We’ve run nearly 200 of ’em. Here are our favourites.
Signing on for a marathon is one of the biggest commitments a runner can make. It’s a promise to wake up early on weekends, go longer than you’re used to (and then longer again), and run yourself into the best shape of your life. So how do you even begin to pick one?
First, remember this time-tested truth: They’re all good marathons. Our staff and contributors have run a combined 193, and we’ve yet to encounter a true, offensive-to-the-sport, jail-the-race-director stinker.
That said, when we dig deep and look into our warm, sweaty hearts, we have our favourites we think you should consider. These races stand out for excelling in their own way, whether scenery, vibe, speed, support, or overall package. And we didn’t create this list alone. Runner’s World consulted six marathon icons for their input on the greatest races on earth. So when you’re ready to take the plunge for the first, or fiftieth, time, know that these marathons promise the race of a lifetime.
Best Views: Big Sur
Avg. time: 4:40:33
Race size: 3,492 (2019)
Next race: April 26, 2020
All marathons are tough; many are scenic. The Big Sur International Marathon is both: 42.2 challenging, postcard-perfect kilometres. When I went out in 2012, my plan was just to soak it all in—the towering redwoods, the rolling hills, the sweeping coastline of the Pacific. Beyond that, I didn’t have a particular goal in mind.
The morning of the race I felt pretty good; I thought I might run sub-3. Sixteen kilometres in, I was heading up Hurricane Point, a 3.2K ascent that has rocky cliffs on one side of the road and the pounding surf on the other, when the sandwich I’d had for lunch the day before hit me. The menu had called it “The Knuckler”—a couple of burgers piled high with bacon, eggs, and onion rings and held together with a knife. Now, it was packing its punch.
I dashed across the iconic Bixby Bridge, a curved, 218-metre span along the Northern California coastline, and ducked into a porta-loo. A few metres away sat Michael Martinez, the tuxedo-clad “Grand Piano Man,” who delicately plucks the keys of his 2.7-metre Yamaha at Bixby’s turnout each year. His peaceful melodies, along with the rhythmically crashing waves below, provided the backdrop as I rid myself of the monstrous sandwich. For a few fleeting moments, I forgot about the vengeful burger. I was no longer held hostage by the unforgiving plastic walls of the porta-potty, but instead, transported back onto the dramatic cliffside course along Highway 1.
It was, I had to admit, a beautiful moment. It let me pause and take in the unreal rural beauty of this race. I returned to Big Sur the following year, eager to run such a breathtaking course once again—and hit my goal time, sans Knuckler.
Race size: 2250 (2019)
Next race: June 20, 2020
Located 128 kilometres from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada’s first national park, the Banff Marathon boasts a stunning route. Behind its serenity, these efforts preserve what you see.
While non-wax cups could take up to a year to compost, Banff’s cups, which are made from a material derived from corn, break down in just four days. “Though we don’t suggest it, you could literally eat them if you wanted to,” says event director Paul Regensburg.
Everything is recycled.
Instead of trash cans, Banff features sorting stations that route the material to recycling facilities. Everything is recycled, from your race bib to your gel wrappers. In 2018 they diverted 100 percent of their waste from landfills.
Each year, Banff calculates their greenhouse gas emissions, including participant travel, and offsets them through partners Brightspot Climate and Walker Industries. In 2019, they offset 1089 tonnes, the equivalent of taking 236 vehicles off the road for a year.
Banff’s bibs give participants free bus rides for the weekend on the park’s green public transit system. On race day, runners not looking to PB have the option of having their bibs stamped at each of the course’s 10 aid stations, where park interpreters will share about Banff’s history, geography, and wildlife.
A virtual gift bag.
“Everyone who’s done a race just dumps out the gift bag, takes the two things they want, then throws everything else in the garbage,” Regensburg says. “We’ve eliminated that completely.” Banff’s “virtual gift bag” provides electronic vouchers to pick up the freebies you want, without burdening you with anything you’d toss.
Some of Banff’s numbers are impossible to top (that 100 per cent landfill diversion rate), but Regensburg says those figures motivate Banff to diversify how they approach sustainability. Future ideas involve going cup-free in favour of refillable water bottles, making medals out of wood, and expanding Banff’s green bus program so that even spectators can skip driving for the entire race weekend. —Tyler Daswick
The Major We Want To Do Right Now: Berlin
Avg. time: 4:11:30
Race size: 46,983 (2019)
Next race: September 20, 2020
“I like the crowd in Berlin. I like the organisation. I like the environment. And above all, the flat course.” – Eliud Kipchoge
With a fast course and boundless history, you don’t have to look hard to see why Berlin is on our to-do list.
Many runners say the triple blue lines on the road—which indicate the tangents on the course, marking the shortest possible route—help them cross the finish line. “That blue line is your best friend. It mentally made it easy to zone in,” says Elizabeth Corkum, 35, who ran Berlin in 2016.
Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge set the world record in 2018 with a blistering 2:01:39. It was the first time anyone had broken the 2:02 barrier in a marathon. This year, Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopa) missed the record by just two seconds (2:01:41).
After only a few hundred metres, runners reach the so-called “Great Star” roundabout, where the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, has stood since 1939.
The race starts in the Tiergarten, once a royal hunting grounds. Today it’s a 630-acre city park with winding, tree-lined paths.
The Brandenburg Gate, where the course ends, “has that military-triumph feel to it that gives appropriate drama to a marathon finish,” says Winston Holiday, 51, who ran Berlin in 2015.
Gladys Cherono of Kenya holds the women’s record. She won her second straight Berlin title in 2018, with a time of 2:18:11.
The 42.2-Kilometer Party: Médoc
Avg. time: 6:14:00
Race size: 8127 (2019)
Next race: September 12, 2020
“They serve goblets of Bordeaux at the water stops,” I open, as my disbelieving audience looks down or away.
“It’s in France,” I continue, which helps, but compels some do-gooders to list other, less strenuous methods: “if what you really want is to kill yourself.”
“It’s called The Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc. They served a Bordeaux back in 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry, before he became the King of England.”
Impervious to my polite onlookers’ increasingly obvious social cues, I press on. I cannot help it; I’m a marathon bore.
For those unimpressed or actively displeased by my survival, I like talking Médoc because it strikes at the odious belief held by many civilians: that running—all running—is done to improve one’s health, a more vigorous expression of the impulse that leads to kale salads, seat belts, and dental floss.
I’m 71 now, and within the Cheever family my enthusiasm for running has been infectious. My wife has run eight marathons, and both my sons have run several. My sister runs, while my niece, Sarah, is a regular marathoner. My daughter-in-law, Jen, had planned on running one two years ago, but dropped out for the best possible reason: She was pregnant.
Then the mother of the most gorgeous grandchild ever born decided that if she was going to run a marathon, she wanted it to be Médoc. My sons, Andrew and John, also signed on. The sentimentality of it shames me, but there is nothing—with the possible exception of sudden death—that I am not happy to do with my grown children. Reportedly more than 40,000 (mostly French) apply annually for a race designed for 8500, so the four of us booked a hotel that provided guests with bibs.
The theme for 2019 was superheroes, which was enthusiastically, though loosely, adhered to. Andrew, who adores Godzilla, wore a spiked tail and reptilian mask. The tail had a tendency to stick forward between Andrew’s legs. Considering an upholstered manhood improper, he ran holding his tail in his hand until he saw another competitor who had an actual fake phallus of legendary proportions swinging between his legs. Jen was Catwoman; John, Batman. I was Superman, complete with a full-length cape.
In the enthusiasm of their costumes, the French outdid us at every turn. Many Supermen were far from super-fit, while an astonishing number of Wonder Women were men in wigs and bustiers. Several men dressed as Thor were complete with hammers, and one runner had an inflated barbell strapped to his middle. Another, more committed racer wore a heavy wooden contraption that held a bottle of wine out in front of his face, but just beyond his reach. If I had to surmise his superpower, I’d guess some combination of grit, back strength, and poor short-term memory.
The start in Pauillac was so joyous that I forgot that this degustation was going to go on for more than 42 kilometres.
Justly modest about our training, we gathered toward the back of the pack. Ethically, this was exactly right. Strategically, it was exactly wrong. We hadn’t gone three kilometres when we were stopped by the crowd that had slowed to scarf down croissants at Le Château Lynch-Bages. Extracting ourselves from this first party we were alarmed to find that we had fallen behind a truck full of clowns with brooms. Labelled sweepers, they bore placards indicating that if we didn’t finish in six hours and 30 minutes, we wouldn’t get our medals, T-shirts, commemorative backpacks, or boasting rights.
Somehow we passed the tumbril of clowns and trotted out into the vineyards, great fields of green intricately etched with grapevines. The pathways that cut this expanse were crammed with colourful competitors singing and yelling with joy.
The vineyards themselves were speckled with men and women whose super abilities didn’t include bladders of steel. Zorro rushed off into the grapes in haste. The Three Musketeers stood shoulder to shoulder, one for all and all for number one.
Less than six kilometres in, we were lining up for our first libation. There must have been some serious runners, but everybody around me stopped and had a drink. And then another, despite the 20 remaining wine stations.
There was a good deal of singing, which impressed me since those who wish to breathe and those who wish to sing must use the same set of lungs, and mine were fully engaged.
One group had blue capes as voluminous as their brightly coloured codpieces were not. Their shared song came to me in fragments:
We are the champions
We are the champions
We are the champions of the world.
Shortly after the last chorus, the champions doffed their capes and leapt into a nearby reflecting pool.
After we’d hit 32 kilometres my daughter-in-law ran with me for support, “because this is the first time I’ve gone this distance,” she said.
“First of many,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she told me. “How can any other race compare?”
She was right.
Even at this point we were sufficiently energetic to backtrack when we realised that we’d missed the wine ice cream. But between 22 and 35 kilometres I met the legendary wall. I began to dislike the race and so—naturally—I began to dislike the French. What were they so happy about?
That’s when I realised that without the French, marathon bores like myself wouldn’t even have a race. The ancient Olympics didn’t include a long footrace. It was a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who introduced the first-ever competitive marathon when he restarted the Olympic games in the 1890s.
All of which I had forgotten until a French runner saved my race with an impassioned warning. “Merde! Merde! Les Sweepers.”
Superhuman and subhuman, we were all in it together, shuffling furiously while wine sloshed within for a finish line that seemed impossibly to move away.
We made it. We all crossed the finish holding hands. French or not, fast or slow, we were all heading for the same finish.
—Benjamin Cheever, author of Strides: Running Through History With an Unlikely Athlete