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Sharon Garber

Top California Running Races

Top California Running Races
Plan your next vacation around one of these popular destination races

It’s no secret that California is a state focused on living an active lifestyle. From detox retreats to fitness vacations to indulgent spas, the Golden State is a hub for athletic and wellness-minded travelers—especially runners. 

“California is a runner’s paradise,” says Jessie Sebor, who oversees Competitor and Women’s Running magazines as Vice President of Media at Competitor Group, Inc. “You are nearly guaranteed to enjoy perfect weather—an advantage that can’t be overstated—as well as beautiful surroundings. Lush, hilly trail races; flat and fast oceanside marathons; themed events where runners dress like their favorite characters—there’s really something here for every sort of aspiring athlete.”

We picked 10 of the best California running races below, listed in order of date.

1. Carlsbad 5000

March, Carlsbad

Distances: 5K, kids race, “All Day 5K”

World records have been broken on this flat, coastal course, which features a separate elite wave worth watching for inspiration after you’ve finished your race. If you’re eager to break your 5K time—and want to enjoy a beautiful beach vacation afterwards—this northern San Diego County event is the place to do it. Runners up for a bigger challenge can try the “All Day 5K,” where you run four back-to-back 5Ks with breaks in between. Good news for all: You’ll be rewarded with some of San Diego’s best craft beer at the post-race Pizza Port Beer Garden.

2. Big Sur International Marathon

April, Big Sur

Distances: 3K, 5K, 12K, 11 miles, half marathon, 21 miles, marathon 

Runner’s World has called this the “most scenic race on the continent” and it’s hard to disagree. Rugged cliffs, majestic sequoias, and the turquoise Pacific Ocean line this point-to-point course from Big Sur to Monterey, and the biggest pack of spectators you’ll see are the cows noshing on grass on the hillside. One of the best things about this iconic race is that you have distance options ranging from 3K to the marathon, so there’s something for every level of runner. However, if you run the shorter distances, you’ll miss one of the course highlights—a tuxedo-clad grand piano player at mile 13. Note: Although mudslides have caused temporary road closures on Highway One, the race course was unaffected and is accessible from the north.

3. Bay to Breakers

May, San Francisco

Distance: 12K

More than 50,000 costumed runners gallivanting around San Francisco makes for quite the spectacle. Although this annual event—which has been going on for more than 100 years—might appear to be more “organized costume party” than serious road race, it appeals to fun-loving casual runners, elite racers, and a competitive “centipede” category (13 or more people attached by a cord of some sort). Bad costume choices make running a 12K slightly more difficult in places like the infamous Hayes Hill at mile 2, which boasts pitches that rise to 11 percent. The race finishes in Golden Gate Park, where the festivities continue. 

4. Avenue of the Giants

May, Weott

Distances: 10K, half marathon, marathon

If a peaceful run under a canopy of giant redwoods sounds like a dream race, make your way to Southern Humboldt County (45 miles south of Eureka) for Avenue of the Giants. You have your choice of distances to explore one of the largest groves of old-growth coast redwoods on foot, and less than 3,000 runners compete total, so you won’t be fighting for space as you meander through the forest. The average temperatures in May—45 to 62 degrees F—are perfect for running. 

5. Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego

June, San Diego

Distances: 5K, half marathon, marathon relay, marathon, dog walk

The Rock ‘n’ Roll series debuted with this race in 1998, and the downtown event continues to be a favorite for runners who want to pay a visit to this popular coastal city. The courses weave through some of San Diego’s hip neighborhoods and the museum-filled Balboa Park before finishing downtown. And, because it’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, you can expect live music along the course and a headliner at the elaborate finish line party. Insider’s Tip: Runners who take part in three out of four Rock ‘n’ Roll races (including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego) in one calendar year earn a special “Cali Combo” medal.

6. The Dipsea Race

June, Mill Valley

Distance: 7.5 miles 

Few race entries are as coveted as the Dipsea, the country’s oldest trail race, in Marin County. Because the trails can only accommodate a certain number of runners, only 1,500 participants can compete on the grueling 7.4 miles of stairs and steep single track. The application process—which involves physically mailing in paperwork—is part of what makes this race one of a kind. The oldest and youngest runners start first, followed by the rest of the field in one-minute increments, and the first person to reach the top wins (as opposed to fastest time). Even if you don’t get in, you should add this stretch from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach to your must-run list.

7. Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon

July, Napa and Sonoma

Distance: 5K, half marathon

Wine drinkers who love to run—this race is for you. With a point-to-point course through some of Napa and Sonoma’s most beautiful vineyards, you’ll have plenty of scenery to gawk at before you end in historic Sonoma Plaza. The best part: Every finisher gets a wine glass to taste the offerings from more than two dozen wineries.

8. Disneyland Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend

November, Anaheim

Distances: Spider-Man 5K, Thor 10K, Half Marathon 

You can’t go wrong with one of Disneyland Resort’s themed runs, which will give you an entirely new view of the park in the early hours before it opens. In addition to the Super Heroes weekend, Disney also offers the Star Wars Half Marathon in January, Tinkerbell Half Marathon Weekend in May, and the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend in September.

9. Silicon Valley Turkey Trot

November, San Jose

Distance: 5K, 10K, kids race 

This San Jose event isn’t your normal hometown Turkey Trot—it’s the largest timed Thanksgiving weekend race in the United States. More than 25,000 people run in the annual event, and proceeds benefit five different charities. The race features a few different competitions, including a “Can Do” food drive, a costume contest, and a “Mayor’s Cup” for local civic leaders.

10. California International Marathon

December, Sacramento

Distance: 5K, marathon relay, marathon

As one of the fastest marathons in the U.S.—the course is net downhill—this popular race appeals to the competitive crowd looking to best their previous times or qualify for the Boston Marathon. Sacramento provides a small-town, welcoming feel, with finish line food that goes beyond your average race fare, like oatmeal with fruit and trendy-healthy bone broth.

…And if you’re a super endurance junkie

California is also known for two of the most famous ultra-distance events: the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, starting in Squaw Valley, and the 135-mile Death Valley to Mount Whitney Portal Badwater Ultramarathon. Both are epic, incredibly difficult, and require qualification to enter.

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