A woman trail running at as sunset along a mountain pass.
(Photo: Getty Images)

The Wonderfully Diverse World of Running Goals

There’s more to running life than PRs and finishing placements. It’s time to chase a new goal.

A woman trail running at as sunset along a mountain pass.

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If 2020 taught us anything, it was to open our minds to redefine common notions. We were forced to give new meaning to terms like “family time” and “work from home.” We can look at this ability to think outside the box as a silver lining, even when it comes to running goals.

If you’re used to setting — and chasing — PRs for common road race distances as your one and only running goal, we’re about to put some new ideas in your head that will hopefully get you excited for a new challenge, one that’s not only COVID-safe, but inspiring to you in a way that feeds your soul.


Trail Running Races

A man competes in a long distance cross country trail running race in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. He wears compression socks and a hydration back pack.
Photo: Getty Images

Even pure road runners can benefit from testing their mettle at a trail running race, and not all trail running races are ultra-distance. You can find events from 5K to 100+ miles off-road, which allow runners to not only discover new trails, but mix up their running experience on varying terrain. Due to their spaced-out nature, and overall smaller numbers, trail running races have a better chance of happening in a COVID world.

Ultra-Distance Trail Races

“Ultra” means anything longer than a marathon, and a 50K (31 miles) is the perfect gateway distance for road runners. Finding one that takes place on fireroads (versus technical singletrack) will be the easiest transition, but entering an ultra on more rugged terrain can be a welcome adventure. Ultra-distance races extend through 200 miles…yes, in one shot.

Backyard Ultra

This new style of racing started with Big’s Backyard Ultra, conceived by Barkley Marathon race director Gary Cantrell (aka “Lazarus Lake”). Traditionally, competitors run a distance of 4.167 miles every hour, on the hour, and the last man or woman “standing” or running, wins. (Running 24 hours of said laps equals 100 miles, but you needn’t go that long to appreciate the unique pacing and endurance challenge) In 2020, runners competed in Big’s Backyard Ultra virtually and from around the world. Many Backyard Ultras now exist, many of them happening virtually.   

Virtual Races and Challenges

Virtual Races

Thanks to 2020, you’re likely familiar with virtual racing. Sign up for a race online, decide your own route and starting time, and have at it. Once you’re done, upload your time to the race’s website and see how you measured up against other virtual competitors. The benefit of learning to push yourself without chasing competitors will carry over to when in-person races return — and virtual racing will likely continue given its convenience, environtmentally-friendly format, and distinctive challenge.

“Run The Edge”

Tim Catalano and Adam Goucher sitting at Run The Edge desk.
Tim Catalano and Adam Goucher’s company Run The Edge is a supportive community and virtual race expo for runners. Photo: Brian Metzler

This company co-founded by Olympian Adam Goucher and partner Tim Catalano allows runners to take on virtual challenges — like completing 2021 miles during 2021, or running the length of the United States (3,521 miles) either solo or as part of a team. Motivating features, like an online tracker, challenge-specific Facebook group, and cool medals add to the fun.

Fastest Known Time (FKT)

Many top trail runners turned to setting FKTs, or, Fastest Known Time records on specific routes, during the pandemic. The trend continues. When going after an FKT, competitors must state their intentions on the official FKT website and then prove their time and route. For regular-folk, setting personal FKTs by bettering your own time on certain routes, or choosing one route to constantly improve upon, can be rewarding.

Strava King/Queen of the Mountain

This app shows rankings of fastest times on run segments, with overall leaders earning “King of the Mountain” or “Queen of the Mountain” for sections of routes or entire routes. Overall leaderboards help motivate you to improve your standing each time. The app also has a “Local Legends” section highlighting most-frequent completers, shows routes near you, and allows you to follow friends’ efforts.

Distance Challenges and Run Streaks

Distance Challenges

Come up with your own distance challenge, like running 2,000 miles in a year, 100 or 200 miles in month, or a certain distance in a week (100-mile week, anyone?). We recommend a gradual increase and listening to your body to try to minimize injury.

Run Streaks

You’ve heard about run streaks, where not a day goes by without lacing up your shoes and running any number of miles, distance determined by you. Streakers can make their efforts official by registering through the Streak Runner’s International/United State Streak Association, Inc. website. Or, do it on your own for as long as your body allows. The most famous run-streaker, Ron Hill, ran every day for 52 years and 39 days.

Geographic Challenges

Run a Unique Loop

Woman running in morning on beautiful trail above city.
Photo: Getty Images

Get out your maps and plot a route around something, like the perimeter around Manhattan (32 miles), or your hometown. Run around your local lake, around a mountain, an island…    

Run a Notable Out-and-Back

Always wanted to run the Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim? 2021 could be your year. Just make sure you’re well-trained, have the right gear (hello, water), and plan your logistics wisely for this 47.5-mile journey. Not all out-and-backs need to be this epic. For instance, running across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and back is 3.4 miles round-trip, but can feel significant.

Run to Something

Running point-to-point, as opposed to out-and-back or on loops, can feel like an adventurous journey. Choose a location, like a coffee shop across town, and have someone pick you up. Or have someone drop you off a certain distance from home, and run back to your front door (and hot shower, food, and sofa).

Run to the State Line

Depending on where you live, running to the state line of a neighboring state can feel monumental. Be sure to choose routes that are safe (no highway running, please!), and account for the run back, or line up a ride home.

Run Every Street in Your Neighborhood

Get out that map again, and plot out routes that, eventually, will cover every street in your neighborhood, town, or city. Using GPS-enabled devices and/or mapping apps will help you keep track.

Run Across a National, or State Park

A woman jogging a boardwalk in Yosemite National Park.
A woman jogging a boardwalk in Yosemite National Park. Photo: Getty Images

Choose a state or national park, and then a route across said park, and have at it. Since there’s more than one route across most parks, this could be done numerous times until all routes are covered.

Summit a Peak

Running, or run/hiking to the top of a peak, can be immensely rewarding — you can stand on top of the peak and feel on top of the world, knowing you ran your way there. Gradually building up to running the entire uphill can give you a goal that you can chip away at over weeks or months.

Jump in a Lake

A young man jumping with his arms in the air off the end of a jetty at a lake.
Photo: Getty Images

Have a lake, reservoir, or pond near(ish) by? Or, see one on a trail map you’ve always wanted to visit? Run to the said body of water, take a dip, and run home. (You’ll likely want to wait for warmer months before taking on this one.)

More Creative Challenges

Make Strava Art

This app, or any apps that show routes run in a mapping feature, allow runners to create fun designs by foot. Past Strava designs by runners include a Frida Kahlo image on the streets of San Francisco, other shapes like hearts and animals, and even marriage proposals spelled-out.

Run All Your Errands

Need to deposit checks at your bank? Mail a letter? Pick up something from the grocery? Don a small backpack and hit the streets, stopping for errands around town. This can be highly motivating — and rewarding — as you crush time efficiency and have fun in the process.

Get Even More Creative 

Many of these ideas are creative, and can be crafted and accomplished on your own time and in your own location. Use the above to spark your own ideas to add some much-needed fun to 2021. Make it something that stretches you a bit so it feels like an accomplishment, has meaning to you, and of course, sounds cool — the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images