A Dream List of Ultras
Plus, a personal update on why I'm daydreaming about them
With the subject line “the Hot List,” UltraSignup occasionally emails a list of promoted races to its subscribers. It got me thinking, what would be my “hot list,” or rather, my dream list? If I could go anywhere to run ultras, with an unlimited travel budget, unlimited guilt-free time away from home and family, and unlimited energy and good health obviating the need to rest and recover, then what races would I choose and why?
I made my hot list, and it’s below with links. I hope it might inspire you to choose some of these races for a special experience.
But first, the list made me reflect on what’s behind this daydreaming. I mean, what a weird thing to fantasize about—literally running away to run fatiguing and at times highly uncomfortable long distances in interesting places.
I’m daydreaming about ultras for reasons articulated in this newsletter’s very first post, that training and planning for a race is an act of optimism. But, if I’m honest, it’s also a way to resist aging and escape present-day sadness and anxiety.
I had a rough week, mood-wise. I decided to share this personal update because even though we shouldn’t wallow in the past—we should try to “be in the mile we’re in”—it’s also important to remember and celebrate the good people whom we miss and good times that shaped us. Reflecting, mourning, and loving are all part of the human experience, central to making sense of what we’re doing now and where we’re headed.
It started with a vivid dream last week in which I was talking to my dad. I don’t recall what we discussed, but I remember every detail as if he were sitting across from me in real life—his blue golf shirt, his gold-toned Timex wristwatch, his thick glasses, his thinning dark hair, the folds in his cheeks when he smiles, his tanned and wrinkled neck and forearms, his gapped and cigarette-stained teeth before he had them pulled and got dentures he called “chompers,” and mostly, his loud voice. Like an announcer, he’d holler “Sarah!” or the dog’s name, “Albert!” and laugh deeply, making all heads turn.
It was an entirely positive dream, nothing tinged by the rough sides of his character. It was the father I loved and admired, Dad who sat cross-legged by a lake to show my kids how to bait a casting rod’s line, who shuffled and dealt cards with as much dexterity and confidence as the Vegas dealers he’d play to gamble, who typed faster than anyone I knew and wrote concise, error-free paragraphs even when inebriated, who laughed at my grossed-out look when he sliced Spam from a can.
In the dream, we were together at my new home across from his old cabin, the home he never got to see. I woke disoriented and profoundly sad, missing him acutely—trying to go back to sleep to be with him—then wondering what time or year it is.
It’s February. It’s 2023. It’s been exactly ten years since his lungs failed and he entered the hospital, ten years since those early-February days when he alternately spouted crazy questions due to ICU psychosis and pleaded with Mom while holding her hands, “Forgive me all our fights,” before he transferred to hospice and died in a few days. Ten-plus years since he followed one of my races online and shared his pride about my running in write-ups for his Fantasy Golf newsletter. Ten-plus years since Mom shushed him, saying, “Oh, David,” with her long-suffering mix of love and embarrassment over something he said.
In that moment of unexpected grief last week, not wanting to get out from under the covers, I wished I could turn back time to be 40 years old again. I wanted so badly to time travel to reconnect with my parents and my life then. What was magic about that year?
When I turned 40 in the first half of 2009, Dad and Mom still had the health and mental acuity to travel to see me and to live independently. Obama was starting as president, and Dad, part of a dying breed of political moderates, admitted he was “not bad.” My kids were in 5th and 2nd grades, old enough to walk to and from school on their own but young enough to need and want me throughout their day. I had a routine of driving my daughter to circus arts and theater, my son to baseball and Cub Scouts.
My husband—my funny, laid-back boyfriend since high school—faced a career crossroads that deepened my admiration for him. The four of us sat close together on the sofa to watch Modern Family and Project Runway. Later that year, we rented out our house, left work, pulled the kids out of school, and embarked on a year of global travel.
I was freelancing enough to feel like a legit writer. I was transitioning from road races to trail ultras and earning a reputation (now past) as fast. I could throw parties and fill the house with guests, our friendships multiplying because of the kids and their school. Even though the whole country was jolted financially by the recession, we were living the good life.
We still are. And yet, I feel over-the-hill old and yearn for the connections and community of our earlier adulthood. I miss not just my parents, but family togetherness. Kids, parents, and siblings save for one are all far away and doing their own thing or have died. Tension and controversy in our local community make for tough conversations. National and global news is unrelentingly bad. I’m feeling adrift, questioning what my purpose for the remainder of life should be. I’m overly fixated on our animals and want to adopt more, aware of what this suggests psychologically.
When I look ahead to traveling to Phoenix February 17 - 19 to volunteer at the Black Canyon 100K on Saturday and run the 60K on Sunday, I get more excited about the people and the scene than the run itself. Sure, I’m eager to stretch my endurance to cover 37 desert miles, and I want to gain the fitness boost that’ll help me run longer ultras in the coming months. But mostly, I’m looking forward to being part of the event—meeting new people and reconnecting with old acquaintances, listening to and chiming in on unfiltered conversations that spring up between runners on the trail, and exploring a stretch of Arizona.
I almost didn’t share the personal stuff above because my feelings and situation seem trivial compared to others I know. A woman runner-writer I admire posted on her Instagram last week that her husband, a medic, died from shelling in Ukraine. Another runner friend, so very much wanting motherhood, shared her devastation from a second miscarriage. I read poems by a local woman who writes about her son who took his life at the start of his senior year in high school. Then the earthquake hit.
I deeply appreciate the life I have, thanks to my health, home, and the love of my husband and kids. My struggle with aging, and with missing certain people and times from the past, feels so ordinary. It’s just life layered with nostalgia. Perhaps, I hope, that makes it relatable. I would bet money that I’ll look back at this present time when I’m in my mid 60s or older with similar melancholy, likely missing people who are with me now but may not be around in the following decades.
Take a moment to love and appreciate what you have, in addition to what or who you miss.
My hot list
My daydreamy list of ultras to run, starting next month, is heavy on events in Colorado and the West, plus a few international ones. I haven’t raced in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, South, or around the “Beast” Coast, so I lack recommendations for those regions. If you have a race to recommend, please list it in the comments below and say why, and/or join the chat thread.
I’m not recommending certain races I previously ran and liked, such as Speedgoat 50K, Desert Rats 50K, or New Zealand’s Tarawera 100K, because these independent races run by cool RDs were gobbled up by the UTMB brand, and I’m fundamentally against UTMB’s monopolization of events and how their brand is making the sport of mountain/ultra/trail racing more like Ironmans while also incentivizing runners to run only certain races that generally require a great deal of travel and expense. I’ll only recommend Western States 100, even though it’s now under the UTMB umbrella, because I have faith or at least hope that its conscientious board of directors will protect Western States’ size and traditions.
Antelope Canyon 50 near Page, AZ: Though I’m not a fan of the race organization (Vacation Races), I’m eager to run the desert route near Horseshoe Bend. I’m registered for this March 11.
Sciacche Trail 50K, Cinque Terre, Italy: We rented an apartment for a week in Vernazza, along the Cinque Terre, during our trip around the world, and I ran the trail connecting the coastal towns, dazzled by the beauty and culture. I would love to return there with my family and do this event. Maybe we could rent the same unit, pictured below; our apartment was on the second floor of the righthand corner building, overlooking the boats.
There are so many great events on or around the Summer Solstice, how to choose? I wish I could do all of these again!
SF One Day, San Francisco: This is a 24-hour timed event (with 6 and 12 hour divisions also) featuring repeat flat one-mile laps around Crissy Field on the waterfront near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s hard to explain the appeal of doing laps, but I got in a groove and wrote about it here. This event also has a new year’s eve version, but I recommend the summer one for better weather and more daylight. I ran both and each time got to 115 miles.
San Juan Solstice 50, Lake City, CO: A classic, homegrown high-alpine ultra in the San Juan Mountains, I’ve run it twice and reveled in it even though it kicked my ass. (Like several events on this list, it’s full for this year; enter the lottery for next year.) Get ready to gasp through many miles above 12,000 feet on the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Report here.
Bears Ears 50/50K/30K, Monticello, UT: I discovered this ultra by Mad Moose Events in the Abajo Mountains a couple of years ago and was blown away by the beauty and variety of the course. It’s Hardrock-hard in the middle, but bookended by runnable miles. Report here.
Western States 100, Olympic Valley, CA: The oldest 100M ultra, it’s almost impossible to gain entry through the lottery now. I’m so grateful I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience in 2016, and I’ll go back this June to pace/crew a friend. If you can’t get in the race through the lottery or through a “Golden Ticket” win, you can get a taste of it by pacing or participating in their Memorial Weekend training camp.
Silverton Alpine/Kendall Mountain Double, Silverton, CO: Aravaipa Running sets up shop in Silverton to host two great races in one weekend, one a lung-busting 12-miler up and down Kendall Mountain, the other a big loop (with marathon and 50K divisions) on old mining roads behind Silverton. I’ve done both, but never both together as a back-to-back. Maybe this summer?
Hardrock 100, Silverton, CO: If you know me or follow this newsletter, you know it’s been my goal for over a decade to gain entry to this race. If you search these archives for “hardrock,” you’ll find numerous posts about this event. I’ll keep trying!
High Lonesome 100, near Buena Vista, CO: This is a phenomenal mountain 100 traversing and skirting the Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range. I think twice is enough for me, but who knows? My report in UltraRunning magazine.
Skyline 50K, Oakland, CA: This is a classic 50K, the oldest in the country (I think) dating back to 1982. I earned my 50K PR there (4:46) many years ago. I yearn to go back because it’s a tour of some of the best trails through the redwoods of the Oakland Hills, with views of the bay, where I ran for some 20 years before moving year-round to Colorado. If you’ll be in NorCal in August, sign up!
Telluride Mountain Run: This has become my favorite local race. It features a 40, 22, and 13 mile division. The “40” (which, last time I ran it, came to around 43) is like a mini-Hardrock due to its two ascents above 13,000 feet and four major passes. It’s the best way to tour Telluride’s trails, doing a giant loop around town. I’ll be there again this year! Report here.
Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon, Manitou Springs, CO: I have not run this classic, but it’s on my “someday” list. The conga line on the ascent sounds both like a turnoff and like a lot of fun for the camaraderie. In any case, I need to get up there and do the route solo at some point before trying the race.
Grand Traverse 40M from Crested Butte to Aspen, CO: I have not run this either, but I trained clients to run it and heard great things about it. It’s not in the cards for me this year, due to Run Rabbit Run 100 that I’m running two weeks later, but I’ll add it to that “someday” list.
Grand to Grand Ultra self-supported stage race, Kanab, UT: No joke, this race changed my life (report here). You’re off the grid, running 170 miles through the desert and camping, carrying all your food and gear for the week on your back. It’s as wild and tribal as Survivor. I finished it three times and won it in 2019. I gotta do it again before I die.
Run Rabbit Run 100, Steamboat Springs, CO: I ran this in 2017 but the route has change to be slightly harder and more technical since then. I’m stoked to be registered for it this year as a Hardrock qualifier. RRR100 is unique in that it has the largest prize money purse, and elite-level runners (the “hares”) who are going for the money start several hours later than us regular runners (the “tortoises” ), and it’s neat to watch them catch up and run past us. The year I ran it, I met Courtney Dauwalter and talked to her about how she won it in spite of frozen corneas that blinded her (!).
Sawatch 50/50: I really want to do these back-to-back 50Ks—the West Line Winder and the Sawatch Ascent—together for the double challenge, but you can choose to do one instead of both. This event near Buena Vista is put on by the same good RDs who do the High Lonesome 100, one of my favorite mountain 100s.
Hanging Flume 50K, near Nucla, CO: I ran this last year and plan to again this fall. I love this high-desert course—located roughly halfway between Telluride and Moab, close to the Utah border—and the grassroots race organization that puts it on. Read about the history and setting of the event here.
Javelina Jundred near Fountain Hills, AZ: For myriad reasons, I’ve never made it to this Halloween-themed festival in the desert, but I’d like to check it out and run the 100K or 100M one of these years, or at least go down to volunteer, party, and admire the costumes.
Epic Camí de Cavalls stage race on Menorca island, Spain: 118 miles split into three days around the coast of an island I’d love to visit. If I can swing this travel, I’ll go!
Quad Dipsea 28.4M, Mill Valley, CA: I really want to do the Quad again, held the Saturday following Thanksgiving. It’s a hell of a run, four times back and forth on the Dipsea Trail between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach, famous for all the stairways built into the hillsides, but the people and scenery make it worthwhile. It draws a Bay Area who’s who of speedsters and old-timers.
Hellgate 100K, Virginia: I have not run this, but my friend Sophie Speidel has at least a dozen times and says it’s a truly special, gnarly event with great people and traditions. It starts at midnight, so you run through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the dark of winter before sunrise. I think I need to do this.
Avalon 50K/50M on Catalina Island near Long Beach, CA: I have not run this before, but I ran the Catalina Trail Marathon (held every March) on this route, way back in 2006, and always have wanted to return to the island for another run.
Running Up for Air, Salt Lake City, UT (and other locations): I ran the Grandeur Peak event in this series a few years ago and yearn to go back. This winter series of races, up and down snow-packed mountains in areas prone to bad air pollution, aims to raise money and awareness for air quality. You start under an inversion layer of pollution and break through to the clear sky above—then repeat, as many times as you can, in the 6, 12, and 24-hour divisions. My report for UltraRunning magazine here.
I could list at least a dozen more but will stop here for length.
Did this make you want to sign up for any of these races, or are you dreaming of others? Let me know what you think of this “hot list” in the comments below or chat thread on the Substack app!