Road-racing trips: Why not build a vacation around your competitive spirit?

The Big Sur Marathon

When it comes to road races, nothing beats the classic 5K. Last year alone, the 3.1-mile distance chalked up nearly 4.7 million finishers, or 36 percent of all race finishers in 2010. Yet the half marathon is doing its best to catch up.

For the first time in the U.S. last year, more athletes completed a 13.1-mile race (1.38 million) than finished a 10K (1.33 million). That’s triple the number of half marathoners in 2000, when just 485,000 runners crossed the finish line.

Women in particular have fallen in love with the half marathon, accounting for almost 60 percent of the field. It’s long enough for it to feel like a challenge but not so long that you have to kill yourself training for it.

“It’s the hottest race in the world right now,” says Patrice Matamoro, race director of Pittsburgh’s full and half marathons, which like other well-known large races such as the Big Sur, Marine Corps and Houston marathons and Disneyland half marathon sold out last year with record-breaking registrations.

Running an endurance race in your hometown is an accomplishment like no other. But it can be even more motivating, not to mention a heck of a lot more fun, to build a vacation around it. Many of the country’s largest races, in fact, draw more out-of-town visitors than local runners with their weekend-long events.

It’s easier than you might think to plan a destination race. Most every major city in the U.S. stages a half or full marathon (www.marathonguide.com), so it’s just a matter of timing. The popular Rock ‘n’ Roll series of marathons and half marathons, for instance, which debuted in San Diego in 1998, now counts 24 cities on its U.S. tour, along with two in Europe.

If you’re a newbie, a number of charities provide half and full marathon training and support in exchange for fundraising for the cause. One of the largest, Team in Training, which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, has programs that take runners to the Honolulu Marathon in Waikiki Beach and the Mayors Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, among other places.

So which races are worth the time and effort? Here, we offer some full and half marathons with bucket list appeal.

Big Sur International Marathon and Half Marathon

“If we were told that we could run only one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it,” says Bart Yasso, a longtime marathoner with Runner’s World magazine who spearheads a program that works with more than 7,000 races.

There’s not a more spectacular spot in the country for a race, and if you’re not up to doing the marathon held each April on Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean, the half will give you an equally dramatic view on the Monterey Peninsula each November.

The Nov. 20 half marathon is sold out, but either one is definitely worth a trip to California. Monterey, two hours south of San Francisco, is the headquarters for both races.

What to see: Monterey Bay Aquarium; Cannery Row (made famous by John Steinbeck); Carmel-By-the-Sea that offers a beautiful downtown of galleries, boutiques and restaurants; and the famous 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach. There are also myriad parks, beaches and spas.

Details: Next marathon is April 29, 2012; half, Nov. 18, 2012. marathon website: www.bsim.org; half marathon website: www.bigsurhalfmarathon.org

San Francisco Marathon and Half Marathon

The 24-year-old San Francisco Marathon introduced two half-marathon courses this year — all held in July. It gives half-marathoners the unusual choice of running either the first half or the second half of the marathon route.

The marathon is a mostly flat, loop course, starting and finishing on the Embarcadero (near the Ferry Building). The route goes by Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, through the Presidio and into Golden Gate Park, then down famous Haight Street and through the Mission, Potrero and Mission Bay districts, then under the Bay Bridge to the finish.

What to see: Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower, cable car rides, Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Walt Disney Family Museum, Bay cruises, Sausalito, etc.

Details: Next race is July 29, 2012. www.thesfmarathon.com

Portland Marathon and Half Marathon

What started in 1972 as a simple two-loop run around an island in Oregon’s Columbia River has grown to one of the nation’s favorite destination races. Nearly three-quarters of its participants are from out of state. It’s particularly popular with women, who account for almost 60 percent of finishers.

The event enjoys a reputation as one of the “friendliest, best-organized, most family-oriented” races in the country. Here’s why: Not only does the course stay open for eight hours to accommodate walkers, but it also offers more entertainment than any marathon in the U.S. — this year, 76 groups are scheduled at 53 stations — and lots of goodies in the race’s swag bag.

“Our goal is to treat everyone as a winner,” says event director (and Pittsburgh-area native) Les Smith.

What to do and see: Dozens of hiking trails of varying difficulty are close to the city and in the Columbia River Gorge. Nearby Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon’s wine country, with more than 200 wineries. Portland also boasts museums, public gardens and great restaurants. The Portland Saturday Market (Mar.-Dec.) is the nation’s largest weekly open-air arts and crafts market.

Details: Next race is Oct. 7, 2012, but you better be quick if you plan on signing up for the half — it sells out in January. www.portlandmarathon.org.

Twin Cities Marathon, 10 Miler and 10K

Dubbed the “Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America,” this course along the Mississippi River starts in downtown Minneapolis and finishes at the State Capitol in St. Paul. With no climbs more than 100 feet long and a downhill finish, it’s a fast course. And you can’t beat the fall scenery, which takes runners past four lakes and up tree-lined boulevards to cheers of encouragement from 300,000 spectators.

Held the first Sunday in October, the weather is usually cool but not cold, which makes for great racing. There’s no half marathon, so if you haven’t yet worked your way up to 26.2 miles, you’ll have to settle for a 10-miler on race day or 10K the day before.

What to see and do: The Mall of America in nearby Bloomington has 500-plus stores and 50 restaurants. There also are top-notch restaurants and nightlife in town, along with museums, boutique shopping and bike riding along the Mississippi.

Details: Next race is Oct. 7, 2012. www.twincitiesmarathon.com

Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon

Do you feel lucky? How can you not when the neon lights of Las Vegas’ famous Strip are illuminating your run. In the past, this stop in the popular Rock ‘n’ Roll series of races started in the predawn darkness. This year, marathoners will span all eight lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard, starting at 4 p.m. (the half marathon gets under way at 5:30 p.m.). Some 40,000 runners are expected to participate in the two races, which begin and end at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, making it the world’s largest nighttime running event.

Music makes up the heart and “sole” of this event, with live bands at every mile. There are also a quickie wedding or vow renewal at the “Run Through Wedding Ceremony” and lots of Elvis impersonators on the course, which is about as flat and fast as they come.

You’ll need that advantage: Racers have just 41/2 hours to complete the marathon, and four hours for the half.

What to see and do: You’re in Vegas, baby! Play the slots, see a show, take a ride in America’s largest indoor amusement park, stuff yourself silly at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and shop in one of several casino malls.

Details: The marathon on Dec. 4 is sold out, but there may still be some spots in the half. http://runrocknroll.competitor.com/las-vegas

Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon and Half Marathon

Pittsburghers might not like its football team, but this Ohio city has one of the region’s most popular races for first-time half and full marathoners. And it’s not just because it’s one of the best-named races in the country. (It pays homage to the city’s “Porkopolis” past.)

“It’s just downright fun,” says Kevin Smith of Elite Runners & Walkers in Robinson, who has run the race twice. “Everyone bends over backwards for this event.”

A Boston qualifier, the course takes its 26,000 runners through neighborhoods in Cincinnati and in Covington and Newport, Ky., across the Ohio River, with a swine-line finish (and victory party) at Yeatman’s Cove on the waterfront.

What to see and do: Visit the world’s largest animatronic dinosaur park, take a zipline adventure or riverboat ride on the Ohio River, visit the zoo. Cincinnati features great shopping and dining and several wonderful museums, including the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.

Details: Next race is May 6, 2012. www.flyingpigmarathon.com.

Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon

The famed Philadelphia Museum of Art — one of the nation’s largest museums — serves as a stunning backdrop for both the start and finish of this 18th annual event. Recognized for its not-too-difficult but still-challenging terrain and beautiful scenery, the races are run entirely within the City of Brotherly Love’s historical limits: past Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House on the picturesque streets of Old City, and more.

What to see and do: Philadelphia is one of the country’s most culturally vibrant cities, with dozens of museums, historical attractions and artistic venues. It also has a vibrant nightlife, great shopping along Rittenhouse Row and award-winning restaurants. One local (and inexpensive) must: the cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly.

Details: The half marathon on Nov. 13. is sold out, but there may still be spots in the full. www.philadelphiamarathon.com

Grandma’s Marathon

This event in Duluth, Minn., began in 1977 when a group of local runners planned a scenic race along the north shore of Lake Superior from Two Harbors to Duluth. Taking its name from Grandma’s restaurants, which served as its first major sponsor, the event has grown to become the 17th largest marathon in the country, drawing 17,000 participants for the weekend events. It introduced the half marathon in 1991.

The race’s relatively flat terrain makes it ideal for those tackling their first marathon. But if it’s a hot day, be warned there’s little shade along the route.

There’s lodging all over downtown, or you might try bunking in the residence halls at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, just up the hill from the lakeshore. where nearby there’s a cool “farm-to-table” restaurant for brunch — At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe, (1902 E. Eighth St., 1-218-724-6811).

What to see: Duluth is 21/2 hours from Minneapolis, so you can visit both cities over a weekend. Duluth has the Great Lakes Aquarium and Lake Superior Railroad Museum; Minneapolis-St. Paul is packed with museums, dining and shopping, as well as biking trails and other activities around its 22 city lakes.

Details: Next race is June 16, 2012. http://grandmasmarathon.com/

Tucson Marathon and Half Marathon

There’s still time to register for the events on Dec. 11. These are particularly popular courses for those hoping to get a PR (personal record) because of the almost perfect running conditions. The point-to-point courses are mostly downhill and temperatures at the start (7:30 a.m. for the marathon, 7 a.m. for the half) are in the high 30s and rise to about 65 degrees by late morning. The half marathon course follows the last 13.1-miles of the route.

What to see and do: Hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, caving in the many parks and canyons. Or visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Catalina State Park, Tohono Chul Park, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, Pima Air & Space Museum. Plus lots of shopping, dining and spas.

Details: Next race is Dec. 11. www.tucsonmarathon.com.

Dallas White Rock Marathon and Half Marathon

Looking to work off Thanksgiving dinner? This pre-Christmas event was voted “Best Marathon in Texas” for the past four years by Competitor Magazine. Organizers expect 25,000 runners to take their marks this year at historic Fair Park.

The full marathon course winds through downtown Dallas’ arts district and hip Uptown area, along Turtle Creek and a loop around White Rock Lake. The downhill finish takes runners past the historic Swiss Avenue mansions on the return to Fair Park. Course entertainment includes 40 live bands.

What to see and do: Dallas boasts the largest contiguous urban arts district in the U.S., the center of which is the Dallas Museum of Art. The popular Uptown, West Village and downtown West End Historic districts feature specialty shops, eclectic cafes and restaurants. Or head to the upscale Galleria to people-watch for celebs. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza examines the life and death of President John F. Kennedy.

Details: Next race is Dec. 4. www.runtherock.com.

Outer Banks Marathon and Half Marathon

These point-to-point sea-level races, which bring about 7,500 runners to town, also are relatively flat and fast. Yet the real draw is the North Carolina scenery, which includes the tallest natural sand dune in the eastern U.S., sea oats, wildlife and sweeping sound views.

The course runs north to south, so the late fall wind is behind you. Marathoners begin their journey at historic Kitty Hawk, run past the 60-foot-tall Wright Brothers Monument on Big Kill Devil Hill and at mile 10 switch to a trail run through Nags Head Woods Nature Preserve, one of the few maritime forests on the East Coast. Both races end on storied Roanoke Island.

What to see and do: The blue-green waters of the Atlantic are too chilly for swimming in late fall. But it’s still warm enough for fishing, golf, hiking, kite flying and hang gliding (Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest hang gliding school in the world). OBX also has great seafood restaurants, quaint inns, shopping and five historic lighthouses.

Details: Next marathon and half marathon are on Nov. 13. www.obxmarathon.org

More Magazine/ Fitness Magazine Half Marathon

This all-women’s race in New York City’s Central Park each spring makes a perfect girls getaway. It began in 2004 for women 40 and older by More Magazine, which celebrates the lives of women in their 40s and 50s. But More has since partnered with Fitness Magazine and broadened participation to include girls and women, ages 12 and over. On April 3, it drew 8,000 participants from 48 states and 18 foreign countries — making it one of the largest all-women’s races in the world. The 13.1-mile course follows the park’s popular inner loop.

What to see: The race is held Sunday morning, so you’ve got most of the weekend to explore the Big Apple — the museums, monuments, Broadway shows, shopping and dining.

Details: Race is typically the first Sunday in April. It’s organized by the highly efficient New York Road Runners Club. www.nyrrc.org

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