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By Graham Averill

I’m seven miles into a brutal trail run along the New River Gorge when my hamstrings start to cramp. It’s nothing to worry about, just the general aching I get from pushing myself too fast, too quickly. My knees and hands are caked with mud from slipping on a wet bed of rocks, my shins are a little bloody from the fall, and I may be suffering from the first stages of dehydration.

Hands down, this is the best vacation I’ve had in a long time.

I’m running the New River Gorge-ous Trail Run in West Virginia, a challenging half marathon put on by the ACE Adventure Center that takes runners on classic West Virginia singletrack. The race has been on my “wish list” for a couple of years. I’ve also been itching to explore the New River Gorge, so in a stroke of genius, I decided to combine the two into one long adventure-soaked weekend. I hiked, climbed, ate good food, and ran a grueling trail race.
While a running vacation may sound like torture to some, it is absolute bliss to others. Why experience a new destination from the seat of a car when you can dig your heels in and explore fresh land the way God intended it: in a pair of trail runners?

Running in a new city or forest allows travelers to be a part of the environment they’re experiencing, helping to re-establish that sense of connection many feel has been lost with traditional travel avenues.

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“I’ve been a runner for 30 years,” says long distance runner and travel agent Sue Rudolph. “Running is my passion. That doesn’t stop when I’m on vacation. I always make sure to run while I’m away. If I can work a marathon or race in, it just makes the vacation that much more meaningful.”

Rudolph owns a travel company in Southern California. Several years ago, she discovered she wasn’t the only runner who set their vacation clocks around running. In the ‘90s, Rudolph was asked to book an overseas marathon for her local running club. Based on the success of that first trip, she created Amazing Running Tours (amazingrunningtours.com), a company that specializes in creating week-long itineraries that hinge on marathons in exotic locations. Every year, she takes clients to Australia for the Great Ocean Marathon, to Alaska for the Midnight Sun Marathon, to China to run the Great Wall Marathon.

“Last year I ran the Routeburn Classic in New Zealand and had a ball,” Rudolph says. “My clients and I don’t run these marathons hard. We take cameras and go slow and enjoy it. Running is a great ways to see a destination.”

Michael Gazaleh learned this simple fact two years ago when he volunteered to take a tourist running in New York City.
“A guy came to town who wanted a trainer to take him for a run. He was from Australia and had never seen New York City,” Gazaleh says. “We ran and I showed him the sights.” A week later, Gazaleh started a company based on that simple guiding principle. Tourists come to New York City, and Gazaleh (or one of his other running guides) takes them for a run.

“Our guides give a history of the city, facts about the buildings and sites. We tell you the best places to get a burger, where to go for half priced tickets or drink specials,” Gazaleh says. “All of our guides have been living in the city for a couple of years so you get a local perspective.”

Running vacations are a burgeoning business for Gazaleh. In the last six months, Gazaleh has expanded City Running Tours to several other locations across the country, including Washington D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina.

“We’re slowly building,” Gazaleh says. ”People come to New York, go on a run with us, then want to offer the same services in their home city.”

Consider destination racing an extension of that urge to run and explore new territory. Instead of hiring a running tour guide or going solo with a map, the race director acts as your local guide and the race course itself serves as a highlight reel of the local environment, whether it’s a city marathon or a trail race like the Dupont Forest Trail Marathon, outside of Brevard, North Carolina. The Dupont Marathon attracts 300 runners every year. Ninety percent of them are from out of town.

“Our runners usually represent about 25 states,” says Greg Walker, founder of the popular trail race. “They come for the beauty of Western North Carolina and the chance to run one of the best trail systems around.”

I ended up bloody and tired on the rim of the New River Gorge because of a similar urge. I wanted to experience the best the New River Gorge had to offer, and the Gorge-ous run boasted some impressive qualifications. The course exists entirely within ACE Adventure’s 1,400-acre campus, but the singletrack and views are unmatched. Less than a mile into the course and you’re running through impressive rock outcroppings on rugged, off-camber singletrack. A couple of miles later and you’re passing one of the best river views you can find in the gorge.

“This is typical West Virginia up and down,” says Jeff Walls, race director for the Gorge-ous run. “Lots of hill, lots of rocks, in a remote, wilderness setting. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

West Virginia trail runners are so in love with the course that they made it the championship for the Mountain State Trail Run Series. The run has consistently pulled in the best runners from across the state for the last several years, but recently, it’s been catching the eye of out-of-state runners looking for a quality race destination. Runners are beginning to come from neighboring regions, turning the race into a long weekend in order to take advantage of the world class rock climbing, hiking, and paddling the gorge has to offer.

“It’s a no brainer for a destination race,” Walls says. “Whatever you want to do, the New River Gorge has it.”

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Do It Yourself

Turn the New River Gorge-Ous Trail Run into a full-fledged vacation with the following three-day action packed itinerary.

New River Gorge-Ous Trail Run
October 25, 2008
Options: 13.2-mile, 7.5-mile, and a 4.5-mile walk

Day One: Friday Ditch work early so you can get a “training” run on the short, but scenic Fern Creek Trail, which takes you through a mixed hardwood and evergreen forest interspersed with killer views from the rim of the New River Gorge. You’ll go from dense forest to views of the bridge and river and back again in just under a couple of miles.

Food: Grab a local beer and pizza at Pies n’ Pints on the edge of downtown Fayetteville. Try the Grape Pie: grapes, gorgonzola cheese baked to an unholy goodness. 304-574-2200. HYPERLINK “http://www.piesnpints.net” www.piesnpints.net.

Lodging: Bed down at the ACE Adventure Center. Camping is free for racers, or get one of their chalets with a hot tub for next to nothing. HYPERLINK “http://www.aceraft.com” www.aceraft.com.

Day Two: Race Day

Check your ego at the starting line. These West Virginia runners have the home court advantage and steel legs from running on such rugged terrain. Bring a camera, run a casual pace, and enjoy the views from the singletrack. Plus, you want to conserve some energy for the post race adventures ahead. It’s a morning race, so you’ll have most of the afternoon to explore the gorge. After you cross the finish line, stick around for some free beer and burritos, compliments of ACE.

Get your legs back, then head to the gorge for some climbing on famous West Virginia sandstone. The New River has more than 1,600 established routes. For the greatest variety in one place, check out the Endless Wall. Try Fool Effect (5.9) for a classic single pitch route that will test the length of your ropes.

If you’ve never climbed in the area, lean on New River Mountain Guides for some first hand experience. HYPERLINK “http://www.newriverclimbing.com” www.newriverclimbing.com. 800-73-CLIMB.

Food: Gumbos has the only Cajun in the entire state of West Virginia, and it’s right in the heart of downtown Fayetteville. 304-574-4704.

Lodging: Head back to ACE and soak your entire body in your private hot tub.

Day Three: Sunday
If you have the energy, rise early and rent a mountain bike from ACE. You’ll be riding Kaymoor Mine Trail, which follows an old mining road on the edge of the gorge, offering great views of the river and the climbing routes along the Endless Wall. If you’re looking for more challenging singletrack, try Froghopper on ACE’s property. It’s a smooth “flow” trail with roller coaster ups and downs for several miles. HYPERLINK “http://www.aceraft.com” www.aceraft.com.

Food: Hit the Cathedral Café before leaving time. This Fayetteville staple serves the best sandwiches in town. 304-574-0202.

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More Destination Races

Check out these other races worth planning a vacation around.

Wirefly National Marathon and Half Marathon
March 29, 2008 Washington, D.C.

All 26.2 miles of this race course sit inside the District of Columbia. What’s more, the course goes beyond the standard tour of the mall and monuments, taking you into the vibrant neighborhoods that make up our nation’s capital. And the race begins and finishes at RFK stadium. The National Marathon is by far the best foot tour of D.C. you can get.

Bonus: Seeing the monuments during the race enables you to get out and explore the rest that D.C. has to offer. Do some trail running at Rock Creek Park, boulder the Canal Wall, or spend an afternoon geeking out in one of the Smithsonian museums.

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Virginia Beach Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon
August 31, 2008 (Labor Day Weekend), Virginia Beach, Va.

The 13.1-mile course runs through Virginia Beach’s coastal neighborhoods and features a 2.5-mile portion that parallels the Atlantic Ocean. Add the 14 stages with live bands spread a mile apart throughout the course, the neighborhood theme costume parties, and the American Music Festival which coincides with the race, and you’ve got a killer Labor Day Weekend.

Bonus: The finish line party is right on the beach. Kick off your running shoes and drink your post race beer with your feet in the Atlantic Ocean.

www.rnrhalf.com.

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Dupont Forest Trail Marathon
October 12, 2008, Brevard, N.C.

A 26.2-mile course taking you on a tour of the highlights within Dupont State Forest. You’ll pass three waterfalls, run around two lakes, and even traverse an old landing strip with killer views of the surrounding mountains. Eighteen miles of the course is on open dirt forest roads and eight miles is on singletrack, but none of the terrain would be considered technical.

Bonus: The marathon also features a relay contingent, where four person teams split the distance, running a 10K each. The relay a great way to break in to trail racing for first timers and adds a social aspect to the race. www.ymcahendersoncounty.org.

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Big South Fork Trail Race
September 27, 2008, Oneida, Tenn. Big South Fork National Recreation Area

This 17-mile trail run is a favorite with Tennessee mountain lovers. The course is tough (at one point, you’ll actually climb a ladder uphill) but it leans heavily on the Grand Gap Loop, a hiking trail that features the best that the Big South Fork has to offer. You’ll run past mind-boggling rock formations and have dangerously good views of the gorge below. Seriously, keep your eyes on the trail.

Bonus: The location. The Big South Fork offers some of the most unique landscape in the Southeast, and yet very few people take the time to visit the park. Use this trail run as an excuse to explore the park’s other mountain bike trails, hiking paths, and river routes. www.ktc.org.

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