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Trails Collective

Toughest Trail Races in the Northeast

Laying out the “toughest” trail races in the Northeast isn’t intended to be a testosterone fest of who’s tougher. In my experience, a mile race on the track, while flat and shorter in duration, is more painful than any ultra or mountain course I’ve run. I’ve drifted towards “tougher” races because they often entail mountainous and technical terrain which has fed my spirit, taken me to beautiful places, and amidst wonderful communities. “Tougher” has also been an alternative to focusing on distance alone. A point of inspiration for moving beyond a focus on time or pace. A salve for the uncertainty of whether it’s possible to dig deeper.

The “toughest” angle is just one hue in an intricate and beautiful tapestry which is the trail running, racing, and community. In addition to toughest are related articles on Most Scenic, Historic, Flat & Fast, and others to come. For now though, let’s get into the inspiration and seed for the Toughest trail races in the Northeast.

The Seed

Whiteface Vertical K, Photo by Ron Heerkens, Jr.

In one of our earlier years of putting on the Whiteface Sky Race, we were sending real-time images out for the US SkyRunning Series feed. The director of the series texted us a few times that day asking if we could get some photos of something that appeared tougher than just running on grassy ski slopes. Nevermind that the stats behind those slopes put Whiteface with an elevation gain per mile, and I’d argue more carnage, than any other race in the Sky Series, let alone outside of. But when you’re not the one running it, it’s easy to belittle just how tough #BeastCoast, and, specifically Northeastern races are.

Additionally, when the race in your relative backyard is tough, it’s sometimes difficult to envision others being much tougher. This point also nurtured the seed as events, even my own, have used “toughest this” or “toughest that” to market those events. My concrete brain, every time pauses to consider, “by what metric?”.

The Question

Ok, the question of toughest races is a bit ridiculous given a level of subjectivity. Some individuals are better suited, mentally and/or physically to climb or descend, others with the coordination to dance through technical terrain. On the flip side those same runner’s heads may explode at the thought of running flatter non-technical miles, and not be built to run long and linear. With that level of subjectivity granted, I was still interested in digging into quantifying the toughness of courses.

For the purposes of the “Toughest” article, I erred in siding with courses with significant elevation gain and / or technicality to equate to “toughest”. I’ll provide related articles listing flat and fast, mid elevation gain courses, as well most scenic, biggest parties, largest field sizes, and historical events. What began with a few probing question to experienced individuals and on Facebook threads went deeper than I’d planned for.

The Foundation

Before launching the Trails Collective in 2020, I tracked down the listings for 812 trail races in the Northeast. I used this list to populate The Trails Collective event calendar, even though COVID would decimate its accuracy. Through that process, and announcing many throughout this past year for the Trails Collective Weekly Rundowns, I became even more familiar with events, courses, visuals for where and how they run. Taking on this question and concept took it to a whole ‘nother level.

The Quantification

In an effort to quantify the question of the Northeast’s “Toughest” Races, here’s what I did:

Course Files and Elevation Data

With thanks to many of you, I tracked down, or mapped on my own, the course files for over 200 Northeast trail races which I knew, or learned of possessing significant elevation gain and/or technicality. Some events had GPX course files which I could access. Others I free-hand mapped into one of my programs, Topofusion, based on looking at images of course maps. Many I attained by looking at results and reaching out to individuals who I thought might have GPX course files.

I ran each GPX course file through four or five course mapping software programs, CalTopo, Hello Drifter, Plotaroute, Strava, & TopoFusion. Although this took a considerable amount of time, I felt it necessary to provide an “apples to apples” measurement. I took the elevation gain yielded by each program, added and divided to get the average elevation gain for that course. This was in some cases eye opening as I found that some events, boasting big numbers, were using mapping programs that generated elevation metrics which were way over-sold. I then divided the average elevation gain by average mileage to further calculate elevation gain per mile. I finally placed them into distance categories for comparing within division.

Looking Beyond the Numbers

With elevation metrics in hand, I sought to dig deeper than the numbers. In addition to elevation metrics, I considered several variables including terrain, season, finish stats, and word of mouth. Let’s dig into each.

Terrain

The Escarpment Trail Run. Photo by Joe Azze / Mountain Peak Fitness

One aspect that we as #BeastCoaster’s take relative pride in, is that our terrain is some of the most bankably technical in the country. From rocks, to roots, through dense forests, and endless hills, we’re used to technical terrain. While I have some knowledge of and experience on trails in different parts of the Northeast, for many races I watched what video footage was available to get a sense of courses.

I paired that with considering the consistency of the courses I’d mapped with an eye for amount of road (seasonal, logging, paved, etc…). This was insightful as courses I had high in elevation metrics and finish times, such as Cloudsplitter, I notched a bit lower secondary to a decent amount of roads in the mix. Others, such as Bloodroot, known for intentionally inserting some soggy crappy unimproved terrain, notched up a bit higher than their elevation stats would have them. The more trail, and technical at that, the tougher the rating.

Season

Frozen Snot. Nothing like Rocksylvania in winter.

Many of our cult classic events have attained notoriety on account of season. Hellgate as an example is one that not only starts at night, but in winter. Hellgate on a mild year doesn’t use as technical terrain as a comparative 100k such as Worlds End, but ads more elevation gain per mile over what could be dicey conditions. On an extreme weather year it may prove a monster. Frozen Branch, run in deep upstate NY winter, makes it a helluva lot tougher (and slower) than its elevation metrics or technicality would make it otherwise. Frozen Snot, already boasting significant elevation gain statistics and technicality, also runs in the heart of winter in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania. On the other side, Eastern States, while not at the top in elevation metrics, is run during the heat of summer, over Rocksylvania terrain, magnifying the difficulty of an already tough beast.

Finish Stats

Many races, such as a slue of 10k’s and Half’s in Pennsylvania come up fairly close in course metrics. I did what I could to dig into finish stats. Looking for those runners who had raced across events, grading for course length discrepancies, and looking for which course ran slower. This was interesting as it revealed pockets of communities where I’d find runners not crossing over to run other events, even if in the same geographical proximity. Many stay in their pods.

For many events I had to dig and dig to find entrants who crossed over between comparative events, in some cases with several degrees of separation. It revealed some interesting comparative metrics such as times for Hellgate and Manitous being similar, and each about an hour quicker than World’s End. However, I also considered whether an event was drawing a fast front-end. Using an example already referenced, although Worlds End 100k takes finishers roughly an hour longer, and over a shorter course, than Hellgate, Hellgate has a deeper history with the potential for a bit faster front-end, and course records which may reflect mild weather years. Some events such as SRT70 are tough and run quite long in finish times, but their front end is not nearly as competitive as events such as Hellgate, and in considering that distance division comparison.

Word of Mouth

In a number of cases I asked for insight from groups who had experience running several events which I was comparing. For instance, I inquired on the VHTRC facebook page about comparing Massanutten, Grindstone, and Cloudsplitter. While feedback wasn’t always unanimous, many had run at least two of the three, and offered up their opinion on which course was tougher.

The Margin for Error

Despite my best attempts at providing a level playing field for comparison, mapping programs can be erratic, and the filter of subjectivity exists. I’m looking forward to the dialogue that may come out of this, and to considering further opinions from those who have run multiple comparative events. Okay, enough preface, let’s get into the Northeast’s Toughest Trail Races division winners, with additional links to the deeper divisional ranked lineups.


Toughest Trail Races in the Northeast

Division Winners


5k Division

Whiteface VK

Wilmington, NY

The Adirondack’s Whiteface Mountain provides more vertical drop than any ski resort east of the Rockies, and 15th nationwide. Whereas many trail races require multiple loops to gain significant elevation, Whiteface offers it in one shot. The VK is a fairly straight line from the base to the top of the Summit chair. It may be one of the toughest 5k’s in the world not because it’s technically remarkable, but because it’s both runable and with significant and unrelenting elevation gain. There may be no better course and event to quickly find your redline and keep it there for an hour or more. A part of the US SkyRunning Series in the years the Series ran, Whiteface has welcomed some of the best mountain runners in the world. The Whiteface Mountain Races were COVID-canceled in 2020 & 2021 but will return in 2022.

Month:

August

Distance:

2.4 miles

Elevation Gain:

3,118′

Gain / Mile:

1,278′

Whiteface VK Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Sugarloaf Uphill Climb

3rd Place: Race to the Top Of Vermont


10k Division

Marshak’s Mountain Race

Wilmington, NY

Marshak’s Mountain Race makes use of the Adirondack’s Whiteface Mountain which offers more vertical drop than any other ski resort east of the Rockies. The course provides entrants the opportunity for significant redline elevation gain, but also push the quadricep limits with a descent to follow. Flanked by the Great Range of Adirondack Peaks, the village of and Lake Placid, and Lake Champlain on the horizon, it’s a beautiful location. It also has brought extremes in mountain weather from freezing and torrential rain, to exposed heat.

Month:

August

Distance:

7.3 miles

Elevation Gain:

5,002′

Gain / Mile:

685′

Whiteface Marshak’s Mountain Race Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Mohawk Mountain Race

3rd Place: Loon Mountain Race


10 Mile Division

Mozo Double Up

Stowe, VT

The Mozo Double Up, originally billed the Mansfield Double Up, provides both significant elevation and mountain exposure. The course ascends the highest peak in Vermont, Mt. Mansfield (or Mozodepowadso), and undulates over a beautiful and exposed mountain ridge, before dropping hard back to the finish. With a field size of only 70, it will reach an event cap more quickly each year, and be a coveted opportunity to play hard on one of the toughest and most beautiful mountains on the BeastCoast.

Month:

July

Distance:

10.4 miles

Elevation Gain:

5,000′

Gain / Mile:

481′

Mansfield Double Up Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Frozen Snot

3rd Place: Battle at Bristol Mountain


Half Marathon Division

Frozen Snot

McElhattan, PA

Steep rock and boulder fields, pitches steep enough to require the use of ropes, bacon frying in the wilds, and set in the heart of winter. The Frozen Snot is a tough course in a warm dry year. On a cold snowy winter, strap on the microspikes as it’s truly a beast. It’s also a great example of trail community, good food, solid event direction, and an army of awesome volunteers. This is one race which hits its registration cap in short order so get your game face on for a chance to run one of the beasts of our region.

Month:

February

Distance:

13.6 miles

Elevation Gain:

5,264′

Gain / Mile:

387′

Frozen Snot Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Breakneck Point Trail Half

3rd Place: Chocorua Mountain Race


25k Division

Whiteface Mountain Race

Wilmington, NY

The ascent will cardiopulmonary redline you at a power hike, and the descents to follow will reduce your quads to jello. Then, because that’s what you’re there for, you’ll do it again. Flanked by the Great Range of Adirondack Peaks, the village of and Lake Placid, and Lake Champlain on the horizon, it’s a beautiful location. It’s brought extremes in mountain weather from freezing and torrential rain, to exposed heat which have added to the challenge.

Month:

August

Distance:

14.6 miles

Elevation Gain:

9,960′

Gain / Mile:

682′

Whiteface Mountain Race (FKA Whiteface Sky Race) Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Escarpment Trail Run

3rd Place: Call of the Wilds 25k


Marathon Division

Breakneck Point

Beacon, NY

It’s truly astonishing how much beautiful and tough trail runs within an hour of New York City. Breakneck Point, running in Hudson Highlands State Park, at only 45 miles north of NYC is a perfect example. Rock gardens and steep vertical terrain are scattered throughout. The signature pitch of Breakneck Point is as technical as you’ll find anywhere, from slab to literal rock climbing. To boot entrants must assume significant and critical exposure in multiple locations.

Month:

May

Distance:

25.4 miles

Elevation Gain:

7,968′

Gain / Mile:

314′

Breakneck Point Trail Marathon Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Jay Peak Trail Festival 22 Miler

3rd Place: Kilkenny Ridge Race 25 Miler


50k Division

Jay Peak 50k

Jay Peak, VT

The Jay Peak Trail Running Festival offers two days of racing at Jay Peak resort. With distances ranging from 5k to 53k, there’s a lot to offer. As you’d expect from an event staged at a ski resort, you’re gonna get significant elevation gain over variable terrain. With nearly 12,000′ of elevation gain, the beautiful fall mountain vistas will only be outdone by the crush to your quads.

Month:

September

Distance:

33 miles

Elevation Gain:

11,867′

Gain / Mile:

369′

Jay Peak Trail Festival 11m Loop (50k runs 3 loops)

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Call of the Wilds 50k

3rd Place: Frozen Branch 50k


50 Mile Division

Manitou’s Revenge

Windham, NY

Manitou’s Revenge may just be the toughest 50 miler in the country. Not only do you get over 14,000′ of gain in 54 miles, but technicality to boot. Yes, there are miles of rocks and roots to kick when the wheels fall off. However it’s the boulder hopping and technical downclimbing that are signature to the Catskill Trifecta of Escarpment, Manitou’s, and CatsTail. To buffer the pain are beautiful forests, occasional Catskill Vistas, and the adventure of a point-to-point course layout.

Month:

June

Distance:

53.4

Elevation Gain:

14,119′

Gain / Mile:

264′

Manitous Revenge Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the 50 Mile Podium

2nd Place: Kilkenny Ridge Race

3rd Place: Wild Oak Trail 50


100k Division

World’s End 100k

Forksville, PA

World’s End is a rugged, beautiful gem of a course. I’d had a tough time deciding between it and Hellgate for the win. Initially I’d given the nod to World’s End. After years of feedback from friends about the ruggedness of the course, I’d built it up in my head as a technical monster. In running in 2021 I picked up the gain of actually feeling and experiencing it. I found that it wasn’t what I’d built it up to be. Instead of a straight sea of Northeastern rocks, I found flow, connection, more runable (in footing) stretches than I’d anticipated. I replaced a sense of monster hearsay with connection, a peace in how beautiful it is. That softening found me reversing course, giving the nod instead to Hellgate as it still sits on a fierce, dark, winter pedestal.

And then…the opinion of AJW whom, given the depth of experience, I respect immensely. For AJW there’s surely a respect for the awesome nature of Hellgate, the midnight start, the winter conditions, the massive elevation gain. But, and as I’ve heard Horton say himself, BUT!, there’s also the acknowledgement of longer non-technical stretches at Hellgate. And AJW is correct. When you compare times, despite World’s End being shorter, it runs 1 hour longer than Hellgate (and Manitou’s Revenge – a testament to that beast).

World’s End is unrelentingly beautiful, but, you have to see it in that light as it’s also unrelentingly tough. You have constant and sometimes big ascents and descents, sections where you’re running in and out of creeks for miles, the potential for heat which can induce more carnage than cold, and long stretches between aid. But you also have miles of virgin singletrack, vistas, and constant waterfalls. World’s End is a place to exorcise your doubts, your inner demons. You can give to its raw brutality, or you can embrace its raw beauty. That there is Ultra, and it doesn’t get much finer than World’s End.

Month:

June

Distance:

61.1

Elevation Gain:

11,134′

Gain / Mile:

175′

World’s End 100k Elevation Profile

Rounding Out the 100k Podium

2nd Place: Hellgate 100k

3rd Place: Black Forest 100k


100 (and 200) Mile Division

The Wild Oak Trail 100 / 200

(Winter TWOT Edition in February)

Mt. Solon, VA

The Wild Oak Trail Runs are fat-ass style events which run in the heart of the Virginia mountains. There’s ridiculous elevation gain and loss, technical terrain, no additional course markings, or aid stations to see you through. Add into the mix of winter running and the potential for very cold and very wet weather, and you have an incredible BeastCoast challenge. Herein lies the essence of what the TWOT is all about:

  1. If you are even the least bit worried or concerned about getting lost, don’t come.
  2. If you have questions, don’t come.
  3. If you need a crew, don’t come.
  4. If you need toilet paper, don’t come.
  5. If you expect to be pampered in any way shape or form, don’t come.
  6. If you’re a whiner, don’t come.
  7. If you’re a freeloader, don’t come.
  8. If you’re seeking fame and/or fortune, don’t come.
  9. If you’re thinking about writing a report about your experience at Wild Oak, don’t come.
  10. If you crave abuse, if you yearn for abuse, if you are addicted to abuse in any way shape or form (be it physical, mental, sexual, verbal, mathematical, artistic or whatevah) BY ALL MEANS, BE MY GUEST. (This applies to abusees only. Abusers are not welcome. The only abuser allowed is the trail.)

Distance:

110.4 miles

Elevation Gain:

30,363′

Gain / Mile:

275′

Cutoff Time:

48 Hours

Distance:

220.8 miles

Elevation Gain:

60,726′

Gain / Mile:

275′

Route map for TWOT Loop by Ian Golden on plotaroute.com

TWOT Single Loop Elevation Profile (“100” mile runners complete 4 loops)

Rounding Out the 100 Mile Podium

2nd Place: Eastern States 100

3rd Place: Virgil Crest 100


Timed Division

Shawnee Peak Ultra Challenge

Bridgton, ME

Take one of the steeper ascents in the northeast, and turn it into a 2 or 6 hour event and you have Shawnee Peak. The course climbs 1,100+ feet in a mile before descending the same. Repeating a 2 mile circuit with 1,100′ of gain per circuit gets real in very short order.

Month:

October

Distance:

Timed – 2 hr / 6 hr

Elevation Gain:

1,173′ every 2.2 mile loop

Gain / Mile:

533′

Rounding Out the Podium

2nd Place: Mohawk Mountain VERTual Challenge

3rd Place: Running with the Devil


Transcendental Division

Infinitus

Brandon, VT

Look, this is just ridiculous.

Month:

May

Distance:

Varies up to 888k over 10 days

Elevation Gain:

up to 97,000′

Gain / Mile:

176′

Infinitus 88k Elevation Profile. Repeated 10 times for the 888k over 10 days.
DivisionEventTownStateMonthCalTopoStravaPlotarouteHello,DrifterTopoFusionAvg ElevationMileageGain Per Mile
5kWhiteface VKWilmingtonNYJuly3,1493,11531143097311431182.441278
10kWhiteface – Marshak’s Mountain RaceWilmingtonNYAugust5,0145,11549784925497850027.3685
10’ishMt. Mansfield Double UpStoweVTJuly5,1515,042473448825191500010.4481
13.1mFrozen SnotMcElhattanPAFebruary5,3215,423517752235177526413.6387
25kWhiteface Mountain RaceWilmingtonNYAugust9,85910,173996098499960996014.6682
26.2mBreakneck Point Trail MarathonBeaconNYMay7,8298579710679828342796825.4314
50kJay Peak Trail Festival 33mJay PeakVTSeptember11,94012,60011,20811673119161186732.2369
50mManitou’s RevengeWindhamNYJune13,34114,3591418614,731139771411953.4264
100kWorld’s End 100kForksvillePAJune13,07012,4001092511158100541152164181
100mThe Wild Oak Trail 100Mt. SolonVAFebruary28,79230,14028764321403198030363110.4275
TimedShawnee Peak Ultra ChallengeBridgtonMEOctober12201220108011732.2533
TranscendentalInfinitusBrandonVTMay97,000888k176
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