Roughly half a million men and women completed a marathon in the U.S. last year, intrepid athletes tackling the grueling 26.2-mile challenge for reasons as varied as the courses they ran. Completing the distance is no small task; completing the rigorous training leading up to it is no less impressive. And though the hobby is thriving domestically, runners are also heading abroad for international marathons that make for a truly unforgettable journey.
Whether it’s a runner’s first or 50th, each race is a unique experience with urban options, rural offerings and everything in between. The miles can wind through city streets—like during the ING New York City Marathon, which cuts across New York’s five famous boroughs—or follow majestic coastlines and quiet roads—like the Big Sur International Marathon course near Carmel, California, which hugs the state’s historic Highway One.
Running through a city allows for an unprecedented perspective on its personality and history, allowing you to pass right by world famous attractions and meet cheering locals. (Talk about a runner’s high.) The London Marathon, for example, starts in Greenwich Park, weaves through London and around many of its marquee landmarks and ends in spectacular fashion near Buckingham Palace. And the Honolulu Marathon, with its lush tropical flora and proximity to the pounding surf, is so breathtaking you might just forget the task at hand.
The wonderful thing about these races is that they can easily turn into an excuse for a long weekend jaunt or a once-in-a-lifetime extended vacation. (We’ve suggested a place to stay for each—an important consideration for postrace recovery and comfort.)
Though registration for some of our top picks is closed for 2012 or 2013, planning ahead can never be underestimated—and extra time to get into racing shape is always appreciated. (Some marathons also offer options to run for charities, which can allow for entry even though race capacity is reached.) Check out our list of beautiful, challenging or just plain fun marathons, and know that though performance can’t necessarily be predicted, these races are guaranteed to be at least one thing—memorable.