Top 10 places to run a marathon

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If you've loved London, nailed New York and sailed through Sydney, then it's time to look further afield for your next marathon fix. Best in Travel 2010 has 10 magical marathons that'll have you admiring the view (as you push through the pain barrier).

1. Great Wall marathon, Tianjin, China

Nothing is likely to knacker your knees more than climbing 5164 steps, except maybe running up and down them. That’s exactly what you’ll do on China’s Great Wall Marathon, which begins with a gruelling 600m of straight-up-and-down in the first 9km (even the organisers advise competitors to walk through the steepest sections). If
you survive the brutal start, then the route meanders through picturesque villages and rice fields, thankfully along flat roads. By now you’ll be in your stride and enjoying the view, just in time to return to the start and complete the opening 9km all over again!

International runners can only compete by joining one of three official tours. Start planning now for May 2011: www.great-wall-marathon.com; half marathons also available.

2. The last marathon, Antarctica

There’s black humour in the name of this race on King George Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula – this really is the last place anyone would think of running a marathon. The contrast with city events couldn’t be greater. The course winds up and around glaciers, along rocky beaches and past gaping crevasses.

Related article: When the going gets tough

Held in February, it’s summer but temperatures are often subzero and snow can blanket the course at any time. If that doesn’t put you off, this is the only marathon where you might have to detour around herds of inquisitive elephant seals or chinstrap penguins.

Temperatures on the course are likely to range from -20ºC to a few degrees above freezing, and that’s before the wind chill. Take plenty of wicking layers for the cold and a pair of rubber boots for negotiating penguin dung!

There's also the Antarctic ice marathon in December this year.

3. Marathon du Médoc, Bordeaux, France

Most elite athletes don’t touch alcohol, so it’s hard to imagine a marathon where boozing forms an integral part of the race. But when you’re running around the Bordeaux region of France, it somehow makes perfect sense. Passing through 53 vineyards without stopping for a tipple obviously seemed like an impossible task, so the organisers decided to embrace the regional culture and introduced wine stops every couple of kilometres. Oysters and foie gras are served as accompaniment.

Three-quarters of the competitors run in fancy dress, presumably so nobody can see who’s the worst for wear at the finishing line.

Extend your stay with a night or two in deluxe Chateau Franc Mayne in Saint-Emilion. With boutique themed rooms and an in-house winery, this is the place to trade sore feet for a sore head.

4. The reggae marathon, Negril, Jamaica

Rastas and reefer don’t spring to mind when thinking of any kind of athletic activity, let alone a full-blown marathon. But Jamaica is making a good fist of attracting runners to this laid-back affair, with an advertising slogan that reads, 'Come for the run, stay for the fun!' And thousands do just that, arriving in Negril to run the mostly flat course along the coastline of the island’s westernmost tip. The locals roll out the welcome mat, cranking up the sound systems and pumping out reggae, and if that’s not Jamaican enough then the winner also receives a Bob Marley trophy.

Negril buzzes at marathon time, but the area is known as the 'Capital of Casual'; head to the dazzling beaches and azure waters of chilled West End to see Jamaica at its most horizontal.

5. The Big Five marathon, South Africa

Lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – that’s the list of South Africa’s five biggest game animals and you’re likely to see them all on this race around the Entabeni reserve, halfway from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park. Visitors to the park are usually kept secure inside 4WD vehicles, but the marathon course winds around the imposing Waterberg massif and directly through the savannah that these majestic creatures call home. So it’s just as well that armed rangers patrol the route – even the fastest runners would do well to outrun a leopard at lunchtime.

You might well see wildlife while you run, but join a guided tour for guaranteed sightings. The next Big Five marathon is in June 2011, more info at www.big-five-marathon.com.

6. Gran Maratón Pacífico Mazatlán, Mexico

Known as the 'Pacific Pearl', the city of Mazatlán lies on the midwest coast of Mexico opposite the southernmost tip of California’s Baja Peninsula. Tourists come here for the city buzz, golden beaches and temperate climate, factors that also draw marathon runners from around the globe. The course follows the sweeping contours of the coastline, and if
the stunning views aren’t incentive enough to keep you going then the race organisers also offer a luxury car to the winner and a cool US$1 million if you can break the world record. Incentive enough to train that little bit harder.

As a major tourist centre, Mazatlán’s good transport links make it simple to reach; fly direct from major US cities or hub through Mexico City from European destinations. More information at www.maraton.org for this year's December race.

7. Taj Mahal marathon, Agra, India

Marathons and tropical climates don’t usually make happy bedfellows, but elite athletes aren’t deterred by a bit of sweat and the risk of dehydration. Even in October, the brief window between the monsoon season and onset of winter, temperatures during this race can reach 35ºC. Good job then that the picturesque course is so inspiring.

Starting from the rural village of Niyamat Pur, competitors navigate through sleepy countryside before hitting the main highway to the city. For the final few kilometres, the Taj Mahal is in full view on the horizon as you pull you weary legs to the line.

Don’t pass on the opportunity to see inside one of the world’s true wonders; the Taj Mahal is open for viewing Saturday to Thursday.

8. Easter Island marathon, Chile

Proving that marathon runners can be found everywhere, here’s an event that takes place on a tiny Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, 3600km from the Chilean mainland and with a population of fewer than 4000. Easter Island is famous for its jawdropping moai – large monolithic stone statues carved by the Rapanui people – and since 2002 it’s been offering one of the world’s most exclusive marathons. The field for the inaugural race totalled just six. Today, restricted by airline and accommodation capacity, only 150 runners can tackle the route from the main town of Hanga Roa to Anakena Beach.

Sixty of the 150 places at the start line are reserved for international operator Marathon Tours & Travel.

9.Venice marathon, Italy

Venice might be sinking steadily into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but until such times as it disappears marathon runners will continue to head here for this unique city race. The course begins in the country town of Stra, 25km west of the city, in a stunning riverside area defined by the 18th-century holiday homes of wealthy Venetian traders.

The mostly flat course then passes open countryside, but the real highlights come at the end. Running into the city, competitors cross 14 diminutive bridges across Venice’s canals, passing celebrated landmarks such as St Mark’s Square and Palazzo Ducale. There’s no better way to sooth tired feet than by having a good sit down. In Venice, that means taking to the canals on a guided gondola tour.

10. Whidbey Island marathon, Oak Harbor, USA

The USA’s Pacific Northwest is one of the country’s most beautiful regions, and Whidbey Island in Puget Sound is a wonderful place to run a marathon. The scenery inspires at every turn, with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, old-growth forest and rocky shores, as well as animal life such as deer, eagles and seals. Within striking distance of Seattle, the island makes the perfect escape from the city and features a course that meanders through farmland and along the coast. With the roads closed to traffic for the race, this is about as peaceful as a marathon can be.

Whidbey Island is about 150km north of Seattle; the most relaxing way to get there is to take the regular 20-minute ferry service from Mukilteo to Clinton. More information at www.whidbeyislandmarathon.com.