20 Races to do before you die

RW's guide to the 20 best foreign races every runner should complete from around the globe

Posted: 20 August 2008
by Alison Hamlett

London Marathon. Tick. Great North Run. Tick. You’ve crossed off some classic British races from your to-do list but there’s a whole world waiting out there for your next racing kick. Whether you fancy soaking up the amazing atmosphere of New York’s five boroughs in one of the world’s greatest city marathons or want to mix it with the best runners in the world at the Great Ethiopian Run, our pick of the top 20 foreign races to do before you die is sure to inspire you to add a few more races to your to-do list.

© Getty Images


Paris Marathon
Paris in the springtime provides a stunning setting for this popular French classic. Every April the race attracts plenty of Brits who’ve failed to gain a place at the London Marathon but don’t for a minute think that this race is the poor relation of its British cousin. Wide Parisian boulevards easily accommodate the 30,000 runners who are treated to all the capital’s greatest sights, including the Bastille and the Bois de Boulogne, before a finish on the impressive Avenue Foch.

Berlin Marathon

The first Berlin Marathon took place in 1974 and in the intervening years this German giant has established itself as the race to target if you’re looking to break the world marathon record. It provided the setting for Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie to stamp his mark on the marathon when he set the current world record of 2:04:26 in 2007. This autumn race takes place in September every year so if you need a goal to take you through a summer of running, set your sights on Berlin.

North Pole Marathon
You might not be able to walk on water but you can run on water at the world’s most northerly marathon. Run entirely on the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean at 90 degrees North, the world’s coolest marathon is an unforgettable adventure of endurance, camping on ice and standing on top of the world. You might be hoping to spot a polar bear but be careful what you wish for - they can run a lot faster than you can even without snow shoes. The race is held every April.

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Athens Marathon
If you’ve ever declared ‘never again’ at the end of a race, spare a thought for the Greek runner Phidippides. He ran the first ever marathon back in 490BC but didn’t have a chance to tackle the distance again after dropping dead from exhaustion. Every November better-trained runners have the opportunity to follow in Phidippides’ footsteps with this point-to-point race from Marathon to the Greek capital. The heat and hills haven’t changed over the years though so be prepared for a tough challenge.

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Medoc Marathon

Red wine or Lucozade? Foie gras or yet another energy gel? These aren’t questions you’d ordinarily be faced with during a marathon but at this French classic near Bordeaux you’ll be offered the finest wines and local culinary delicacies as you run through ancient vineyards and postcard-perfect chateaux. The predominantly French race also takes fancy dress as seriously as food and drink so start putting some thought into your costume. Held every September – and always a sell out – 2009 will see the 25th running of the race and will feature a circus theme.

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Swiss Alpine Running Festival
If majestic mountains and heart-stopping hills are your idea of running heaven, the Swiss Alpine Running Festival offers a variety of events from a half-marathon to a 78K ultra that could well be the hardest race you’ll ever tackle. Around 5,000 runners take part in the thrilling races every July, attracted by the dramatic mountain panoramas and Swiss efficiency. Don’t forget your camera, trail shoes and a head for heights.


North and Central America

Hood to Coast Relay, USA
This race is quite possibly the most fun you can have with your trainers on. The 197-mile team relay in the pristine North American state of Oregon pits teams of 12 runners against each other in a non-stop race from the mountain-top start inland at Mount Hood to the Pacific coast finish at the town of Seaside. When the race started 27 years ago it attracted a handful of runners, but it’s a sell-out every year now with 12,000 people taking part. You’ll run three legs of roughly five miles each as this scenic race unfolds, but a huge post-race beach party at Seaside and the time you spend in the team van are what really make this event unique.

Chicago Marathon

One of the biggest and slickest marathons in the world, this is a seriously speedy race. The early city-centre start means you can step out of your hotel and be running in a matter of minutes, and once the race is underway there are none of the usual bottlenecks that hamper many big-city events thanks to wide, flat avenues and a fast circular course. You’ll be treated to the best the city has to offer before a scenic lakeside finish. The race is held every October and regularly attracts around 40,000 runners.

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Boston Marathon
If you love superlatives, head to Boston in April for the world’s oldest annual marathon. The race started in 1897 and has blazed a trail since that other big-city marathons continue to follow. It isn’t just age that adds prestige to this event though – it’s still one of the few marathons where you have to qualify to enter. Don’t be deceived by the slightly downhill course either – this is a tough event but one that will look great on your racing CV.


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New York City Marathon

The original big city marathon is so much more than 26.2 miles. You’ll experience a colourful cultural tour of New York City’s ethnic diversity as you run through its five unique boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. The point-to-point course includes many of the city’s bridges, which make for challenging undulations, before a leafy finish in hilly Central Park. The immense crowds are never more impressive than when you hit the wall of sound after crossing the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan in the closing stages of the race. Wear your medal with pride afterwards and New Yorkers will treat you like royalty. The race is held every November.

Reggae Marathon, Jamaica
Winter in the UK: four words guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine and cast a gloomy pall over your training. If you need a goal to tempt you outside, and the promise of a sunny reward, head for the tropical island of Jamaica. The marathon starts alongside seven miles of pristine white sand at Negril Beach and continues on an out-and-back course on the north coast of the island. It’s every bit as idyllic as you’d expect but it’s the warmth of the locals and enthusiasm of the course-side bands that keep you going through the heat and humidity of this tough but fabulously fun event.


Great Wall Marathon, China
Make no mistake: this race is tough. Banish the idea that you’ll be trotting happily along a flat wall and instead imagine heaving yourself up steps that are too tall to take at a trot. Around 7K of the race takes place on the wall, with the rest of the course passing through beautiful mountain villages and along attractive country trails in the shadow of China’s greatest monument.

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Everest Marathon, Nepal
The world’s highest marathon starts in the shadow of the world’s highest mountain at 17,000 ft. But before you can take part, you have to make it to the start – on foot. The trek up to Gorak Shep will help you to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen in the air before you begin the marathon on rough mountain trails. Despite an overall drop in altitude, the going is tough but as you head down to Namche Bazaar for the finish, remind yourself that it could be worse – you could be heading up the mountain rather than down.


Marathon des Sables, Morocco
This punishing stage race has become a rite of passage for many runners who believe it to be the toughest foot race in the world. If you’re up for the  challenge in the unforgiving Sahara Desert, you’ll have to carry food for the entire event – organisers provide shelter and a ration of water as you tackle six stages over seven days. The arduous physical challenge is just part of the picture though, you’ll face a tough mental battle too if you take on the Marathon des Sables. The race, held in March and April, is sold out years in advance in case you’re thinking of putting your name down.

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Two Oceans Marathon, South Africa

The organisers claim this is ‘the world’s most beautiful marathon’ and you’re unlikely to argue when you witness the stunning coastal views on a course that takes in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. But it’s not actually a marathon but a 56K ultra. The real treat on this Cape Town classic comes at Chapman’s Peak: one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline it’s possible to race. The event takes place on the Saturday of Easter weekend every year.

Great Ethiopian Run 10K, Ethiopia

For atmosphere, energy and even anarchy, the Great Ethiopian Run simply can’t be surpassed. In a country where running is the national craze, this mass-participation 10K is a colourful, lively and sometimes chaotic race but also a tough challenge thanks to a handful of climbs and the altitude in the capital Addis Ababa. More than 30,000 runners line up at the start each year and if you join them you’ll be one of the few foreigners enjoying this amazing cultural experience.

Comrades Marathon

If you only do one ultra, this iconic South African should be at the top of your list. Arguably the world’s greatest mass-participation ultra, the Comrades Marathon isn’t as old as the Boston Marathon but has just as much tradition. It began in 1917 to commemorate soldiers who had lost their lives in the First World War and grew to become South Africa’s biggest race in the apartheid years when the country was isolated. Run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the direction of the 54-mile course reverses every year but the challenge remains the same. It takes place in May or June.

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City to Surf, Australia
Based on the Bay to Breakers race in California, Sydney’s City to Surf is one of the biggest races in the world. More than 60,000 participants crush onto the 14K course from the city centre to beautiful Bondi Beach. The current course record of 40:03 was set in 1991 so if you fancy a crack at it, the race takes place in August every year.


South America

Inca Trail Marathon
Indiana Jones would feel at home at this race. As you tackle the 28 miles of trail, two incredibly tough climbs through passes at around 14,000 feet as well as countless huge steps stand between you and the finish. After a variety of terrain, you’ll complete the last five miles of the race in jungle before passing through the Sun Gate to see the Inca capital of Machu Picchu spread out before you: undoubtedly one of the most impressive race finishes in the world.


Ice Marathon
Push your running to the final frontier both in terms of endurance and location at the world’s most remote marathon. The Ice Marathon is the only race that takes place on the Antarctic mainland, guaranteeing you a true wilderness experience as you run the single-lap race. You might think the average temperature of minus 20 degrees C and strong katabatic winds will be the biggest challenge, but the altitude of 10,000 feet and hilly course play their part too in making this a truly tough event. Run at 80 degrees south, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole, the race takes place every December.


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Discuss this article

Wouldn't it be magical to be able to look back and say you've done all these runs. There are a good few there that would be once in a lifetime opportunities and what an amazing way to see a city!!

 I personally recommend the two South African races mentioned - Two Oceans and Comrades. Not to be missed!

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 15:44

2 down...18 to go
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 15:58

I've done one - don't fancy the others much
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:10

Go Scotty! Which ones have you done?

 Was one enough Wilkie?

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:13

Ah Cake, how nice of you to offer. Perhaps Runners World would consider hiring you purely for this function??
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:15

Done one (NY) and planning Two Oceans next year.

Not sure my body is up to the MdS but with my drinking head on I could do Medoc!

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:17

Good luck with your training Sue! I'm sure you'll love every minute of it. Hope you get good weather.
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:20

Kellyd, Great Wall Marathon in 2006 and New York Marathon last year. Both were absolutely fantastic experiences and I did them as part of an organised package (which wasn't cheap).

I'd be interested to see just how much doing all these would cost. I'm about £3K down already

I'm guessing Antarctica is the most expensive at US$15,750

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:22

Berlin this year , Paris and Swiss 79K next year and Comrades 2010. Well thats the plan at the moment
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:24

Berlin this year , Paris and Swiss 78K next year and Comrades 2010. Well thats the plan at the moment
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:25

Oh my, Ultra Hawk, i'll live through you!!

Scotty, i'd love to do the Great Wall, but wasn't that so much tougher than any normal marathon?

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 16:31

A few too many big-city marathons in there for my liking.  I'm sure they're great experiences, but is there really enough difference between Chicago, New York, Paris, Berlin etc to make them all 'must-do' races?

Posted: 21/08/2008 at 17:42

I'll have a go Cake if you fancy funding them for me
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 20:25

Kellyd, yeah, the GWM is more of an event than a race. I saw grown men cry trying to negotiate the 18" steps on the final stages. I finished in 5hrs 10min. My normal mara time is 3hrs 45min. I'm very proud of my PW.
Posted: 21/08/2008 at 20:54

My PW is worse than yours Scotty - 6:38 to get round the Marathon du Medoc

There was so much wine to be tasted.....

Kellyd - I've also done a big city mara (London), and yes, one was enough.

Posted: 22/08/2008 at 11:27

Singapore is an interesting city mara. Quite surreal as it started at 6am in the dark in a humid 25C which rose to 34C after 7 when the sun was up. Youch!!

Wlikie, I am strangely drawn to the MduM for some bizarre reason Was that where you discovered  the lovely 'Arse'?

Posted: 22/08/2008 at 11:42

You really wouldn't want to PB on that Mara , Wilkie
Posted: 22/08/2008 at 11:42

I am hoping to improve on my PW next year  

You should do it, Scotty - I'm sure you could better your PW too, with a bit of effort!  And it is great fun.

Yes, that's where we found the Chateau d'Arse - amongst many, many, others....

Posted: 22/08/2008 at 12:45

Hi guys, 5 down 15 to go aqnd yes, there is enough of a difference between the big city races in my opinion to justify being there. There are two world top 10 lists and hope to complete with Honolulu next yeat. Both list have that plus FLM, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, NY, Chicago, Boston, Stockholm and one has Paris, the other Washington. All completely different and the only ones I query are the two Dutch. Plan to do two oceans/comrades but also Midnight Sun and Siberian just because....
Posted: 24/08/2008 at 14:04

Not sure if MDS should be included, bit more than a marathon ! Hoping to do one next year if I don't fet in FLM, NY or De Medoc the two favourites, just coz they would be such fun....shopping and wine, perfick !

Only got one Mara under my belt, Snowdonia 2007, but doing Dublin in Oct.

Posted: 26/08/2008 at 13:38

One 14K, a running festival where you can do a half ... other than that, they're all ****ing marathons.

Not everyone wants to run a sodding marathon. Would've been nice to see a bit more balance.

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 10:26

Well BCDB, they're overseas events, and why bother going overseas for a half when there are plenty of decent UK HMs?

That said, as I posted previously, there are too many big city marathons in there for my liking.  I'm sure there are lots of hidden gems of smaller races around the world.  Most of us could have guessed most of this list, it would have been nice to see a few smaller ones that we wouldn't otherwise know about.  But that would take a bit of effort, much easier just to pick the obvious ones... 

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 10:52

Some of us don't like doing marathons (my body won't stand up to it), and like to race abroad. Why bother going overseas to do an HM? I can only answer, why not?! Just because there's some decent HM's in the UK, why shouldn't I go off and race in Paris, Vienna, Prague, Marseilles, Rome, Ulm, Berlin?

Somewhere on this site there's a list of top European races ... Marseilles-Cassis, Paris-Versailles, Stramilano etc.

To focus almost exclusively on marathons is predictable, depressing and a mistake. But I suppose it provides a talkign point. 

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 11:33

Why not do the Great Ethopian 10k if you don't fancy a marathon?

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 11:52

Could do, but that doesn't really address the point that there's a massive bias towards marathons.

If I don't fancy that then there's not many other shorter distances to pick from, eh?

There's also the 5 mills cross-country near Milan, where you run through flour mills or something. I'd rather be doing stuff like that than running 26 miles round the north frigging pole.

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 13:53

I've done the Inca Marathon in Peru this year - Amazing! Why hike in 4 days what you can still gently jog through in 1! One of the most beautiful runs in the entire world to one of the modern wonders of the world and the view from the Sun Gate after hours of ups, downs and more ups is simply breathtaking.

Comrades 2009 next year after Dublin. Love to do some of the others on the list - MDS, Everest, GWM North and South poles. So much more than just another city marathon..

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 16:04

I agree, BCDB - I've done a couple of maras, and although I'd like to do the MdM again, I wouldn't bother with any others. 

There are loads of other races: in France alone there are thousands.

Marseille-Cassis is great fun, and the Transbaie, the Le Touquet 10 and 20k - and those are just the ones I've done

The Amsterdam half was good too - you finish in the Olympic stadium.

My OH and I do a few each year, and make long weekends of them.  Definitely worth going for 'less' than a marathon.

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 16:20

Thanks Wilkie

I found a half to be just t he right distance for me. It's just the right level of challenge.

Posted: 27/08/2008 at 17:00

Wilkie -  how/where do you find out about all the foreign races, apart from the usual suspects that is !

I did one of my Club "Sale Sizzler 5K's" in July, and there was a guy running from Teivo Stayers, Finland, well impressed !! Don't think he came just for the race, but wondered how he found out about it. Is there a website with races abroad, "normal" ones like us mere mortals do ?

Posted: 28/08/2008 at 10:02

SMM - there's a publication (and website) for races (normal and otherwise) in France - Le Biped

The book is easier to just flick through if you're just browsing, but if you know which month, or which department, you're intersted in, the website can be useful.

The ability to read a bit of French helps.

Other than that, I mostly find out about different events and races on here!

Posted: 28/08/2008 at 12:58

Apparently the bloke who wrote the first "..before you die" book has, er, died (linkey here).

I wonder how many of the 100 things he actually managed to get done?

Posted: 28/08/2008 at 15:50

Since you're unlikely to do much at all after you die, it's a slightly pointless suffix to use in an article.

I don't want to be having sex in any places at all once I'm a stiff.

Posted: 28/08/2008 at 16:21

Broadsword Calling Danny Boy wrote (see)

Since you're unlikely to do much at all after you die, it's a slightly pointless suffix to use in an article.

I don't want to be having sex in any places at all once I'm a stiff.

Fair point, but we could cart you round a few marathons in a wheelbarrow.  It'd be for charidee n' all....
Posted: 28/08/2008 at 16:26

I had to read your last sentence very carefully, BCDB! 
Posted: 28/08/2008 at 16:44

I wonder how much you would need if you wanted to compete in all of those. I know the North pole one is pretty pricey, imagine the ice marathon isnt cheap......MdS isnt cheap, neither is the Everest marathon (although you do get a long trekking holiday too!)

Posted: 29/08/2008 at 08:54

What about some lesser known ones such as The Dew Pond Run on Ascension Island  - have done it 3 times but then again I lived there for 2 years...........

Posted: 29/08/2008 at 09:25

Hi There are some really good lesser know ones. Check Bayshore Marathon, Michigan USA done it last year. Wonderful scenery and stopped in Traverse City great place and very friendly. Google Bayshore Marathon.
Posted: 29/08/2008 at 14:51

Wow that is a list of great races! May I be so frank and ad one witch would certainly be among the top races: www.ms2s.org a 100 Km ultra or 42 marathon in Mongolia at the lake Toilogt.
Posted: 30/08/2008 at 03:32

4 done so far.

Bit surprised that Runners World could not be more imaginative than to include Marathon des Sables when there are much better ones out there such as Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, Atacama and loads loads more.

Totally agree with Comrades and Two Oceans  awesome events and Boston has a special place being the oldest city marathon.

My list just keeps getting longer so I will need to live and run well into my hundreds.

Posted: 01/09/2008 at 11:41

Have to say I did the City to Surf in Sydney this summer - great 'race' and not quite 9 miles. Very fun for a plodder like me as it's quite the event, loads of people walk it (and only intend to walk it) kids, strollers, everything. For once I wasn't in the last couple of hundred runners, there were thousands behind me. And yes, have done one marathon and don't think I'll be doing another, knees don't like it much. So a shame about the lack of shorter races.
Posted: 22/09/2008 at 19:53

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