Running 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) isn't an option for most people, runners included. Many people don't even like driving that far. That's why the marathon is the ultimate mental and physical test of will and endurance for a runner.
From its beginnings in Greece, the marathon's grueling length has challenged millions of runners -- the distance is so challenging, in fact, that the messenger who first ran the distance dropped dead at the end. While it's not exactly an endorsement for distance running, the story does hint at the dedication and training required of marathon runners.
Whether they run for the glory or just to know they can, runners everywhere train for the day they may finish first. In this article, we'll look at the five largest marathons around the world. So for you long-distance runners looking for the ultimate challenge, check out the next page.
While it may not boast the numbers of the other marathons on the list, Chicago makes the top five as one of the races that make up the "World Marathon Majors." This collective of five races, which all make this top 5, was formed in 2006 and splits a one-million-dollar purse among the top male and female entrants. Chicago is smaller than the other four, but the flat, wide course is known for its speed, and it's a consistent favorite among runners, partially because of the cool conditions during its October slot. Begun in 1977, the Chicago Marathon hosts runners from all 50 states and more than 100 countries.
Though Chicago can host up to 45,000 runners, the maximum number of finishers so far is 33,703 in 2009. The total purse is $485,000, with a cool $100,000 going to both the male and female champion. Sammy Wanjiru set the course record for men in 2009 with a time of 2:05:41. The top female runner, Paula Radcliffe, set the mark in 2002 when she ran the race in 2:17:18. If you want to run the Chicago Marathon, you'll need to pony up the $135 entry fee.
Formed in 1974, the Berlin Marathon was originally run through the Grunewald, a heavily forested borough of the capital city. In 1981, the course moved into the city proper, with runners competing in the center of West Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990 race was rerouted to incorporate sections of East Berlin as well. Like Chicago, the Berlin Marathon is known as a flat and fast race that's a favorite for runners looking to break personal bests amid the cool September temperatures.
The race draws vast and enthusiastic crowds that number more than 1.5 million, and its scenic route through historic architecture and the famous Brandenburg Gate draws runners and spectators alike. The most finishers the race has seen came in 2008, when 35,913 out of 40,000 entrants broke the tape. The total purse for the race is $340,000, with $64,000 going to each male and female champion. Course records were set in 2007 and 2005 for the men and women, respectively, with times of 2:04:26 and 2:19:12. The entry fee in 2010 for the Berlin Marathon was $170.
If you're looking for a pleasant spring marathon and a scenic course, the London Marathon in April is a good choice. Another flat course, the London Marathon twists its way through historic sections of England's capital city amid a rambunctious crowd and party atmosphere. Getting its start in 1981, the London Marathon has a fast course that gives runners a good chance to set personal bests, and elite runners gain an opportunity for world records. More than 1 million rowdy spectators cheer on a field of 35,700, and in 2010, the record for finishers was set at 36,550. The total purse for the race is $295,000, with $55,000 going to both the top male and female runners and the rest going to the other top 12 male and 10 female finishers. Sammy Wanjiru set the men's course record in 2009 with a time of 2:05:10. Paula Radcliffe claimed the women's record of 2:15:25 in 2003.
The race starts in southeast London's Greenwich Park and winds its way through the city along the cobblestone streets by the Tower of London, along the River Thames and past the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. One unique aspect of the London Marathon is that it's a fundraiser for the London Marathon Charitable Trust. The trust grants money to recreational projects, and in 2009, the race raised more than 4.5 million pounds ($7 million) -- more than any other race in the world, thanks in part to the 100-pound ($155) entry fee.
Another good choice for a spring race is the historic Boston Marathon, held each April since 1897, making it the oldest annual marathon in the world. The course has changed only slightly over the years, with the start in Hopkinton to the finish on historic Boylston Street. The race is probably most famous for Heartbreak Hill, a 0.4-mile (644-meter) ascent that gives runners a view of downtown Boston and the finish line once they hit the apex. Another unique aspect of the Boston Marathon is the smallish field of 25,000, making it one of the few major marathons to require qualifying times according to age and gender. Times are subject to review and verification.
In 2008, more than 500,000 enthusiastic spectators watched 21,948 runners finish and split a $796,000 purse, $150,000 of which went to each male and female champion. Course records were set in 2010 and 2002 for men and women, respectively, with times of 2:05:52 and 2:20:43. If you can qualify and you're interested in running the most historic marathon in the world, you'll need to pay the $130 entry fee.
New York City Marathon
New York does everything big, and the city's famed marathon is no exception. In addition to having a huge field of international runners and 2 million New Yorkers coming out to support the marathoners, the New York City Marathon occurs on the largest media stage in the world, with TV viewership topping 300 million. It also boasts the largest prize purse of all of the major marathons, with a total of $800,000 being given out for the 2010 race. Each male and female champion wins $130,000, and that total goes up to $200,000 for a previous champion. The cool fall temperatures in November are a big draw for runners, as well.
The race starts on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Staten Island and winds its way through all five boroughs on the way to the finish line in Central Park. In 1970, the first New York City marathon had only 127 runners, who paid a buck apiece to run a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) course that looped several times through Central Park. The capacity for the race is close to 40,000, with an average of roughly 38,000 finishing most years. Since more than 90,000 people apply to run each year, qualification is based on a long list of rules, ranging from running times and membership in the New York Road Runners (NYRR) club to whether the runner has participated in other Road Runner events. Fees for the race are $149 for NYRR members and $185 for nonmembers. Course records were set for the men in 2001 with a time of 2:07:43, and in 2003 for women with a time of 2:22:31.
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