As more than 45,000 crazy individuals (this writer included) pounded the streets of London last weekend for the city’s annual marathon, we thought it would be the ideal time to look at 10 of the best 26.2 mile races from around the world. So if the thought of running over 40,000 metres in one go doesn’t make you want to head straight for the nearest sofa, then read on and be inspired…
Popular – London Marathon
Where better to start than with arguably the world’s most famous race. Despite being a relative new addition amongst the big city marathons (this year marked its 30th birthday), it remains hugely popular with just one in five people making it through the entry ballot scheme. The high points are many, including an amazing crowd which seems the very antithesis of London on the other 364 days a year, a wonderful finish along the Thames and a race where people dressed as pantomime horses will get as much encouragement as Paula Radcliffe. You don’t get that at the Olympics.
Oldest – Athens Marathon
Let us go back in time to 490BC when messenger Phidippides gave inspiration to the modern marathon by running from the town of Marathon to Athens to report news of a victory. He promptly fell down dead. The sports marketing board, which 2,500 years later thought ‘now there’s an idea’, were all promptly fired and forced to run the course themselves. It is also the same course as the 2004 Olympics that saw the aforementioned Ms Radcliffe break down with three miles to go. If you can make it further and you can unofficially claim you are faster than Britain’s greatest marathon runner!
Most alcoholic – Medoc Marathon
Foie gras and the finest wines available to humanity? Not a diet you would typically associate with marathon running. So for anyone who has ever been demoralised passing a restaurant or pub on their training runs, jealous of the lucky people gorging inside, well why not do both. The event takes in some beautiful Bordeaux countryside, ancient vineyards and sumptuous chateaux – and drink stations are more like wine tasting events. To add an extra little bit of ooh la la, fancy dress is a must. Would anyone believe you if you ran in to a pub in a clown outfit, ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and then claimed ‘I’m training for a marathon!’.
Most calf-wrecking – Great Wall Marathon
Spectacular but spectacularly hard would be a double understatement for this epic effort on China’s most famous landmark. By the end of the run you may have calves made of concrete. With regular shifts in elevation, no shade and more than 3,700 steps, it’s the equivalent of running up the BT Tower five times. As the only landmark visible from space, occupants of the International Space Station must wonder what’s going on come marathon day.
Toughest – Pike Peaks Marathon
Colorado features some of the most picturesque but brutal conditions on earth with high elevation peaks, unforgiving terrain and Biblical lightning above the tree line. Once you’ve climbed nearly 8,000 feet (the equivalent of running a quarter of the way up Everest), if you do not reach the cut off in time, the forfeit is being disqualified and sent back down the mountain. If some insane reason, this does still not seem tough enough, you can always stay in the state to try the Leadville 100 mile race, that is so tough you can have someone to run with you for the, ahem, last 50 miles!
Coldest – Antarctica Marathon
With six hours representing an excellent finishing time, this is a race where don’t have to be fast, but being well-insulated and loaded would help. It costs around $15,000 to enter and all for the privilege of encountering sub-zero temperatures, snow, ice , blizzards and white outs. Your car would give up much earlier and training through a cold British winter hardly compares. The one positive is that there is absolutely no problem in grabbing an ice bath to cool the muscles down afterwards.
Longest-running – Boston Marathon
From the coldest to the oldest. Boston has been hosting races continuously (unlike Athens) since 1897 and still ranks as one of the most prestigious road races in the world. As well as its traditions and longevity, it is also one of the only city marathons that requires a qualifying standard to enter. If you get in, you can be officially classed as elite. The race also includes passing a freight train route which in 1907 Tom Longboat used to run interference – barely beating the train to the crossing, then watching the train cut across the path of his trailing rivals. That’s one way to win!
Most chilled – Big Sur Marathon
This is marathon running, California style. If you have to run, why not do it on one of the most chilled out places on earth? With the ocean for company, majestic bridge crossings, cliffside views and huge redwood trees to provide some much needed shade, it may be easy to get lost in your own world. The race is known for its hugely encouraging volunteers and refreshment stations that are more like cafes. Just don’t look at all the people lounging on the beach.
Most exotic – Inca Trail Marathon
The Indiana Jones of races – although running in full adventure gear and carrying a bullwhip is probably not recommended. At 27.5 miles it already goes above and beyond the distance for a standard marathon (and believe me those extra 2,000 yards really hurt!) On top of that there are steps the size of children, passes at 14,000 feet and the last five miles of traversing through jungle. It sounds like some crazy Top Gear challenge. Whether your body and brain will be in any shape to enjoy the fabulous views at the finish is up for debate.
Be thankful most marathons only last four or five hours. For this Herculean Himalayan feat, it takes two weeks of hiking, camping and acclimatisation just to get to the start line. The one positive may be that instead of having to scale the highest mountain on the planet, the race instead involves a 6,000 ft descent. However with limited air, incredibly rough terrain and sheer drops, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – ie. never do it again!