The World’s Most Scenic Marathons

by Jim Richardson | Last Updated: April 28, 2020

If you’re going to run twenty-six miles, surely it makes sense to do it somewhere interesting? Watching the cheering crowds while you run is always nice, but some inspiring scenery will help those miles pass even more quickly. These days marathons are held not only in the world’s most exciting cities but also along its most beautiful coastlines, in its highest mountains and most desolate wastes. Whatever your running ability, there is a marathon somewhere which will appeal to your sense of the scenic.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

Today’s runner is spoiled for choice when it comes to high-profile urban marathons. If it’s history or grandeur you’re interested in, the major European capitals all have their yearly races. You could take in the famous and historic monuments with the London Marathon (April), Paris (April) or Rome (March), while the races held in Dublin (October), Amsterdam (October) and Berlin (September) are particularly suited for runners with an aversion to hills. The Athens Classic Marathon (September) follows the challenging course of the original route run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC. The Istanbul Marathon (November) is unique in that it spans two continents, Europe and Asia.

In North America, the New York City Marathon (November) takes in all five boroughs as well as many of the most famous sights of the Big Apple. If you can manage to qualify for the Boston Marathon (April) you’ll be treated to a view of some of the most historic landmarks in early U.S. history. Runners seeking a flat urban course, meanwhile, should check out the Chicago Marathon (October) whose course takes in Lake Michigan and the city’s famous skyscrapers. If you prefer a backdrop of natural scenery for your urban race you can try the Vancouver Marathon (May) with its unparalleled setting between the mountains and the ocean, or you could opt for the early-morning start of the Honolulu Marathon (December) which takes in Waikiki, Diamond Head and other sights on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Marathon runners looking to escape from city streets entirely are in luck also. In Europe the Mont Saint Michel Bay Marathon (May) is run alongside the coastline of Brittany and Normandy, ending at the eighth-century island monastery which lends its name to the race. The Marathon du Medoc (September) offers both a scenic route through Bordeaux vineyards and, unusually, a sampling of their wines during the race itself. Wine lovers can also take in the rural Napa Valley Marathon (March) in Northern California while farther south in the same state, the course of the Big Sur International Marathon (April) runs along the Pacific Coast Highway from Big Sur to Carmel. Runners should note that the spectacular views along this race come at the price of steep hills and brutal headwinds off the ocean. On the other side of the Pacific, the Aoraki/Mount Cook Marathon (April) on New Zealand’s South Island offers views not only of mountains and lakes but also glaciers.

Marathon runners who prefer to enjoy their scenery with a few natural challenges thrown in are spoiled for choice also. If you fancy inclines, you can choose between two mountain marathons run as part of the Swiss Alpine races (July) in Davos. Even more challenging is the Great Wall Marathon (May) in China. Runners here face more than 5,000 steep steps on the massive monument itself before a more gentle finish along the rice fields and rural villages to the north of Beijing. If you fancy seeing some wildlife along your route and you don’t mind the hills, the heat or the rocky race course, you can enter the Big Five Marathon (June) in South Africa’s Limpopo province. The race is named for the most sought-after safari animals (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinoceroses — “the big five”) but in addition to these, runners may also see antelope, giraffe and zebra during their run. In Nepal, the Everest Marathon (November) begins with a trek up to its starting point at 17,000 feet. You may be short on oxygen during the race itself, but at least it’s all downhill. Even hardier athletes may want to tackle the North Pole Marathon (April) run entirely on Arctic ice, while the truly masochistic can try the Marathon of the Sands (March/April) which takes in six marathons over six days on Saharan sand dunes in southern Morocco.

Of course, you don’t have to challenge yourself to such extremes to find an interesting backdrop for your race — after all, running more than twenty-sex miles on good roads on level ground is tough enough. Nor, of course, do you have to endure the cold. You could instead opt for a Caribbean race such as the Puerto Rico Marathon (March) or the Reggae Marathon (December) held along the northern coast of Jamaica. The best bit about these marathons? After reaching the finish line, you can reward yourself for all the training and hard work with a cold drink and a well-deserved rest on the beach.

How is that for running motivation?

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