Running along the shimmering Arctic tundra in Greenland, 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. Read on for our pick of the world's best marathons.
1. Marathon des Sables, 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 Sahara desert 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.
The Marathon des Sables races across Morocco's desert sands © James Carnegie/Shutterstock
2. Big Sur International Marathon, USA
An inspiration to writers Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, California’s Big Sur region really delivers on scenery. Now in its 34th year, the Big Sur International 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.
Hurricane Point in Big Sur, California © Chase Dekker/Shutterstock
3. Great Wall Marathon, 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.
© Jana Herzberg/Shutterstock
4. Lakeland Trails Ultra, UK
London might be one of the world's best marathons, but the Lakeland Trails Ultra is arguably the UK's most scenic. Beginning in Ambleside in the Lake District, the challenging 55 km course meanders through rugged fells and peaceful valleys. Undulating, mountainous terrain means this isn’t the race for marathon PB's, but this stamina-testing event offers a close encounter with one of England’s most wild and beautiful regions. For the truly heroic there is a 100-km course too!
Dawn light over Ullswater, Lake District © Steward Smith Photography/Shutterstock
5. Bhutan International Marathon, Bhutan
Wedged between India and Tibet, remote Bhutan is home to sacred monasteries, Himalayan peaks and forested valleys. Competitors in the annual Bhutan 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.
A runner navigates the mountains in Bhutan © Ivanovskyy/Shutterstock
6. Big Five Marathon, South Africa
Billed as ‘the wildest of them all’, the Big Five Marathon offers entrants the chance to spot elephants, rhinos and leopards as they race through the South African savannah. 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.
Leopard in the Kruger National Park, South Africa © Simone Eeman/Shutterstock
7. Australian Outback Marathon, 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.
The Outback Marathon takes in majestic Uluru © FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock
8. Polar Circle Marathon, 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.
A runner contemplates the terrain in Greenland © Maridav/Shutterstock
9. Jungle Marathon, Brazil
When a traditional road marathon no longer cuts it in the adrenaline stakes, Brazil’s gruelling Jungle Marathon awaits. The event organisers call it 'The world's most terrifying adventure.' Still interested? The easiest option in this eco-race through rainforest, swamps and piranha-infested rivers is to choose the one-day marathon, but 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.
An enormous "Samauma Vovo" tree in the Tapajós Forest, Brazil © Mariano Villafane/Shutterstock
10. Reggae Marathon, Jamaica
From its ‘Pasta Party’ to a policy of blaring reggae music along every mile of the race, the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica is a fun-loving affair. Entrants from around the world gather at the starting point in the pre-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.
The Reggae Marathon runs alongside some of Jamaica's best beaches © KKulikov/Shutterstock
Running for good
The team at Rough Guides might not be quite ready to take on any of these races yet, but we’re certainly warming up to them: this year, the Rough Guides' ‘Magnificent Five’ are taking on the London Landmarks Half Marathon on 29th March to raise money for the charity Healing Venezuela. A once thriving country, Venezuela has suffered a precipitous decline over the past two decades and there are drastic shortages of both food and medicines. If you’d like to donate to this amazing charity and help get us across the finish line, visit our JustGiving page.
Header image: Pete Saloutos/Shutterstock