If there’s an iconic New England view, it’s at the end of Church Street leaving Woods Hole on Cape Cod, with the Nobska lighthouse looming over bobbing sailboats in Vineyard Sound.
And for more than 50 years, there’s been no better way to marvel at it than in the company of 10,000 colorfully clad fellow runners in the Falmouth Road Race every summer.
“I can’t think of a more beautiful course,” said Chris Langlais, 44, who has run the race 10 times, most recently with his 11-year-old son in August. “It never gets tiring to see the ocean, the lighthouse, the rocky coast, the beach. It reminds you of what the quintessentially New England town should look like.”
For active travelers, one of the best ways to experience the character of New England is by running through it, on the coasts of Cape Cod or Maine, the hills and covered bridges of Vermont or Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay.
The downside: Road races in these places are among the most famous, and the hardest to get into, in the world.
But there’s a travel secret to overcoming the frustration of being locked out of these scenic runs.
Didn’t qualify, or don’t want to, for the Boston Marathon? Run the BAA 5K, and cross the famous finish line anyway. Weren’t fast enough to sign up for the Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with sweeping vistas of Casco Bay? Do the Mid-Winter Classic, which goes along part of the same route. Missed out on the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont, which fills up in only a little longer than it takes an elite runner to cover a mile? The sister race, Road to the Pogue, returns next year.
And if you couldn’t get into the Falmouth Road Race, which turned away 6,500 applicants this year in the lottery to whittle the number down to the 10,000-runner maximum, you can register for Falmouth in the Fall, which follows the same route in November, with a 10th as many runners. Registration opened on Sept. 20 at 9 a.m.
“What’s great about the fall race is the weather is a lot cooler,” said Langlais, of Falmouth, who has also run this version 10 times. “You don’t get as many people, but that in itself is OK, because logistically it’s easier to get to the starting line.”
When runners say they’re going to run Falmouth, he said, “people think of summer.” The fall edition “is like a hidden secret.”
Not entirely a secret. Falmouth in the Fall filled up last year in 16 minutes, with a post-pandemic field of 500 runners. This year the number will be back to 1,000.
Still, the fall running is “a much smaller, cozier, community-based race,” said Jennifer Edwards, executive director of the Falmouth Road Race, which took over Falmouth in the Fall in 2020.
“We actually don’t want it to be the same race that it is in the summer,” she said. “The summer is a world-class event, with invited athletes, elites, massive fund-raising.” Fall runners can relax a little, in comparison to summer entrants who show up early to park and board a fleet of yellow school buses for the ride to the starting corrals in Woods Hole.
“You’re not fighting for position on the course,” said Edwards. “It’s 1,000 runners. That’s a lot of people. But it’s not 10,000. You can breathe. It’s going to be cooler. It’s an offseason run. You can see the leaves changing.”
The same idea of chilling out a bit applies to the BAA 5K, held on the Saturday before the Boston Marathon. It starts and ends at the Boston Common but circles onto Boylston Street, where it crosses the marathon finish line — a moment so over the top for many of the runners that they come to a full stop to take selfies, ignoring the entreaties of race volunteers.
“What’s it like to walk onto the parquet floor at the [TD] Garden? What’s it like to walk up the concourse and see the field at Fenway Park and the Green Monster? I think that’s the same feeling you get when you run down Boylston Street and it’s all yours,” said Jack Fleming, president and CEO of marathon parent the Boston Athletic Association.
Many marathoners do the 5K as a shakeout run. But they’re joined by friends, relatives, and others who might not aspire to the full marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
“Not everybody is a marathoner,” Fleming said. “The 5K for some of those participants is every bit as challenging as the marathon is. They’ve worked hard to finish. They’re proud of themselves. And I know it’s a different distance and a different start location, but for that weekend it’s part of the overall experience.”
Maine’s Mid-Winter 10-Mile Classic may be for hardier folk. It follows at least part of the course of the storied summer Beach to Beacon 10K (including across the starting line, if that hasn’t yet been scraped away by snowplows), in which more than 8,000 runners cross Cape Elizabeth to Fort Williams Park and another lighthouse: Portland Head Light, purportedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world.
For one thing, the Mid-Winter Classic is in February, when coastal Maine looks — and even smells, sounds, and most definitely feels — very different than it does in August.
“You have a runner that’s going to pick a 5K in the fall that’s not going to be too hot, because that’s where they are in their running life. And then you have somebody who says, ‘I want to run in Maine in February and it’s going to be cold and it’s going to be 10 miles,’” said Chandra Leister, who is both volunteer coordinator at the Beach to Beacon and a member of the board of directors of Mid-Winter Classic organizer the Maine Track Club.
That’s who runs the Mid-Winter Classic, Leister said: “the hardcore dedicated runner.”
This creates a loyal field, and surprisingly high demand. With its unusually low entry fee of $25, the race has typically sold out all 1,000 spots when registration opens each November, though in days and not hours.
“It’s certainly a sister race [to the Beach to Beacon], but it’s kind of its own thing,” said Blaine Moore, race director. “It gives people something to train for over the winter. You never know what the conditions are going to be. We’ve had temperatures in the low double digits or single digits. We’ve run in snow.”
The Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont doesn’t take place in snow, but it does start at a ski resort — the Saskadena Six Ski Area, formerly Suicide Six, in Pomfret, and proceeds through Woodstock.
“It’s really a snapshot of New England,” said the race director, Mike Silverman. “You start out at a skiway, then you go through this valley and you’re following a river. You see farmland, you see a picture-perfect Vermont town.”
But when online registration for the June race opens in December, it usually fills in around seven minutes. “And once we sell out, we sell out,” Silverman said.
Next year, however, a sister race resumes after a pandemic hiatus: the Road to the Pogue, a “6.1 mile-ish” run on hard-packed trails through the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, under sugar maples and hemlocks, and with views of Woodstock and the Green Mountains.
The Pogue was started as a warmup for or alternative to the Covered Bridges, said its founder, Charlie Kimbell, a former Vermont state representative and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor. “It’s probably for the more casual runner, more of the weekend warrior that isn’t keeping track of their PRs,” said Kimbell, using shorthand for “personal record.”
“I hated the fact that Covered Bridges filled up so fast,” said Kimbell, who has also led that race. Options like the Pogue, he said, “are like going to a restaurant that won’t take a reservation and getting a seat at the bar.”
They also benefit from the fame and popularity of their companion running events.
“There’s the race that everybody can’t get into,” he said, “and there’s the other race that’s just as good that you don’t have to stress out about.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.