The Seine in Paris, Central Park in New York, the Great Wall of China... See some of the greatest locations in an unexpected way – running a marathon.
A third of the way into the New York City Marathon, tens of thousands of runners pass the steps of the Emmanuel Baptist Church, where a 50-strong gospel choir sings them through the heart of Brooklyn. In the first half of the Paris Marathon, banners point out notable sights. “Look to your right – it’s the Louvre!” declares one. Each September, runners in the Sydney Marathon cross the Harbour Bridge after sunrise, without any traffic, before finishing up on the steps of the Opera House. More than just testing your physical limits by completing a 42-kilometre road race, a marathon is also a way to see the world.
Hundreds of these endurance tests are held in iconic locations every year and an increasing number of people are giving them a go. An International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics) study found there’s been a 49 per cent rise in marathon runners over the past decade, with 1.3 million finishers globally in 2018. They are generally older – the average age is 39 – and one-third are women.
Serious runners train for months, often to beat their personal-best time (the average is four hours and 29 minutes, while the current world record for men is two hours, one minute and 39 seconds). For others it’s a bucket list item, raising money for charity or enjoying the adventure of a “runcation”.
If you like sightseeing
Paris Marathon, France; 5 April
One of the prettiest courses, the Paris Marathon is among the best for travellers, as it starts on the Champs-Élysées down from the Arc de Triomphe and follows the Seine in a loop past the Louvre, Place de la Bastille, Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower.
If you like man-made wonders
Great Wall Marathon, China; 16 May
This most difficult of routes – with more than 5100 steps through varied terrain – but is truly spectacular. Where else can you run for hours along one of the great wonders of the world?
If you want to run at midnight
Midnight Sun Marathon, Norway; 20 June
Some people think running at night is dangerous but not during Norway’s Midnight Sun Marathon. Held in the Arctic town of Tromsø, where it’s still light at 12am, this very northerly marathon tackles a course that goes past snow-capped mountains.
If you like animals
Safaricom Marathon, Kenya; 27 June
Racing through the Lewa Wildlife Conservatory is a must for animal-lovers – and brave ones at that. About 1400 participants, accompanied by 140 rangers, compete in a reserve that is home to lions, rhinos and giraffes – the latter are known to occasionally gallop along with the runners. The event raises money for conservation organisation Tusk.
If you want national pride
Sydney Marathon, Australia; 20 September
Crossing the Harbour Bridge without a car in sight is worth the entrance fee alone. The course snakes through the CBD, out to Centennial Park then back along the waterfront to the Opera House.
If you like spectators
New York City Marathon, United States; 1 November
Starting on Staten Island, covering all five boroughs and finishing in Central Park, this is the most popular race of its kind on earth. This year, an estimated 50,000 runners and more than one million spectators will celebrate the marathon’s 50th anniversary.
If you like wine
Marathon du Médoc, France; 12 September
Forget the usual Gatorade and energy gels – the Marathon du Médoc, in the Bordeaux region, has stations offering wine, steak or even oyster tastings. There are 50 bands spread out along the course and fancy dress is compulsory for runners.
If you like history
Athens Marathon, Greece; 8 November
In Ancient Greece, the messenger Pheidippides is said to have run from the town of Marathon into Athens to announce victory in the Battle of Marathon. “Joy to you, we’ve won,” he reportedly said before collapsing and dying. The approximate distance he covered was 42 kilometres, the length of the modern race. Every year, the Athens Marathon re-creates the historic run, from Marathon to the spectacular Panathenaic Stadium.
If you like adventure
Antarctic Ice Marathon; 13 December
Snow, ice and a wind-chill factor of -20°C at an altitude of 700 metres: what more could you want? This frigid marathon is also the most southern (at 80° south), about 1200 kilometres from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. It takes special training to cope with the extreme conditions here.