If you have a love of both running and travel, then our guide to the top 10 of the most unique marathons around the world, from Antartica, to the Andes, from China to Jamaica. Here listed are our top 10:
- North Pole Marathon
The North Pole Marathon is run over the classic 42.195 km (26.2 miles) marathon distance at the North Pole. The race is run on small, 4.22 km (2.62-mile) loop about 10 times over hard snow or the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean. There are individual competitions with male and female divisions, and a team competition for teams of three or more. There is also an option to run a half marathon.
But first you must ask yourself if you have got the nerve and drive to travel to the North Pole and run on Arctic ice floes, with 6 to 12 feet separating you from 12,000 feet of Arctic Ocean? Can you handle the extreme cold? Are you fit enough? Do you want to push yourself to the edge?
Recognised as the most northerly marathon in the world, the North Pole Marathon is not for the faint of heart. Ten laps of a 2.6 mile circuit tests runners to their limits with a run that is not on land, but instead on the frozen Arctic Ocean. Run in April, competitors can face temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius, as well as challenging snow conditions.
If you don’t mind bone-chilling temperatures—the North Pole Marathon can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. According to the race website, it’s “the only certified marathon that is run entirely ‘on’ water, the frozen water of the Arctic Ocean.” It’s also recognized as the Northernmost Marathon on Earth.
- Inca Trail Marathon
It would appear there is more than one Inca Trail Marathon. The run takes place in June and again in August. Another one – claiming to be official (although we’re not sure on what grounds) is run by Erik’s Adventures and takes place in July. Whichever you choose to do, you will be assured a tough challenge with plenty of steep, tough ascents and as many equally-gruelling descents. From Cusco, you’ll face over 10,000 feet in altitude gain, and reach altitudes of over 13,000 feet (the highest point is Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,800 feet), taking in some stunning views along the way, culminating in a fabulous finish at Machu Picchu.
- Great Wall Marathon
The Great Wall Marathon is an annual marathon race, traditionally held on the third Saturday of May along and on the Huangyaguan or Huangya Pass, Tianjin section of the Great Wall of China East of Beijing. Since it first start in 1999, the race has grown to several hundred participants. A locally organized event offering a full selection of runs including a full marathon (42.2k), half marathon (21.1k), 10k, and 5k distances. Aside from the main marathon, a half marathon, 10 km and 5 km runs were also held until 2012. 2013 marked the debut of an 8.5 km “fun run”, replacing the 5 and 10 km distances. The course is much tougher than traditional marathons with participants challenged by 5,164 stone steps and many steep ascents and descents.
Conquer the Wall Marathon race course has 20,518 countable steps throughout varied terrain along the length of the race. Runners will traverse the Gubeikou and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall allowing runners the opportunity to see both older unrestored and newly restored sections of the great wall. The course meanders through secluded and rarely visited sections of the Great Wall featuring prestigious pathways on the most picturesque parts of the Great Wall giving marathon runners breath-taking panoramic views and memories that will last a lifetime.
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!
- The Big Five Marathon
The Big Five Marathon is a marathon race situated on the savannahs of South Africa. The race gets its name from the famous animals of Africa referred to as The Big Five Game: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. The course of The Big Five Marathon runs through the private game reserve Entabeni in the Limpopo Province, situated between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park. Even though the course runs directly through a lion territory, safety problems will not be an issue as the route is watched by helicopters and armed rangers.
The course of the marathon is atypical for its magnificent savannah scenery among the wildlife of South Africa as well as for its toughness. Even though the marathon is taking place in the wintertime, the sun can be brutal on the open savannahs. In addition to this, the course will be ascending quite a lot from beginning to end.
A challenging yet very rewarding event, The Big Five Marathon gives you the opportunity to run among zebras, giraffes and antelopes… and even through lion country, the thought of which should help you to maintain a steady pace. Don’t worry… there are rangers on hand to keep watch. Run in the Entabeni Game Reserve to the north of Johannesburg, this is one of the wildest of them all. Terrain is varied and there’s a killer (400-metre/1,300-foot) hill in the middle of the course.
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
- The Reggae Marathon, Negril, Jamaica
The Reggae Marathon & Half Marathon is Jamaica’s premier International Marathon Event. Marathoners, sports enthusiasts as well as beginners, converge in Negril, Jamaica’s capital of casual, for a fun event characterized by good vibes and lots of Reggae music.
Enthusiastic supporters come out along the looped, internationally certified course to support participants. Meanwhile, hard-working volunteers offer uniquely packaged water and re-hydration fluids at every mile. The pulsating Reggae music on course also keeps participants in an “irie” spirit, as they burn the mileage.
Once underway, the course loops around the residential roads, heading north into the town of Green Island. Admittedly, it isn’t the most scenic of routes – you run parallel to Negril’s seven-mile beach, but views of the sea are few and far between. Nonetheless, watching the sun rise while ticking off the miles was pretty special. The route is, mercifully, mostly flat, and lined with hotels, supporters and volunteers providing locally made HiLyte water pouches, Gatorade and gels. All in all, the Reggae Marathon Event is uniquely Jamaican with an international appeal.
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.
- Dam tot Dam Loop, Amsterdam
Dam tot Damloop (Dam to Dam Run in English) is an annual road running competition held in North Holland in the Netherlands. It is a Silver Label 10-mile race from Amsterdam to Zaandam. In addition to the main 10-mile race, the event hosts shorter races for children and several business team competitions. The Dam tot Damloop 10-miler attracts high level of participation: almost 10,000 runners competed in 1990, rising to almost 20,000 in 1999 and almost 40,000 in 2008.
- Atacama Crossing, Chile
The Atacama Crossing, held in October, is one of the races that make up the 4Deserts challenge: four 155-mile desert races, including Antarctica, the Gobi and the Sahara. The Atacama Crossing (Chile), is a 7-day, 250-kilometer / 155-mile self-supported footrace located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world located in north of Chile. Starting at 3,300 meters / 10,500 feet above sea level, the course takes competitors through canyons and valleys (including the rainbow coloured Arcoiris Valley, the Valley of Death and the Valley of the Moon), up old Inca roads, past salt lakes and small Chilean villages, and across sand dunes, salt flats and rivers, always surrounded by a range of stunning volcanoes including the iconic Licancabur at 5,920 meters / 19,420 feet. Competitors will race more than 1 mile above sea level, covering the horizontal crossing of the country of Chile (250 kilometers / 150 miles).
The Atacama Crossing race is self-supported, which means that we have to carry all our clothes, sleeping bag, mandatory equipment, medical/safety kit and 7 days of food in our pack. The race organizer only provides us with water (10 to 13 liters per day) and the tents for the nights. So choosing the right kit and food is a real challenge as everything has to fit in a relatively small pack. The goal is also to keep to the weight of the pack below 9 kg, without water.
The temperature is also a difficulty to consider as it reaches as high as 46°C in the day (recorded on my watch during the long stage) and goes down to 6°C during the night. That means the nights are cooler in Atacama than they are in Marathon des Sables and the Sahara Race, so we have to bring more clothes. Also the ground is more rocky at the camps so we have to bring a mattress too. Last but not least, the race takes place between 3,500 m and 2,400 m of elevation.
- Jungle Marathon, Brazil
The Jungle Marathon is an eco-race set in the Brazilian Amazon jungle with three categories: a marathon, a 4-stage 127km race and a 6-stage 254km race. All stages will have cut-off times. The compulsory kit list includes food, water, a hammock, a mosquito net and a first aid kit. Checkpoints will be placed at regular intervals, approximately 5-10km apart.
Racing through the Amazon Rain Forest, or the Jungles of Vietnam is a challenge that offers a unique experience to both competitors and organisers alike. The Amazon is an exotic, untamed destination through which you can cruise, trek, swim and even participate in a marathon. Jungle Marathon, entering its 12th edition, is perhaps one of the most incredible (and physically intense) ways to experience the natural environment of the Amazon, quite different from the runs you’re used to back home. Called “the world’s wildest eco race”, Jungle Marathon is a unique opportunity to combine sport and eco-tourism as you run through this gorgeous natural environment.
The organisers take safety very seriously and make every effort to minimise risk, but runners are encouraged to be aware of the potential hostilities and ensure that they have fully considered these points before proceeding with entry.
The course, which includes swamps, river crossings, steep climbs and descents, village trails and fluvial beaches, combined with humidity and scorching temperatures makes it a daunting and exciting race, but well within the realms of any competitor who has a strong mental mindset. Jungle Marathon, the world’s wildest eco race, gives competitors the opportunity to combine sport and eco-tourism and experience this stunning part of the world. Yes, physical fitness is a requirement but if you don’t have strong mental tenacity to combine with it then you will struggle to reach the finish.
With suffocating humidity, sky-high temperatures, snakes, caimans, leeches, river crossings and the smothering darkness of the Amazon rainforest, the Jungle Marathon must be one of the most hard-core marathons in the world. For those tough enough (read: crazy) the race is held each October and there are three distances available to runners: a marathon, a 78-mile and a 157-mile race (the latter two are split into four and six stages respectively).
- Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, Nepal
The 9. Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon includes three different categories for its participants, which include a 60km extreme ultramarathon race, a 42km full marathon race and a 21km Half Marathon race. For participants, a medical check-up certificate from authorized health professionals that certifies the runner’s ability to withstand high altitude conditions is mandatory while submitting the application form. Considering the high altitude conditions of the race, runners are also advised by the organizers to take a minimum of 1-5 days for acclimatization. All runners are also compulsorily required to have a valid health insurance before participation. The marathon has a participation limit of around 250 runners across all categories.
Everest Marathon is an annual marathon event, held in the district of Solukhumbu, Nepal, around the vicinity of Mount Everest in May. With its starting point at 5365m above the sea level, the marathon is considered to be one of the highest and toughest races in the world. The marathon starts at the Mt. Everest Base Camp, and moves through the traditionally used high Sherpa trails of Khumbu Valley. Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon is probably the most adventurous trail run in the world.
The journey starts from Everest Base Camp the 42KM, Full Marathon ends at Namche Bazar. Each year hundreds of participants run the full category in Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon. Participants will camp at Everest base Camp before the race day. The course of Full Marathon are mostly downhill and is a trekking trail hence caution while running is a most. The trails of 42km Marathon descend through Gorakshep and heads down towards Dingboche where runners will make a loop at Biber. From here, the tracks will desend to Namche via Kyanjuma. Participants will climb Kala Patthar, a view spot at 5,643 m prior to the race. Glorious views of Mt. Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse and other mountains are visible in a panoramic structure from Kala Patthar.
Take part in the 3 week adventure with 3 nights in the capital city of Kathmandu then an 14 day trek to the Everest Basecamp where you will have a few days to acclimatize. Runners will be accompanied by expert local guides, a full support crew including doctors.
- Ice Marathon, Antarctica
The Antarctic Ice Marathon was established by Richard Donovan / Polar Running Adventures to enable marathon runners to complete a marathon on all seven continents. It also enables athletes to complete the marathon grand slam – a marathon on all seven continents and the North Pole.
Runnings of the Antarctic Ice Marathon and 100 km race have taken place at 80° south just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. Participants are flown from Punta Arenas, Chile to the race location in the interior of the Antarctic and experience sub-zero temperatures and 24 hours of daylight while there.
Registration is limited and places are allotted on a first come first served basis only. This event sells out every year. If it’s your dream to do the Antarctic Ice Marathon you need to book early to avoid disappointment.
The Antarctic Ice Marathon is the only official marathons located on the continent of Antarctica. Each year, athletes travel to Antarctica to compete to be crowned the winner of a marathon in one of the world’s harshest climates. This unique opportunity provides athletes the opportunity to run on Antarctica, a continent most people never get to step foot on. The marathon is held at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains, a few hundred miles from the South Pole. Running a marathon is no easy feat and this event pushes athletes to their limits as athletes are competing in one of the most challenging locations on the planet, battling extreme cold, strong winds and an altitude of 700 metres. Athletes must compete through snow and ice with cold weather gear on. Due to high winds, it is not uncommon to see slower times than standard marathons.