distance (overall ratings based on RaceRaves member reviews).
Established in 2009 by husband & wife team Sam & Jasmin Fiandaca, you won’t find a more beloved race series anywhere than Brazen Racing. In fact, Brazen was voted the Pacific West region’s Best Trail Racing Series of 2015 by Competitor magazine. Born in the East Bay, Brazen now produces 26 annual events on dirt & paved trails across the San Francisco Bay Area, 23 of which offer the half marathon distance.
Brazen events shine by combining the professionalism and nifty swag of road racing with the low-key, back-to-nature mindset of trail racing. With races that offer something for every runner, including an amazing post-race spread, the Brazen Racing family has grown significantly in recent years and even boasts 136 “streakers” (diehard runners who have completed every Brazen race in a calendar year). “Whether it’s your first Brazen race or you’re a Streaker, whether you’re a walker, a volunteer, in the middle of the pack, or an elite runner, Brazen makes the race all about you,” says RaceRaves member @mikebeckwith, aka Brazen Streaker #111. “The Brazen Racing crew makes race day feel more like a family outing.”
Sam & Jasmin welcome runners of all levels, but don’t let that fool you—their races include some of the most challenging in the Bay Area. And Rocky Ridge, which doubles as the Brazen Half Marathon Championship, earns this author’s hands-down vote as the most difficult half marathon in California. With nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain/loss in 13.1 miles, to argue otherwise would be a brazen lie.
In the know: Runners who complete at least five of the 14 races in Brazen’s Ultra Half Series lineup, plus Rocky Ridge in October, receive an ultra-cool die-cast finisher coaster, with the top 3 finishers earning giant checks.
(Photo: Yoly Pantig)
“Stunning.” “Beautiful.” “Scenic.” “Amazing.” “Breathtaking.” The list of superlatives for founder Matt Dockstader’s Destination Races (DR) Wine Country Half Marathon series goes on. Since its inception in 2004 the company has lived up to its name, as its flagship Napa to Sonoma event has become one of the premier destination races in the country. Luckily given Napa to Sonoma’s outsized popularity (the race sells out annually on opening day of registration), Team DR offers six other wine country events throughout the year—one in Virginia, three hidden gems in the Pacific Northwest/British Columbia and their two most highly rated events in California.
For a fit ‘n’ fun weekend getaway with the spouse or girlfriends, the concept of “Run, Sip, Explore” is tough to beat. Each boutique-style event is limited to ~2,500 runners and features the trademark DR post-race festival, where wine enthusiasts can showcase their shiny new bling while sampling wines from a variety of local vineyards. RaceRaves member @kahamilt offers her own endorsement of the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half this way: “[I]f you are a single guy, this is YOUR race. Tons of chicks out having a good time and drinking lots of wine.”
But cabs and pinots aside, even teetotalers will feel rejuvenated after 13.1 miles of bucolic pastures and gently rolling backcountry roads. And the Healdsburg Wine Country Half, which falls on the last weekend in October, celebrates the season with a “Hallowine” costume contest and 5K. Haven’t yet experienced a Destination Races event? In the words of RaceRaves member and Healdsburg repeat runner @nkranzatc14, “You are missing out!”
In the know: “Race extras” can be purchased separately for each event and include (depending on the event) a Welcome Reception, Pre-Race Dinner and Finisher’s Celebration where runners can mingle with Dockstader, elite runners and other VIPs.
Launched in 2011 in North Carolina, “the Southeast’s Premiere Half Marathon” has spread like wildfire throughout the Southeast and across the Midwest. The company’s lineup is constantly evolving and expanding to new cities, with 20 events this year in ten states ranging from Florida to Michigan. Founder and CEO John Kane targets mid-sized cities such as his hometown Raleigh that have strong running communities but which are currently underserved by race organizers.
Race 13.1 prides itself on its dedication to customer service, which shines through in everything from its pre- and post-race communication to on-course support to the finish line festival. The team is “very professional and they work hard to insure all aspects of the event satisfy the participants,” writes Race 13.1 Wilmington finisher and Half Fanatic @tcole. Race 13.1 aficionado @runbullardsrun agrees, writing on her blog Serial Runner that “Race 13.1 provide[s] runners with a big-race experience in a more manageable, medium sized package.” And the company “strives to host events that appeal to runners of all abilities,” writes @TinyTerror, who applauds her Race 13.1 Charleston experience: “This was my first experience with the Race 13.1 brand, but it surely won’t be my last.”
In the know: Every Race 13.1 event features a post-race giveaway for one major prize such as $1,000, six months of free massages or even a new Lexus. All runners are eligible for the random drawing regardless of race distance run, and must be present to win.
When the 800-lb gorilla of the entertainment industry jumps in the pool, it’s going to create a big splash. And the House of Mouse has done just that with its RunDisney series. Begun in 1994 with the Walt Disney World (WDW) Marathon, it wasn’t until the introduction of the Disney Princess Half in 2009 that RunDisney really hit its stride. Now, with races at its California, Florida and (starting September 2016) Paris theme parks, some 163,000 running superheroes, villains and princesses cross a Disney finish line each year.
The half marathon is RunDisney’s flagship distance, with all nine of its 2016 events featuring a 13.1-mile race. In a knowing nod to girl power, two of these events—the Tinker Bell Half in California and the Princess Half in Florida—cater specifically to female runners (male runners are also welcome). And with the introduction of new events themed around its Marvel Entertainment and Star Wars properties, the company now has a decided advantage when it comes to titillating its runners.
The most frequently echoed complaint about RunDisney is its high registration fees. Nonetheless, all events sell out quickly and have a fanatical following—though charging spectators to sit in bleachers by the finish line feels a bit excessive, even by Disney standards. And Disney does bling as well as anyone, inspiring many runners to tackle multiple distances in a single weekend just for the privilege of taking home as much hardware as possible. The bottom line: with review headlines on RaceRaves like “Simply magical” and “RunDisney? More like FunDisney!”, it’s clear many runners have fallen under the legendary Disney spell.
In the know: As the king of bling, RunDisney features themed “Challenges” in which runners can earn multiple finisher medals—including an exclusive Challenge medal—for completing two or more distances in a single weekend, e.g. the Pixie Dust Challenge (half + 10K) during Tinker Bell Half Weekend. And those who complete a half or full marathon on each coast in the same calendar year score the coveted Coast to Coast Race Challenge medal.
Love running? Love visiting National Parks? Now you can have the best of both worlds, thanks to Salem Stanley and his team at the aptly named Vacation Races (VR). VR burst on the scene in 2012 with its inaugural event in Utah’s Zion National Park. Four years later the company has expanded its lineup to nine races—including its newest offering in the Everglades—in some of the country’s most popular National Parks. And true to the ethos of the National Parks Service, the VR team strives to limit the environmental impact of its races using Cup-Free Racing, in which runners use either a hydrapouch (provided free of charge) or their own trash-free hydration system.
Vacation Races’ events tally high marks for their scenery, production and swag. Most telling, though, may be the high number of VR runners like @JennieOCard who vow “I’ll be back!” And even when the company gets it wrong, they still get it right: case in point last year’s Lake Powell Half, when a pacer took a wrong turn in the first mile and added 0.7 miles to the total distance. Soon after all participants received a “13.8” sticker in the mail, earning the company bonus points (and a perfect overall rating from its runners) for its creative response in turning lemons into lemonade. So if the idea of getting back to nature and running an “awesome, amazing race” on a “beautiful course” with “spectacular views” piques your interest, do yourself a favor and check out Vacation Races.
In the know: VR runners can earn exclusive finisher medals for completing Double Challenges at the Great Smoky Mountain Half, Rocky Mountain Half or Grand Teton Half/Yellowstone Half. And this year the company is introducing its Caldera Triple Challenge for those who complete the Grand Teton Half followed by the Yellowstone 5K and Half one week later.
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