The best road marathons around the world

Tackle 26.2 across classic routes to distant, hidden races around the globe
The world's best road marathons

Completing any marathon is a fantastic achievement that you’ll rightly look back on with no small amount of pride. However, there are undoubtedly some marathons that are more memorable than others.

Sometimes this is simply because you smashed your PB or had an absolute blast with a group of friends. Other times, however, it’s because a marathon is just, well, better than others.

This could be for any number of reasons, and it will be largely down to personal preference. Perhaps it boasts the best atmosphere, or has one of the flattest, fastest courses in the world. Maybe it’s just absolutely massive, with tens of thousands of runners joining you as you pound your way through 42.2km. Or it could be a particularly scenic or historic event.

The point is that some marathons have an X factor, and while we’re not in the business of doing any marathon down, we are very much in the business of building some up. Below you’ll find a detailed rundown of the nine finest road marathons in the world, which goes into glorious depth about what makes each and every one of them special.

Best all-round marathons

London Marathon

Next event: 26 April 2020

The brilliance of the London Marathon is highlighted by just how ludicrously hard it is to get a spot in the race through the public ballot. Every year the number of entrants goes up, with a record 457,861 people having applied for a spot in the 2020 race, of which you can expect around 17,500 to actually end up on the start line via the ballot.

If you are one of the 40,000-plus runners lucky enough to get a place in the event, either through the ballot, a charity or a speedy qualifying time, you get to run what we reckon is the best all-round marathon in the world. The streets are thronged with spectators all the way around the course, with the crowd being three or four deep at popular spots like the Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge.

The course is also fast enough for PB hunters, and that means you get the very best runners in the world lining up on the start line, with world record holder Eliud Kipchoge having won the London Marathon in four of the past five years.

Most of the landmarks on the course are crammed into the final couple of kilometres when you hit the very centre of London – so it can’t be described as an especially scenic course – but you’ll be so overwhelmed by the barrage of noise coming from the spectators that won’t bother you.

London has one other factor going for it – it’s very cheap to enter. If you get in through the ballot it will only cost you £39, though charity runners are asked to raise a lot of cash to earn their spot.

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New York City Marathon

Next event: 3 November 2019

The biggest marathon in the world, with over 50,000 runners taking to the streets of New York’s five boroughs every year to power through 42.2km. Those runners are watched by millions of spectators, creating a sensational atmosphere that can’t be matched at any other marathon.

Runners face an early alarm to get out to Staten Island, but that will quickly be forgotten once you get going, crossing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn as part of the massive crowd of participants. From there you run north through Brooklyn and Queens before entering Manhattan, where much of the second half of the race takes place on just two roads – First Avenue up to The Bronx and Fifth Avenue back down to the finish in Central Park.

It’s not a particularly speedy course, and if you’re struggling then the long straight sections in Manhattan can feel almost endless, but there is always a huge amount of people cheering you on, and plenty of other runners to gee you up as well.

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Best marathons for a PB

Berlin Marathon

Next event: 29 September 2019

The best road marathons in the world

The official world record for the marathon has been broken seven times in the past 16 years, and on every single occasion the new leading time has been run at the Berlin Marathon. Unless your name is Eliud Kipchoge, it’s unlikely you’ll be going to Berlin to try and claim the world record, but it’s definitely the best pick for any runner trying to record their own personal best over 42.2km.

It’s not all about fast times either. Like the London and New York City marathons, Berlin is an epic event and one of the six World Marathon Majors, and it has a similarly massive field of runners with over 40,000 crossing the finish line at the 2018 race.

The long straights and wide roads of the course mean that even with so many participants you’ll always have room to run. That’s especially important at the start of the event where so many races get incredibly crowded. The Berlin Marathon starts on Straße des 17. Juni, a long, wide and straight road that runs through Tiergarten, and with no turns in the first two kilometres of the race runners have the perfect chance to settle into their pace and avoid coming a cropper in the crowds.

You finish on the same road just after the Brandenburg Gate – note the “just after” part of that, there’s a little bit to go so don’t sprint to the famous landmark thinking you’re done. After that it’s time to party, and you’re in the perfect city to celebrate a new PB.

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Valencia Marathon

Next event: 1 December 2019

With a flat course and a large field full of runners of all paces, the Valencia Marathon is another strong option for anyone trying to record a new PB. Unlike Berlin, London and New York, you also avoid the lottery of ballot entry with Valencia – just sign up on the website for a guaranteed spot.

There are two main factors which make Valencia a particularly good option for PB-seekers. The first and most important one is the course. There are no hills and the route is almost entirely made up of wide, straight roads so there’s no risk of having to slow down for a bottleneck, especially as only 20,000 runners take part in the event.

The second factor is the weather. While spring and autumn races like London and Berlin have thrown runners plenty of curveballs when it comes to the weather in recent years, early December in Valencia is almost always perfect for running, with temperatures in the low teens and little chance of rain.

That early December race date also means you can train for the event through autumn if you’re a northern hemisphere runner, which is the perfect season for a long training schedule. And once you have nailed your PB in Valencia, you can enjoy the Christmas period without having to think about any training requirements at all.

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Most scenic marathons

Loch Ness Marathon (Scotland)

Next event: 6 October 2019

There are many marathons with great atmospheres, and plenty that offer the chance to run a PB, but there’s only one that provides the chance to spot the Loch Ness Monster while running. Admittedly it’s not a very high chance, but fortunately even if Nessie doesn’t make an appearance there’s a lot of other things to look at while running the marathon.

The point-to-point course follows the south side of the Loch through magnificent Highland scenery and finishes in Inverness, where a crowd will be waiting to cheer you through the final few kilometres. It’s also a fairly small event with around 3000 runners, so the epic views you enjoy en route won’t be ruined by a crowd.

Given its Highland setting you might assume that you’re facing a tough day out on the hills with the Loch Ness Marathon, but the course is actually designed so you spend more time going downhill than up, though there is a testing climb between 27 and 32km.

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Patagonia International Marathon (Chile)

Next event: 7 September 2019

Set in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, this event has a strong claim for being the most beautiful road marathon on the planet. In fact, given how often the view will take your breath away, it might be tricky to keep running at times.

The route winds its way around several lakes, keeping the snowy peaks of distant mountains in sight throughout. This is a hilly one, with 700m of climbing to be done over the course of 42.2km, but every bit of uphill work is rewarded with an even better view of the stunning surrounding landscape, so it’s well worth it.

This is not a big city race where you can expect fully-stocked aid stations at every kilometre and a pristine asphalt racing surface, so you will need to be a little more prepared than with your other road marathons. However, if you’re searching for a different marathon experience than the normal city centre route, the Patagonia International Marathon is as good as it gets.

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Midnight Sun Marathon (Norway)

Next event: June 2020

The best road marathons in the world
Credit: MSM/ Truls Melbye Tiller

This unique event takes place in Tromsø, Norway, which is in the Arctic Circle. That means that the sun doesn’t go down during the summer months, so even though the race starts at 8pm, you will be finishing in the light.

That might sound like a bit of a gimmick that’s quickly forgotten once you actually start running, but the surreal feeling of running a marathon at midnight doesn’t go away, especially as the temperature starts to go down during the night even if the sun itself doesn’t.

The slightly eerie atmosphere is accentuated by the long stretches along the coast where there are few spectators, although when in the centre of Tromsø itself, the support does turn up in boisterous fashion – most people don’t go out on the town on a Saturday night to run a marathon, after all.

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Must-do historic marathons

Athens Marathon

Next event: 10 November 2019

If history and hills are your thing, then you’ve got to go back to where the marathon began, which is a little town called Marathon. Makes sense. If you’re not au fait with the (much-disputed) history of the marathon it all started with a messenger called Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory. He then died, but to be fair to Pheidippides he had also just run from Athens to Sparta and back, which is about 240km each way, not just the 40km-ish stretch from Marathon to Athens.

The Athens Marathon commemorates Pheidippides’s story by sending runners along a route from Marathon to Athens, where they finish in the sensational surroundings of the original Olympic stadium. It doesn’t get any better than that for running history buffs, right?

Be warned, however, it’s a tough route. Really tough, in fact – you spend most of the time from 10km to 31km going uphill. But you do then get a nice downhill stretch to the finish from there. You’re still thinking about the 21km of uphill, aren’t you?

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Boston Marathon

Next event: 20 April 2020

The world’s oldest annual marathon, having first been held way back in 1897, when only 15 people participated. The Boston Marathon is a little bigger these days, with over 30,000 people taking to the point-to-point route that runs from the town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts to Copley Square in Boston.

Boston is the only major marathon that requires runners to log a qualifying time to enter the race, and those times are pretty sharp too. Men and women under the age of 34 have to run a sub-three or sub-3:30 marathon respectively to be considered for Boston, which adds a level of prestige to taking part in the race.

The course is tough, with notorious landmarks like Heartbreak Hill often putting the brakes on anyone bidding for a PB at Boston. The weather is unpredictable too, with hellish storms as likely as scorching sunshine. However, since it is a point-to-point course that travels in one direction almost the entire way, if you’re lucky enough to have the wind behind you on the day you’ll enjoy that boost for the whole race.

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Main image credit: New York Road Runners

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