Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The World Marathon Majors aren’t just for the pros. If you’ve got a fresh pair of sneakers and a valid passport, you can run them all. Here’s how.
Boston, New York, Berlin, London, Chicago, Tokyo: They’re not just exciting cities—they’re home to the world’s biggest, most prestigious marathons. Together, the races comprise the World Marathon Majors (WMM).
The series began as a way of building a passionate fan base for professional distance running, much like the Grand Slams in tennis and golf. But since its inception in 2006, the series has expanded to include the thousands of dedicated athletes who may never break the tape but who relish challenges like traveling the world 26.2 miles at a time.
For the professional athletes, the WMM offers a hefty prize purse: a total of $1 million, shared by the top five male and female points winners in the running and wheelchair divisions. Series XII got underway at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, and will conclude in Berlin next September. Mary Keitany, who won her fourth New York City Marathon in November, is the reigning women’s champion, while her Kenyan compatriot Eliud Kipchoge holds the men’s title (along with the world record of 2:01:39, set in Berlin). Points are awarded to the top five finishers in each division, and the top scorers each take home $250,000 (smaller awards go to the second- and third-place athletes).
Even if you’re not the kind of running superfan who has a poster of three-time WMM champ Edna Kiplagat over her bed, you can still get in on the excitement. In 2016, series sponsor Abbott Pharmaceuticals began recognizing athletes who’ve completed all six races. To date, 3,786 runners have claimed the impressive six-star medal—joining an exclusive club of dedicated running fans and presumably racking up a whole lot of frequent-flier miles along the way.
You might have a shot at becoming an age-group world champion, thanks to the newly created WMM age group rankings. Beginning with the 2018 Berlin Marathon, masters-age athletes, beginning at 40, can also earn points in WMM races. The top scorers will be invited to participate in the Age Group World Championship, held at the 2020 London Marathon.
Renee Seman, from Long Island, hopes to claim her fifth and sixth stars in 2019. She ran Tokyo in March and is planning to run London in April.
“Finishing just one marathon seemed impossible when I started,” she says.
But as she gained fitness and confidence while training for her first marathon (2015 New York City), she decided to reach for the stars—all six of them. As she ramped up her training for the final two races, Seman said, “It seems surreal that I’m on track to complete them all just four years later.”
Here’s how you can get in on the excitement, too.
There’s a lot more to Berlin than beer and pretzels, though you’ll find both at the finish. Founded during the Cold War in 1974, the marathon initially took place entirely in West Berlin. When the wall fell in 1989, the race went through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time. That’s just one of the landmarks on the course.
You’ll also pass the site of John F. Kennedy’s famous “ich bin ein Berliner” speech, as well as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Gendarmenmarkt—though chances are you’ll be moving too fast to notice. Berlin’s pancake-flat loop course has produced a slew of world—and personal—records.
RACE DATE: September 29, 2019
BE A BERLINER: Entries are mainly distributed by lottery in late November, and an additional 1,000 charity spots are available in early December for a one-time donation. Alternatively, you can travel with a tour operator who’ll book your flights and make hotel arrangements as part of a package. bmw-berlin-marathon.com
WALLS COME DOWN: Many running experts tout Berlin as the fastest course on the planet. Naoko Takahashi of Japan would agree. In 2001, she became the first woman to break the 2:20 barrier there. And in September 2018, Kipchoge cemented his place in the marathon pantheon when he set the world record in 2:01:39.
FIELD SIZE: 40,000+
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Gladys Cherono, Kenya, 2:18:11 (2018)
Men: Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya, 2:01:39 (2018)
Women’s wheelchair: Manuela Schar, Switzerland, 1:36:53 (2018)
Men’s wheelchair: Heinz Frei, Switzerland, 1:21:39 (1997)
ELEVATION: About the same as a pool table
WEATHER: The 2018 race featured low humidity and temperatures around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Windy City puts on a spectacular race on the second Sunday in October. Starting and finishing in Grant Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Chicago Marathon carries runners through 29 vibrant, diverse neighborhoods. Whatever motivates you—Beatles cover bands, Japanese drummers, drag cheerleaders, an Elvis impersonator—you’ll probably find it as you make your way through Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Greektown, and Pilsen.
RACE DATE: Oct. 13, 2019
SWEET HOME CHICAGO: Odds of getting a bib through the lottery are good—and you can also claim a guaranteed entry with a qualifying time. Charity runners also make up a significant portion of the field. chicagomarathon.com
BULLS, BEARS, HAWKS, SOX, CLOCKS: Athletes of every stripe have seen success in Chicago. Four world records have been set there, and in 2017 Galen Rupp became the first American to break the tape in 15 years. But perhaps the most impressive Chicago feat took place in 2011, when Amber Miller finished the race in 6:25:50—hours before giving birth to a healthy baby girl.
FIELD SIZE: 40,000+
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain, 2:17:18 (2002)
Men: Dennis Kimetto, Kenya, 2:03:45 (2013)
Women’s wheelchair: Tatyana McFadden, USA, 1:39:15 (2017)
Men’s wheelchair: Heinz Frei, Switzerland, 1:26:56 (2010)
ELEVATION: Nearly as flat as Berlin. The only noteworthy hill on the course is a railroad overpass near the 26-mile mark.
WEATHER: Chicago is known for extreme weather; the marathon has seen severe heat as well as snow. Pack several outfits.
New York City Marathon
New York isn’t just one of the biggest marathons in the world—it’s the biggest. If you’ve run it already, you’re a world-record holder: More than a million people have finished the New York City Marathon, which is more than any other marathon. Starting on Staten Island and finishing in Central Park, the race touches all five boroughs. You’ll run through trendy Brooklyn, Queens, and into the Bronx before you finish in Manhattan. Roughly two million spectators come out to cheer, proving once and for all that New Yorkers really are friendly.
RACE DATE: Nov. 3, 2019
BIG APPLE OR BUST: There are several ways to get into New York. Members of New York Road Runners who run nine races and volunteer during a calendar year are guaranteed entry for the following year. Many others run for charity teams. There are also time-qualifier spots—but be advised that New York’s standards are even tougher than Boston’s. tcsnycmarathon.org
EIGHT MILLION STORIES: Shalane Flanagan may be from Boston, but she claimed her place in New York history when she flew through Columbus Circle toward the finish line all alone, pumping her fist and hollering “F*** yeah!” as she won the 2017 title. Flanagan, like fellow American Meb Keflezighi, now has a complete set of New York City Marathon medals: gold, silver and bronze.
FIELD SIZE: 50,000+
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Margaret Okayo, Kenya, 2:22:31 (2003)
Men: Geoffrey Mutai, Kenya, 2:05:06 (2011)
Women’s wheelchair: Tatyana McFadden, USA, 1:43:04 (2015)
Men’s wheelchair: Kurt Fearnley, Australia, 1:29:22 (2006)
ELEVATION: New York features some significant climbs—most of them over bridges. The first mile, over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, is straight uphill; many eager athletes still manage to go out too hard. Let them go. You’ll see them again in the Bronx.
WEATHER: Early November in the Northeast is reliably cool. You’ll spend some time outside on Staten Island before the start, so be sure to dress in layers and donate anything you don’t want to wear in the race.
Japan is home to a robust running culture—just ask 2018 Boston Marathon champ Yuki Kawauchi, who’s run an incredible 79 marathons under 2:20 (not to mention half marathons in a three-piece suit and a panda costume). The Tokyo Marathon is a relative newcomer to the WMM—the race was founded in 2007 and became part of the series in 2013. Though it’s a long way for most Americans to travel for a race, you can look forward to carb loading with a hearty bowl of ramen.
RACE DATE: March 3, 2019
ICHI, NI, SAN, GO: For a trip this significant, many international runners choose to travel with a tour operator such as Marathon Tours. marathon.tokyo/en
RISING SUN: Though the Tokyo Marathon is only a few years old, it’s poised to shine as the city prepares to host the summer Olympics in 2020.
FIELD SIZE: 30,000+
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Sarah Chepchirchir, Kenya, 2:19:47 (2017)
Men: Wilson Kipsang, Kenya, 2:03:58 (2017)
Women’s wheelchair: Wakako Tsuchida, Japan, 1:41:04 (2016)
Men’s wheelchair: Kurt Fearnley, Australia, 1:26:00 (2016)
ELEVATION: The first 5K is a gradual downhill; after that, things flatten out for the remainder of the course.
WEATHER: For once, you can be glad you’re not an Olympian. Tokyo is notoriously hot and humid in the summer, but early March tends to be cool and dry (except in 2019, when it was wet and chilly).
One of the world’s most prestigious distance-running events, the Boston Marathon has taken place every Patriot’s Day since 1897. Starting in tiny Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the famously challenging course takes runners through seven towns and over Heartbreak Hill en route to the finish at Copley Square. Combining rural New England charm, big-city excitement, and a unique history, Boston is the Holy Grail for runners from all over the world. Every marathon is hard to finish; Boston is hard to start. To earn a place on the line, you’ll need to run a qualifying time—and for the 2020 race, that’ll be five minutes tougher than in years’ past.
RACE DATE: April 15, 2019
TROT, TROT TO BOSTON: Running a qualifying time is tough—but it is achievable. Alternatively, you can join a charity team and add another layer of meaning to your miles. baa.org
BEANTOWN BRAG: In its 123-year history, the Boston Marathon has seen triumph, tragedy and controversy. From Kathrine Switzer, who paved the way for women runners in 1967, to Des Linden, who kept showing up through horizontal rain in 2018 to become the first American woman to win since 1985, you’re sure to find at least 26.2 miles worth of inspiration between Hopkinton and Boylston Street.
FIELD SIZE: 30,000
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Buzunesh Deba, Ethiopia, 2:19:59 (2014)
Men: Geoffrey Mutai, Kenya, 2:03:02 (2011)
Women’s wheelchair: Manuela Schar, Switzerland, 1:28:17 (2017)
Men’s wheelchair: Marcel Hug, Switzerland, 1:18:04 (2017)
WEATHER: Boston has seen everything from brutal heat (Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley famously battled it—and each other—in the 1982 “Duel in the Sun”) to last year’s 39-degree sideways rain. Pack accordingly.
If you’ve ever wondered why the marathon is such a weird distance, you can thank Queen Alexandra of England. The extra 0.2 was tacked onto the 1908 Olympic marathon so that she’d have a perfect view of the finish. Today, Queen Elizabeth II only has to look out the window; the race finishes on The Mall, right in front of Buckingham Palace. The rest of the family has been known to get in on the fun, too—in 2014, William, Kate and Harry came out to cheer, and in 2010, Princess Beatrice ran the race. Like Boston and New York, London is a point-to-point race and offers a great sightseeing tour: You’ll pass the Greenwich Observatory and the Cutty Sark in the early miles, and cross Tower Bridge at the halfway mark. And no matter how tired you are, you won’t be able to miss Big Ben at mile 25.
RACE DATE: April 28, 2019
LONDON CALLING: London, like Tokyo, has a lottery—for few spots. Most of the field is composed of charity runners, many of whom are also attempting wacky world records (if you’re itching to take part in a 37-person “human caterpillar,” talk to Princess Beatrice). Otherwise, a tour operator is probably your best bet. virginmoneylondonmarathon.com
ALL HAIL THE QUEEN: Hometown heroine Paula Radcliffe ran a jaw-dropping 2:15:25 in the 2003 London Marathon, a world record.
FIELD SIZE: 35,000+
COURSE RECORDS: Women: Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain, 2:15:25 (2003)
Men: Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya, 2:03:05 (2016)
Women’s wheelchair: Manuela Schar, Switzerland, 1:39:57 (2017)
Men’s wheelchair: Kurt Fearnley, Australia, 1:28:56 (2009)
WEATHER: It’s always wise to bring rain gear to London; temperatures in late April tend to hover in the low 60s.