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The 5 World’s Largest Marathons

Last update: 2022-03-14

There are many different kinds of races that runners train for and take part in regularly. 5k, 10k, and half marathon races are popular events to which runners of all levels aspire. Still, one discipline is the most intense and coveted among running enthusiasts: the marathon.

Depending on your geographical area, you’ll probably be most familiar with the marathon closest to your city. Most people have heard of the more renowned marathons that exist worldwide. However, did you know that there are 800 marathons worldwide organized each year (1)? Most of us don’t hear about the less-famous races, but they are out there, attracting all kinds of runners!

Today, we’ll be exploring five of the world’s largest marathons from all corners. Let’s get started!

New York City Marathon

Runners pass through Harlem in New York near the 22 mile mark near Mount Morris Park

We begin our exploration of the world’s largest marathons with New York City, the “Crossroads of the World.” Since 1970, this marathon has attracted runners by the tens of thousands; since 2013, every race but one has had over 50,000 finishers (2)!

Today, the NYC Marathon is considered the world’s largest marathon.

A Brief History

According to the New York Marathon website, the first-ever city marathon (3) took place in fall 1970 in Central Park. With an entry fee of $1 and a total budget of $1,000, the race was a rather humble event. On the day of that first marathon, the turnout consisted of a mere 127 runners, 55 of whom crossed the finish line.

The race became too big for Central Park to contain five years later! By the following year (1976), the race took place through all five city boroughs. At this point, there were 2,090 runners and 1,549 finishers.

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Flash forward some 40+ years, the NYC Marathon is one of the major marathons. Elite runners and unknown runners alike compete, though the entrance fee is higher than it was previously ($295)!

While the number of runners varies yearly, it is common for over 30,000 people to participate.

Brooklyn New York athletes running

Qualification Requirements

Think again if you think that running a major city marathon is as simple as signing up and paying the fee. Qualifying for the New York City Marathon is not for the faint of heart. Participants must have run other marathons, either half or full, within the amount of time specified for their age bracket.

There is, however, more than one way to enter the NYC Marathon. These include:

  • Being a part of the New York Road Runners Club 9+1 Program (4)
  • Being drawn to race
  • Joining a charity that is participating in the race
  • Membership with the International Travel Partners program
  • Taking advantage of the 15+ Legacy program (5).

Generally, it is beneficial for runners to qualify via physical capability rather than other means. Since the marathon route isn’t flat, athletes must be able to handle the inclines of the hills and bridges they’ll encounter.

What Makes it Unique

New York City Marathon, Center Drive

It’s undoubtedly true that every city has its charms. However, there’s nothing like running the race of your life in a city that embodies unbridled hope.

Marathon runners have perhaps been flocking to the NYC race for decades precisely because of this. There’s something about running through all five boroughs and bridges, cheered on by over one million spectators. Moreover, the marathon is part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, consisting of the six most prominent marathons globally.

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo Maraphone, runners pass through the half point

We head across the globe for our next marathon and find ourselves in Japan.

The Tokyo Marathon is a relatively new race, having been around for just 14 years. Its first-ever race was projected to draw 30,000 but instead amassed 25,000 participants. Despite this “slow” start, the marathon has risen steadily in popularity. It is now one of the major marathons in the world.

Let’s travel back in time to look at how this marathon started.

A Brief History

Japan’s capital hosted the first Tokyo Marathon on February 18, 2007. Before this event became a major world marathon, Tokyo had two smaller marathons each year. These were the Tokyo International Marathon, which took place during even years, and the Tokyo-New York Friendship International Marathon. The latter took place during odd years.

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The all-encompassing Tokyo Marathon was created to replace both of these marathons. In 2007, organizers set the total number of participants to 30,000; 25,000 signed up for the marathon, and 5,000 signed up for the separate 10k. The marathon continues today as one of the largest in the world.

Marathoners on the street Tokyo

Qualification Requirements

Qualifying for Tokyo is less strenuous than qualifying for the New York City Marathon. The official marathon website states for the general qualifying category: “Runners who are capable of completing the race within 6 hours and 30 minutes.”

There are several other categories for different types of participants, as well. These include:

  • Semi-elite athletes
  • Elite athletes
  • General wheelchair
  • Elite wheelchair
  • General junior & youth
  • Junior visually impaired
  • Intellectually challenged juniors
  • Junior organ transplant recipients
  • Junior wheelchair

What Makes it Unique

Tokyo Marathon, girl runs in Mario cosplay outfit

Though the first-ever Tokyo race had slightly fewer participants than anticipated, it was still a massive race from the get-go. Other large races generally started relatively small, attracting just a few hundred participants at first.

In addition, the Tokyo Marathon’s many race categories, elite field, and “The Day We Unite” theme make it unique. This theme brings runners, volunteers, and spectators together on race day.

Terrain-wise, the Tokyo Marathon is mainly flat, with just a few periodic hills for runners to overcome. The most challenging component of the route is some 180-degree turns, which tend to slow participants down.

Chicago Marathon

Women run on the street chicago

The Chicago Marathon is held every October and is one of the six World Marathon Majors. It is also the fourth-largest race by the number of finishers worldwide.

Chicago has a long record of hosting marathon races; since 1905, annual marathons have taken place. However, it wasn’t until 1977 that the Chicago Marathon as we know it took place.

So, how did the modern-day Chicago Marathon come to be? Glad you asked!

A Brief History

The Chicago annual races followed the official Boston Marathon, established in 1897. The original event began in 1905 and ran (no pun intended) until the early 1920s. During this time, the Chicago Daily News sponsored it, and it received much support from the community.

runners path through The Chicago Theatre

The tumultuous events of the 1920s forced the city to put the race on the back-burner; it would not resume until 1977. This time, however, the marathon took on a slightly different form. With the advent of the New York City Marathon as a “big city marathon” that ran through all five boroughs, Chicago felt pressure to compete.

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By the 1980s, the Chicago race became one of the big four marathons. The first women’s Olympic Games marathon champion, Joan Samuelson (6), described it as “The World’s Marathon.” Today, the Bank of America sponsors it, and it’s officially called The Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Qualification Requirements

At least 40,000 athletes have participated in the race each year in recent years. In 2020, the city canceled the race altogether due to COVID. In 2021, just 26,112 starters finished the race — the lowest number in over 20 years.

Those who participate in this marathon must qualify for the race before entering. Qualifications include:

  • Being at least 16 years of age or older
  • Capable of completing 26.2 miles in 6 hours and 30 minutes.

What Makes it Unique

Man in Mexico hat running in Chicago

The Chicago Marathon course is generally flat and fast, but one brutal hill is a stand-out for runners. It occurs just off Michigan Avenue on Roosevelt Road. Make it past this hill, and the rest of the route is pretty “simple” (for a marathon, that is)!

The unique qualities of the CM come mainly from the richness and diversity of its neighborhoods — and its people. Athletes of all nationalities, ethnicities, and skill levels participate, making it a memorable and inclusive experience for participants and spectators alike.

Boston Marathon

Bosston Marathon, Group of marathoners running on the road

One of the most well-known events globally, the Boston Marathon is one of the oldest and most esteemed races in America. The first race launched in 1897, over 120 years since the first marathon runners took the streets. To this day, it ranks as one of the world’s most prestigious road racing events.

A Brief History

Originally called “The American Marathon,” the Boston Marathon was inspired by the first marathon competition in the 1896 Summer Olympics. The original route ran 24.5 miles from Metcalf’s Mill to the Irvington Oval but later expanded to 26 miles in 1924.

The Boston Marathon was the first major race to include a wheelchair division in their competition. It was also among the first to welcome and encourage female participants.

Many Olympic champions have participated in Boston, as have runners of all backgrounds and athletic abilities. Its typical number of entrants is about 30,000, with an estimated 500,000 spectators.

Men running on the road, Boston Marathon

Qualification Requirements

Merely qualifying for the Boston Marathon is an accomplishment in and of itself. Here are the most up-to-date qualifying times for all participating runners.

What Makes it Unique

Apart from being the oldest and most esteemed marathon in America, the Boston Marathon is unique for other reasons. For example, it typically takes place on Patriot’s Day (September 11) in commemoration of the attacks on the U.S. in 2001. This auspicious day also celebrates the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord for independence against Britain.

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Ultimately, it’s an air of historical reverence that permeates Boston on the marathon day each year. It isn’t merely the marathon that’s historical; it’s the entire city and the events that have occurred there over time.

London Marathon

Marathoner run at the London Marathons

Last but certainly not least, we arrive at the London Marathon as we conclude this list. A relatively flat course around the River Thames that finishes at the Mall, runners participate by the thousands each year. The marathon holds the Guinness World Record for the largest annual fundraising event on the planet – talk about something special!

A Brief History

Something interesting to consider: the London Marathon has been around for nearly a century less than the Boston Marathon. The city might be historic, but its marathon isn’t!

First hosted in 1981 (7), London’s Marathon started with a bang: 22,000 runners applied to participate in the first race. It was initially inspired by the New York City Marathon, with the goal: “to have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world.”

Today, roughly 45,000 or so run annually in the London Marathon from worldwide.

Qualification Requirements

Woman running at the London Marathon

There are several ways runners may qualify for or enter the London Marathon. Categories include:

  • Ballot entry
  • International entry
  • Charity entry
  • Good for Age entry (for those who have already run a marathon in an impressive amount of time)
  • Championship entry (for athletic club members)
  • British Athletics Club entry
  • Deferred entry (for those who have secured a place in TLM but can no longer participate).

What Makes it Unique

London Marathon Man in tiger hat

As mentioned above, the London Marathon is the largest annual fundraising event worldwide. This creates a sense of community that Event Director, Hugh Brasher (8), claims is unparalleled. His father, Chris Brasher, and co-planner, John Disley, originally started the event.

Like other major marathons, the London Marathon is also a part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors (9). This organization is home to the six major marathons of the world.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3445091/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_winners_of_the_New_York_City_Marathon

https://www.nyrr.org/tcsnycmarathon/getinspired/marathonhistory

https://www.nyrr.org/run/guaranteed-entry/tcs-new-york-city-marathon-9plus1-program

https://help.nyrr.org/tcsnycmarathon/s/article/15-legacy-program2

https://www.marathon.tokyo/en/

https://www.baa.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Benoit

https://www.chicagomarathon.com/

https://www.tcslondonmarathon.com/results/history-of-the-london-marathon

https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/other-sports/london-marathon-2021-not-april-25090158

https://www.worldmarathonmajors.com/

Kevin Le Gall

Kevin Le Gall

Kevin is the founder and editor of Runner's Lab. He started running in 2015 and completed his first marathon in Rotterdam in 2016. He's also worked for Under Armour from 2016 to 2018 and helped launch their running collection in Europe (in particular the HOVR shoes). In addition, Kevin is a 300-hour certified yoga teacher (Sivananda) and uses this experience to run more mindfully with a focus on well-being over performance.

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