The World’s 13 Top Marathons

London Marathon: Photo by Milan G

Two weeks ago, we gave you a list of the world famous half marathons. Today, we will give you a list of the top big city marathons in the world.

These aren’t necessarily the most adventurous races out there. Just like in the half marathon blog post, we used our own criteria in coming up with this list of world’s top marathons.

  1. Size — it matters a bit how big a race is.
  2. Elite field — even some smaller races attract top-talent who are looking to win or to lay down a great time in order to secure a spot at an even more prestigious marathon in the future.
  3. Speed — even challenging courses, like Boston and New York, see runners running amazing times. When the atmosphere and competition is right, even races that aren’t perfectly flat can see eye-popping results.
  4. Host city — the joy of big city marathons is hard to describe, but nearly everyone will mention the crowds and the support. There’s something special about a world city putting on a special event and everyone — even non-runners — turning out for the fun.

The Abbot World Marathon Majors

The first in the list will obviously be the Abbott World Marathon Majors. This is a series of marathons consisting of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. The races take place in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City.

The existence of these races, and the lack of a comparable group for half marathons, is what led us to speculate what halves could likely make up such a grouping.

1) Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon:Photo by Annie

Established in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon, and perhaps the only major marathon held on a Monday. It is done every third Monday of April, which is Patriot’s Day in the US.

Boston is a very historic race that many runners across the world wish to participate in, but it’s tough to get a spot. Unless you’re running to raise money for charity, you’ll need to run a Boston Qualifying time (or BQ) at a marathon sometime in the preceding year. The BQ standards are held up as a measure of excellence in amature marathoning, so much so that many marathons with fast courses often advertise themselves as Boston Qualifier courses.

Boston Marathon is a point to point and net-downhill course hence does not meet the requirements set for courses eligible for world records.

In 2011, Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai won the Boston Marathon with 2:03:02, which was the world’s fastest time then, but did not qualify as a world record. The women’s course record holder is Bezunesh Deba of Ethiopia with 2:19:56. Both of those fast times were set without the advantage of pacesetters, as there are none in the Boston Marathon.

2) London Marathon

The London marathon is famous for always drawing most of the world’s best runners. In fact, some runners have referred to it as “the major race of the world’s major marathons.” due to the level of competition. Some of the great marathon runners who have won this marathon include Kenya’s Mary Keitany — who set the women’s only world record here — , Martin Lel and Paula Radcliff whose time here is the women’s world record. The marathon employs the use of pace setters to help the elite athletes push for faster times.

Since it was established, the marathon has always been held in the spring. It was first held on 29 March 1981.

Course records are held by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge for men at 2:03:05 and Great Britain’s Paula Radcliff for women at 2:15:25

3) New York City Marathon

It was established in 1970 and is now regarded as the world’s largest marathon with the largest number of entrants and finishers. In 2013, 51,999 started and 51,394 finished the marathon. The marathon course runs through all the five boroughs of the New York City

This marathon is held every first Sunday of November. Except in 2012 when the race was cancelled due to the Hurricane Sandy, the London marathon has been held every year since it was established.

Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai (2:05:06) and Margaret Ogayo (2:22:31) are the men and women course record holders. There are no pace setters.

4) Berlin Marathon

Berlin Marathon 2009: Photo by easy-berlin

This marathon was started in 1974 and takes place annually on the last weekend of September. It is reputed as the fastest marathon in the world with six of the latest consecutive men’s world records having been set here. Three of the women world records have also been set here. It employs the use of pace setters to help the elite athletes push for faster times.

Until September 1990, the race was limited only to the area West of Berlin but changed after Berlin became one city. Since then, the course circumvents the whole of Berlin.

Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto holds the men’s course record of 2:02:57, which is also the current world record while Mizuki Noguchi of Japan holds the women’s course record of 2:19:12.

5) Chicago Marathon

Like all the other major marathons, it is not easy finding a place with more than 169,000 applicants in 2014 and only less than 37,000 getting selected. Chicago marathon has a long history with its first race being run as early as 1905. However, the first edition of the modern marathon was run in September 1977. It ceased having pace setters in 2017.

The marathon is a favorite to many runners due to its fast and flat course which makes it ideal for registering personal best times. Four marathon world records have so far been broken on the Chicago marathon course.

Course records are being held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya (2:03:45 ) for men and Paula Radcliff of Britain (2:17:18) for women both of whom are world record runners.

6) Tokyo Marathon

Usually held in February, this is the latest marathon to be added to the world marathon majors and is also a relatively new event having been started in 2007. But before the Tokyo marathon, the Tokyo International Marathon and the Tokyo — New York Friendship International Marathon used to take place one on even and the latter on odd years starting from 1981.

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang and Sarah Jepchirchir hold the men and women course records in 2:03:58 and 2:19:47 respectively.

Apart from the Abbot World Marathon Majors, there are other marathons which are as popular due to the number of participants and the quality of the elite fields, and could be the next races to be added to the majors in the future.

Beyond the Majors

While the majors are the races both amateurs and professionals typically aspire too, there is a whole set of brilliantly organised big city marathons that are also well worth a look. They can offer the same excellent crowds of spectators as the majors, but are often much easier to register for and can be more affordable as well.

You’ll often see elites who are still trying to prove themselves lining up for these events, or indeed established champions showing up to chase a great time or prize money.

7. Paris Marathon

This is one of the most popular marathons in Europe, usually held in April with a limited number of 50,000 runners accepted annually. Like all races in France, one will need a doctor’s note clearing them to run. This could be a move to avoid health issues that could befall runners who may not be fit to run.

Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele holds the men’s course record in 2:05:04 while Purity Rionoripo holds the women’s record in 2:20:55.

8. Dubai Marathon

It is often referred to as the richest marathon in the world given the prize money of $200,000 on offer for the first place finishers. In 2008, one million dollars was offered for a world record and $250,000 for first place for both the men and women. Dubai marathon is also a relatively fast course suitable for setting personal best times.

It is usually done in January with the first edition of the race having been held in 2000. Ethiopians and Kenyans have always dominated the podium positions of this race since then.

Ethiopia’s Tamirat Dola holds the men’s course record in 2:04:11 while Aselefech Mergia holds the women’s in 2:19:31.

9. Amsterdam Marathon

Amsterdam Marathon,2014: Photo courtesy of Franklin Heijnen

Based on the average time of the ten fastest winners, this marathon is the sixth fastest course in the world as at 2016. So, it is another ideal marathon to set one’s personal best time especially given the fact that it doesn’t invite elites that are as competitive as those marathons ranked ahead of it like Berlin, London, Chicago and Paris.

This marathon was started in 1975 and it became a favorite to the Kenyans from 1996 with some notable consecutive wins by Sammy Korir in 1997 and 1998, Wilson Chebet in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and Bernard Kipyego in 2014 and 2015.

The men’s course record is being held by Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono in 2:05:09 while the women’s is held by Meseret Hailu in 2:21:09.

10. Toronto Waterfront Marathon

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon is held in Toronto, Ontario every October. It has become the biggest and fastest Marathon in Canada attracting many elite marathoners and is one of the five IAAF Gold label marathons in North America (three of the others are Majors). This marathon should not be confused with the Toronto Marathon which takes place on the first Sunday of May.

Course record holders for this marathon are Kenya’s Philemon Rono for men with 2:06:52 while women’s course record is held by Koren Jelela from Ethiopia with 2:22:42.

11. Frankfurt Marathon

Finish line in site, Frankfurt Marathon 2017: Photo by Marco Verch

The race was established in 1981 and is the second largest marathon in Germany after the Berlin Marathon. Because of its fast course, the marathon attracts most of the world’s best marathon runners in fact, world and Olympic Champion, Vivian Cheruiyot was on the start list last year. The race takes part every October and it was only in 1986 when it was aborted because the initial sponsors, the OSC Hoechst 1960 athletics club stopped organising the event.

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang holds the men’s course record in 2:03:42 which was then his personal best time before he broke the world record later in Berlin. Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu holds the women’s record in 2:21:01.

12. LA Marathon

This marathon has been held every Spring since its inception in 1986 and has experienced remarkable growth in the number of participants especially after the introduction of the ‘Stadium to Sea’ course. It has become one of the largest races in the US with cose to 25000 participants annually.

Course records are held by Ethiopia’s Markos Geneti (2:06:35) under men’s categories and Lidiya Grigoryeva from Russia with 2:25:10. Since it is a point-to-point race, it does not qualify as a world record course.

13. Rotterdam Marathon

The Rotterdam Marathon is held every April in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It attracts many elite runners and was named among the top 10 marathons by Runner’s World magazine. Because of its flat course and the favorable weather conditions, athletes tend to produce their fastest times here.

Current course records are held by Duncan Kibet (2:04:27) and Tiki Gelana (2:18:58) for men’s and female races respectively.


So there goes 13 of the most prominent marathons in the world. If there is any you think should have made it to the list, just let us know about it.

Also, if there is one you are looking to attend, our made in Kenya running shoes, Enda Itens, would best suited for your training.