For road cyclists in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, there’s nothing more motivating than the sonorous whine of a faraway train whistle. That’s the sound of their top competitor: the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The road biking race was born in the early 1970s, when beating the train to Silverton on a bicycle was deemed impossible—until cyclist Tom Mayer pulled it off in a bet with his brother, a train worker. Now, the race has expanded to a full weekend of festivities, including a kids’ race, mountain bike race, and the Cruiser Criterium, a cruiser-bike parade and costume contest held on Main Street.
The Silverton race is still the marquis event, with around 1,000 racers who compete in pro divisions and 1,500 amateurs, who race the train over a 50-mile course with two 10,000-foot passes and 6,650 feet of climbing. Though pros have sped through the course in as little as two hours, most riders take a more leisurely pace to enjoy the cheers of locals on the roadsides and ogle the views of 13,000-foot snowcapped peaks.
If you’re going to push yourself all the way through a triathlon, you might as well suffer in a gorgeous spot—or so seems the philosophy of Ironman 70.3, the fast-growing half-Ironman race series. This year, there are nearly 60 far-flung and enticing locales to choose from, like Sri Lanka, Chile, and the Philippines.
Take Mont Tremblant, one of the newest hosts of this challenging series. Racers swim 1.2 miles in the lovely, forest-swaddled Lake Tremblant, bike 56 miles through peaks and boreal forests on a newly paved (read: reduced friction) stretch of road, and run 13.1 miles through a village of chalets that looks like it could have been airlifted right out of the French Alps. And leave it to the French Canadians, renowned for their lively—one might even say rowdy—nightlife and rich regional specialties like poutine (French fries, cheese curds, and gravy), to offer a killer postrace recovery program. (Hint: It involves an abundance of cheese, craft brews, and leisurely jaunts to the stunning nearby Mont-Tremblant National Park.)
Race2Adventure may be the only race to ever factor laziness into the program. The brainchild of Merritt Hopper, a former logistics wrangler for Primal Quest and Eco Challenge, this eight-day travel-oriented event brings a hundred participants through the remote inner depths of its host country. After events in Costa Rica and Ecuador, racers are headed to Guatemala in 2012.
Each morning, runners tackle challenging trails between five and ten kilometers long, winning prizes each day and at the finish. After that, however, the competition ends and the fun begins. Afternoon excursions include rafting Class III rapids on the Rio Cahabón, swimming in waterfalls and hot springs, jumping off cliffs into Lake Atitlán, visiting a coffee plantation, and exploring Maya ruins—not to mention optional lounging and cocktail sipping.
By the time the pack reaches the final finish line on the black-sand beaches of the Pacific, winning seems overrated. Before the awards ceremony, racers meander off to surf, kayak, and play beach volleyball. Cerveza, anyone?
The American Birkebeiner is more than a ski race. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Every February, some 15,000 skiers descend on the remote northern Wisconsin hamlet of Hayward for three days of races and events—and, more important, to catch up with new and old friends, to hotly debate the merits of waxes, to talk smack to rivals, and to share stories accumulated since the race’s inception in 1973.
The marquee event is the Birkebeiner itself, a 50-kilometer skate-ski race and a 54-kilometer classic cross-country ski race over a hilly, forested course that attracts 6,000 ultra-fit skiers. Though the course is challenging, anyone can sign up, from elite international racers to weekend warriors.
There are also plenty of events for the little ones. Some 1,000 kids, aged 3 to 13 years, race in the Barnebirkie. The race ends on Hayward’s Main Street, just in time to watch elite-level sprints, in which top racers duel in head-to-head 300-meter races.
There’s also the BirkieTour, a noncompetitive ski tour open to all, and events designed purely for fun, like the Giant Ski, in which teams of six people, mounted on 24-foot wooden skis, race each other down Main Street. Above rivalries and ambitions, the crowds are united by one thing: a deep love for all things winter.
Last year, the Jungfrau Marathon sold out within four days. If it’s difficult to imagine why so many people would elect to suffer through 26.2 miles of mostly uphill running, consider the astounding course. Starting in the tidy resort town of Interlaken, the route winds by charming Swiss villages, pastures, a valley full of waterfalls, and a prototypical Alpine lake before ending with front-row views of Switzerland’s celebrity peaks: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. (Think of it as the reward for more than 5,000 vertical feet of climbing in the last ten miles of the race.)
For the marathon’s 20th anniversary this year, race organizers are holding two events—one on Saturday and one on Sunday—to accommodate more runners, including about a hundred masochists who plan to run both. There are also shorter races for kids, an invitational mile race for elite athletes, wheelchair and hand-bike races, and, mercifully, a 2.6-mile mini-marathon for racing newbies. But arguably the best part of racing in Switzerland is the inevitable postrace gorging. Need we mention fondue?
Think of it as crashing the World Series: Stand-up paddleboarding is still so new that even amateurs can race in one of the sport’s biggest competitions, the Quiksilver Waterman’s Hoe.
Held on Oahu’s Duke Kahanamoku Beach, a wide swath of white sand with a reef break that calms swells, the event attracts competitors from as far as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil. This year, the races will swell to more than a thousand competitors in stand-up and prone paddleboarding, as well as one-man and six-man outrigger canoe races. Ten-time world paddleboard champion Jamie Mitchell (a 2011 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year) is on board to design the courses for relay, sprint, and distance races, and all manner of enthusiasts are welcome, from elites to landlubbers.
Meanwhile, families can tackle the family relay or take on races designed for tots. Though spectators from nearby Waikiki hotels gather to watch, the vibe remains decidedly mellow, with live music and picnics on the beach. For visitors, it’s an immersion in what Hawaii does best: ocean sports, sun, and the simple art of kicking back.
Get Planning: Entry fee to race $150 (elite racers) and under
Photograph by Chase Olivieri, Quiksilver Waterman’s Hoe
Mud is the least of one’s worries in any one of Tough Mudder’s 35 events across the globe. A British Special Forces agent designed these wildly challenging 10- to 12-mile obstacle courses as the antidote to the mindless pavement pounding of typical marathons. The result is an onslaught of spine-tingling challenges, such as swimming through ice baths, swinging through buttered monkey bars, running through a field of live wires, and scaling 12-foot walls.
But for every ounce of Tough Mudder’s bravado, there is an equal measure of humor. Many racers wear ridiculous costumes, finish-line prizes include free Tough Mudder tattoos and mullet haircuts, and one of the official race rules is, put simply, “no whining.” Organizers are also quick to establish that Tough Mudder is not, in fact, a race—participants are expected to help each other through obstacles. The result is an atmosphere of camaraderie that few other endurance events pull off.
This year, new races are popping up in highly vacation-worthy locales, such as Sydney, London, and Vancouver. But no matter where you go, the raging postrace party is the same, with live music, free beer, medals for the fastest finishers, and awards for best costume, mullet, and Mohawk.
“The last wild race” may seem a bold claim, but if any event can live up to it, it’s the Patagonian Expedition Race (see it featured in our Ultimate Adventure Bucket List). Deemed by many as the pinnacle of adventure racing, this ten-day endurance competition attracts as many as 20 coed four-person teams from more than a dozen countries. Most years, fewer than half finish, but in many ways, winning is irrelevant. In fact, there’s no prize money—only bragging rights.
Racers sea kayak, mountain bike, trek, and orienteer with only maps and compasses through some of the wildest reaches of Chilean Patagonia (see our Chile guide). They travel for days without seeing other teams through spectacularly diverse landscapes, from the tempestuous waters off Cape Horn to peat bogs, ancient petrified-wood forests, and the 11,000-foot peaks of the Cordillera Darwin.
Though the clock is always ticking and teams endure extreme cold and sleep deprivation, participants emerge from the wilderness with tales of life-changing experiences, such as the sight of a gargantuan humpback whale breaching right next to a kayak or the Zen-like feeling of watching dawn light the eastern horizon, casting an otherworldly glow over a landscape few people have seen.