The Major Marathon Cheat Sheet

Sarah Sung
by Sarah Sung
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The Major Marathon Cheat Sheet

Racing a marathon is a daunting task. Training for one is arguably even more challenging. That’s why most runners won’t even do a marathon in their lifetime. But for many of us, we’re curious. We might consider running one

So in the spirit of cherry-picking just the right marathon for you, we’ve decided to rank marathons by running preference. We consulted with running coach and author Matt Fitzgerald, who has run more than 25 marathons to date. His advice: “Think about your priorities, get a clear sense of what you’re looking for in a marathon and do your research.”


When: April (Patriots Day)
Why do it: Started in 1887, Boston is one of the oldest races on record. Since the majority of runners must qualify, the caliber of competitors on the course is top-notch. Last but not least, despite Heartbreak Hill after mile 20, there’s actually a net downhill — the race starts at 490 feet above sea level and ends at 10 feet above sea level.


When: April 
Why do it: Two words: Bixby Bridge. Stunning views from Carmel to Big Sur and redwoods galore. Warning: There is a 2-mile, 560-foot hill. As Fitzgerald notes, “Big Sur is a famously hilly run, but incredibly scenic.”


When: March (sold out)
Why do it: It sells out fast due to the limited race spots and the trend that once runners catch the marathon bug, they want to run a race on every continent. Basically the course is on a big sheet of ice that starts in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.


When: June
Why do it: It’s a marathon in the Mojave Desert that’s held in the peak of summer. “I doubt there’s a hotter marathon. It was cancelled last year when the temperature hit 117°F,” Fitzgerald recalls.


When: August 
Why do it: The start is at a mile-high altitude, and the course keeps going up more than 7,815 feet to the top of Pikes Peak (14,115 feet). Per Fitzgerald, “The Pikes Peak Marathon has the toughest hills of any marathon I know of, but there’s no net elevation gain because participants ascend to the halfway point and then descend to the finish line.”


When: September 
Why do it: Another one of the six races in the World Marathon Majors, Berlin holds the honor of having the most marathon world records, as recently as 2014. The relatively flat and even-surfaced course is also used for an inline skating marathon the day before.


When: October 
Why do it: According to Fitzgerald, “The best marathons for a PR have relatively flat courses, good roads and reliably favorable weather.” He adds that robust spectator support also helps. With almost 2 million cheering bystanders and a flat course picking up only 25 feet in elevation, it’s hard to beat Chicago.


When: October 
Why do it: The largest marathon that doesn’t offer prize money, the MCM is good for beginners, who make up one-third of the racers. Managed by the Marines, the slogan is “The People’s Marathon.”


When: November 
Why do it: With 55 finishers at the inaugural marathon in 1970, the New York Marathon is now the largest race in the world. It’s also notorious for a high finish rate, with more than 50,000 finishers in 2015. Roughly 2 million enthusiastic spectators and a course that meanders through the five boroughs probably help keep runners motivated.


When: November 
Why do it: The starting time is 4:30 p.m., and it’s the only private event that closes off the Strip. Runners have the Strip all to themselves, and the entertainment continues even when the course moves off Las Vegas Boulevard.


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About the Author

Sarah Sung
Sarah Sung

An avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, yogi and all-around gym rat, Sarah Sung has written lifestyle, health and fitness content for publications including AFAR, San Francisco Chronicle, Sonima and UrbanDaddy. Now she manages editorial for MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness. In her spare time she teaches indoor cycling in San Francisco and has raced in triathlons in California and Hawaii. Traveling and checking out the latest dining scene are always high on her to-do list.


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