Start Training and Prepare to Toe the Line at These Top Southern Runs and Rides
Looking for inspiration to get in shape, push yourself to the limits, or simply enjoy a bit of friendly competition in a beautiful mountain setting? The Blue Ridge region is chock full of great races. From subterranean half-marathons to mountaintop triathlons, plus one of the most grueling backcountry mountain biking races in the U.S., our 2023 list has everything you need to quench your thirst for competition.
Harpers Ferry Half Marathon & 5K
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Get your run on in one of the coolest and most scenic trail towns in the Blue Ridge. The tiny burg of Harpers Ferry sits on a hilly peninsula between the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers surrounded by mountains and national forest. Its riverside district is part of an eponymous national park, and brims with restored 18th and 19th century buildings. The Appalachian Trail passes through the center of town and briefly converges with the 185-mile C&O Canal Towpath bikeway.
Race participants can take their pick between a half-marathon or 5K (a sister marathon and 10K are held annually in October), with proceeds benefitting the local community. Courses are designed to provide incredible views of the town, rivers, and mountains, and showcase the best of the area’s breathtaking natural scenery.
RockStar Challenge Grand Depart
The Rockstar Challenge holds a special place in the hearts, minds—and fears—of Shenandoah Valley mountain biking enthusiasts. The grueling, four-day, 270-mile race carries riders from downtown Harrisonburg to downtown Roanoke, traversing some of the toughest backcountry single-track and tallest peaks in Virginia.
The course features nearly 40,000 feet of climbing and passes through legendary MTB riding areas like Stokesville Campground, 4,500-foot Reddish Knob, the Shenandoah Mountain Ridge, Douthat State Park, and Carvins Cove. The ride is broken up into 70-mile days and racers have the option of camping in off-the-beaten-path areas or catching a shuttle to prearranged lodging. Most of the riding takes place on trails, with connector stretches of gravel and asphalt here and there.
Carilion Clinic Ironman 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge Triathlon
This epic event has won international acclaim as a showcase for some of the most fantastic natural beauty on the Ironman circuit. The race starts with a 1.2-mile lap in the high, clear, spring-fed waters of Carvins Cove reservoir within a 12,500-acre natural reserve punctuated by 3,500-foot Brushy Mountain. Participants then hop on their cycles for a 56-mile jaunt through the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, which includes an infamous five-mile climb up Route 43, jaw-dropping views of the Roanoke Valley, and a blazing 21-mile descent into the town of Vinton. The event concludes with a 13.1-mile run through the city along the Roanoke River Greenway that begins and ends in the heart of downtown at River’s Edge Park. Competition is broken into 12 different age groups ranging from 18 to 80, with awards for each.
Quest for the Crest 10K & 50K
Burnsville, North Carolina
The Quest is held about 30 miles northeast of Asheville in 4,800-acre Mount Mitchell State Park and is widely regarded as one of the most intense trail races in the Southeast. Its 50K option features three separate, highly technical ascents to 6,000-plus-foot summits along the Black Mountain Crest, including 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
A word to the wise: The Quest is not for the casual day-tripper. Racers will haul themselves up goat-steep paths using fixed ropes, refill water bottles from a remote mountain spring, navigate multiple steep, rocky descents with sharp drop-offs, and more.
But the payoff is worth it. You’ll pass through vast swaths of Pisgah National Forest backcountry and catch near-constant unrivaled views from some of the most fabled peaks in the state and greater Appalachia. And if you make it to the finish line? That’s some hardcore bragging rights.
Pisgah Stage Race
Brevard, North Carolina
The Pisgah Stage Race highlights the best of more than 400 miles of ripping mountain biking trails in western North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. The five-day, 130-mile shred-fest brings more than 20,000 feet of elevation gain and has a reputation as one of the top MTB endurance races in the U.S. The course is made up of a whopping 76 percent single-track, with 19 percent dirt road, and just five percent asphalt.
The 7,500-person town of Brevard is nestled along the entrance to the riding area, offering riders uncanny basecamp convenience and killer amenities. Individual stages span from about 15 to just over 30 miles, with average completion times of 2.5 to 3.5 hours.
Participants can expect to enjoy an unmatched sampler of some the nation’s best single-track, all while slicing and dicing their way through beautiful Appalachian woodlands and 5,000-plus-foot mountains.
Race to the Cave Half Marathon & 10K
This unique event carries racers to the 500-acre Cathedral Caverns State Park in northeast Alabama. Both the half-marathon and 10K end on a 1.2-mile dash through the caverns with highlights including expansive, natural amphitheater rooms and a jaw-dropping three-plus-acre stalactite forest.
Early on, routes wind through dense, hilly forests along state park roads and hiking trails. For the most part, gradients are pretty gentle, but past participants are quick to point out a couple of short but brutally steep climbs that come just before passing underground.
The competition is split into age groups ranging from 7-70 and above, with awards for each. Runners are encouraged to stay at the newly renovated resort lodge overlooking the water at nearby Lake Guntersville State Park. Proceeds benefit Alabama State Parks and the Land Trust of North Alabama.
Cover Photo: The finish line of the Carilion Clinic Ironman 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge Triathlon. Photo Courtesy of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge