How the London Marathon Works

London Marathon Route

Participants run through Parliament Square in Westminster during the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.
Participants run through Parliament Square in Westminster during the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Woolwich, Tower Bridge, Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf -- the London Marathon route is steeped in the history, language and pageantry of London. It's also a great time. Fast and flat, but also with a number of tight corners and narrow sections,  the course features a red dashed line that athletes use to keep from losing their way along the wending path.

The race has three distinct starting points. Elites and "fast for age" runners begin at the Blue Start in Blackheath. Celebrities, seniors, "good for agers" and sponsors toe the line at the Green Start, also in Blackheath. Most of the field gathers at the Red Start in Greenwich, which is famous for its elaborately costumed runners and festive, parade-like atmosphere. Highlights of the course include:

  • Miles 1 to 6. Runners pass the Woolwich Royal Artillery Barracks, Inigo Jones' Queen's House, built in 1616, and the spectacular architecture of Christopher Wren's National Maritime Museum.
  • Miles 7 to 12. Just past mile 8, marathoners reach the London Docklands area, and at mile 10.5 they can catch a glimpse of the Mayflower Pub where Pilgrims gathered to set sail for America in 1620.
  • Miles 13 to 17. Midway through the race, runners cross Tower Bridge, a real race highlight. At mile 15, athletes reach the Isle of Dogs, where 17th century Dutch-engineered dikes and windmills once drained the marsh.
  • Miles 18 to 26.2. At mile 18, runners can catch a glimpse of stragglers 3 miles behind them on the opposite side of City Pride pub. Miles 22 to 25 wend past St. Katharine's Dock, Billingsgate Market and Cleopatra's Needle. When runners reach Big Ben and Parliament square, they're only a mile from the finish at Buckingham Palace.

If the history along the London Marathon route is awe-inspiring, the sites on the course itself are equally memorable. In 2009, Paul Simons entered Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest Santa-clad 26.2 miler, with a time of 2:55:50 [source: Virgin London Marathon]. In 2010, Telegraph reporter Jim White spotted one runner dressed as a house "complete with thatch, porch and 'For Sale' sign."

Once the race is run, marathoners can compare results over a pint at any of the 81 pubs located along the course. Find London marathon stats, facts and famous finishes in the next section.