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Calum Neff at the 2017 Wings for Life World Run in Sunrise, Florida
(Photo: Marv Watson | Wings for Life World Run)

For most of us, a mental image of race day includes start and finish lines, water stations every few miles, and runners all battling the same clock. It’s a tried-and-true formula as old as racing itself. These days, however, a growing number of race organizers are bucking convention and rethinking this time-tested blueprint to add their own unique spin. Here we spotlight ten innovative events that stoke the fires of competition in creative new ways.

Know of an unconventional race not profiled here? Enlighten us in the Comments below!

Krispy Kreme Challenge logoKrispy Kreme Challenge – Raleigh, NC (Feb)
What started 20 years ago as a friendly challenge has grown into Raleigh’s sweetest charity event, a self-described “test of physical fitness and gastrointestinal fortitude.” And while doubters may consider its premise to be “cruller” and unusual punishment, the 2024 event attracted 1,710 participants who accepted the challenge of running 2½ miles from the North Carolina State University Memorial Belltower through downtown Raleigh to the local Krispy Kreme, then eating a dozen glazed doughnuts before running back — all in less than one hour. For those who can’t stomach the thought of 2400 calories on the run, the race also welcomes “Casual” and “No-Doughnut” runners. After all, this feast of yeast is for a good cause, as the Challenge to date has raised $2 million for UNC Children’s Hospital. Now that’s a lot of doughnuts.

McGuire’s St. Patrick’s Day Prediction 5KMcGuire’s St. Patrick’s Day Prediction 5K – Pensacola, FL (Mar)
Billed as the largest 5K prediction run in America, the McGuire’s St. Patrick’s Day Run eschews the conventional racing ethic of “fastest runner wins.” In a prediction run, the winning runner isn’t necessarily the fastest; rather, victory goes to the runner who most accurately predicts his or her own finish time. GPS watches and other timing gadgetry are not allowed on the course — this is all about how well you know your own running ability. And prognostic powers aside, all St. Patrick’s Day Run finishers are invited to join “the best post-race party around” featuring live entertainment plus food and drinks courtesy of title sponsor McGuire’s Irish Pub. So if you’re tired of technology, leave it at home and let your internal clock be your guide. We predict fun times ahead!

The Barkley Marathons logoThe Barkley Marathons – Frozen Head State Park, TN (Mar/Apr)
Yes, it has a start and finish line — but it’s what lies between that earns The Barkley its no-nonsense tagline as “The Race That Eats Its Young.” Set in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, The Barkley is far more than a foot race; it’s a grueling exercise in orienteering (or dis-orienteering), hardcore resolve and abject humility ending in almost certain failure well before the 60-hour time limit. Because despite the event’s annual proximity to April Fool’s Day, its 100+ mile, 5-loop course is no joke, requiring as it does ~66,000 feet of climbing over inhospitable terrain and in mercurial weather. “It’s good that some years no one finishes,” says the race’s founder Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake. “Cuz The Barkley should win sometimes, too.” With only 18 finishers in its 37-year history, it’s clear which side has the upper hand. (For a less daunting taste of The Barkley Marathons, intrepid athletes should check out September’s The Barkley Fall Classic 50K aka “Baby Barkley.”)

IPA 10K, 3K, Half Marathon & Beer Mile logoIPA 10K, 3K, Half Marathon & Beer Mile – Sebastopol, CA (Apr)
Held in the heart of Northern California’s craft beer country, the IPA 10K pulls no punches in proclaiming itself the “World’s Best Beer Run.” In addition to its more conventional races, the event hosts one of the nation’s most popular beer mile competitions, in which each participant chugs a 12-oz beer (5% minimum ABV) at the start line and before every quarter mile of the race for a total of four beers over the one-mile distance. Welcoming elites and amateurs alike, the IPA 10K Beer Mile counts among its past winners current world-record holder (4:28) Corey Bellemore. While race weekend promises “something for everyone, not just runners or beer drinkers,” beauty in this case is in the eye of the beer holder, and it’s up to the individual to pace themselves accordingly to ensure a “pitcher”-perfect experience.

Wings For Life World Run logoWings for Life World Run – Various locations (May)
Tired of chasing the finish line? Let it come to you! The Wings for Life World Run is an ingenious concept and the only race in which the finish line chases the runners. Staged one day a year simultaneously in cities around the globe, the goal is to run as far as possible before being overtaken and passed by a gradually accelerating “Catcher Car” which starts 30 minutes after the runners and acts as a moving finish line. Each runner sets their own performance goals, from breaking a sweat to chasing the world record of 92.14 km. All seven 2024 flagship events (those with a physical Catcher Car) take place in Europe, but U.S. participants can join virtually via the WFLWR app or at one of several in-person app runs across the country. And 100% of all entry fees and donations support Wings for Life, a non-profit spinal cord research foundation dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injury.

Dipsea Race logoDipsea Race – Mill Valley, CA (Jun)
Now in its 113th year, Dipsea is the oldest trail race in the nation. Its 7.4-mile course is equal parts beauty and beast, with 688 stairs and steep climbs that boast names like “Cardiac” and “Insult Hill”. Though conventional in the sense that the first runner to cross the finish line wins, the race uses a time-tested system of handicapping participants to level the playing field: each entrant receives “headstart” minutes based on age and gender, with the oldest and youngest runners starting before the faster runners, and women starting before men of the same age. Also unconventional are the course’s permissible shortcuts, which favor veteran runners familiar with the course. With a quirky application process as competitive as the race itself, first-timers may want to think different (e.g. with a charitable bribe or sob story) if they hope to run the Bay Area’s most iconic footrace.

A Race for the Ages (ARFTA) logoA Race for the Ages (ARFTA) – Manchester, TN (Sep, Labor Day Weekend)
From the mind of Gary “Laz” Cantrell comes an event designed for veteran ultrarunners who may have slowed over the years but in whom “the fires of competition still burn bright.” ARFTA start times are handicapped by age, with runners 41 and older being permitted the number of hours equal to their years in which to accumulate as many laps as possible on a relatively flat, one-mile loop course known affectionately as the “Deadman Mile.” Runners 40 years of age and younger (i.e. the “kids”) compete over the final 40 hours, and the overall winner is the runner who records the most miles prior to the race-ending banquet at noon on Labor Day. Though its format fuels competition among all ages, the camaraderie of ARFTA — friendships formed, relationships rekindled and stories shared — is the main attraction for runners young and old.

Big’s Backyard Ultra logoBig’s Backyard Ultra – Bell Buckle, TN (Oct)
How long can you maintain an average mile pace of 14 minutes, 24 seconds? That’s the question faced by competitors at Big’s Backyard Ultra, the brainchild of Gary “Laz” Cantrell, founder of The Barkley Marathons and A Race for the Ages (both above). The rules of this seemingly low-key trail race are simple: each runner must complete the 4.167-mile loop course within 60 minutes or be disqualified, with the cycle repeating every hour until one stalwart runner remains. More a war of attrition than a conventional footrace, Big’s Backyard Ultra has grown into a worldwide phenomenon that has given rise to similar events across the country and around the globe. But when it comes to star power the original is still the best, with recent editions boasting such big-name winners as Maggie Guterl (2019), Courtney Dauwalter (2020) and two-time champ Harvey Lewis (2021, 2023).

Empire State Building Run-Up logoEmpire State Building Run-Up – New York, NY (Oct; lottery opens in Jul)
Sorry, gravity: what goes up mustn’t always come down. This is especially true of the sport known as tower running, in which participants run up man-made structures such as skyscrapers. Now in its 46th year as the marquee tower race in the world, the Empire State Building Run-Up challenges its 350 participants to climb the iconic building’s 86 stories and 1,576 stairs, with the winner reaching the top in around ten minutes (the course record is a dizzying 9 min, 33 sec). In addition to the Big Apple, other cities across the US and around the world host tower races of their own, including quad-burning climbs in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. And because many of these events work closely with non-profits (the Empire State Building Run-Up is powered by the Challenged Athletes Foundation), you can raise funds for a good cause while you raise your heart rate.

Man Against Horse Race logoMan Against Horse Race – Prescott Valley, Arizona (Oct)
If racing other bipeds has gotten stale, you may be ready for a four-legged rival. Produced under the auspices of the American Endurance Ride Conference, this unique event — which celebrates its 40th running in 2024 — allows runners and riders to compete directly against each other over distances of 13.1, 25 or 50 miles. Unlike ride & tie events in which participants alternate between running and riding, each competitor chooses to tackle the entire distance either on foot or on horseback. Whether you’re traveling on two legs or four, you can expect killer scenery, steep hills and rugged terrain with plenty of elevation change to challenge all your legs and both your lungs. And the unpredictable weather adds one more wild card to the mix. Who ever said horsing around was a bad thing?

(Updated Feb 22, 2024; originally published June 28, 2017)

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Author: Mike Sohaskey

Mike Sohaskey is the co-founder of RaceRaves, the premier online reviews community for runners to share their race experiences and find their next challenge. Mike honed his creative and critical thinking skills as a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford. He’s completed over 120 races — including 60+ marathons and ultras plus all six Abbott World Marathon Majors — in locations ranging from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.

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One thought on “Unconventional Races That Dare To Be Different

  1. My favorite is the Big Man Run. It started in Somerville, MA, then moved to Worchester, and now it is in upstate New York. It is a run I have completed three times. Runners must be men over 190 pounds, and the run was just under 5 miles. Along the way there are four stops where the runner must drink a beer and eat a hot dog and bun. If the runner vomits, he is eliminated. If he does not tip the waitress, he is eliminated. I used to staple four $1 bills to my bib so I would not forget to complete that task. I am signed up this year, but unsure if I will actually make it out to the run.

Your turn – what do you think?