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Ask 10 runners what the best marathons are in the world, and you could get 10 different answers. Marathon memories are, to say the least, vulnerable to our own biases. Smash a PB in the Luton Marathon and (let’s take a leap of the imagination here) it could instantly be your best marathon, higher on your list than London, where you forgot your lucky socks and that man was so rude to you on the Tube.
That’s why when we decided to name the world’s 10 best marathons, we went straight to the top. We collected the opinions and experiences of the staff of the seven international editions of Runner’s World.
We weren’t so interested in the elite fields; mainly the experience of the ordinary runner (of course, the two can be related: elite fields draw the TV coverage, which draws crowds, competitors and money to the race). Among other things, we scored the races for beauty, atmosphere and speed. And, hand on heart, we did nothing to sway the outcome. Read on, start noting dates in your diary, and, if you get your entry accepted for the world’s greatest marathon, in April, now is the time to be doubly proud.
Without further ado; the 10 best marathons in the world:
1. London Marathon, April
2. Berlin Marathon, September
3= New York City Marathon, November
3= Chicago Marathon, October
5. Boston Marathon, April
6. Stockholm Marathon, June
7. Rotterdam Marathon, April
8. Paris Marathon, April
9. Honolulu Marathon, December
10. Amsterdam Marathon, October
1. London Marathon
The Flora London Marathon is genuinely a marathon for every runner. The huge field, large, enthusiastic crowds and party atmosphere appeal to first-timers, while the speed of the course and faultless organisation continue to draw seasoned marathon veterans. Even the armchair fan is catered for with the kind of elite field that even the Olympics or World Championships envy. The inaugural event in 1981 was inspired by the New York City Marathon, but its ongoing success has made it the benchmark against which all others are now judged.
The course: The point-to-point route starts in Blackheath and Greenwich Park in South-East London and finishes beside St James’s Park on the Mall. Along the way it takes in many of the city’s famous historic sights, and although the route twists, turns and narrows in places there are no notable hills.
Highs: The last three miles along the Embankment, passing the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace on the way to the finish.
Lows: Narrow streets around the Isle of Dogs and the dour loop of Docklands.
Watch out for: The cobblestone footpath beside the Tower of London.
Contact: Flora London Marathon, PO Box 1234, London SE1 8RZ;
Tel: 020 7620 4117 / www.london-marathon.co.uk
Berlin has established its world-class marathon credentials with a record-breaking course and a slick and efficient race organisation. But it does offer far more. The crowds are large, loud and enthusiastic (if sporadic), and running here is like running through a modern history class. The course takes you past grand historical architecture, the drab and austere buildings of the East and the modern, hi-tech shops and commercial property of the West. Although its recent world records have captured headlines, Berlin is proud of its reputation as a genuine runner’s race.
The course: Apart from two gentle inclines near 17 and 21 miles, the course is almost perfectly flat. It’s also extremely wide and straight, especially in the first two miles along Charlottenburger Tor and the final stretch on Kurfurstendamm. There’s plenty to catch your eye on the way, but not if you’re running quickly which is the main attraction of the course.
Highs: Passage through the Brandenburg Gate, marking the entry into formerly Socialist East Berlin.
Lows: Sparse crowds in the eastern section of the city.
Watch out for: The in-line skaters who share the marathon with runners.
Contact: Berlin Marathon, Waldschulalee 34, D-14055 Berlin, Germany
Tel: 0049 30 302 53 70 / www.berlin-marathon.com
If any marathon could honestly claim to be the world’s favourite, it is New York City. No other event attracts such a high proportion of international runners from so wide a range of countries. They are drawn by the unique appeal of the city and the big-event atmosphere created by the international runners and the crowds that flood onto the streets to support, entertain and motivate them. This is the original big-city marathon, and an event that every runner should experience at least once in their lifetime.
The course: Starting from the huge expanse of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Staten Island, the course offers a cultural tour through New York’s ethnic diversity as it meanders through the five boroughs on the way to the finish in Central Park.
Highs: The six-deep crowd on First Avenue as you enter Manhattan for the first time.
Lows: The three-hour wait at the holding complex before the 11am start.
Watch out for: The rolling hills over the final miles in Central Park.
Contact: New York City Marathon, New York Road Runners Club, 9E 89th St, New York, NY 10128, USA
Tel: 001 212 423 2249 / www.nycmarathon.org
It may not have the crowds of New York City or the history of Boston, but in nearly all other respects Chicago now holds the edge as America’s best and biggest marathon. From its nadir in 1987 when the event was cancelled, Chicago has re-established its world-class credentials with a supremely fast course, excellent race management and a concern for the ordinary runner that other events would do well to mirror. The international running community has yet to really discover its charms, but the event has still more than doubled its entry in the last five years.
The course: Chicago has a one-loop course that is flat, wide and fast. It starts and finishes in the vast expanse of Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, and showcases many of Chicago’s attractions from the city-centre skyscrapers to the diverse ethnic neighbourhoods that most tourists never see.
Highs: The start along Columbus Avenue’s long, straight 10-lane highway.
Lows: Indifferent crowd support on large sections of the course.
Watch out for: The free post-race party at the Navy Pier.
Contact: LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, PO Box 10597, Chicago, Illinois 60610-0597, USA
Tel: 001 888 243 3344 / www.chicagomarathon.com
Boston is the world’s oldest marathon, steeped in tradition and history, with fabulous crowd support, a top-class elite field and a surprisingly quick point-to-point course. Sadly it’s also a marathon that the majority of runners will never experience because of its strict qualifying standards. That certainly doesn’t stop people trying, since the effort of qualifying and the exclusivity of the race are undoubtably part of its allure. If you have the talent, this is a marathon you really have to run, and a marathon you will definitely remember.
The course: The race is run along a point-to-point course, which starts in Hopkinton to the west of Boston and passes through seven small towns before finishing in central Boston. It drops over 400ft overall, mostly in the early miles, although it does climb noticeably as the course traverses Newton Hills between 17 and 22 miles before a fast 200ft drop over the last few miles.
Highs: The girls of Wellesley College near halfway. If their support can’t inspire you, you don’t have a heartbeat.
Lows: The long walk from the finish near Copley Square to the baggage buses.
Watch out for: Junk food served up at Hopkinton fair in the hours waiting for the midday start.
Contact: Boston Athletic Association, 131 Clarendon, Boston, MA 02116, USA
Tel: 001 617 236 1652 / www.bostonmarathon.com
Stockholm is an unusual marathon. It challenges your preconceptions both of Scandinavia and of marathon running. It starts at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon in early June, when the weather is warm and balmy and the city is full of loud, boisterous crowds. By the standards of London or New York, it’s a small race, but it doesn’t lack atmosphere with healthy crowds throughout much of the two-lap, city-centre course. The race is designed to highlight the city’s wonderful location on the shores of the Baltic, and to demonstrate the friendliness and efficiency of the Swedes. It’s not a particularly fast race, but Stockholm in June is a big consolation.
The course: Two almost-identical loops, starting outside the 1912 Olympic Stadium and finishing on the track inside. There are large, flat sections of the course but enough undulations, particularly on the loop around Djurgarden and the various bridges, to break your rhythm.
Highs: Finishing on the track inside the 1912 Olympic Stadium.
Lows: Passing the kilometre markers on the first lap, knowing you have to run 21km before you see them again.
Watch out for: The crossing of the Vesterbron at 35km. The bridge is only a 90ft climb, but it feels worse the second time around.
Contact: Stockholm Marathon, Box 10023, S-10055 Stockholm, Sweden
Tel: 0046 8667 1930 / http://www4.marathon.se/
Rotterdam is not high on anyone’s list of must-visit European cities. But every spring, thousands of runners flock to this modern, industrial port and city to take part in its marathon. They are drawn by a pancake-flat course and the knowledge that the organisers, despite a limited budget, put on a fine race. Crowd support doesn’t compare to New York or Boston, but the city does get behind the race and practically closes down on race day. Rotterdam was one of the first marathons to adopt chip timing, and the event is constantly trying to innovate and challenge the idea that only major cities can have great marathons.
The course: The Netherlands is a country devoid of hills, so it’s no surprise that Rotterdam offers one of the most consistently flat courses around. Other than the Erasmus Bridge at 2km and two wooden sections after 5km and 30km, the loop course is largely unremarkable and unmemorable. But then, you don’t go to Rotterdam for the scenery.
Highs: Fantastic crowd support along the waterfront.
Lows: An out-and-back section of the course at 29km, where you pass runners going in the opposite direction to the finish.
Watch out for: The well-stocked feed stations with cake and hot drinks.
Contact: Rotterdam Marathon, PO Box 9412, 3007 AK Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Tel: 0031 10 432 3266 / www.rotterdammarathon.nl
Paris has never struggled to attract visitors in the springtime. It’s just that in the past, not many of them came to run the city’s marathon. With a reputation for organisational incompetence and indifferent support, the Paris Marathon has traditionally failed to catch the imagination of the running public. Things have definitely changed. The organisation has improved noticeably and it has the budget to draw a decent elite field – runners now flock to the race in their thousands. Support is still limited, but Paris now has a race worthy of its standing as one of the world’s great cities.
The course: Most European marathons promise a sightseeing tour on foot and then route you through large stretches of industrial wasteland. Paris delivers, squeezing just about everything the city has to offer into this 42km loop of the city. It’s not a fast course but there’s plenty to see.
Highs: Paris in the spring.
Lows: The apathy of Parisians towards their marathon. (And the fact that you require a doctor’s certificate saying that you are fit to run.)
Watch out for: Downhill start over worn cobblestones.
Contact: Marathon International de Paris, AMSP, 8 Rue Crozatier, 75012 Paris, France
Tel: 0033 153 17 03 10 / www.parismarathon.com
Most runners don’t need an excuse to visit Hawaii, particularly in early December when most of the Northern Hemisphere is cloaked in cold, wet weather. But if you are looking for one, the Honolulu Marathon should do it. It’s a big race with a big atmosphere. Much of that atmosphere is created by the Japanese, who provide the majority of the 30,000 runners in the field, most of the supporters and the event’s big sponsors. Although the race starts painfully early, in the darkness at 5am, which limits the crowd support and the sea views, it’s still quite hot and humid in the latter part of the event.
The course: The course starts in Ala Moana Beach Park, and finishes at Kapiolani Park. Along the way it takes in Honolulu’s notable sights, including Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head and Koko Head Crater. There are two modest climbs at seven and 23 miles, but most of the course is flat.
Highs: The Japanese cheering sections in the staging area before the start.
Lows: Getting up at 3am for that 5am start.
Watch out for: The heat and humidity. Despite the early start, most runners still complain about it.
Contact: Honolulu Marathon Office, 3435 Waialae Avenue, Suite 208, Honolulu, Hawaii 96816, USA
Tel: 001 808 734 7200 / www.honolulumarathon.org
The Amsterdam Marathon has been run continuously since the late 1970s, but it is only in the last few years that it has earned a reputation to match that of the city. By the standards of the other events in this listing, it is still a small, intimate affair – with just over 2000 runners. The vast majority are foreign runners, attracted by the undeniable charms of the city and an increasingly swift course. Although the city is strongly behind the race and everything runs smoothly, the Amsterdam public have yet to take it to heart, either as runners or spectators.
The course: This is the Netherlands, so it’s flat and therefore fast. The only bump you’ll see is when the course crosses one of the many canals. It’s a two-loop course, starting and finishing in the 1928 Olympic Stadium. The first loop is 7km and the second is 35km and follows part of the 1928 Olympic course. The route takes you through the old city-centre and the famous Vondelpark, but large sections are run in the residential suburbs.
Highs: Starting and finishing inside the 1928 Olympic Stadium.
Lows: Scarcity of support on much of the course.
Watch out for: The cyclists, who are as much a part of the city as the canals.
Contact: Delta Lloyd Amsterdam Marathon, PO Box 143, 1850 AC Heiloo, The Netherlands
Tel: 0031 20 663 07 81 / 0031 72 532 48 49 / www.amsterdammarathon.nl