More than 1,100 marathons take place in the U.S. each year, and the latest statistics by Running USA indicate more than 500,000 runners finished a marathon last year.
So what makes a marathon stand out among the crowd of more than 1,000? Several factors contributed to our compilation of “bucket list” marathons, including history and tradition, a unique experience, a scenic course and, really, any criteria that would make a runner designate a race as a “must-do.”
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Here are 15 marathons you should be sure to cross off your to-do list:
Of course this marathon will top the list—it’s the ultimate “bucket list” race for many runners around the world. A large majority of the Boston Marathon field is filled through qualifying, making it a goal of many to hit the coveted BQ mark. The Boston Marathon was first run in 1897, and some of the sport’s greatest moments have occurred along the point-to-point route from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. Registration for the 2016 race on April 18th will be open in mid-September. It remains the marathon’s premier event. (Photo: PhotoRun.net)
New York City Marathon
The largest marathon in the world takes runners through all five boroughs of New York City on a route that runners adore—across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, through Brooklyn and Queens, into the masses cheering for you on Manhattan’s First Avenue, and then to a finish in beautiful Central Park. The race is so popular that a lottery is implemented and in 2015, there was only room for 18 percent of the applicants. The 2015 race will take place on Nov. 1. (Photo: PhotoRun.net)
Another World Marathon Major, the Chicago Marathon is known for its flat-and-fast course that starts and finishes in Grant Park while taking runners on a 26.2-mile loop through downtown and several surrounding neighborhoods. More than 1 million spectators line the course, and the pack of runners is typically led by a fast elite field with world-record times in sight. The 2015 race will take place on Oct. 11. (Photo: Chicago Marathon)
Marine Corps Marathon
The MCM is so popular it’s got several nicknames—the “Marathon of the Monuments” and “The People’s Marathon” are the most common. Starting across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., runners pass many of Washington D.C.’s most famous landmarks throughout the course before heading back to Virginia. Demand is so high that the MCM has gone to a lottery system in recent years. The 2015 race takes place on Oct. 25. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
Big Sur International Marathon
Quite possibly the most scenic marathon in the U.S., The Big Sur-to-Carmel point-to-point race winds runners along the rugged California coastline on the famous Pacific Coast Highway, beneath towering redwoods and within earshot of the crashing Pacific Ocean waves. The signature landmark of the race is at the halfway point, when runners cross the iconic Bixby Bridge. The 2015 race is on April 26. (Photo: Reg Regalado, Big Sur International Marathon)
Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon
Perhaps no marathon in the U.S. better reflects its home city, and considering it’s Las Vegas, that’s saying something. Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas is a runner’s party, the only opportunity to run the famous Las Vegas Strip at night, and with an atmosphere that’s unlike any race in the country. Truly a night you won’t forget. The 2015 marathon is on Nov. 15.
Hawaii’s premier running race has been a Honolulu tradition since 1973. Taking place every December, it’s seen as a destination race for many and a perfect way to wrap up a year of running. The course doesn’t stray too far from the Pacific Ocean, taking runners past Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head and more. It’s typically a hot and humid race, but still attracts top elite runners and more than 20,000 age-groupers every year. The 2015 race is on Dec. 13.
Walt Disney World Marathon
One of the most popular marathons going, the Walt Disney World Marathon near Orlando, Fla., is the perfect excuse for a family vacation. The course takes runners through all four Disney World theme parks—Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios—and upon finishing back at Epcot, participants get a Mickey Mouse finisher’s medal. The 2016 race will be held on Jan. 10. (Photo: Preston Mack)
Twin Cities Marathon
Just before Minnesota’s harsh winter sets in, the region is engulfed with stunning fall colors. The Twin Cities Marathon, running from Minneapolis to St. Paul, is a great way to see them. Dubbed “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America,” the course starts in downtown Minneapolis, passes four of the state’s many lakes, and runs along the Mississippi River before crossing it (pictured) and heading over to St. Paul with a finish at the Minnesota State Capitol. In addition to its strong appeal to age-groupers, the race has also hosted the U.S. Marathon Championships several times. The 2015 race will take place Oct. 4. (Photo: Competitive Image)
The City of Angels’ signature marathon has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. The LA Marathon debuted in 1986 in the wake of the 1984 Olympics, with the course typically starting and finishing in downtown Los Angeles (though it underwent many alterations over the years with mixed results). In 2010, the course was dramatically altered to start at Dodger Stadium and wind its way down to a finish on the Santa Monica coastline. The “stadium to the sea” course has proven a hit, as it takes runners through West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and more. The race is typically in March, but it will move to Feb. 14 in 2016 due to Los Angeles hosting the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon the same weekend. (Photo: Rich Cruse)
One of the few big-time marathons in the month of January, the Houston Marathon hosted the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in 2012 and has been the U.S. half marathon championship the last two years. The marathon course starts and finishes in downtown Houston, and is relatively fast and flat—the opportunity for a nice PR to start the calendar year. The 2016 race will be on Jan. 17. (Photo: PhotoRun.net)
Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon
The Rock ‘n’ Roll race that started it all. San Diego’s signature marathon explores all there is to love about “America’s Finest City” including Balboa Park, Mission Bay, Gaslamp and more. The 2015 race is on May 31.
Taking place in Duluth, Minn., on the shores of Lake Superior, Grandma’s Marathon is a point-to-point course running along Old Highway 61. The race is relatively flat and finishes at Duluth’s Canal Park, adjacent to the Aerial Lift Bridge, a well-known tourist attraction. The 2015 race is on June 20.
Country Music Marathon
This race features memorable scenery and great southern charm—plus a great benefiting charity in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Country Music Marathon is one of the most popular in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. Experience downtown Nashville, enjoy views of the Cumberland River, run by the Country Music Hall of Fame and finish at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans. The 2015 race is on April 25.
With a cap of 5,000 runners, this race is one of the smaller ones on our list. But it’s an ideal race for many reasons—the February date makes it a rare winter marathon, the race explores one of Texas’ most beautiful cities and passes landmarks like the Texas State Capitol and the massive University of Texas campus, and the course has live music throughout from bands entrenched in its booming music scene. The race started in 1992, and it will next be run on Feb. 14, 2016. Photo: Austin Marathon