The Boston Marathon is a great motivator. As roughly 27,000 runners cross the finish line April 16, thousands on the sidelines will be inspired. Maybe a marathon goes on the bucket list, but a shorter race may seem a more realistic first step. New England boasts a calendar packed with spring, summer, and fall road races of all distances.
A top destination race combines convenience, good organization, tourist- and family-friendly locales, and festive atmosphere. The events listed here all offer a slice of New England - covered bridges and lighthouses or quintessential Main Streets and village greens. They show off familiar cities from unfamiliar vantage points and turn small towns into hot spots for a weekend. In these 10 races, the experience goes beyond the course and competition.
MANCHESTER ROAD RACE Manchester, Conn. For many in the field of 15,000, Thanksgiving morning in Manchester is a holiday tradition. The 4 3/4-mile course starts and finishes on postcard-primed Main Street. Last year, the race celebrated its 75th anniversary, maintaining much of its charm and appeal amid growing popularity. Some runners get into the holiday spirit dressed as pilgrims, turkeys, and Thanksgiving side dishes. The vibe is fun and festive, though fast runners feel right at home with Olympic-caliber elites competing for the men’s and women’s titles. Crowds along the route are thick and live music groups numerous. You will hear “Rocky’’ theme music and the “Olympic Fanfare.’’ Bagpipers at the 2-mile mark are a welcome treat after a long uphill climb. Nov. 22, 10 a.m. www.manchesterroadrace.com
FALMOUTH ROAD RACE Falmouth To describe this race’s route as scenic may be an understatement. The event showcases all that makes Cape Cod a popular summertime destination. The 7-mile course starts in front of the Woods Hole Community Center, then winds though a few hilly, tree-covered miles. The final four miles trace the Vineyard Sound shoreline to the Falmouth Heights Beach finish. The race is so popular that non-Falmouth residents must enter a lottery for one of 13,000 available bib numbers. Registration for the 2012 lottery takes place May 11-17. In addition to its picturesque, yet challenging, course, the race field also features top distance runners from around the world, often including Olympic gold medalists and Boston Marathon champions. Aug. 12, 10 a.m. www.falmouthroadrace.com
BEACH TO BEACON 10K ROAD RACE Cape Elizabeth, Maine Founded by Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic women’s marathon gold medalist from Maine, the race starts near Crescent Beach State Park and finishes at Portland Head Light, winding its way through town. Shortly after a sharp right turn into Fort Williams, Casco Bay and the finish line come into view. It just may be the most stunning finish area vista in all of US road racing. Not surprisingly, many runners linger afterward and explore Fort Williams. Or they make the event the start of an August Maine weekend retreat with downtown Portland a 10-minute drive away. Like the Falmouth race, the popularity of Beach to Beacon requires an entry lottery (completed for this year) and features elite runners. Aug. 4, 8 a.m. www.beach2beacon.org
COVERED BRIDGES HALF MARATHON South Pomfret, Vt. Race organizers currently cap entrants at around 2,600 runners, ensuring the half marathon retains its quaint, Vermont feel. And the small field also keeps foot traffic flowing smoothly past four covered bridges and through the Middle Covered Bridge. On-line registration stays open no more than 20 minutes each year. With a coveted spot, runners enjoy a scenic tour through the towns of Pomfret, Woodstock, and Quechee in early June. “It’s a very pretty, very New England setting,’’ said race co-director Mike Silverman. “The countryside and downtown Woodstock are what people think Vermont is. And more and more people are making the event a family getaway.’’ In addition to shopping in Woodstock, nearby Hanover, N.H., is always popular with visitors. June 3, 8:15 a.m. www.cbhm.com
LITCHFIELD HILLS ROAD RACE Litchfield, Conn. No false advertising here. The race’s 7.1-mile course tours the scenic, rolling hills of northwest Connecticut. Over the years, the hills have welcomed Samuelson, Bill Rodgers, and international runners from Kenya, Ireland, Britain, Morocco, and New Zealand. “It’s become a major homecoming event with a very festive atmosphere,’’ said John Clock, who is in his 17th year as race director. Hoping to bring together his many running friends and show off Litchfield, Joe Concannon, the Globe’s former long-time running writer, founded the race in 1977. The course starts and finishes at the Village Green and passes historic sites and old Colonial homes. Roughly a quarter mile, the Gallows Lane hill at Mile 6 rises at a 9.2 percent grade and ranks right up there with Heartbreak Hill. June 10, 1 p.m. www.lhrr.com
MOUNT WASHINGTON ROAD RACE Pinkham Notch, N.H. A lot of race courses pass tourist attractions, but the Mount Washington Road Race actually runs up one. And the novelty of the “all uphill’’ race draws runners. In its 52d year, demand for a bib number remains strong with a lottery (completed for this year) determining the lucky 1,200 entrants. “The attraction is the uniqueness of the course,’’ said race director Dave McGillivray. “People are always looking for that next challenge.’’ Runners climb their way up the Mount Washington Auto Road, covering 7.6 miles before crossing the summit finish line. From start to finish, the route rises roughly 4,650 vertical feet and averages a 12 percent grade. If the race doesn’t leave runners feeling too sore, they can explore Mount Washington, the surrounding White Mountains, or some other area attractions at a slower pace. June 16, 9 a.m. www.mount washingtonroadrace.com
JAMES JOYCE RAMBLE 10K Dedham When devoted distance runner Martin Hanley tackled “Finnegans Wake’’ one New England winter, the idea for the James Joyce Ramble came to him. Now, runners take a literary journey while they race. After leaving the Endicott Estate, participants pass well-known town landmarks and, on average, 25 costumed actors reading from selected works of the Irish author. “I was trying to bring a fine-art flair to the running scene,’’ said Hanley, founder, race director, and Screen Actors Guild member. “It’s the only theatrical event where the audience is moving as fast as they can and the actors are standing perfectly still.’’ Each mile features a different entry from Joyce’s writings, with “Finnegans Wake’’ in Mile 1, “Ulysses’’ in Mile 2, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’’ in Mile 3, all the way to the aptly chosen “The Dead’’ in Mile 6. April 29, 11 a.m. www.ramble.org
RUN GLOUCESTER Gloucester In its third year, this event is a newcomer to the New England road race scene, though it probably will grow and approach the popularity of Beach to Beacon and Falmouth. Ocean views always entice runners. “Gloucester is a destination location because of when it is and where it is,’’ said race director Dave McGillivray of the mid-August race. “Down the road, the idea is to create a triple crown series in New England with Beach to Beacon, Falmouth, and Gloucester.’’ The race starts and finishes at the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial Statue and follows an out-and-back route. The best ocean views come during the fourth and fifth miles, amid strong, salty air. Post-race, runners can relax on Cape Ann and its beaches. Aug. 19, 8 a.m. www.rungloucester.com
RUN TO REMEMBER Boston Runners see the city from a new perspective during this Memorial Day Weekend event that honors Massachusetts law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. The 5-mile and half-marathon races start and finish at the World Trade Center and take entrants around Government Center and Boston Common. The half-marathon course also covers a long stretch of Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Part of the fun is running through usually traffic-clogged streets. Despite some awkward U-turns, the course is basically flat and fast. With more than 5,000 finishers in the half-marathon and close to 2,000 in the 5-mile event, the Run to Remember creates a big-event feel without overcrowding. May 27, half-marathon 7 a.m., 5-mile race 7:15. www.bostonsruntoremember.com
NEW HAVEN ROAD RACE 20K/5K New Haven Big-city races often leave runners overwhelmed. But the New Haven Road Race 20K and 5K on Labor Day manage to accommodate a combined total of more than 5,000 finishers, including elite athletes vying for the 20K national championship. With a 20K course that passes by Yale University, along the shoreline, and through residential neighborhoods and thickly-wooded parks, the race feels like an urban escape for long stretches. The New Haven Green serves as start-finish and pre-post-race gathering area. After competing, runners enjoy the post-race food - a selection that ranges from fruit to yogurt to hot dogs to doughnuts to beer - on the green. With plentiful parking in the area, it’s easy to stay and visit Yale-affiliated attractions or drive to nearby Connecticut beaches. Sept. 3, 8:40 a.m. www.newhavenroadrace.org