I'm going to attempt to put this in order with the best at the top. But because I haven't run all of these yet, there's a lot of guesswork involved (and bear in mind that I'm at least a bit idiosyncratic, as seen when it comes to choices 3, 11 and 12). And I'm not listing ones I've done that are no longer offered.
- Boston: Done. Boston in April. Every Patriot's Day. Infamous. The primary marathon with a qualifying time requirement (though charitable entries are available if you don't qualify, most people only want to run it if they've "earned" it). Part of the World Marathon Majors. Pretty much no need to convince people that this one is worth running -- if you've qualified, you already know all about it. And even people who dream of qualifying (like me for several years), know all about it! The world's oldest annual marathon, started in 1897. Highly recommended! It's a fairly tough course, but if you get your BQ and then you train, you can probably get your RE-Q there. Especially if you're female.
- New York: Done. NYC in November. Great course, difficult logistics, particularly at finish (nearly an hour in a mass of people trying to cross Columbus Circle). Very strong crowd support in almost all areas. Elevation chart is good (worst is mile 1, and it's too early to even notice it). Expo is great. Part of the World Marathon Majors. Entry via a lottery, or you can qualify (I got in through the lottery on my first try, I ran more slowly the year I did NY, so I didn't even look at qualifying times). Medal is cool. Highly recommended!
- Bataan Memorial Death March: Done (recap to come someday maybe). New Mexico in March. Not a typical marathon but one I felt compelled to try. I've had an interest in WWII, particularly the Pacific Theater, since about junior high, and an interest in marathons since about 2003, so it seems natural to combine the two! Not a typical marathon. Involves sand, hills, and I ran it in the "civilian heavy" division, which meant carrying a pack of at least 35 pounds during the marathon. Sounds tough, but having a historical perspective reminded me that it's a light burden compared to what those men suffered in Bataan. For anyone interested in learning more about Bataan, I'd suggest reading a book called Ghost Soldiers, one of my most-recommended books to introduce people to the subject. Must run within 2-3 years while there are still survivors to meet at the pre-race activities and at the finish. Makes me teary to contemplate. The best part of this race was probably the expo -- meeting Death March survivors who told their stories first-hand. But it also helps that I kicked some butt at this race!
- St. George: Done. Utah in October. Spectacular natural beauty. Net elevation drop of 2500 feet, so a leading producer of Boston-qualifying finish times (and it's a runners' race, doesn't cater to walkers). But despite the net drop, there's still more climbing in the first half of the race than I'd expected. Logistics were flawless. Entry via a lottery -- but as a bonus, you can do a group lottery (basically up to 5 people enter together and you're either all in, or none of you is, so if you want to run with friends, it's a way to guarantee it). Medal is super-cool. Highly recommended.
- Berlin: Done. Berlin in late September (maybe even late enough to get you 2 Boston chances). Fast course, where the current marathon world record was set (Boston's 2011 finishers don't count for the world record for a couple reasons, but technically, Berlin's time has been broken), and where the prior marathon world record was set, and where the marathon world record before that was set. You get the idea. Speedy course, solid race. Part of the World Marathon Majors. Logistics are pretty smooth, the course is interesting and the crowd support is good (though I don't speak German/Deutsch). One of the best marathons I've done (not just saying that because it was flat and I PRed). Entry is now via a lottery.
- Twin Cities: Done (and summarized here). Pretty course, amazing crowd support. Elevation profile was fine, but the worst of it comes at the end, which is unfortunate. Downtown start, then running along several lakes, then along the Mississippi, then crossing the river and heading into St. Paul along a stately homes street, spotted with several churches and capped with the cathedral, then a downhill finish to the State Capitol.
- Big Sur: To do. California in April or May (varies). The pictures explain why this is on my list. Not a race to do for speed -- most estimates say to add 15-30 minutes to your normal marathon time to predict a Big Sur finish. Elevation chart is frightening. But when you're looking at the ocean, maybe it's less painful. Part of the race course collapsed before the 2011 run, so they didn't get to run the full beautiful course, but according to the expo reps, made changes in 2012 so the race is more similar to the original beautiful point-to-point course.
- London: Must do. London in April. Part of the World Marathon Majors. Only marathon run in two hemispheres. Entry via a lottery (or ballot, as the Brits call it). Unfortunately, the timing means you have to choose between London and Boston. I tried the "ballot" in 2017 without any luck, but will keep trying. If I get desperate to run it, I'll try a charity or tour operator, but for now, I'll just keep trying the lottery.
- Marine Corps: Done. DC in October. Average course with great scenery for about half. Lots of crowd support in some places, fairly desolate in others. Known as "the people's marathon," it does not attract many elite runners because of the lack of a prize purse, so the relatively slow times for winners is not any indication of the course's difficulty. Logistics were average to good. Fun to see some runners in Halloween costumes. Medal is super-cool.
- Steamtown: May do. Scranton, PA in October. Slightly downhill, and fast. Pretty fall foliage in Central Pennsylvania, small race with reputedly smooth logistics. Some running on a soft surface. Has gotten great reviews from everyone I know who has done it. I don't think I'll give up marathons until I've done this one.
- Beijing or Great Wall: May do. Beijing in October or Great Wall in May. I always wanted to go to mainland China (see my travel page), and for some reason, I had the notion to do a marathon there. I don't usually combine marathons with vacations (though I frequently stay a few days in a marathon city and see the sights, it's mostly just a trip to run), but this would be a good chance to do so. I planned (and went on) an entire trip to China in 2012 to do the Beijing marathon, but they decided to postpone it a few weeks before we left (my reaction here), unfortunately since our travel plans were set (and we can't exactly fly to China on a moment's notice), I never ran the Beijing marathon. Beijing is a typical marathon and the course reviews are somewhat lackluster, many complain the best parts of the city aren't highlighted. Great Wall is unlike any other marathon and is mostly stairs -- more than 5,000 of them, so not something I'd run for time. But that one sounds quite cool as well.
- Milwaukee: May do. Milwaukee in October. Have heard the logistics are pretty good, the elevation is decent (which means unremarkable), the crowd support is average, the weather is usually good. The main reason this race makes my list is because I could probably attract a decent family fan base, and could possibly convince others to run it as well -- I have at least one brother who could be talked into it. I registered for this race and got through half of it in 2015, but I'd broken my ankle a few weeks before and was in a cast. I started the race and walked -- for half of it. I figured I'd already paid for it (and a plane ticket) and I had a friend running, so I wanted to see her off from the start line. But I need to go back and do it for real.
- Houston: Done (and reviewed here). Houston in January. Entry via a lottery for the first time in 2011 (after 2010 filled up within 36 hours of opening), but many marathoners can get in through regular registration if you meet a generous qualifying time (something like 4 hours?). Flat and fast. Many half-marathon records have been set here and I was impressed by the full. It has hosted the US half-marathon championships and the Olympic trials. Produces many qualifying times. I was impressed by the organization and the course, and if it weren't for the timing, I think I'd do it again and again. Unfortunately, the timing of the race means training over the holidays ... ugh.
- San Antonio: Done more than once. Now a Rock-N-Roll marathon. First half is interesting and has good crowd support, but after the half-marathoners break off, the crowd support dwindles, the road opens up, and there's less to look at (running near parks and missions, not in the city anymore). During the first year it was a RNR race, it seemed a vast majority of the bands were on break when I ran past, so there wasn't as much audio as I'd hoped. But the second year and other years I've done it, while the bands were on break or between songs, they'd play recorded music, which was fine with me. Logistics are average but improving (buses to the start were a complete mess the first RNR year, thousands were still on the highway when the race began). Weather is a crap-shoot, and it's been hot more often than not. Medal is cool.
- White Rock: Done more than once (and 2010 summarized here). Dallas in December. Logistics are pretty good, particularly since I'm local, and I'm very familiar with the course. Scenery is average, crowd support is average, elevation is fairly unremarkable (the two hills around 19/20 called "the dollies" aren't horrid). Expo is okay. Medal is okay (improving). One I'll likely do every time it works in my schedule and I'm in shape, though I've found I absolutely love being a spectator at this one as well!
- Vegas: Maybe. Vegas in December. Have heard good things about the course, logistics are average, medal is cool. Another RNR race.
- Austin: Maybe. Austin in February. Another Texas marathon, so not terribly inconvenient, but never seems to be at a good time of year for me, someone who can't bear the thought of training around the holidays.
- Grandma's: Maybe. Duluth in June. Have heard there's good crowd support and it's a good race, but the weather hasn't always been the best and that scares me some.
- Cowtown: Maybe. Fort Worth in February. I'm not too excited about this one, but in my quest to run many of the nearby races, it might happen one day. I've done several of the shorter races here. The half is hilly and the crowd support is average, so neither of those factors weigh in favor the marathon. However, I might consider doing the ultra-marathon here. I'd like to do an ultra one day, but I'm not a trail runner (at least not yet). This is an ultra on streets. I've heard it's the worst of both worlds -- all the pavement of a marathon, all the miles of an ultra. But because of the convenience factor, I'm not ruling it out.
- Chicago: Done (and 2007 summarized here). Chicago in early October. Hated it primarily because of the race director's poor handling of the aftermath of the distaster that was the 2007 mid-marathon cancelation. Part of the World Marathon Majors. Not a great history with the weather. Cool medal. Now a lottery.
My best tip for picking a marathon: look for one that is just a marathon. When there's a half or a 5k at the same time, they take all the beer at the finish! Most of the best marathons are just marathons (Boston, NY, Chicago and St. George come to mind).
As for other races on my "to do" list:
- Bay to Breakers,
- Hood to Coast (relay) (done in 2012!),
- Crossroads (17.75k, such an odd distance it's a guaranteed PR),
- Double Dipsea,
- Peachtree 10k (largest race in the country),
- Dam-to-Dam 20k,
- Shamrock Shuffle 8k,
- Bix 7.
I also posted some similar thoughts a few months earlier, pre-BQ, of many more races I'd like to consider doing one day. As of 2018, I'm toying with the idea of doing all 50 states. I've done over 25 marathons so far, but only about 14 states.