Photo: The Eiger Ultra Trail
And so, in no particular order, here are the 50 best races in the world!
1. The Big Five Marathon
A 26.2-mile safari through spectacular savannah in one of Africa’s ‘big five’ game reserves offers the chance to spot elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions and leopards as you pound the undulating dirt underfoot. Prepare for a fence-free, complete immersion into one of nature’s more incredible environments.
2. Paris Marathon
A suitably grand affair with over 35,000 runners starting on the Champs-Elysees, then following a course beside the Seine and past some of the city’s finest eye-candy, including the Place de la Bastille, the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. Plus there’s the impossibly Gallic touch of locals serving wine and cheese to runners in the final miles.
3. The Dipsea Race
America’s oldest trail race is a mere 7.4 miles long but so steeped in its own unique mythology it has to be on every runner’s bucket list. The scenery is California’s finest greenery, and a course that's stepped and single-file narrow in places plus age and gender handicapping mean anyone has a shot of winning.
4. Niagara Falls Marathon
A course that spans two countries, starting in the US city of Buffalo and finishing at the edge of the Falls in Canada, takes you through the beautiful Niagara Park and twice past the star attraction. Pretty hard to top for ‘wow factor’, though we can’t begin to imagine how much you’ll need the toilet throughout.
5. Star Wars Half Marathon
A short time from now in a country not too far away…you can dress up and run surrounded by Darth, Chewie and the rest of the cast from the galaxy’s best-loved space saga. The 13.1-miler through the Disneyland Resort is huge fun and the medals are, well, out of this world. Two-man Jabba costume anyone?
6. Vienna City Marathon
A hidden gem among city marathons, the superb course starts among the skyscrapers of the UN complex, crosses the 864m Reichsbrücke bridge over the flowing blue of the Danube, then heads through the greenery of Prater Park, past the Opera House and on up Vienna's River Valley to Schönbrunn Castle before returning via some of the city’s stellar architecture, including the Town Hall, Burg Theatre and University.
7. We Ran It: French Riviera Marathon
‘Not hard to see what attracted me to this one, and France’s second largest 26.2 certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful coast-hugging course starting on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and winding its way along the curves of the Cote d’Azur to finish at the Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes. This isn’t a London or a New York – support is sporadic and there are long sections where the soundtrack is just wind, waves and runner’s footfalls, but I found that this combined with the sea views, the marinas and a trot through the timeless beauty of Antibes made for an aesthetically rich and soulful ‘big race’ experience.
Organisation is impressively slick and clock-watchers may note that the course is uncrowded and pancake, sea-level flat, bar a modest climb at the Cap d’Antibes and a quad-searing bump cruelly close to the finish. I was even able to snag a Champagne-justifying PB.’- Joe Mackie, Deputy Editor
8. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
The daddy of Alpine trail races traverses three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy) in 168km around Europe’s highest peak. You’ll need to amass qualifying points just to get on the start line and commit over 30 brutal hours to get to the finish, but your reward is one of running’s greatest experiences.
9. Sea Wheeze Half Marathon
The organisers describe this as a ‘yoga.run.party distilled though the wild imaginations of curiosity-drunk rebel scientists.’ Translation: in addition to a stunning course – 11km next to the Pacific and the rest showcasing beautiful, vibrant Vancouver – you get party vibes, yoga on the beach, a slap-up post-race brunch and a Sunset Festival in the evening.
10. Moscow Marathon
A flat, fast course on closed and in places exceptionally wide roads with a modest 7,000 field ticks PB-chasers boxes, while sightseers can tick off must-sees including the White House, Bolshoi Theatre, former KGB building, Polytechnic Museum, the Kremlin and the Cathedrals of St. Basil's Cathedral and Christ the Saviour.
11. Inca Trail Marathon
True once-in-a-lifetime stuff – a measured, marshalled and supported 26.2 starting at the Llactapata ruins and following breathtaking (in both senses) Andean trails through classic Inca sites all the way to the world’s greatest photo-op finish at Macchu Picchu.
12. Jungfrau Marathon
Starting at just over 500m and finishing at 2100m, the gradient profile of this classic mountain marathon can only be described as ‘punchy’. Still, your inevitable ‘personal worst’ means more time to savour the raw beauty of the Swiss Alps as you make your way from Interlaken up through Wengen and the Kleine Scheidegg mountain pass. And the last kilometre is downhill.
13-17 The Majors
There are five more ‘Marathon Majors’ besides London, and no global bucket list is complete without them.
New York City Marathon
Starting on Staten Island under NYPD helicopters and finishing in Central Park, this takes you through all five boroughs and the greatest crowd support on earth - nyrr.org
Steeped in history, with simply qualifying a badge of honour, a course that blends rural new England with a city centre finish, and a unique atmosphere defiantly enhanced by recent tragedy. - baa.org
The scene of 10 world records, but it’s much more than fast and flat, taking you through Berlin's sights and energetic crowds, starting and finishing near the Brandenburg Gate - bmw-berlin-marathon.com
The most recently added and unquestionably most exotic major immerses you in the intoxicating ‘otherness’ of Tokyo’s sights and sounds, including the serenely polite applause of the crowds - marathon.tokyo
A great course taking in 29 city neighborhoods, all competing to deliver the best atmosphere, as only our American friends can. It attracts runners from more than 100 countries - chicagomarathon.com
18. Galapagos Marathon
Along with all the natural wonders on display – it’s the only race in the world where you’ll see giant tortoises and sea lions along the way – there’s a lovely human connection at this small, intimate event on San Cristobal Island. All international runners sponsor a local by paying their entrance fee.
19. Mount Everest Marathon
The world’s highest 26.2 starts at 5,184m, close to Everest Base Camp, but you do get a net downhill by the finish in Namche Bazaar. The surroundings are as truly epic as you’d expect in the Himalayas and following the tragic events in Nepal this year, you’ll be supporting the recovery of the local economy/community through the money you spend and raise through the Everest Marathon Fund.
20. We Ran It: Marathon du Médoc
‘If Withnail had been a runner rather than a failed actor, this would undoubtedly have been his favourite race. I had 26 opportunities to drink the ‘finest wines available to humanity’ in a race that traces a stunningly beautiful circuit of over 50 Bordeaux chateaux, with each aid station serving up the region’s famous plonk as well as the rather more prosaic water. The big dilemma was whether to go for an even split (have the same amount of wine throughout) or negative split (neck more in the second half). The organisers encourage you to be as slow as possible to literally drink in the experience, so forget about time, savour some steak, cheese or oysters at the gourmet food stations, enjoy the moment and worry about the gout tomorrow. Oh, and did I mention you also have to do it in fancy dress?’ - Andy Dixon, Editor
21. Two Oceans Race
What is rightly renowned as one of the world’s most picturesque courses takes you via Chapman's Peak, Hout Bay and Constantia Nek to showcase Cape Town’s beautiful scenery and deliver grandstand views of the two Oceans in question – the Indian and Atlantic. The distance (52km), terrain and gradient profile make this a serious challenge and the atmosphere generated by the 11,000 runners and enthusiastic crowds is really special.
22. North Pole Marathon
As adventure marathon experiences go it’s pretty hard to top being helicoptered in to the Geographic North Pole, where you’ll run your 26.2 on an ice sheet, with only 6-12 feet of frozen water between you and the immense depths of the Arctic Ocean below.
23. Volcano Marathon
Run 26.2 miles in the Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth
24. Western States 100
This 100-miler starts in Squaw Valley and takes you through the high trails, mountain passes, canyons and river crossings of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Make it to the finish in Auburn in under 30 hours and you get a bronze belt buckle; under 24 and it’s silver.
25. Eiger Ultra Trail
Staged in the shadow of the mighty Eiger, this is a beauty of a beast with 6,700m of ascent over 101km and a gradient profile that looks like the read-out from a Sepp Blatter polygraph. The weekend festival of trail running also offers a 51km/3100m Panorama Trail and a 16km/960m Pleasure Trail, plus mini races for kids.
26. Kilimanjaro Marathon
Now in it’s 13th year, this race is a slick and very well supported affair. With mighty Kilimanjaro in the background the route takes you on good roads from the town of Moshi, Tanzania, through small farms and villages, and past banana and coffee plantations. There is also a half marathon and a 5K fun run.
27. Antarctic Ice Marathon
Indulge your inner Shackleton with a personal conquest of the planet’s last great wilderness. You’ll be running at 80 degrees south, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the towering Ellsworth mountains, in average temperatures of -20C with the chill of the Katabatic winds. Don’t expect much in the way of crowd support though – not even penguins venture this far south.
28. Borneo International Marathon
A destination that ranks right up there on the exotic adventure scale and a route that’s suitably breathtaking, winding along the coastline of the South China Sea. The payback for an admittedly brutal 3am start is that you’ll be rewarded with the sight of the sun rising behind the majestic Mount Kinabalu.
29. Melbourne Half Marathon
A gem Down Under with 12,000 runners starting on the memorably monikered Batman Avenue (sadly not named after the Caped Crusader but a 19th-century Australian entrepreneur), looping around the city’s lake, passing the William Barack Bridge twice and doing a circuit of the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) to finish.
30. The Red Bull 400
You may be pleasantly surprised to hear that while the ‘400’ in the name does refer to distance – it’s metres, not miles. But the event, to be held in Canada this year, has a serious sting in the tail: it’s a sprint up a grass-laid ski-jump slope and the higher you go, the steeper it gets. Enormous fun and if you can reach the top without resorting to all fours you’ve got world-class quads.
31. Outback Marathon
Staged on the bush tracks, fire trails, sand dunes and soft red earth of the continent’s otherworldly red centre. You’ll get a runner’s eye view of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and also grab more than one eyeful of the equally impressive domed rock formations of Kata Tjuta.
32. Maratón de Quito
At 2,800m above sea level, Quito, the capital of Equador, is the highest capital city in the world. It’s a hilly, bumpy affair as befits a city built close to a volcano (Pichincha), but the route gives you a superb tour of the beautiful, well-preserved historic centre.
33. Bahamas Marathon
As you might imagine, a marathon here Bahamas is a pretty laidback experience. Starting at 6am, you’ll get some decent mileage under your waistband before the sun gets too oppressive, and as you make your way along the fast, flat course you’ll enjoy miles of ocean views, swaying palm trees and gleaming white sands.
34. Maui Oceanfront Marathon
Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian islands, but this is a low-key marathon (among the advice to runners is to ‘Hang loose, you’re in Maui’) limited to just 600 runners, which generates an intimate feel. Nonetheless, with its beautiful setting, this is a very special event – and you may even spot a whale.
35. Creemore Vertical Challenge
A beautifully brutal trail run in Ontario, Canada. Whether you choose the 25K, 50K of new 75K option it’s hot, hilly and painful (the cutoff for the 25K is eight hours!) but enormous fun. As you near the end you can either cross a suspension bridge or tackle the Mad River. The clue is in the name.
36. Satara Hill Half Marathon
This utterly captivating half marathon will take you from the centre of the Indian city of Satara towards the Kaas Plateau – a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its profusion of wild flowers. The challenging route will also take you past waterfalls and through low cloud. Beautiful, but tough.
37. Waiheke Half Marathon
Waiheke, a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, New Zealand, is known as the ‘fittest island in the world’, and the islanders certainly put on a cracker of a trail event. Distances range from a 5k to the half marathon, all run on a mix of dirt trails and road, taking in the amazing scenery of the island.
38. Oman Desert Marathon
165 kilometers in 6 self-sufficient stages from the Oasis of Bidiyah to the finish on the shore of the Arabian Sea, discover the most remote and untouched sands and the highest dunes of the Oman Desert on the tracks of the ancient trade caravans.
39. Bagan Temple Marathon
A voyage of discovery through central Myanmar, home to the 2,000 Buddhist temples which remain from the temple-building boom of the 11th-13th centuries, when over 10,000 were erected. Running through this slice of history is like entering another world – made all the more pleasurable by the locals coming out in force to support as you pass through rural villages.
40. Cruce de los Andes
Crossing 100km of the Andes over three days, in teams of two or solo, is a serious challenge; runners have to deal not only with the altitude but very unpredictable weather. However, the constantly changing, but always epic vistas of mountains, volcanoes, forests, lakes and valleys will certainly help on the route from Chile to Argentina.
41. Sao Paulo Marathon
Sau Paulo is a bustling, energetic metropolis which becomes even more so at marathon time when 12,000 runners from around the globe converge to lap up the adoration of the large crowds of ‘Paulistas’ while they take in city sights such as the the 72m Obelisk monument and the mighty Chegada river.
42. Seychelles Eco Friendly Marathon
There are a few reasons to the Indian Ocean paradise of palm-tree covered islands, white-sand beaches, spectacular weather and this marathon. The route takes you along the east coast of Seychelles’ principal island Mahé, between forested hillsides and the sapphire ocean. Sound OK?
43. Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset
Whether you choose the 42km or 100km option, your time limit is the same: complete your course round the stunning Hovsgol National Park in the 18 hours between – you guessed it – sunrise and sunset. You may see see moose, bears, yaks, ibex and camels.
44. Catalina Island 10K
Hop over to the beautiful island of Santa Catalina, just off the coast of Los Angeles, and you can take in this fabulous 10K jaunt round the streets of Avalon and cool off by the ornate fountain at the finish.
45. Phuket Island Marathon
The strapline for this multi-distance event is: ‘Run Paradise’, and the marathon, half, and 10.5K options all offer up some truly heavenly sights, including rubber and pineapple plantations, waterfalls, stretches of white sand coastline and, in the case of the marathon, Sirinat National Park.
46. We Ran It: Hood To Coast Relay
‘If you only ever do one long-distance relay race, please make it this one. It is simply – and I choose this word carefully – epic: a 197-mile, 12-person journey from the top of Mound Hood in Oregon to the small town of Seaside on the coast. There’s a 36-hour limit and each team member runs three legs of varying length and difficulty, totaling around 17 miles per person. The wonder of the scenery en route is almost incidental to the main business of a) making sure your team vans which travel between checkpoints are suitably outrageously decorated, and, b) ensuring you do your fair share of clocking ‘roadkill’ – overtaking runners along the way and marking the numbers prison-style on the side of the van as you go. The finish on the beach will see tears, smelly team hugs, craft beer and giant hotdogs, to crown what I promise will be one of the highlights of your running career.’ - Kerry McCarthy, Commissioning Editor
47. Italy Coast to Coast
This stonker of a team race is a four-day, 343km event that takes teams of up to four runners from the Adriatic on Italy’s east coast to the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the west, passing through Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Tuscany. It’s essentially a self-powered voyage through the heart of rural Italy so, yes, that means some of the world’s very finest refuelling along the way.
48. Napa Valley to Sonoma Half Marathon
Do we really need to sell this? The 7am start means it’s probably a little early for a pre-race tipple but the route, which starts at the Cuvaison Carneros Winery and takes you on a rolling odyssey through hundreds of acres of vineyards and past the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Preserve and Mt Tamalpais, will make sure you’re ready to sample the goods at the wine festival awaiting you at the finish.
49. Barcelona Marathon
A showcase of one of Europe's most beautiful and culturally rich cities, with the March date meaning the weather will be clement but not oppressive, so you can get on with enjoying sights such as Montjuic Park’s Magic Fountain, Barcelona FC’s Camp Nou and Gaudi's staggering Sagrada Familia.
In terms of numbers, it’s the biggest race on the planet, attracting more than 80,000 runners in recent years. If that’s not reason enough to stick it on your to-run list, the course is a belter, starting in Sydney’s Hyde Park and winding through city neighbourhoods like Kings Cross to the waterfronts of Double Bay and Rose Bay, then to the Pacific coast and a finish at the iconic surf of Bondi Beach. Plus the unusual 14km distance means you’re pretty much guaranteed a PB.