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Scenic and challenging marathons around the world

  • Scenic and challenging marathons around the world

    A soldier named Pheidippides in 490 B.C. ran from a battleground in Marathon—where outnumbered Greeks had been invaded by Persians—to Athens in order to announce the news of a Greek victory. Bursting into the Acropolis, he shouted “Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam,” (which roughly translates to “Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!”) before collapsing and dying.

    That story of the first marathon inspired Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, to add a 24.9-mile race dubbed “the marathon” to the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. A Greek postal worker won the race; only nine runners reached the finish line.

    Today, there are around 800 marathons held worldwide each year with millions of combined finishers. Athletes of all skill levels sign up to run for any number of reasons; whether drawn in by the thrill of the challenge, the easy accessibility, or the promise of physical fitness from proper training. But which marathons offer the greatest challenges—and the most spectacular views?

    To find out, Stacker took into account steep climbs and enormous altitude changes to extreme weather conditions and unparalelled vistas. Research resulted in a gallery of 25 of the most difficult and beautiful marathons around the world. Some races included on the list aren't a typical 26.2-mile distance—but that doesn't make them any less difficult to complete.

    From the Pikes Peak Marathon to the Great Wall Marathon, read on to find out which races runners are adding to their marathon bucket lists.

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  • Pikes Peak Marathon

    The Pikes Peak Marathon is considered one of the most challenging marathons in the United States. From start to finish marathoners gain 7,815 feet in elevation, deal with a temperature change of about 50 degrees, and often face surprise lightning storms on the upper reaches of the mountain. The first half or ascent of the marathon takes many runners as long to finish as a traditional marathon ran on flat ground, and training in altitude is a must if competitors want to finish.

  • Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon

    Officially the world's highest marathon, the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon starts at Everest Base Camp, 17,600 feet above sea level, and finishes at Namche Bazar, 11,286 feet above sea level. Held on May 29 each year, this marathon isn't for novices, but it does provide a literal once in a lifetime experience and some stunning views along the way.

  • Equinox Marathon

    Switching between paved roads and mountainous trails, the Equinox Marathon brings runners up and over Ester Dome twice. A net elevation gain of 3,285 feet and a final uphill mile makes this an exceptionally challenging marathon. The Fairbanks, Ala., location also makes it a hard race for many runners to check off of their bucket lists.

  • Polar Night Half Marathon

    While technically only a half marathon, clocking in at 13.1 miles, the Polar Night Half Marathon is uniquely challenging in that it's run entirely in the dark. Held in Norway during the polar night period when the sun doesn't rise above the horizon, the race is lit only by a series of torches which make it easier for runners to see the aurora borealis as they run.

  • Great Wall Marathon

    Full marathoners who finish the Great Wall Marathon will have climbed 5,164 of the Great Wall of China's notoriously uneven and steep steps. With stunning views from the top of the wall to intimate looks at the surrounding villages, runners get to experience some of the most iconic parts of China. With 2,500 runners from 60 countries around the world, the Great Wall Marathon has sold out nearly every year since its beginning in 1999.

  • Catalina Island Marathon

    Facing a hilly course with a cumulative 4,310 feet of elevation gain, many runners who haven't trained properly for the Catalina Island Marathon simply do not finish. Run entirely on trails (some of which are only open to the public for this race), the marathon offers stunning views of the ocean and opportunities to see the island's wildlife in their natural habitat.

  • Big Five Marathon

    Held in South Africa on one of the Big Five game reserves, the Big Five Marathon allows runners to trek 26.2 miles through a savannah that's home to elephants, rhinos, buffalos, leopards, and lions. There's nothing that separates the runners from the wildlife, making the Big Five Marathon a unique experience.

  • Hatfield McCoy Marathon

    Traipsing through West Virginia and Kentucky, the Hatfield McCoy Marathon has been dubbed by 1972 Olympic runner Jeff Galloway as one of the hardest in the United States. The race, which has a lot of fun with the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud, passes through many related historical sites and winds through the mountains of the Tug Fork River Valley, which does a number on a runner's legs and lungs. However, it's the brutal heat and humidity of the early summer that makes this marathon so difficult.

  • Big Sur International Marathon

    One of the most beautiful marathons in the country, the Big Sur International Marathon takes runners through redwood forests and along Highway 1 as they journey from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Monterey, Calif. But don't think that the stunning scenery means that it's an easy race. The 2-mile long Hurricane Point, named for the massive amounts of wind runners face as they climb it, has knocked more than one person off the course and into the “did not finish” category.

  • Marathon des Sables

    In 1984, 28-year-old Patrick Bauer set off to cover the 156 miles expanse of the uninhabited Sahara Desert alone and on foot. Two years later, his feat inspired the first Marathon des Sables. Nearly 130 miles longer than a normal marathon, the Marathon des Sables technically qualifies as an ultramarathon. The heat and length participants need to endure make this race one of the most challenging foot races in the entire world.

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