Runner's Footprints

Runner's Footprints

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Top 20 Marathons

Running over 130 marathons, I have been asked often: What are your favorite marathons? There are hundreds out there worldwide and the numbers increase every year that are great for a variety of reasons.  It is difficult to narrow it down to one or even a few. So I narrowed it down to share my favorite Top 20 Marathons not necessarily by nationally popularity, but also for the unique experience they can offer the runner. My personal favorite marathons are in the Top 5.  As I continue to aim to explore the world and experience the culture around me, I update my list periodically. Ready for a little journey? Here are my favorite marathons:

Honorable MentionInca Trail Marathon
Location: Machu Picchu, Peru
Race Date: 7/5/12
2012 [Official] Finishers: 60
2012 Race Temps: 30F/60F
2012 Results: 10:32:57 - 3rd FOA
Looking for a phenomenal lifetime destination marathon? This ONE is it! It is my absolute favorite out of my 100+ marathons. Being of Ecuadorian decent and Incan roots, I always wanted to trek the Inca Trail backpackers claim to be a breathtaking experience ascending and descending  from ~8,500' elevation to ~13,700' elevation. The trail marathon contains approximately 10,700' of gain, being the most difficult marathon I have ever ran resulting in completing it in over 10hrs. It contains over 3,000 uneven steps along the route. You pass through 5 ecological zones of varying weather of hot, cold, wind, rain, wind, hail, anything. It challenges the fittest of the fit. Normally, backpackers trek along this route in 3-4 days. The Peruvian government gave this marathon a strict cut off: 11hrs. Therefore, two thirds of the field DNF'd (did not finish) and participants who did not make the cut off were forced to camp out on the trail to finish the route the next day. This is not due to the race rules; these rules are set by the Peruvian government so I recommend to be very well prepared for the extreme challenge of this event. Alpaca will be spotted throughout the route as your onlooking spectators as you run through one of the most mesmerizing lands of the world.

20. Malibu Marathon
Location: Malibu, CA
Race Date: 11/15/09
2009 Finishers: 330
2009 Race Temps: 50F/69F, windy
2009 Results: 3:38:01 BQ, 7th FOA
Point to point course begins in Camarillo and ends in Zuma Beach: first 10 miles are flat through Camarillo fields then the remaining 16 miles are along the beautiful CA coastline on PCH with possible strong headwinds and significant rolling hills. Beautiful beach marathon with a finisher's towel. Since its inaugural year in 2009, the race continues to grow in participation. As of 2013, the event no longer hosts the marathon distance. Instead, you can choose from the half marathon or 5K. I celebrated my 70th marathon here with my family.

19. Walt Disney World Marathon
Location: Orlando, FL
Race Date: 1/9/11
2011 Finishers: 13,522
2011 Race Temps: 44F/49F
2011 Results: 3:23:01 BQ, 52nd total
Want to be a kid again and run through multiple magical kingdoms as the sun rises before the crowds hit the amusement parks? The race is a hefty price tag, but travel to Orlando in January is in its low season so it balances out. Be prepared to wake up around 3am to arrive on time for this very early 5:30am race start and very crowded corrals. Arrive early and make sure to line up in your own corrals if you want to have a pleasant race. If you run relatively fast, you can enjoy no lines for the characters, which are in the first few miles. Enjoy the magic of the race with the half, full, or be Goofy and do both! Always sells out so sign up early.

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Race Date: 11/22/09
2009 Finishers: 7,465
2009 Race Temps: 50F
2009 Results: 3:29:42
If you love colors of the Fall, visit the east coast during this season. Philadelphia is beautiful in autumn colors and comfortable, cool temperatures. Rich in US history, you have plenty to explore in both museums and food culture while in the city. Race is well organized and draws great excitement all race weekend. Definitely loved this marathon for its energy, organization, and relatively flat course great for fast fall marathon times. And, of course, you can't miss running up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. :)  

17. Great Wall of China Marathon
Location: Beijing, China
Race Date: 5/22/16
2016 Finishers: 2,500
2016 Race Temps: 65F/85F

2016 Results: 5:07:35, 25th FOA, 99th OA

With over 70 countries represented in the field, the marathon, half and 10K draws in 2,500 from around the world to participate in one of the most iconic historic landmarks of the world: the Great Wall of China. Completed as my 127th marathon, this was my 3rd most difficult marathon after Inca Trail and Pikes Peak. The marathon contents approximately 5,000 of vertical gain with 5,164 steps in hot, humid temperatures of May. You have the perfect combination to challenge you in every which way for 26.2 miles of history. 

16. Sussex Trail Marathon – (Website)
Location: South Downs National Park, UK
Race Date: 3/23/2013
2013 Finishers: 64
2013 Race Temps: 30F/35F, 20mph winds
2013 Results: 4:55:57, 4th FOA, 1st US
With the world famous Seven Sister and far reaching views over the English Channel, this race course of 4200' elevation gain attracts the boldest of international trail runners for its terrain, views, and challenge. The routes shoulder the beautiful coastal town of Eastbourne and Seaford, which lie to the eastern section of the South Downs National Park. 2013 race day weather was hit with abnormal cold conditions of hail, rain, high winds dropping wind chill factor into the 20Fs. At risk of being cancelled due to extreme weather, fear and nerves were at its peak. However, as their saying goes: "Never Give Up." No matter how hard it gets, take pride that you can be tougher. Fortunately, race morning the race was on and I was able to earn 1st US finisher and 4th female overall. I loved this challenging international event. 

15. Red Rock Canyon Marathon – (Website)
Location: Red Rock Conservation Area, NV
Race Date: 3/5/11
2011 Finishers: 175
2011 Race Temps: 35F/50F
2011 Results: 3:38:59 BQ, 2nd FOA, 55th total
Calico Racing offers an absolutely gorgeous out-and-back course at elevation with views of red rock formations but be prepared for a large amount of hills on the roads. I love scenic courses so here is one that the views and hills will not disappoint. Watching the sunrise over the horizon is as breathtaking as they get. For a course preview, click here for my photo album. 

14. Bermuda Marathon – (Website)
Location: Hampton, Bermuda Island
Race Date: 1/18/09
2009 Finishers: 76
2009 Race Temps: 60F
2009 Results: 3:58:11, 22nd total
Take a vacation during Bermuda’s low season off the east coast and enjoy the beauty of the island’s two-loop course through its neighborhoods all along the shoreline. The locals are friendly and very welcoming to tourists. They also offer their Bermuda Triangle Challenge for runners interested in racing three consecutive days.

13. Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon – (Website)
Location: Two Harbors-Avalon, Catalina
Race Date: 3/10/12
2012 Finishers: 382
2012 Race Temps: 50F/70F
2012 Results: 5:16:32 pacer, 3rd Div.
Starting in Two Harbors and finishing in Avalon, you will run on trails through the hilltops of Catalina with miles of ocean views. Offering approximately 3,500′ of elevation gain, the course can challenge any runner who chooses to race it hard, but also merciful so you can enjoy the beauty of the island. Generally the rule of thumb is add about 1hr +/-15min to your regular road marathon time to predict a Catalina finishing time. Watch out for buffalo! My 2012 race photo album here.

12. Bellingham Bay Marathon – (Website)
Location: Bellingham, WA
Race Date: 9/26/10
2010 Finishers: 401
2010 Race Temps: 62F, light rain
2010 Results: 3:38:48 BQ, 48th total
Commented by many reviewers as “the most beautiful marathon in the Pacific Northwest,” you will run along the beauty of Bellingham Bay, San Juan Islands, with mountain views running on roads, bridges, and a touch of trails. A wonderful variety of beauty with slight hills was definitely a favorite small race of mine.

11. Bank of America Chicago Marathon 
Location: Chicago, IL
Race Date: 10/7/12
2012 Finishers: 37,455
2012 Race Temps: 42F/50F
2012 Results: 3:18:40 BQ, 17th state

Looking for a great running party with invites from all around the world in a great city? Capped at 45,000, this World Major Marathon produces a very well organized event given its size. List of World Majors currently includes: Boston, NYC, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Berlin. I've taken care of the US Majors and looking to add the international World Majors. Every year, it has been selling out sooner and sooner so don't delay on this one as 2013 will surely sell out in record time. By 2014, the race is now by lottery or qualification. The qualifications are very forgiving in comparison to Boston or NYCM qualifications. Weather can be a toss up race day with severe heat or very perfect cool racing conditions. I've ran my fastest marathons here for each of the three Chicago Marathons I have ran in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The energy, amazing crowds, deep dish pizza and great race atmosphere makes this world renown marathon worth trying.

10. Napa Valley Trail Marathon – (Website)
Location: Calistoga, CA
Race Date: 3/29/08
2008 Finishers: 45
2008 Race Temps: 40F/55F
2008 Results: 3:40:13, 1st FOA
Capped at 300 participants for the full, half, and 10K, the Napa Valley Trail Marathon offers a challenging yet rewarding course on a single track in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. Surrounded with lush greenery all around and running streams as your soundtrack, the course does require hill preparation. Even though I sprained my ankle on Mile 15 due to low ankle strength as I was only beginning to transition into trails again, it was sweet to cross the finish line for my first official win in this intimate, friendly marathon.

9. Napa Valley Marathon – (Website)
Location: Napa, CA
Race Date: 3/4/12
2012 Finishers: 1,794
2012 Race Temps: 39F/68F
2012 Results: 3:22:47 BQ, 72nd total
Named the "world’s best little marathon", it had made many top lists such as Top 10 marathons worth traveling for, Top 100 road races in North America, and it sure made my Top 20. In it’s 34th year, it still takes care of their runners with cool swag such as a duffle bag, tech shirt, spinner medal, and a great post-race festival with warm soup, massages, showers, and more. If that doesn’t excite you, the beautiful, peaceful net downhill point to point course through the vineyards of Napa are certainly a plus. Even though it is a slight net downhill course, do be aware of the continuous, gradual uphill in the last 10K. This race closes every year so sign up early.

8. Barcelona Marathon – (Website)
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Race Date: 3/7/10
2010 Finishers: 4,054
2010 Race Temps: 45F/60F
2010 Results: 3:37:52 BQ, 38th total
Traveling internationally for me is such a treat and to be able to combine it with a marathon makes it even more memorable. Europe travel in the spring is in its low season and much more affordable plus you will find favorable cooler racing temps. The course travels through many tourists sights in Barcelona so you get a great taste of the city. Enjoy a paella de Mariscos, great bottles of wine, and make it a vacation to remember! Note: European marathons tend to have fluid stations only every 5K. 

7. San Francisco Marathon – (Website)
Location: San Francisco, CA
Race Date: 7/31/11
2011 Finishers: 5,920
2011 Race Temps: 57F/60F
2011 Results: 3:35:06 BQ, 61st total
Want a marathon in the summer with almost guaranteed cool race temps and an early 5:30am start? SFM is the only race where it shuts down the Golden Gate just for its runners. The first half is hillier than the 2nd half but it isn’t as bad as SF could be. I personally love running on the Golden Gate, Embarcadero, Golden Gate Park, and other hot spots so I’ve ran this race for 8 consecutive years. It’s a favorite and an excuse to have great clam chowder.

6. Pikes Peak Marathon – (Website)
Location: Manitou Springs, CO
Race Date: 8/21/11
2011 Finishers: 728
2011 Race Temps: 68F/60F
2011 Results: 8:41:47, 62nd total
As “America’s Ultimate Challenge,” it fulfills its name. Claimed as the most difficult marathon in the US (Inca Trail Marathon is MUCH harder than PPM), the race begins at 6,300′ elevation climbs for 13 miles to the summit at 14,115′ then you turn around to return to the start. Ask any mountaineer, the mountain at that elevation controls the day so be prepared for anything and to have slower than normal mile splits. Add anywhere from 2-3hrs to your regular road marathon time. I was on target for a 2hr addition, but when a hail storm hit the summit, the boulders became slippery, and I sprained my ankle at Mile 18. I hopped to the finish and grateful that I did. I returned two years later to cut off about one hour off my time. You can see a course preview here.

5. Boston Marathon – (Website)
Location: Boston, MA
Race Date: 4/19/10
2010 Finishers: 22,588
2010 Race Temps: 42F/52F
2010 Results: 3:28:32 BQ, 40th total
It’s many runners’ dream to qualify and run the infamous Boston, and it does delivers a memorable experience. Marathon Monday is a holiday for Bostonians, and they welcome the running community with full energy. It is full of excitement, cheer, emotion, and thrill from the moment you start to the moment you finish. I’ve been very fortunate and grateful to qualify every year I have been running for the past 18 years. I am not "lucky" to be strong or fast; I train consistently and efficiently throughout the year because I sincerely enjoy the lifestyle. If I am not training, the rest of my life and moods are out of balance. Travel to Boston during this race weekend is substantially increased in hotel prices. After meeting some great friends in different states, I was happy to meet many of them in Boston and complete in now eight times in recent years. My album from a memorable girls weekend here!

4. ING NYC Marathon – (Website)
Location: New York City, NY
Race Date: 11/6/11
2011 Finishers: 46,795
2011 Race Temps: 40F/65F
2011 Results: 3:39:37 BQ, 66th total
As one of the largest marathons of the world, the unheard of energy of this race surpasses Boston. I was pleasantly amazed with the great organization of this race as it runs through the five boroughs of NYC. Don’t look for your fastest time here with the multiple bridge crossings and so much excitement to absorb in this amazing race! It was my first trip to New York and was happy to run it during my first visit. Everything about this race is a must try at least once in your lifetime of marathon running. 

3. Rome Marathon – (Website)
Location: Rome, Italy
Race Date: 3/22/09
2009 Finishers: 11,010
2009 Race Temps: 39F/55F
2009 Results: 4:01:21, 25th marathon
One of the most historical architectural city marathons you can ever experience! Passing through over 20 tourist sites in Rome, some course highlights are running through the Vatican City, Pantheon, Fountain de Trevi, but most notable is starting and finishing around the infamous Coliseum. The entire run is as majestic as they get and listening to the spectators cheer you on in Italian makes the entire experience unforgettable. Nothing disappoints in Italy: it was the best pizza, best wine, best city, best gelato, and best company I can ever ask for earning the #3 favorite of marathons in my heart. After the marathon, we visited Rome, Florence, and Venice to make a memorable trip. Make it at least a week long vacation and you will not regret it.

2. Big Sur Marathon – (Website)
Location: Big Sur to Carmel, CA
Race Date: 4/29/12
2012 Finishers: 1,786
2012 Race Temps: 50F/62F
2012 Results: 3:26:45
Beautiful, gorgeous, and breathtaking do not give the Big Sur Marathon justice how magnificent the course really is. It is the only marathon that closes down PCH entirely for its runners from Big Sur to Carmel running along the jagged edge of the western world. You have miles of green beauty to the east and miles of blue beauty to the west. You will be mesmerized almost every step of the way especially when you run across Bixby bridge and listen to the echoing harmony of the pianist playing just for its runners. Since 2010, they have also added the Boston to Big Sur Challenge so if you run Boston and are up for a little combined time competition, B2B is a nice touch. You will see here why this is one of my favorites. This is a must in a runner’s lifetime!

1. Los Angeles Marathon – (Website)
Location: Los Angeles-Santa Monica, CA
Race Date: 3/1/99
1999 Finishers: 16,861
1999 Race Temps: 55F/73F
1999 Results: 4:05:55, 1st marathon
And finally for #1, the Los Angeles Marathon. Over the eighteen years of my running career, I have ran LAM every single year and experienced several course changes, changes in management ownership, and a variety of weather conditions from scorching heat waves to the monsoon that hit LA in 2011. Now with a net downhill course still with several rolling hills, it runs from the Dodger stadium to Santa Monica Pier. What brings me back every year? The memory of running 26.2 for the first time with my father: we ran our first together in 1999 and we continue to come back. Now how could this beat the Inca Trail Marathon. Well, when you shed tears for your first and then shed tears again many years later when you FINALLY realize a goal you've been after for years, there's something that just will never leave your heart. In LAM 2012, it was the first time I ran a sub-3:20 earning myself a then 3:18:17 PR not by killing myself in training because I then was only running ~30mpw. The biggest factor was: dreaming it, believing it, and training smarter. My detailed race report here. Since then, I have ran several times under 3:20 still as a relatively low mileage runner at ~30mpw. Since 2013, I transitioned my training to ultra training and Ironman training where I still aim to maintain a marathon base fitness. [Update: I hit my PR again at the 2013 LAM in 3:16:05 not because it is a PR course; more so because my training unfolded nicely - consistent, strategic work always pays off.] Nothing is more powerful than the power of the mind and that is what has taken me as far as it has. It's an amazing world out there. The life of all my race experiences has taught me are irreplaceable. Let it be your playground and explore it.

Looking for a coach you can trust to help you reach your running or triathlon goals? Working with students and adults for over 10 years, I take pride in helping any individual beginning at any fitness level, any lifestyle, any goal. Together, we can get you there. Email me at for more info about online coaching and customized training plans to help you reach your goals with strategic and efficient focus. 


  1. Congrats Nadia on all of your marathons. :) WOW!! I'd love to run NYC one day! Thanks for being an inspiration. You really are a lovely person. Good Luck at LAM next month!!! xo

  2. Great reviews. I've run a few of these - Napa Valley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I agree with your rankings. I thought Napa was one of the most beautiful runs, although it rained on me both years I did it!

    1. Oh! Nadia, you gotta try a Spartan Race sometime. I really think you'd like the trail running aspect and the variety of obstacles. There are a couple 4-mile Sprints in Southern California coming up. There are some 13-mile Beasts in Northern California coming up as well. Use this link to get 15%-off:

  3. I have only done 5 of these, but several others are on my to-do and wish lists. I recommend Crater Lake marathon for you.

  4. Some of these are on my list, although my total # run is much lower than yours. We are spoiled with such great races in CA. Hope to see you at one of these one day.

  5. Hi Nadia - I am a fellow Marathon Maniac. I came across your blog searching for Barcelona Marathon. You should check Madrid and Valencia Marathon. They are phenomenal too. Best of luck in LA this week!

  6. We are looking for people to Join the 15th Annual Team Spirit Long Beach 5k and 10K marathon and help put an end to breast and ovarian cancer today!. You can help distribute brochures and yard signs to local stores, offices, and restaurants! Are you a people person? We have many community events where Team Spirit needs a presence. Volunteer to work a table at one of these events to hand out brochures and spread information about Team Spirit, and recruit participants! Already attending the marathon? Then help volunteer the day of the event. We need groups to assist with set up, participant check-in, new registrations, and drive or co-pilot shuttle vans. We will also need people to man water stations, and course monitors to assure participants’ safety and morale.