Just being able to say you finished a marathon is an accomplishment. After all, running 26.2 miles in one outing is no small feat.
But did you experience it?
Your experience will certainly be different than that of Greek soldier Philippides, who, as legend has it, ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to tell of victory at the Battle of Marathon. His journey was the inspiration for the marathon in the first modern Olympics held in Athens, Greece, in 1896.
You could be lucky and live within shouting distance of a race, but if you don’t, what factors are you taking into consideration in your selection process? Most marathons will have a pre-race expo, hand out finishers’ medals at the end and have some type of post-race party.
Maybe the surge of patriotism hits you and you wind your way to Washington, D.C. to soak in the nation’s rich history through its monuments, not to mention the thousands of Marines on and surrounding the course. There are options to take in the beach culture in Florida with beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean or to head west to be dazzled by the breathtaking panorama of the Pacific Ocean while running on a mountaintop. Maybe you want to see a shimmering lake or run in the desert—the Hoover Dam Marathon does that all in one trip.
Whatever the motivation to tackle a marathon, there are options aplenty in this incredible country of ours and in this instance it really is about the destination.
The Boston Marathon
While there is much to do and see in Boston, Massachusetts, this bucket-list race itself makes this it the destination marathon above the rest.
The world's oldest marathon—started in 1897—is steeped in tradition and lore. Not everyone can run Boston, which makes it that much more prestigious. Runners have to post specific times in Boston-designated qualifying marathons across the country leading up to it. Check for cutoff dates and procedures.
Race day is Patriot's Day, a regional holiday, which helps draw half a million cheering spectators to the course, inspiring runners, especially when they encounter menacing Heartbreak Hill, rising a half mile just after the 20-mile mark.
Army officer Jon Harrington, a multiple Boston marathon veteran, grew up in the shadow of the race which inspired him to run his first in 2003.
"Personally, I do it because I love the city and the race," said Harrington. "It is like the Disney World of marathons. Each mile of the race is another adventure and experience ... And once you've run it once, you can brag about it forever."
Niagara Falls International Marathon
This unique Boston Marathon qualifier is the only marathon that you need a passport to get back from after the 26.2 mile journey. Well, either a passport or another accepted form of identification as the point-to-point course starts in Buffalo, New York, crosses the historic Peace Bridge into Ontario and ends at the precipice of Niagara Falls.
“Our participants love chasing their personal bests on our scenic course,” said Diane Chesla, race co-director.
Chesla, along with race co-director Henri Ragetlie, modernized the race with things such as live-tracking for participants at certain points of the race and on-course entertainment.
"These may be small changes, but they all add to enhancing the unique and rewarding experience of the Niagara Falls International Marathon," Chesla added.
Aside from running the course, take time out to visit Niagara Falls State Park, America’s oldest state park. Take a boat tour to experience the thundering falls up close or take it all in from the Top of the Falls Restaurant.
Marine Corps Marathon
Feel the patriotism surge through your every step of the Marine Corps Marathon, known as “The People’s Marathon.” From some of the most recognizable structures in the world to the thousands of Marines, sailors and civilian volunteers spread out across the course, inspiration surrounds you.
After the howitzer blasts, your starting point across from the Pentagon is put behind you as you pound the pavement past some of the most iconic buildings like the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, not to mention the Smithsonian institutions located around The Mall and Arlington National Cemetery. About the only thing missing are the cherry blossoms.
Since starting in 1976, the race has grown from just over 1,000 runners to a field of close to 30,000 each year. The race is in so much demand that a lottery is held each March to determine participants.
Walt Disney World Marathon
It’s the mouse: There’s going to be fun for everyone. You can actually use the marathon, traditionally run in the beginning of January, to scout out your opportunities for theme-park fun.
Along with the horde of others, navigate the course as it winds through four of the Walt Disney World theme parks: Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot, in addition to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. During the annual race weekend there are also races for children, a Thursday 5K, Friday 10K and Saturday half marathon before Sunday’s marathon.
Space Coast Marathon
Cocoa Beach, Florida, in November: What more could you ask for? And for runners fascinated by all things space, the Space Coast Marathon is the perfect destination.
Florida’s oldest marathon—this marathon's been around for more than 45 years—provides a flat, fast course in weather that ranges from 53 to 73 degrees. Runners start the race to the roar of a Space Shuttle countdown and liftoff on the Jumbotron, and pace themselves along the waterfront.
“Held in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center, the entire race revolves around a space theme, which excites our participants and honors the success of the Space Shuttle program,” said Christa Mudd, Running Zone Foundation marketing and events coordinator.
The prevailing theme spans the entire race with space props along the course and at the finish line area, volunteers in NASA-like uniforms and the chance to pose with astronauts traversing the race site. Grab a unique finishers medal at the end and have the opportunity to grab a prize for best space costume.
New York City Marathon
This distinctive marathon takes runners through all that is New York City. Racers start on Staten Island and work their way through the rest of the five boroughs—Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx—before finishing in Central Park outside of Tavern on the Green. Like Boston, there is a time-qualifying aspect to gaining a bib number, or you can try the luck with what they call The Drawing. There are three drawings to fill slots in the race: one for NYC metro area applicants, one for U.S. residents outside the NYC metro area and one for international marathoners. If you are selected then start planning your trip.
Outside of running, while in New York City, there are many sights, sounds and tastes to experience at your leisure.
More than half of the race—part of the weekend's Anchorage RunFest—follows the Cook Inlet allowing for gorgeous water views with every stride. August temperatures usually in the mid-50s to mid-60s so the course is ripe for personal bests for the small field.
The race is a favorite for former U.S. Olympian and marathon guru Jeff Galloway.
"I’ve run 214 marathons and [formerly called] The Moose’s Tooth Marathon is one of my top five," said Galloway. "The course is scenic, the Anchorage Running Club is organized and energetic and fun, and the the temperature over the past seven years has been ideal: average start temperature is 54 degrees. This is also a great area to explore the many unique gifts of Alaska."
Those gifts include outdoor activities like silver salmon fishing or river rafting, or just relax and go glacier viewing. This may be the only marathon on your bucket list to give pre-race tips on how to deal with moose, bears or other wildlife that may wander through the course.
Hoover Dam Marathon
For spectacular views of land and lake, step outside of Las Vegas for the Hoover Dam Marathon. Held in December, the blistering summer temperatures have all but dissipated, letting runners attack the undulating course that travels through the Mojave Desert, all within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Run through the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail, working your way to sights of shimmering Lake Mead, before traversing to Hoover Dam, running a loop that allows for taking in of the dam and Bypass Bridge. And of course, Las Vegas is a mere 30 miles from the race start with a shuttle service offered on race day.
Napa Valley Marathon
If you're a fan of wine and vineyards, then plan to be one of 3,000 at the Napa Valley Marathon.
Also known as the "Biggest Little Marathon in the West," Napa is also a Boston-qualifying race. It starts in Calistoga, California, proceeding through area vineyards in St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville on the historic Silverado Trail—off the beaten path and preferred by Napa denziens—on the way to Napa.
There are plenty of spas at which to relax before the race. It is advised to not visit more than three wineries in a day and runners might want to wait until after the marathon for wine tastings.
Big Sur International Marathon
If your bucket list includes running a marathon and taking in the majesty of the Pacific Ocean, then the Big Sur International Marathon is the one to run. The point-to-point excursion begins in Big Sur and finishes in Carmel after rolling along the Northern California coastline on the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. Highway 1).
"It’s beauty, challenge and overall vibe are the main elements that draw runners here," said Julie Armstrong, marathon marketing and communications director. "We like to call it 'running on the ragged edge of the Western World' as runners are truly running on a road—a National Scenic Byway—that hugs the cliffside overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean to the west."
Stay at the official race hotel in Monterey or just a stone’s throw away at Carmel or Pebble Beach. There’s is no limit to what you can do pre- and post-race as the area offers no less than seven golf courses, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, beaches and four state parks, among others.