Running along the Great Wall of China, jogging across the African savannah and racing through the Amazon are some of the exhilarating marathon experiences now on offer around the globe. From coastal routes in Jamaica and California to challenging courses in the blazing Sahara and freezing Polar Circle, a growing number of endurance events provide a dramatic change of scene and pace.
10 of the world’s most epic marathons
1. Marathon des Sables, 8–18 April 2016, Morocco
Not for the fainthearted, the legendary Marathon des Sables is one of the world’s toughest long-distance races. Laden with backpacks, competitors brave the sweltering Moroccan Sahara during a six-day ultra-marathon that covers 257km of golden dunes and stony plateaus. Over 13,000 runners have taken part in this extreme desert event since 1986 and its popularity endures today, with around 1200 men and women due at the starting line in April 2016.
2. , 24 April 2016, USA
An inspiration to writers Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, California’s Big Sur region really delivers on scenery. Now in its 31st year, the area’s sell-out marathon follows a spectacular route along the Pacific coastline between Big Sur Station and Carmel. Starting beneath the shade of Giant Redwoods, competitors race over bridges and through rolling hills. The sparkling ocean and craggy Santa Lucia Mountains are a beautifully distracting backdrop.
3. Great Wall Marathon, 21 May 2016, China
For those who like sightseeing at speed, the Great Wall Marathon is a memorable way to see one of China’s most famous landmarks. Featuring vertiginous climbs up sections of the wall, plus trails through fields and villages, it’s a demanding, mountainous course. But although the steep gradient can reduce runners to clambering up the Great Wall’s ancient steps, the views are magnificent and villagers offer encouragement along the route.
4. Ultra Trail Marathon, 22 May 2016, England
London might be the UK’s best-known marathon, but the Lake District’s Ultra Trail Marathon is arguably its most scenic. Beginning on the shores of vast Derwentwater lake in Keswick, the challenging 50km course meanders through rugged fells and peaceful valleys. Undulating, mountainous terrain means this isn’t the race for marathon PBs, but this stamina-testing event offers a close encounter with one of England’s most wild and beautiful regions.
5. Himalayan Kingdom Marathon, 29 May 2016, Bhutan
Wedged between India and Tibet, remote Bhutan is home to sacred monasteries, Himalayan peaks and forested valleys. Competitors in the annual Himalayan Kingdom Marathon cross bridges decked in colourful Buddhist prayer flags, and race through paddy fields and farms: all at high altitude. With the course passing some of the Paro Valley’s greatest sights, including the cliff-hugging Taktsang Monastery, there’s plenty to exercise runners’ eyes and legs.
6. Big Five Marathon, 25 June 2016, South Africa
Billed as ‘the wildest of them all’, South Africa’s Big Five Marathon offers entrants the chance to spot antelopes, giraffes and elephants as they race through the dry savannah landscape. Sandy trails and dirt tracks weave past lakes, grazing wildlife and rocky hills. Part of the course even crosses into lion country, where big cat sightings might persuade some runners to speed up.
7. Australian Outback Marathon, next race 27 July 2019, Australia
Established by experienced runner Mari-Mar Walton in 2010, the Outback Marathon follows private, red-earth trails through the Australian bush, past the looming sandstone monolith of Uluru. Camels and kangaroos gaze on as hundreds of athletes cover a relatively flat loop, experiencing the striking Northern Territory wilderness at an accelerated pace ().
8. Polar Circle Marathon, 29–30 October 2016, Greenland
Kitted out in hats, gloves and windproof sports gear, hardy participants in Greenland’s small-scale Polar Circle Marathon take on sub-zero temperatures and icy surfaces as they run through shimmering Arctic tundra. Bright blue skies and snow-covered trails make for an awe-inspiring marathon-scape, where runners might spot arctic foxes and musk oxen in their natural habitat.
9. , 6–15 October 2016, Brazil
When a traditional road marathon no longer cuts it in the adrenaline stakes, Brazil’s gruelling Jungle Marathon awaits. The easiest option in this eco-race through rainforest, swamps and piranha-infested rivers is to choose the one-day marathon: endurance-distance junkies can go all out with a six-stage, 254km struggle through the Amazon. Competitors catch riverboats to base camp in the Tapajós National Forest and sleep in hammocks strung between trees.
10. Reggae Marathon, 3 December 2016, Jamaica
From its ‘Pasta Party’ to a policy of blaring reggae music every mile of the race, this marathon in Negril, Jamaica is a fun-loving affair. Entrants from more around the world gather at the starting point in dawn darkness, setting off along the white-sand coastline by torchlight. Steel bands and cheering onlookers create a party atmosphere throughout the flat, looped route and once runners cross the beachside finish line, they can take a celebratory dip in the Caribbean Sea.
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