Top Ten Destination Marathons

Some people's idea of vacation is a weekend spent stagnant next to an infinity pool—and there is nothing wrong with that. For others, it means logging some serious miles in crowded city streets, on pink-sand beaches, and through quiet hill country. Here are our picks for top ten destination marathons (with a few other kinds of races sprinkled in) from New York to Paris.
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Runner on a Bermuda Beach
Runner on a Bermuda Beach  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Something extraordinary happens to runners who lace up and hit the pavement in new destinations—call it what you wish, a runner’s high or traveler’s awe. Plain clothes to the wind, we sport running duds and are incognito with locals as we step into a quiet rhythm that naturally opens us up to our surroundings. The tourist vibe subdued, we move closer to the terrain and tap into the clear audible pulse of the place—smelling salty ocean air beyond an inland trail, spying different shades of pink in Bermuda beach sand, taking in dazzling lights and the world’s best people-watching on the Vegas Strip, counting rolling bluegrass hills that go on forever in Kentucky horse country. Magically and quite suddenly, we are no longer a tourist but a local running a regular route, only for the first time.

For runners seeking a challenge, there is no better way to see the world—and all its nooks and crannies—than one euphoric destination race at a time. With race running at an all-time high, new races have joined legions of legendary competitions all over the world, with courses traversing everything from epic city neighborhoods and ancient beginnings to coastlines at the edge of the world. Set your heart and your training plan on conquering one of these top ten destination marathons or races, and walk away with bragging rights no average tourist can claim.

10. Wineglass Marathon in Bath, New York
Date: September
If you’re done with overcrowded marathons and overwhelmed host cities, get to Upstate New York’s charming Wineglass Marathon, and soon. Just hours from New York City and the largest marathon in the United States, Wineglass made this top-ten list for its small-town hospitality and immense history, gentle downhill course (a favorite for Boston qualifiers), and natural scenic beauty, which really pops in the fall. The speedy, point-to-point course stretches through a valley from Bath to Corning at the southern gateway of the Finger Lakes wine region, near Keuka Lake. You’ll find yourself surrounded by rolling hills and countryside in between small towns with such idyllic names as Coopers Plains and Painted Post. A spirited welcome, champagne splits, and handmade glass medals greet runners in Corning, also known as the “Crystal City” for its famed glassmaking history. Stay here for the restaurants, shops, and Corning Museum of Glass, where you can also make your own glass art.

Tip: The cap on runners seems to grow yearly, so register soon, while the small-town vibe still exists.

9. Bermuda Triangle Challenge in Bermuda
Date: Mid-January
Winter presents a challenge to many runners; we don’t always love the cold and the dreary scenery. We need diversion and sun, long runs, and an absence of arctic blasts to the face. This is precisely why January’s Bermuda Triangle Challenge is nothing short of a gift from the running gods. The three-day event pans out to: a one-mile, invitation-only race on Friday (only the 20 fastest, marathon-registered participants make the cut); a 10K race on Saturday for all registered participants; and a half-marathon on Sunday (or a full if you don’t mind running the same loop twice). That’s three different races, three days, four medals, and four T-shirts, all for less than the cost of one big-ticket race.

Did I mention it’s in Bermuda? Cue the pink-sand beaches surrounded by a blue-green coast, the comfortable temperatures hovering in the low- to mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit all day long, and a famously friendly local population (hear them cheer and encourage at small towns along the way). A rarity indeed, only about 600 total runners share the picturesque, intimate field.

Tip: Don’t let the elevation profile fool you into thinking Bermuda is a flat course—it’s actually very hilly.

8. Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia
Date: End of October
The ninth-largest marathon in the world and the only sizeable one to not offer prize money, the Marine Corps Marathon draws 20,000 participants each year for one reason: heart-thumping patriotism (that, and the fact that it is one of the cheapest marathons in the country, costing less than $100 to participate). It’s called “The Marathon of Moments,” and you’ll succumb to the inspired feeling sooner or later, whether it’s upon witnessing military units running in formation or U.S. monuments like the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. These landmarks reveal tremendous American history along a scenic, point-to-point, Boston-qualifying course. Runners kick off in Arlington and cruise toward George Washington Memorial Parkway before crossing the Potomac into Washington, D.C., and Georgetown. Just beyond the halfway point, the Korean and WWII memorials and the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial quietly take your breath away. An incredible lineup awaits as runners encounter the National Mall: the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the U.S. Capitol. At Mile 20, runners return to Virginia to finish, but only after passing the Pentagon Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Marine Corps War Memorial.

Tip: The race starts and finishes on the Virginia side of the Potomac, so consider staying in nearby Crystal City or Pentagon City.

7. Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in Las Vegas, Nevada
Date: Early December
Only in Las Vegas can you find the world’s largest nighttime running event complete with a run-through wedding ceremony and the largest Elvis running group you’ll ever see. Once a daytime event, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half now takes you out-and-back at night across all eight lanes of the Las Vegas Strip. Runners start in the early evening from wave corrals, including one dedicated to the uber-cool Elvis impersonators.

Mandalay Bay, the Luxor, the MGM Grand, Planet Hollywood, the Paris, the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, the Venetian—every shimmering Vegas hotel comes into view and lights the way for spectacular people-watching and all the expected Sin City excess. You can even veer off at the Mirage Volcano to tie the knot or renew your vows in a free, three-minute ceremony. Other nice touches from the always well-supported Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series are live music and after-hours parties at prime spots.

Tip: Skip the full marathon, with its extra miles through uninspired neighborhoods, and save your energy for more Vegas debauchery.

6. Dipsea in Mill Valley, California
Date: Second Sunday in June
Just North of San Francisco and stretching from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach sits the crown jewel of off-road footraces, the 7.5-mile Dipsea. In existence since 1905, it’s the oldest trail race in America and one of the most exclusive—and not just for want of its Pacific coast scenery. With a cap at 1,500 participants and a snail-mail-only entry process, Dipsea registration naturally favors nearby Bay Area runners. (Still, runners from more than 30 other states and countries managed to sneak into the 2012 race, and there’s talk of implementing PayPal.)

There’s also the odd matter of head starts—52, to be exact. Dipsea’s hardcore handicapping system offers head starts to groups based on age, gender, and previous race performance. First starts belong to both the oldest and youngest runners—men 74 and older and boys six and younger, and women 66 and older and girls seven and younger—while the back of the pack holds the fastest runners. This level playing field and a trail no wider than a bike path means almost anyone can win. This may be the race’s biggest draw.

On the point-to-point, roller-coaster-like trail, runners start with the infamous 688-stair climb, then slip into a green forest and slide deep into Muir Woods, only to push up treacherous hills with names like Cardiac and Insult. Suddenly, the pristine coast comes into view, as does the finish, where runners of all ages will score the iconic championship plaque.

Tip: Focus less on the climbs and more on mastering steep, slippery descents.

Published: 10 Apr 2012 | Last Updated: 17 Apr 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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