BREATHTAKING. In every definition of that word. To the south is shimmering Vineyard Sound, speckled with boats and buoys. Ahead: Nobska Light, a backdrop of blue sky and puffy clouds evoking Edward Hopper’s painting of it. And snaking up the rise between them is a multihued throng of people so dense it looks like a single organism coursing off the rocky cliffs into the sea. “Greatest view in running,” one participant says to appreciative nods as the fleet-footed swarm rounds Nobska Point and speeds toward Surf Drive Beach.
In fact, this leg of the venerable Falmouth Road Race, run in August under the midsummer sun, may offer one of the greatest Cape Cod views of any kind. And the secret is that you can see it again this autumn, with cooler temperatures and a considerably smaller crowd in the way, at Falmouth in the Fall (508-548-7555, falmouthinthefall.org), which follows the same course on November 3.
It’s one of countless opportunities to experience autumn in New England, from its varied coast to its covered bridges to its historic towns, in an entirely new way: at a run. “These have become more than races,” says Mike St. Laurent, director of the popular marathon and half marathon scheduled for October 6 called the Smuttynose Rockfest (hamptonrockfest.com), which follows the New Hampshire coast. “They’re destinations.” Runners typically get the roads to themselves and come so close to the real New England that they can hear the seagulls and the working boats. “You can smell the salt air and feel the breeze,” St. Laurent says. “It’s really a totally different experience. People come from Iowa to do these races who have never seen the coast. They’ve never seen the ocean or the mountains.”
There are, by far, more running events in New England than in any other region of the country, according to USA Track & Field New England Association. And many of the most scenic ones take place in the fall, following the favorable training weather of the summer and before the winter chill descends.
The Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon (508-435-6905, baa.org), for instance, run on October 13, follows Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace in its brightly colored autumn finest, starting and finishing in Olmsted’s underappreciated Franklin Park, passing the Arnold Arboretum, circling Jamaica Pond, and even cutting through the Franklin Park Zoo. And while this year’s B.A.A. Half filled up in a record-breaking 12 minutes, there are two other important truths about New England road races: They’ll almost certainly be run again next year, and there will usually be another one that still has room.
But not always. The Applefest Half Marathon (applefesthalfmarathon.com) in Hollis, New Hampshire, will be run for the 31st and last time on October 5, a victim of its own success, as the size of the event overwhelmed volunteers and town officials. That means this is the final chance to enter this race, which will make its way just once more past the fragrant harvest-time apple orchards and Colonial architecture of historic neighborhoods and end with homemade apple crisp for everybody.
Other races’ futures seem secure. The same day as the B.A.A. Half is Newport, Rhode Island’s UnitedHealthcare Marathon (uhcmarathon.com), which also features a half marathon (and a 5K the day before), starting and finishing at Easton’s Beach and circling Aquidneck Island as no tour bus ever could. Part of the course takes runners past the famous mansions that made this town the playground of the rich, with the ocean almost always in sight.
THE SMUTTYNOSE ROCKFEST, which draws runners from 45 states and abroad, follows the boardwalk and passes the amphitheater before veering away from kitschy Hampton Beach and through the surprisingly quaint side roads of small-town Hampton, with fieldstone walls overhung by shade trees. At Mile 9 comes the gasp-worthy payoff: a small rise ahead of which is nothing but the ocean on the left, framed by the rocky coast and the Isle of Shoals 5 miles in the distance, flanked on the right by the so-called Million Dollar Mile of majestic mansions.
Add the mountains of Acadia National Park and you have the Mount Desert Island Marathon (207-288-9828, mdimarathon.org) on October 20, the ultimate fall destination run in New England, and perhaps the most spectacular — not to mention, one of the toughest, with its rolling hills. But the reward is the views of the rugged coast and other islands, fringed by vibrant fall foliage at its mind-blowing peak, along lonely roads cleared of the usual visitors and vehicles. The course follows the ridge between Champlain and Dorr mountains, past (but, thankfully, not up) Cadillac Mountain, near the mouth of the only fiord on the Atlantic Coast, and through six of the island’s quintessential coastal villages, all seasoned by the fragrant scent of pine and sea air. And this year, for the first time, organizers are adding a half marathon, also on October 20.
Not every autumn race is a long-distance run. The Lone Gull 10K (lonegull10k.com), on September 15, visits parts of Gloucester tourists seldom see, following the gently rolling coast and tony Eastern Point and winding Atlantic Road — twice — with great views of the rocky shore, the ocean, and iconic lighthouses.
These are the kinds of events to which runners bring their families, and they come at a time when some of the most picturesque places in New England settle down and cool off from the busy peak of summer. At the Smuttynose, for instance, St. Laurent says, 45 percent of entrants pick up their bibs the day before the race, “so you know they’re strolling the beach or having a lobster in Portsmouth.” Making a weekend of it, in other words. “It’s not just the people who show up to run who enjoy this,” says Mike Silverman, director of the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont. “It’s everybody who comes with them.”
The Covered Bridges (cbhm.com) is a wildly popular road race, and while it’s not run in the fall — the 2014 edition is on June 1 — registration opens on December 9. Last year, all 2,300 spots were claimed in 14 minutes. And no wonder. Mostly flat or downhill, the race crosses one and passes two classic Vermont covered bridges, cuts through lush green farmland, follows the Ottauquechee River, and visits pretty Pomfret, Woodstock, and Quechee.
“It looks like a picture postcard,” Silverman says. “You’re seeing roadsides and farms that are just breathtaking. And you’re not only seeing it. You’re smelling it. So even though we do get competitive runners, 80 percent of them are doing it because they just like being here.”
Jon Marcus is a Boston-based writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.