I sometimes wonder why the good/fast/scenic 5 or 10k has been so marginalized. I guess it’s because nobody can put a 5k finisher sticker on the car’s back window without blushing or being ironic. Medals? Nope. At best you’ll get a Hanes Beefy-T with a bunch of logos on the back—fit for cleaning a bike chain and not much else. Nobody wants to Facebook or tweet their 5k times or show that post-race glow pic when you’ve only done three quick miles before a pancake breakfast. Marathon finishes = at least 50 likes. A 10k, maybe six (including your mom).
Repeat this to yourself: there’s nothing wrong with the Saturday morning short race throw down. In fact, middle distance is coming back, big-time as the biggest growth in racing since 2012 has been of the one-mile to 5k variety. I like to compare it to the craft brew phenomenon. At first, microbrews were known for being unique and tasty and not too accessible. Soon it became an arms race to get on every store shelf and see which brewmaster could amp up the ABV and hoppiness.
Suddenly, you’ve got a market flooded with palate-crushing IPAs and extreme lagers, porters and stouts. Same with racing. Marathons used to be for the elite, the fringe. Now everyone, from the barista to the board’s chairman, has laced ‘em up for 26.2.
Has it become too much? Maybe.
Give me a breezy 10k and a nice session pilsner at the finish any day. Keep it simple, fast, convivial—and for a good cause. Sure, it’s nice to have a destination full to put on the calendar as a capstone to a season of training, but I daresay the races along the way are the ones that make the journey.
Here then are a half-dozen 5 and 10ks you’ve probably never heard of definitely worth exploring...before they become exploited.
- Castle to Coast Organized annually by the track and cross country coaches of nearby Cuesta College as a fundraiser for the teams, this mid-January race starts in the shadow of Hearst Castle and ends on the as-yet-undiscovered shores of Cambria, California. The small seaside berg is home of a handful of tschoke shops, herds of sunning elephant seals and one of the best barbecue joints in a 90-mile radius. Last seen in 1990 as the setting for the eight-legged thriller Arachnophobia, the town has slumbered ever since. The fast downhill approach to the finish on a stretch of Highway 1 too often described as majestic in the guidebooks (though no other superlative is quite so fitting) is 8.2 of the most gratifying coastal miles a runner could hope to take in. Limited to 300 runners, the race now routinely sells out within days of posting, so keep hitting refresh in the fall. No-frills, it used to be show up, write a check and run—now I understand there’s a T-shirt available for $5. Progress.
- Emerald Bay Trail Run A fall classic, this romp along the granite shoulder southeast corner cove of Lake Tahoe is a bucket-lister. The scamper starts at Eagle Point and spirits runners on a roller coaster of single track, scrambling up boulders and avoiding the smooth roots of the pine towering above. The 7.5-mile/12k point-to-point route finishes on the shores of D.L. Bliss state park, where runners will find a sandy oasis. A hotspot in the summer, the park will have been vacated by vacationing families who squeezed back into their SUVs to comfortably numb their collective buttocks in cubicles or the classroom. But you, The Runner, are there and you’re alive breathing the Sierra fall air, cleaner than each day is new. From points on the course, runners can see the dramatic natural shelf of Lake Tahoe whose translucent waters remain, in spite of development or drought, an ever optimistic shade of blue. Local running elite and Nordic athletes jump-starting winter training routinely show for this one. Last time I ran it in 2012, Peter Fain, Truckee’s favorite ultraman-slash-sommelier, sat next to me on the bus to the start. “I usually never get out of bed for anything under 25k, but this one is special.”
- Panorama Field and Dale 6k and 12k. What if I were to tell you there’s a race unknown to the masses featuring standouts from a small but robust running community traversing groves of native California Sycamore and Cottonwood, across hand-made bridges and beaver dams. The sun shines nearly year-round on the shores of one of the West’s great riverbeds as the roadrunner skitters at your feet and a bobcat scuttles in the underbrush. Now what if I were to tell you this happens every March—in Bakersfield. The cost ($25) can’t be beat and only locals, until now, know of this course set on a public easement near the banks of the Kern river. Try a post-race Basque feast at Wool Growers, dessert at Dewar’s Candy Shop and dust off your dancing shoes for some boot scootin’ at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
- The Tour de Patrick From the streets of Bakersfield, we find ourselves hopping over the fly-overs 3,000 miles to the hometown of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. Providence, Rhode Island is where the str’Ides’ of March beckon (get it?) and a trilogy of St. Paddy’s Day-themed 5ks await. Known to local runners and quaffers of green beer as the ‘Tour de Patrick’, the gun goes off on the triumvirate the first Saturday in March. The Irish 5k adorns the sparkling shores of the Seekonk River in the sleepy home of the PawSox, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. But don’t break out the Bushmills at the finish, because the Celtic 5k is the very next morning in balmy Worcester. The three-race series culminates St. Paddy’s Day in Providence with a third 5k through the historic waterfront Ivy League town finishing at the foot of the Rhode Island statehouse in time for that well-earned malt beverage and a parade. Those who participate in all three races get to do so with a single bib and a year’s worth of bragging rights can come in the form of The Tour de Patrick Green Jersey which is presented to age-group winners at the conclusion of the first and second race(s) to designate the Tour de Patrick rabbits. The lowest cumulative time for all three 5ks will be declared Tour de Patrick Champions and all that entails (beads, drinks and song to follow and some “how’dya like them apples”).
- The Navy 10 Nautical Miler What is it about Memphis that makes me keep wanting to go to back to Memphis? I know: Music, food, history, temperate climate, a city on the up and up...and maybe one too many viewings of The Firm as a lonely teenager in the back of the team bus. Besides an Graceland and an unbeatable meat and three, what really makes Memphis sing these days is the upstart community of runners, who have reason to never slack (except when it gets melty humid). The city boasts more than 1,400 paved and off-road trails within its limits, and dedicated groups of runners there like the Memphis Runners Track Club are determined to set foot on every square inch. For my tastes, the Navy 10 Nautical Miler in nearby Millington is the most creative short race in the lower 48. Ten nautical miles represents the distance from the ship to the horizon line (about 11.8 actual miles) and the course not only offers a generous loop of the Tennessee countryside but detours through the Naval Support Activity Base, home to more than 7,000 Navy personnel, many of whom turn out and cheer civilian runners on.
- Marianne Talley Fun Run Talley Vineyards is tucked away in the now-discovered wine country just north of Santa Barbara and each year owner/grower Brian Talley hosts a 5k among his vines each fall to honor his sister, herself a top age grouper before she died suddenly at age 25 due to complications from heart arrhythmia. Brian himself is no slouch, routinely posting sub-20s on the hilly chalky, gravely and devilishly quick course. In fact, if you are able to cross the finish before Brian you get what most runners in the region wear as their biggest badge of honor, an “I Beat the Vintner” T-shirt. What other race in the world can you toe the line with its organizer who not only makes a moving speech post-race about his sister but also pours a mean glass of pinot? And yes, the tasting room is open to all finishers.