Running — like laughing — doesn't require a translator. So why not take your love of running international? Though completing a marathon takes determination and a commitment to months (and sometimes even years) of training, the sense of accomplishment as you cross that finish line makes it all worthwhile, says Ewen North, head coach and director of Revolution Running in Boulder, CO.
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Thinking about tackling a 26.2-mile feat of endurance? You might as well see some incredible places along the way! Plus, come mile 16, you'll definitely need the distraction. Read on to see 22 of the world's best marathons and get tips to start training and planning.
1. Boston Marathon (April)
Marathon statistics show one of the most famous marathons for runners worldwide is also one of the oldest. Inspired by the revival of the marathon in the 1896 Olympics, the first Boston Marathon was run in 1897. The Boston Marathon offers a net downhill course with many famous landmarks and a big-city finish. Entrants must meet rigorous qualifying standards, and half a million spectators cheer on these elite runners. Part of the glory of this race is having to qualify and the bragging rights that brings, says running coach Ewen North.
2. Athens Authentic Marathon (November)
The Athens Authentic Marathon is one of the biggest sporting events in Greece. This memorable race follows the course of the original 26.2-mile run from the ancient city of Marathon to Athens by the Greek soldier Pheidippides in 490 BC. The race takes runners through the scenic hills of Athens on the same route taken in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"Steeped in a rich history, this is a tough course with more than 30 [kilometers] of uphill, but it is the most worthy race," says Caolan MacMahon, running coach with The Long Run Coaching in Boulder, CO. Runners from across the world join in step to see the beauty of the city and take part in the historic tradition of the race.
3. Marine Corps Marathon (April)
Nicknamed "The People's Marathon," the Marine Corps Marathon is one of the largest races in the US (and the world) that doesn't offer prize money to winners. Instead, the race prides itself as a "celebration of every finisher's honor, courage and commitment to training for, and completing, the MCM."
It's also been recognized as the best race for beginners. The race started in 1976 and has now expanded into a series of races including the Historic Half, Semper 5ive and even a kids run for children ages five to 12. The course, managed by the US Marines, has been run by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Drew Carey and Al Gore.
4. Great Wall Marathon (May)
Deemed one of the toughest marathons in the world, the Great Wall Marathon challenges runners to climb more than 5,164 steps of the Great Wall, and finish by running through Chinese villages. The support of the massive crowd makes the challenge worth the pain, says Jennifer Purdie, a California-based running coach.
"Villagers come out to cheer and children serenade the runners and make them dandelion bouquets," she says. "It's very uplifting and very challenging at the same time." First run in 1999, the Great Wall marathon has gained popularity over the years, with more than 2,500 entrants in 2013.
5. Dublin Marathon (October)
Runners participating in the Dublin Marathon run a largely flat, scenic course through Dublin's City Centre. Carl Ewald, race director for Philadelphia's ODDyssey Half Marathon, chose Dublin as his first full marathon because of the scenery and the people. "The people were amazing and they came out in force and cheered," he says. "It was a really encouraging environment." The Irish climate provides cool temperatures — 53 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit — for the October event, which has been run since 1980.
6. Rome Marathon (April)
Yes, all roads lead to Rome. But once you get there, there's only one route to take. The marathon course takes you all over the city and past nearly all of the city's historic sites, starting at the Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Coliseum, passing the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and Saint Peter's Basilica before winding back around to the Coliseum. The course is relatively flat, though you will have to contend with cobblestone streets for much of the race.
7. Tokyo Marathon (February)
Old and new worlds collide along this race course. Runners will pass the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Station (just to name a few landmarks) all while taking in both the historic sites of Japan and some of its newer attractions and buildings. Make sure you stop by Japan's largest running trade show, the Tokyo Marathon Expo, which boasts 60,000 visitors annually. And in the years leading up to the city hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, you can rest assured that the crowd will only grow larger.
8. Great Ocean Road Marathon (May)
The visually stunning views of Australia's Southern Ocean are enough to make you forget your legs are dying (or at least enough to make it bearable). You'll travel along Victoria's Great Ocean Road and take in the beautiful landscapes for the entire 44 kilometers.
And if you're traveling from out of town, there's plenty to see and do in Victoria — from exploring Apollo Bay and the surrounding picturesque seaside town with restaurants famous for their crawfish to the breathtaking mountains with its diversity of wildlife and weather conditions.
9. Big Sur International Marathon (April)
One of the most challenging courses along the California coastline is the Big Sur International Marathon. The course is a struggle through hills and head wind, but the scenery offers runners a big reward. "It's probably one of the most scenic and beautiful marathon runs in the world," says running coach Ewen North.
The course takes runners through redwood forests and offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. Live entertainment throughout the run may help keep you motivated, too. For the truly hardcore marathoner, there's the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, which includes two marathons in six days, 3,000 miles apart.
10. Big Five Marathon (June)
The Big Five Marathon in South Africa will provide you with a marathon and a safari rolled into one. Named for the famed Big Five African game animals — leopard, lion, rhino, elephant and buffalo — the course runs among wildlife in the Limpopo province's Entabeni Safari Conservancy.
"You might even be lucky enough to run alongside antelope, giraffes, zebras and lions, as the course does not have anything to separate the runners from the African wildlife," says running coach Caolan MacMahon. But dodging the wildlife isn't the only challenge. Runners must negotiate steep altitude changes and rocky footing.
11. Paris Marathon (April)
Ah, Paris in springtime! Is there any better time to visit? Or to run a marathon in one of the world's most beautiful cities? Join the more than 57,000 runners and take to the streets, passing the Champs Elysées, Place de la Bastille, the Bois de Vincennes and Boulogne. You'll start at the Arc de Triomphe, wind through the historic streets of France's most famous city and pass Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on your way to the finish line.
12. Missoula Marathon (July)
In 2010, Runners World magazine called Missoula the best marathon in the United States, and in 2011, the state of Montana named it the state's best tourism event. "The town really turns out to support each runner," says Brian Moses, a runner who works for a local health food company.
"I have witnessed a full band, a juggler and even residents setting up their own water station to show support to the runners." The course takes runners through the tree-lined streets of the University District and crosses over the Clark Fork River in the heart of downtown Missoula.
13. Puerto Rico Marathon (March)
The Puerto Rico Marathon is a popular destination race, combining a Caribbean vacation with first-class competition. "[You] run 26.2 miles along the Atlantic and various lagoons, seeing the amazing scenery, and then recover on the beach sipping on a piña colada," says Richard Kalasky, owner of Overweight to Endurance Athlete in Denver, CO.
This race is also a Boston and New York Marathon qualifier, but Kalasky warns that runners should be prepared for heat and humidity. And take advantage of the aid stations with plenty of Gatorade and water available placed a mile apart throughout the course.
14. London Marathon (April)
If you're looking for a run that offers a historic backdrop, this is a flat, fast race that starts in Blackheath in southeast London and ends in front of Buckingham Palace. First held in 1981, the race's route has changed a couple of times to avoid road work and cobblestone streets.
The course loops through the east end of London and crosses the River Thames and now goes past the Cutty Sark, the historic clipper ship that sits in dry dock at Greenwich. This marathon is part of the World Marathon Majors Series that awards a $1 million prize to the top male and female marathoners in the top six world races.
15. Chicago Marathon (October)
With more than half a million runners crossing the finish line since the race started in 1977, this race is huge! According to marathoner Caolan MacMahon, the course of the Chicago Marathon is fast, pancake-flat and scenic, too. "The course moves through 29 Chicago neighborhoods that add their own special flavor to the race," she says.
If you're bringing along friends to support you, Chicago's excellent public transit system will take them to many spots along the route to cheer you on. The Chicago Marathon is also one of the most diverse, with more than 120 countries represented and all 50 states.
16. Honolulu Marathon (December)
If you struggle with running in cold temperatures, opt the Honolulu Marathon instead. Hosted in December, it's the third largest marathon in the United States, attracting around 30,000 runners each year with many entrants coming from Japan.
The course winds along Oahu's spectacular coastline, beginning in Ala Moana Beach Park and looping through Waikiki Beach, Koko Head Crater and Diamond Head before winding to the finish line at Kapiolani Park.
Although the 5 a.m. start time may be a bit early for some runners, it's designed to avoid Honolulu's heat and humidity. To help runners cool off during the race, organizers provide cooling sponges and gels along the course, and showers at the finish line.
17. New York City Marathon (November)
As the largest marathon in the United States, the New York City Marathon hosted more than 50,000 runners in 2015 and more than two million spectators. Along with the Chicago and Boston races, it's one of the six Marathon Majors. With the exception of 2012 — when it was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy — the race has been run annually since 1970. The first race was run entirely in Central Park, but the course now loops through the five boroughs of New York City, with streets lined with spectators and entertainment.
18. Berlin Marathon (September)
This world-class marathon has grown from a small event attracting just 286 runners in 1974. Until 1980, the course ran along West Berlin's Grunewald forest. Starting in 1981, it moved into the city streets of West Berlin; but its most historic year came in 1990 when, three days before the reunification of the country, 25,000 runners ran through Brandenburg Gate, many with tears in their eyes.
The race runs through modern German history, with views of both drab and classic buildings of the East and high-tech shops and modern properties of the West. What makes this marathon unique is that runners share the course with in-line skaters.
19. Mont Saint-Michel Marathon (May)
This is another marathon that takes runners along a beautiful coastline ─ in this case, the northwestern Atlantic coast of France. The race begins in the Bretagne village of Cancale and ends in Normandy, in front of the famous eighth-century monastery of Mont Saint-Michel.
One of France's most-visited landmarks, the castle-like structure is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The race also offers an after-party to remember, according to running coach Caolan MacMahon. "It's a spectacular course along the Normandy coastline and has the best after-race wine," she says.
20. Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu (June and August)
While not an official marathon (it takes place on the Inca Trail, which is in a National Park), if you're a runner up for a serious challenge, you'll want to take this race on. The course starts at Cusco at an altitude of 11,150 feet and continues along the ancient Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, featuring stunning views of the Southern Peruvian Andes throughout the course. Once you make it to the top, you'll spend two days exploring Machu Picchu before taking a train back down (because your legs will definitely need the rest at that point).
21. Kilimanjaro Marathon (February)
With Africa's highest mountain (and the world's highest free-standing mountain) as an inspiring backdrop for this race, you'll run along old tarred roads for the duration of the 26.2 miles. The course starts at Moshi Stadium, continues for a while on flat ground, before slowly inclining towards the turn-around point. Once you reach halfway, though, it's all downhill back to the stadium. On your route, you'll continually pass farms, villages, banana and coffee plantations and patches of forest.
22. Wineglass Marathon (October)
If you're looking for a flat, fast course with a small-town feel, run the Wineglass Marathon, which starts Bath, NY, and ends in Corning. The upstate setting boasts of mountains and fall foliage as runners race past wineries and the Corning Museum of Glass.
Local residents line up along the course to motivate runners. Runners in this race walk away with some impressive swag — the medal is hand-made glass. Runners also get a wine glass and mini bottle of champagne! The town of Corning offers special discounts in stores and restaurants to participants in this Boston-qualifying race.
- Ewen North; Revolution Running; Colorado
- Brian Moses; Omnibar; Missoula, Mont.
- Kyra Mancine; Marathon Runner; New York
- Jennifer Purdie; Running Coach, Certified Personal Trainer; San Diego, Calif.
- Caolan MacMahon; Certified Running Coach, The Long Run Coaching; Boulder, Colo.
- John Honerkamp; Running Coach, New York Road Runners; New York, New York