So far, I’ve run 49 half marathons in 47 states, one full marathon, and a few other random races including 5k’s, 10k’s, and a 10-miler. Since most of these races were half marathons in different states, I have a wide range of races to choose from when deciding which ones I liked best and least. It’s funny because when I hear other people asked, “What was your favorite race?” they usually stammer around and say things like they could never choose just one.
For me, the choice is clear, however, especially for my favorite race. Sure, that’s not to say I didn’t highly enjoy some other races or truly dislike other races, but there are two obvious choices for me. I’ll start with my favorite race ever: the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon in South Dakota.
Never would I have imagined that a half marathon in a tiny town in South Dakota would end up being my favorite half marathon at this point in my life, but there was just so much to love about this race.
I’ll start with the beginning as all things should, which in this case is packet pickup. I consider myself a pretty efficient person and I can appreciate when other people are also efficient, as was the race director with packet pickup for this race. I simply drove up to the designated site, told the one person sitting out front my name, and was handed a race shirt and bib. Simple and efficient.
The race started promptly at 7 am at the top of the beautiful Spearfish Canyon in Savoy in the northernmost section of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest and finished at the bottom in Spearfish City Park. The course is net downhill with the start at around 5,000 feet above sea level and the finish around 1,300 feet. This didn’t feel so steep to me that my quads were aching but it did allow me to finish in my fastest time for a half marathon up to that point in my life.
Because the race is on quiet roads through the canyon, there were very few spectators and aid stations were on the light side, but still sufficient. For some people that thrive on crowds during a race they may find this a negative but for me I found the peace and quiet a definite positive for the race. As I was running I kept saying to myself how lucky I was to be able to run down the canyon and what a gift it was to do that. I can’t say I’ve thought that during many other races.
Now for my least favorite race. This wasn’t quite as easy to choose as my favorite but ultimately I have to choose the race that I described in my race report as a “death march through the desert,” the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada. I really hated just about everything about this race and only sheer will-power kept me going to the finish line.
The year that I ran the Laughlin Half Marathon, the race started at 8 am, which was entirely too late in the day considering it’s in the desert and quickly gets blazing hot (it’s since then been pushed to 7 am). It was already hot and steamy at the beginning of the race and being in the desert, there were no trees for shade, and not a cloud in the sky. The entire course was on packed dirt with loose gravel, making it difficult for me to get my footing. The course was out-and-back along a part of the Colorado River but pretty much all I could focus on was the stifling heat and loose gravel so I didn’t find it very scenic.
Even the post-race parts of this half marathon were disappointing. There were only bananas, oranges, and bagels in addition to water. The medals were just average at best and the shirts were white cotton t-shirts with the race logo. Based on the current website, changes have been made since I ran the race, but even so this is not a race I would ever recommend to anyone.
According to the website, https://runlaughlin.com/# the race director is attempting to hold a race December 4, 2021 but this is dependent on COVID numbers and state regulations. If you’re a true masochist, check it out! Honestly, the December date might help with the heat (I ran it in March). You can read my full race report here: Laughlin Half Marathon, Nevada-11th state.
What about you- what are your least favorite and favorite races so far? Have you run either of these races?
I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.
1) For the city-lover and partier: Start in Los Angeles,California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).
Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.
You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.
2) For a desert experience, first choice:Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.
Desert experience, with national parks: Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.
3) To see mountains, first choice: Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Mountains, second choice: Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.
4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature: fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.
Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.
5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.
6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.
There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!
Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?
Anthony Bourdain’s TV show The Layover covers short stays in cities. Usually in the shows, Mr. Bourdain focuses on places to eat and drink in a day or two, with the idea being these are things you could do if you’re in these places for an airplane layover or a stopover to another place. En route to Utah, my family and I stopped for a night in Las Vegas, Nevada but this was the polar opposite of what you might see on The Layover. Neither my husband nor I gamble, we didn’t have much time for a show, and we had our middle-school daughter with us so we were somewhat limited with our options. We wouldn’t be partying in clubs, in other words (which honestly, was fine with us).
Basically, we had an afternoon, that evening, and until around early afternoon the next day to kill in Vegas. After a cross-country flight, we were tired and hungry so after checking into the Stratosphere Hotel (simple, no-frills, but clean and relatively close to most things), we decided to just walk around and take in the scenery. My husband and I had been to Las Vegas before, once with our even younger (at the time) daughter, so we had at least an idea of what Vegas was like. My husband had also been there prior to meeting me and had done the whole party in Vegas scene.
We decided to keep this visit simple and just check out some of the other casino/hotels, but first we stopped at Bobby’s Burger Palace. I ordered the Crunchburger, a cheeseburger with potato chips piled high on the top. It was fresh and crunchy and exactly what I expected, which is a good thing. My husband said his burger was too well-done even though that’s not what he had asked for and he wasn’t impressed. I’ve been a fan of Bobby Flay’s ever since I used to watch the TV show Brunch with Bobby, and had wanted to visit one of his restaurants but this was my first opportunity to do so (I know I’m a bit behind the times on this one). I’d like to try his other restaurants as well.
Next stop was the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, or rather in front of the Bellagio, where we waited for the fountain show. Then we waited some more, until finally an announcement was made that the show would not occur that evening due to the weather. So much for freezing in the arctic winds that had moved into Vegas for the evening in the hopes of catching the fountain display. Disappointed that our fountain-loving daughter wouldn’t be able to watch the spectacular show, we headed inside the Venetian and admired the scenery and reminisced about our vacation to Italy several years ago. We also took a short stop inside Caesar’s Palace but didn’t stay there long. Our next stop was Paris, where we promptly found a bakery and ordered three pastries and longed to visit the real Paris and France someday. By then, we were all utterly exhausted and ready to get back to our hotel room and call it a night.
The next morning, we wanted to go back to the Bellagio for the fountain show but we were told the first one of the day wouldn’t be until noon since it was off-season there. So we used our credit as Stratosphere guests to go up the tower and enjoy the views from the top at 1,149 feet. While we were there, we saw a young woman jump from the top, from SkyJump, which costs $119.99 ($99.99 for Stratosphere guests) and lasts less than 30 seconds. I’m sure it’s something you would never forget, though. There are three other thrill rides at the top of the tower, Big Shot, X Scream, and Insanity.
Finally, having had our fair share of Vegas, we went to pick up our rental car and were handed the keys to this:
Not exactly what I had in mind for driving to the national parks we would be visiting in Utah and later the Grand Canyon, and for a second I thought about asking if maybe we could get an SUV instead. I wasn’t sure how appropriate a convertible sports car would be driving around the mountains in Utah and Arizona, but I could see my husband’s inner 16-year-old coming out so I didn’t say anything. The car was every bit as cramped and uncomfortable as I thought it would be, but on the bright side, my husband had a blast driving it.
So we took off in our bright yellow Camaro and found a spot for lunch away from the main strip at a place called Nozomi. It was quite possibly the best Japanese teriyaki I’ve ever had. My husband said his sushi was average, but “average sushi is still really good.” If you’re ever in Las Vegas and want a delicious Japanese meal, I suggest you try their teriyaki.
With full bellies, we were off for further adventures in Utah and our brief stint in Las Vegas was over. Proof that you don’t have to spend a single dime gambling to have a good time in “Sin City.”
This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Nevada was my 11th state.
A death march through the desert. That’s how I would describe the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada. I ran the Laughlin Half Marathon in March 2008. I had thought about running another half marathon in Nevada- the Six Tunnels to Hoover Dam Half Marathon, but wasn’t sure about running through all of the tunnels. I thought it could go either way- either it would be terrible because the runners get bottle-necked around the tunnels or it would be novel and fun.
Ultimately I chose the Laughlin Half Marathon, and I have to say this race was one that was pure torture from start to finish. They really should have started it much sooner than 8 am because the sun was out in full force beating on us runners and by the end, I was simply exhausted from the heat.
The description of the race from their website includes comments such as “Enjoy the river as you run along the Colorado River… enjoy panoramic views of the Arizona and Nevada mountains,” but honestly I didn’t think the view was that nice when I was running. But then again, all I could think about was the stifling heat and the wind beating down on us on the way back.
The course was also on what they called packed dirt with a gravel overlay but I really had problems getting my footing on the gravel. In some places the gravel was so thick and uneven I had to slow down so I wouldn’t fall or twist an ankle. I see they now have a 7 am start time, which is a good move. An hour earlier would have made a big difference when I ran it.
At the finish, there were bananas, oranges, and bagels. This was definitely one of the smaller post-race spreads I’ve seen. The medals were small (not much bigger than a silver dollar) but cute. We also got white short-sleeve cotton t-shirts with the race logo. My finish time was 2:07:06.
As it was when I ran the race, the Avi Resort and Casino is the official host hotel for the race. The best part about staying there is the proximity to the race start/finish. Just about the only thing I really liked about the Avi Resort and Casino other than location to the race is they do at least have a pool, which my daughter loved. Not being gamblers, my husband and I didn’t visit the casino but it’s definitely low-scale compared to most of the mega casinos in Las Vegas. To drive from Las Vegas to Laughlin is a little over an hour and a half.
I have to admit, looking at the website for the race now, it looks like many things have changed about this race, including the course, and even the fact that it’s now in December instead of March. With all of the changes, maybe it’s not as bad as when I ran it. I would hope all of the changes were for the better because it couldn’t have gotten much worse!