For many years, one of my major "running" dreams have been to run the New York Marathon - the bridges, the people and the grand background. But I recently found out that the "qualifying time standards" for the run has been changed, so there are really no chance for me going there...

The question is then, which Marathons I should aim at if not New York? What are the great Marathons out there that one must do if possible? Like the almost impossible ones such as Marathon des Sables or the Antarctic Ice Marathon? Or the big city venues in London, Chicago, Berlin, or whereever? Or the beautiful ones like Jungfrau and The Great Wall?

I'm looking for recommendations for Marathons from people that have first hand experience with these.

I'm looking for scenery and routes that doesn't include too many hills (Being from Denmark - flat, flat, flat - I'm just very bad with hills :-)). I prefer the venues to be well-organized with a stable history... And nothing that requires qualifying times less than 3:30...

Until now I have just run many local runs - mainly half-Marathons - and there are many as this list shows - but now I would like to "try" something else.

I can find many lists with Marathons on the web... Too many really... It makes it so very difficult to choose.

  • 1
    Running the New York marathon is possible even if you can't meet the qualifying times--those are only for guaranteed entry. Registrants who don't meet the qualifying times are put into a lottery where a certain number are drawn until the cap is met. There are also some charities you can hook up with that will give you a guaranteed entry in exchange for fundraising a certain amount for them.
    – Andrew
    Feb 16, 2012 at 22:27
  • @Andrew The thing is that the rules are a little different for those coming from abroad - in my case Denmark... I'll have to check the lottery though. Thanks. Feb 16, 2012 at 22:30
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    Just a note, the Marathon des Sables is most definitely NOT a marathon in the traditional sense of the term (26.2 miles). It's a largely self supported, 6 day, 151 mile running race across the Moroccan desert. Feb 17, 2012 at 4:17
  • @MikeHedman I know. But that would be the ultimate challenge... Feb 17, 2012 at 6:17
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    @Shog9 Not sure I like your re-title... I really want to get alternative suggestions for alternative races. Knowing how to get into the major marathons - possibly without qualifying - that could be another interesting question. Feb 25, 2012 at 13:55

7 Answers 7


Having done 37 marathons I can say some are definitely nicer than others. Rating them is an impossible task. I do recommend NYC at least once. I have guided disabled athletes 4 times now at NYC (run it 5 times myself) and doing it as a guide is a very different perspective and an amazing experience. (Thus I can say I have run across the Verezanno Narrows bridge with 40,000 other people, and as a group of 50 people on the early start for disabled athletes. Both ways are awesome!)

For example Salt Lake City is in July, starts on a mountain top at 5:30AM (start was 55F, finish was 110F) and has tons of downhill, however most of it is outside the city in the mountains and was beautiful.

Chicago is still easy to get into, and is a great big city marathon. There is something unique about 40,000 people starting with you. (I have done NYC 9 times, and Chicago once).

Cincinnati is a smaller race, but has great crowd support and a very bizarre pig theme that is probably taken a smidgen too far.

Often the race directors try to get the course through interesting areas. In St Louis they run through the Budweiser factory which is sort of clever.

On the other hand, Mississauga marathon, a city outside Toronto is pretty boring, and I have done it twice, but would probably not do it again. Not much in terms of sights. As is London, Ontario (Forest City marathon, also done it twice, so I clearly ignore my own advice).

Atlanta was nice but nothing special.

I have a friend who did all seven continents and she greatly enjoyed all of them. If you can get to the point where a marathon is 'fun', then you are most of the way there.

There are so many races all over the world, pretty much every weekend, that you can travel where ever you like to do a race.

  • I'm afraid, I will not be able so travel all over the world constantly... With the family around, I neither have the time or money for that :-) So, Ill have to prioritize a bit... Though I would love to travel to a lot more races than that. Feb 16, 2012 at 22:28
  • @TonnyMadsen I fully understand that. The nice thing is there ought to be several within an hour or threes drive, if you live in the US. Just because there seems to be such a huge proliferation of races everywhere.
    – geoffc
    Feb 16, 2012 at 22:46

I live in Norway and have completed 3 full marathons over the last 3 years: Oslo, Copenhagen and Berlin.

Oslo was nothing special, except being close to my home and very little travel time. There lots of running in quiet streets with little entertainment along the way (I hear it's a bit better now, though). It's not that flat either.

I had a good experience in Copenhagen. Much flatter than in Oslo. But I definitely felt the cobblestone along the river way up in my calves :/ (couple of kilometers of cobblestone) Lots of people everywhere, nice route, and lots of entertaining along the route.

Berlin was much like Copenhagen, only bigger. More people, more entertainment. And Berlin is the race to compete if you want to set a record (and I did). Good, flat route.

All in all, from personal experience I would recommend Berlin the most. And Copenhagen. Not Oslo.

Personally I would love to compete in two specific races, New York and Great Wall.


If I was to pick one specific marathon that a runner should aim to run at least once, I'd definitely pick the Athens Classic Marathon.

  • It's an A to B route that is lined by people from different villages along the route cheering you on
  • At least in 2010 when I ran it, it was very well organised
  • Finishing at the Panathinaiko Stadium is amazing
  • It's the original route marathon was first run on over 2500 years ago (or more accurately, where the battlefield messenger ran from Marathon to Athens in the end Battle of Marathon.)
  • There is something about its history that really spurs you on

As I live in Israel, and only ran 21.1 so far, we got 3 major marathons here: The best (which does not fullfill your flat/flat/flat course) is The Jerusalem Marathon. It is not flat at all, but the scenery, running around the old city of Jerusalem, the Sacred Wall, through the old city - it's a race you will not forget.

The other marathon I can offer you, which is one of the more flat ones you will ever have, it the Tel Aviv Marathon (event on March 3rd 2012) - The course plan is not yet fully approved by the police, but if like last year, it's entire height diff is +-40 meters in height. Again, you are running along the sea shore/board walk of Tel Aviv, and into the old city as well (not as beautiful as Jerusalem).

HF, enjoy.


As most probably you're doing this for fun, then choose the marathons that you like.

First you should settle on a type of marathon, because you enumerated quite a few. And on the distance as well.

Marathon des Sables is a more than 240km race, more or less self-sustained, so you should be in a quite good shape to finish it. Antarctic Ice Marathon has a 21, 42 and 100km version.

So you have depending on the distance half, marathon, ultra and multi-day ultramarathons. Then, depending on the terrain, you can run on road, mountain, sand/desert and ice.

If you want to run on desert you should start with the Sahara marathon in Alger which is a classical one compared to Marathon des Sables. If you want to run on ice, Antarctic or North Pole Marathons are quite expensive (over 10k EUR), but you also have the Polar Circle, Siberian Ice (actually a half one) or Baikal (you're running on the frozen lake) marathons.

If you want on the road, as you're from Denmark, there are plenty of options in Europe, almost every major city having one. So just a pick a city you want to visit and search for its marathon. Berlin one has a very flat profile so it's very good for setting good times :) (world record is registered there).

If you want on the mountains, Spain and Italy have very good choices. Also Romania, where I live, has very good choices in this area with beautiful and wild scenery. All half, marathon and ultra version. Biathlon and triathlon too.

You also have interesting marathons, like the ones in UK running against horses or a train.

Later update

Now I see that you edited your question and said that you want marathons with a history behind, as flat as possible and great scenery. Usually the flat ones will have more of an urban landscapes. For wild scenery, definitely you must go for the mountains. For the seaside you could try Limassol marathon in Cyprus. And it has just only one small hill.

When it comes to history there's nothing better than the classic marathon with a history of over 2500 years. If you want go into ultramarathons, then you should try the original challenge, Spartathlon or Phillipide's challenge.

I must reiterate that you should consider combining a city break with a marathon, it's double the fun.

If you also want an added thrill you could try North Korea, Ghaza or running in Africa with the lions and rhinos in Big Five. Or you could try at night or underwater. Or if you love the heat, you could also try the option of Dead Sea marathon.


Of the three major marathons I have run (Edinburgh, Paris and London) I would recommend the London Marathon as having the best atmosphere, and for being the classic marathon for amateur runners. There are tens of thousands of entry places for charities and the entire day is very supportive to those runners who aren't at a professional place.

The Paris Marathon provides amazing scenery (42.195km in the most beautiful city in the world, as their site claims), and has one of my favourite sections - the Bois de Boulogne, where stalls are set up not with fruit or water, but with wines, cakes and cheeses - not conducive to a fast pace, but very pleasant for those last few miles before the finish.

The Edinburgh Marathon is the second largest marathon in the UK, but is a very fast marathon (voted the fastest marathon in the UK in 2008), with a few hills, but nothing steep (they used to include a steep run up Arthur's Seat, but the pros complained about the pace...) - there is an amazing run all along the coast, which can cool you down on a hot day.


The following two Midwestern races are flat and scenic: Bayshore marathon in Traverse City, MI, in May, and a marathon in St. Charles, IL, in September. I ran them both and really liked.

You have not mentioned if you tolerate heat and/or cold. What's your preference?

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