Illustration: Scenes during a marathon
© Andrea Chronopoulos

Choose your challenge


There are marathons in cities, in the desert, on the beach and along the Great Wall of China. Which route from tears to triumph suits you best?

What is a marathon? Running, sweating, gasping for breath, putting one foot in front of the other until you no longer register the individual steps. Hour after hour. On dirt, sand, asphalt. Plagued by blisters, cramps and aching muscles. But a marathon is also bliss, ecstasy, an endorphin high. If you have ever felt the rush of finishing a marathon, you will want to do it over and over again. As the great Czech Olympian Emil Zátopek famously put it: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”

Running marathons is the latest trend. Professionals and amateurs fly all over the world just to pound through the rain forests of Rotorua, across the Himalayan mountains and through the urban canyons of New York, where last year runners from 124 nations took part in the city’s marathon, while 57 percent of the participants of the Berlin Marathon came from outside Germany. The kick? Combining sports and travel and getting to know other cultures not by admiring them from the window of a taxicab but by actually running into them and meeting them in person.

So pack a pair of running shoes, a drinking bottle and off you go! We’ve put together a selection of marathons where taking part definitely counts more than winning.

The most historic


It all began with the messenger Pheidippides. In 490 BCE, he ran without stopping from the village of Marathon to Athens to proclaim the Greek victory over the Persians, unfortunately dropping dead of exhaustion the moment he arrived. The first official marathon took place in his honor at the first modern Olympics in 1896. Every year in November, the Athens Marathon follows Pheidippide’s route, passing a memorial to the fallen Athenians of yore and ending at Panathinaiko Stadium. As you pass the finish line, it’s like reliving a legend.


The quirkiest


London set a benchmark at the Olympic Games in 1908 when it fixed the marathon distance at 42.195 kilometers (26 miles and 385 yards). Why? Until then, the official distance of a marathon was 25 miles, which wasn’t enough to get the runners from the start at Windsor Castle to the finish line in front of the royal box in the stadium. The organizers simply added an extra mile and 385 yards. The London Marathon has been taking place every April since 1981 and runners traditionally compete in colorful costumes. The route goes from Greenwich across Tower Bridge, through the Docklands and London’s East End and then passes Buckingham Palace, where the waving monarch motivates you for that final spurt across the finish line.


The steepest


Instead of running through the streets, this particular route takes you high up into the nighttime sky. The Eiffel Tower Vertical takes place every March, a couple of weeks before the annual Paris Marathon. As the name suggests, it is actually a climb up the outside stairs of the Eiffel Tower, ending a heady 279 meters above the glittering metropolis. Pounding up the 1665 steps is just as strenuous as running a long-distance race. It is an exclusive affair, however, as the race is limited to 128 participants to prevent runners from getting in each others’ way. The record to date is 7 minutes and 48 seconds – a true challenge.

The most popular


Everything in the USA is big, especially the sports events. Measured by the number of participants, the New York City Marathon, which takes place in November, is the biggest marathon in the world. Only 127 runners signed up for the first one back in 1970, but today, around 50 000 people regularly take part, among them celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, P. Diddy, Ryan Reynolds and Alicia Keys. Due to its popularity, the race is very hard to get into, and is decided by a draw. Your best bet is to book the entire package from a licensed operator, including flight and hotel. On the morning of the race, half the city is blocked off. The athletes convene in Manhattan and are taken by bus to Staten Island, where the starting shot is fired. Runners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn and Queens, and then the Madison Avenue Bridge to Harlem before proceeding down Museum Mile to Central Park. Shortly before finishing, the course takes you once around Columbus Circle. A true super-size city marathon.


The toughest


Sun, sand and very little else: The Sahara Marathon is regarded as one of the world’s most grueling long-distance races. Taking place in the first third of each year, it attracts hundreds of extreme athletes into the desert. The race starts in Al Ayoun and proceeds in the blistering heat of the Western Sahara to Auserd, finishing in Smara. Hotels are few and far between, so runners spend the night in tents with the Saharawi nomads. But don’t worry: The course is well marked and there is a water station every three kilometers. If you’re up for an even bigger challenge, you can take part in the Marathon des Sables, an ultra-race in the Moroccan Sahara. It has six separate stages, and participants are expected to run 20 to 40 kilometers a day. The route is 250 kilometers long. What about food? You have to carry it with you. We’re not kidding.


The most scenic


A run along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro: The statue of Christ the Redeemer welcomes marathon runners with open arms, when the Maratona Caixa takes place in the Brazilian metropolis in June. The race begins at 7 a.m., when temperatures are still a balmy 20° C. The route starts in Recreio and ends in Flamengo, passing through Barra da Tijuca, San Conrado, Ipanema and Copacabana, where the locals worship the cult of the body. A fresh breeze always wafts in off the ocean and the route is relatively flat, with a difference in elevation of just 20 meters. As you run, you’ll find that the samba rhythms of local street bands, who mark the beat with surdos, timbas and tamborims, will make your feet practically fly across the asphalt.

The most remote


Fancy kicking up your heels at a World Heritage Site? Marathon runners in China do it all the time, as the Great Wall Marathon goes along the top of the world’s biggest fortification. Work on the Great Wall of China was begun in the 3rd century BCE to protect the Chinese Empire from nomadic tribes in the north. These days, thousands of marathon runners advance upon the wall every May after traversing the broad valleys and picturesque hills of Tianjin province, tackling a difference in elevation of 300 meters and climbing 5164 steps – in temperatures hovering around 30° C. It’s hardly a surprise that this marathon is regarded as one of the most challenging worldwide. The current record, held by three athletes who crossed the line simultaneously in 2013, is 3:09:18 hours. But even amateurs with strong leg muscles stand a chance of completing this marathon.