Every year, race organizers host 1,100 marathons in the United States. The country offers small-town and big-city races, World Majors with more than 50,000 runners, and marathons on country roads with 100 participants and a few cows. Each 26.2-mile race is spectacular in its own right. It’s difficult to say what exactly qualifies a race as “the best.”
There are, of course, races that are simply legendary. These are the marathons with bucket list-worthy courses, hundreds of thousands of spectators, crazy after-parties, or dream race-cations. We wanted to find the best marathons in the US. We include options that would impress every types of runner out there.
If you are looking to run marathons, use this as your primer to find what race will be right for you. We took a look at race reviews and talked to veteran marathoners to find the best of the best. We took into account organization, scenery, PR-potential, and race energy and came up with this list of the 13 best marathons in the nation.
Epcot, Florida | January 2024 | Register
Disney lovers, princess wannabes, and Mickey enthusiasts rejoice. The Walt Disney World Marathon is seriously the most magical race on Earth. It’s one of the most popular marathons in the states. The marathon attracts more than 100,000 participants and spectators each year and usually selling out within minutes of registration opening.
The reason it’s a fan favorite is because there’s no other race like it – you run through Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Throughout the race, you’ll see all your favorite characters. Most runners also get into the spirit of the event and dress up in sparkle skirts, tutus, capes, and elaborate costumes that keep spirits high well into the race.
The marathon is just one part of the runDisney race weekend just outside of Orlando. Throughout the two days, there are four races – a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon. There are also super fun and kind of crazy challenges. The Goofy Challenge allows you to run the half and full marathons and the Dopey Challenge grants you access to all four races for a grand total of 48.6 miles for the weekend. The race routinely makes top marathon lists like Runner’s World.
Boston, Florida | April 2023 | Register
The Boston Marathon is one of the most legendary sporting events in the world. Established in 1897, it’s the world’s oldest annual marathon. Its rich history, beautiful New England scenery, and challenging course make it a bucket list for any serious marathoner. It’s held on Patriot’s Day, the third Monday in April, each year. The entire city gets amped for the race and even spectating the event is a can’t-miss experience.
If you want to run it, you should know that you’ve got to be fast. In the 1970s, Boston implemented a qualifying standard still in place today, meaning not just anyone can register. You must meet the criteria – which are updated every year – to enter the lottery for a spot. To get an idea of just how fast the field is, an 18-34-year-old male must run a 3:00-hour marathon 18 months before to qualify. Females within that age range must run a 3:30. It’s a restrictive cut off, but the challenge has only made the race more desirable. Some runners opt to snag a spot by running and raising money for a charity.
The point-to-point course is challenging, and the weather is unpredictable, but the conditions won’t matter if you qualify. The Boston Marathon is well-known for course landmarks like the start line in Hopkinton, Wellesley College’s Scream tunnel at the halfway point, the Newton Hills which lead to the infamous Heartbreak Hill, and the finish line on Boylston Street in Boston. Running Boston is the Holy Grail of marathoning, so if you’re up for the challenge and speedy enough to qualify, this race is for you.
Big Sur, California | April | Register
The Mayor of Running, also known as Bart Yasso, has called this the one race you must do in your lifetime. There’s a good reason for this praise. The course takes you along the famous California Route 1 from Big Sur to Carmel. It’s a nature-lovers paradise. From the giant Redwoods to the panoramic Pacific Ocean views, the 26.2 miles will fly by.
If you’ve seen photos of The Big Sur Marathon, you’ve likely seen runners coming across the Bixby Bridge. It’s the halfway point of the race where participants are greeted by a man in a tuxedo playing a baby grand piano.
Nearly every runner has raved about this race since it started in 1986. Even when race day is windy, cold, or rainy, marathoners feel grateful just to run in such a beautiful place. It’s really something you have to see to believe. But keep an eye out for registration dates; as a small race with just about 4,500 total runners, it sells out fast.
Elizabeth City, North Carolina | April | Register
The United States Coast Guard’s official race is treat for runners looking for a smooth, fast, and flat race that runs like clockwork. Reviewers absolutely love this race thanks to the military history, flat and well-marked course, and excellent orginization. The race starts at the Pasquotank riverfront before looping through the U.S. Coast Guard Base and Air Station. Halfway through, you’ll go by one of the last standing WWII airship hangars. It ends in the downtown of historic Elizabeth City by way of Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college.
The pre- and post-race events make this an event you’ll want to run at least once. At the start, there is a helicopter flyover that is sure to get you amped for the miles ahead. Once you finish, you’ll be treated to a BBQ-filled afterparty. It’s a newer race, starting in the 2020s, and we suspect it will explode in popularity soon.
Roanoke, Virginia | April | Register
If you want bragging rights for the rest of your life, sign up for what is often called the toughest road race in the country. In our humble opinon, we think this ranks at second hardest after Pike’s Peak, but we could persuaded otherwise since there is a total of 7,430 feet of elevation gain.
Despite its difficulty, the Blue Ridge Marathon offers some of the most breathtaking views on a race course in this country. The out-and-back course begins and ends in downtown Roanoke and takes you along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is the scenic route with beautiful vistas of the Southeast’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
We absolutely love that this is a tiny race with only 750 runners allowed to register. And at the end, there’s a music festival to celebrate a marathon course that literally makes you climb up and down mountains.
Cincinnati, Ohio | May | Register
On one weekend every May, Cincinnati gets to show off and get the appreciation it deserves. The Flying Pig marathon is the region’s premier marathon, and if you had to distill race weekend down to one word, it would be “fun.”
First of all, who doesn’t love the name of the race? Back in the 1800s, Cincinnati was well known as a meat-packing city where pigs regularly ran the streets. In the 1980s, when they developed the Ohio Riverfront, an artist crafted a sculpture commemorating the city’s history. It was a flying pig, which now serves as Cincinnati’s defacto mascot. It’s an incredible running city and the course shows off the downtown area, its stadiums, the rivers, and even crosses into Kentucky for a few miles.
There are hills in the first half of the race, but past participants have said the climbs are well worth it to get the view at the top. The second half of the race flies by with rolling hills along the way. The crowd support, swag, and options to add a 5K, 10K, and half marathon to your weekend make this a race many runners return to year after year.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado | June | Register
The Steamboat Marathon is perfect for runners who don’t want the big crowds and hullabaloo of a larger race. Marathoners who are looking to run in complete peace with incredible views and stunning green pastures will love Steamboat.
There is a reason Steamboat is one of the most photographed race courses. The mountains in the background and big skies make it one of the most scenic races in the world. But we didn’t choose this one just for its beauty. It’s also a Boston qualifier with a net downhill of more than 1,000 feet. The race gives you an elevation drop from 8,128 feet above sea level at the start at Hahns Peak to 6,728 feet at the finish.
Keep in mind, this race is in the Rockies, at altitude, so if you don’t like being that far from sea level, the net downhill might not work out well for you. But if you’re just there to run the country roads and grab a delicious post-race meal in Steamboat, then put this destination race on your list.
Duluth, Minnesota | June | Register
A lot of races bill themselves as the friendliest in the country, but Grandma’s Marathon actually earns that designation. The people of Duluth show up to cheer through all 26.2 miles and then have an epic afterparty later in the day. Plus, it’s a Saturday marathon, so you can run as hard as you can and celebrate just as hard after.
But even more than the hospitality and post-race events, people love Grandma’s Marathon because it’s a flat, fun, beautiful, and fast course that runs along Lake Superior. The point-to-point course takes you down Scenic Route 61 into Duluth. It’s a smaller race with about 10,000 participants and plenty of space to run. Despite its small size, the race is a well-oiled machine with a lot of perks you’d usually only find in big-city races.
Chicago, Illinois | October | Register
When you ask runners where they had the best race experience, many will tell you it was the Chicago Marathon. In Chicago, October mornings tend to be chilly and ideal for running. Many people run PRs thanks to these ideal conditions and the pancake-flat course. It’s not just amateur runners who flock to Chicago for good times; the elite field is generally pretty stacked with hopefuls looking to win prize money and run personal bests.
The course is a loop that starts and finishes in Grant Park along Lake Michigan. It winds through Chicago’s beautiful downtown and down spectator-lined streets.
Like the other World Major marathons on this list, Chicago is tough to get into. Though it accepts about 40,000 runners, there is still a higher demand than spots offered. The race uses a lottery system to try to get as many runners in as possible. You can get guaranteed entry if you run a qualifying time based on your gender and age category. But if you can get in, you can cross the legendary race off your bucket list. Plus, once you run your PR, grab some deep-dish pizza.
St. George, Utah | October | Register
Possibly one of the most scenic places on Earth, St. George is a destination that everyone should try to visit at least once. So why not run a marathon there? Throughout the race, you’ll get to see southern Utah’s spectacular and varying landscape – from the red rock sandstone mountains to black basalt formations.
It’s an incredible – and downhill – journey that starts at the Pine Valley Mountains and decends more than 2,000 feet into the finish at Vernon Worthen Park in St. George City. Don’t be fooled by the huge elevation drop, this race is still a challenge and you’ll often hear runners boasting about making it up the Veyo hill. The second part of the race, though, is mostly downhill, which helps when you’re running 26.2 miles in the desert. Despite its tough elements, many people run personal bests at this race, which is probably why it’s the 13 largest in the the United States.
Arlington, Virginia | October | Register
The Marine Corps Marathon takes you from Virginia through the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., as you’ve never seen it before. You will pass the Pentagon, the Jefferson Memorial, the Tidal Basin, Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument along the out-and-back course.
As if that’s not enough to see, you’ll also be serenaded by bands and cheered for by more than 150,000 spectators. Since it is organized by the Marines, it’s one of the most precise and well-orchestrated events in the world. Runners enjoy the rolling hills, especially the final hill where Marines “motivate” you (yell at you) to the top. The race is also very spectator friendly, which is perfect for those bringing their fan club along to cheer them on.
You don’t need a qualifying time to enter, but it’s still hard to get in. As the 10th largest race in the world, it’s a popular race with 30,000 runners that sells out shortly after registration opens at the end of March every year.
The Marine Corps Marathon is the largest marathon in the world that doesn’t offer any prize money, earning it the nickname “The People’s Marathon.”
New York City, New York | November | Register
Some would say the New York City Marathon is the ultimate marathon experience. It’s the largest marathon in the world, with more than 500,000 participants running through all five of New York City’s boroughs every November. Plus, as one of the most anticipated World Majors, New York attracts big names both in terms of elite runners and celebrities.
The course is one of the tougher ones on this list, but it’s truly the ultimate way to see New York on foot. You’ll start in Staten Island then cross into Brooklyn where you spend about 11 miles getting cheered on like crazy by the awesome crowds. You’ll then head to Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, and finish after conquering the rolling hills of Central Park. Veteran New York City marathoners will tell you that the bridges are the ultimate challenge – and the most exhilarating terrain and scenery to experience in a race.
New York rolls out the welcome mat for marathoners who visit from all over the world. And the spectator support is possibly the best of any race. Bars and restaurants offer marathon specials both for runners and the crowds. It’s really not just a race – it’s a cultural experience and one to add to your list. Of course, it’s one of the hardest races to get into. Because so many people want to run it, you have about a 16 percent chance of getting your registration accepted through the lottery. However, you can score a bib by running a qualifying time, taking part in the New York Road Runners running program, or running for a charity.
Honolulu, Hawaii | December | Register
There is nothing quite as special as running in paradise. The Honolulu Marathon begins on Ala Moana Boulevard, which is Hawaiian for ”path by the ocean.” The entire out-and-back course runs along the coastline with ocean views and also winds through downtown and suburban Honolulu, past many historic buildings, volcanoes like Diamond Head, and monuments.
It’s the fourth-largest marathon in the US, which gives the race an electric feel. One of the reasons people adore this race – aside from it being in Hawaii – is because there is no time cutoff for people in the back of the pack. The vibe is also welcoming and friendly for all runners with the afterparty hyped all the way until the last runner crosses the line.
Nearly everyone who’s run this race before wants to run it again, but they do caution that the UV Index, heat, and humidity are not for everyone. If you’re more of a cold-weather runner, maybe try a race back on the mainland. Aside from the weather, the race is a dream. And who wouldn’t want to chill by the pool or hang out on the beach to recover? It’s the ultimate race-cation destination.
What is the most prestigious marathon in the USA?
The Boston Marathon is often considered the most prestigious marathon in the USA. In the 1970s, race organizers introduced qualifying times as a way to limit the number of entrants while still allowing established runners to compete. These standards only added to Boston’s appeal. The cutoff times have been recalculated several times since the 1970s and have only gotten more stringent. Runners will race several marathons and go through several marathon training cycles and still not be able to run the times required to enter the Boston Marathon lottery. Additionally, the elite field is almost always very competitive thanks to a generous prize purse. This adds to the prestige of the race as well.
What are the top 6 marathons?
Most people consider the six Abbott World Marathon Majors the top marathons to race or spectate. The majors are the Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, TCS London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon, and TCS New York City Marathon.
What are the Big 5 Marathons?
The Big 5 marathons refer to the Boston Marathon, TCS London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon, and TCS New York City Marathon. They are called the Big 5 because they have the most participants. They have become famous and synonymous with the marathon community. These races also attract the best of the best elite runners.
What is the best first marathon to start with?
The best marathon for first-timers has a lot to do with the individual runner. Most coaches would recommend that first-time marathoners choose a flat course with ample crowd support. Several marathons in the US are perfect for newbies, including the Philadelphia Marathon, Chicago Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, and the California International Marathon. To find the right race for you, check out our list of the Best Marathons for Beginners.
What are the 5 most difficult marathons?
We all know runners are crazy. Many look for a challenge beyond running 26.2 miles and feel the need to sign up for the hardest races they can find. Many consider Pike’s Peak Marathon in Colorado the most difficult marathon in the US, but the Blue Ridge Marathon in Virgnia is also incredibly challenging. Other tough races include the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the Great Wall Marathon, the Inca Trail Marathon, and the Everest Marathon.
What are the best marathons for spectators?
Having your entourage nearby while running is amazing for morale. If you are looking for a race that is best for spectators, consider a course where the crowd can spot you runner at different spots while only having to travel a short distance themselves. Marine Corps Marathon is a great example of an out-and-back that makes it easy to see a runner multiple times through the race.
If you’re a spectator just looking to experience a marathon, you should try to see Boston or New York at least once in your lifetime. Watching the elites blaze past you is a magical experience that will give you chills in these two events.