Destination Marathons: International

Updated: October 3, 2006, 9:17 PM ET
By Linda Vessa | Special to ESPN Travel

Trying to weed through 500 races to narrow down the international list proved almost as daunting a task as running the race itself. Marathon choices span the globe and include all seven continents. And then some. You can log your 26.2 miles (or 42 kilometers) in the middle of the South Pacific on Easter Island, in the midst of 40,000 folks in London, or in the mists of Loch Ness. You can take your pick of scenery from the Alps to the tropics, from the top of the world to Down Under. Your choices are limited only by your imagination.

There are some things to keep in mind if you decide you want to venture abroad. The marathon may be an ancient concept, but thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, most international pre-race arrangements can be handled on the Internet. In an effort to entice American runners (and their tourist dollars), many events offer an English version of their web sites. Some races can be booked only through a tour company and there's a growing number that specialize in international and adventure marathons.

Language may create obstacles, but it's not a barrier. And once you've crossed the starting line, marathoners are always quick to reach out and extend a helping hand, as are the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of spectators who turn out to offer support. From the world's most cosmopolitan cities to the planet's most remote nooks and crannies the nobility of the effort is universally acknowledged.

So without further ado, on your mark, get set... GO!

CREME DE LA CREME
Flora London Marathon (April)
London, England
http://www.london-marathon.co.uk

If New York City is the Super Bowl of marathons, London is Woodstock. Former Olympic champion Chris Brasher ran New York in 1979 and upon his return wrote, "To believe this story, you must believe that the human race be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, in one of the most trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million black, white and yellow people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen." He then put the wheels in motion to organize a similar event for London.

How successful was he? Since the inaugural 1981 race, the London Marathon has catapulted to the top of the charts in popularity. So much so that the 46,500 entrants are now chosen by lottery. The UK alone accounted for 98,500 ballots seeking admission. Charities are also assured race spots, giving hopefuls another way to make it to the starting line. The point-to-point route includes some of the city's most notable sights: London Tower, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament. The route here, however, is almost beside the point -- the incredible sense of camaraderie between crowd and runners is what sets this marathon apart.

real,- Berlin Marathon (September)
Berlin, Germany
http://www.scc-events.com/events/berlin_marathon/2006/index.en.php

In 2005, 58,000 participants representing 103 countries, 5,500 volunteers and over a million spectators combined to make this the world's biggest sporting event. If London wasn't the Woodstock of marathons, then this would be -- the entire city turns out to cheer, many banging pots and pans along with their shouts of encouragement. The logistics involved with managing a spectacle of this magnitude are monumental, but overall race organization is excellent. The route is flat and extremely fast. Five world records have been set in Berlin, and despite the challenge of maneuvering through the multitudes, so have many personal bests. And the goosebump finish through the Brandenburg Gate can't be beat.

Paris International Marathon (April)
Paris, France
http://www.parismarathon.com/marathon/2007/us/index.html

What's not to love about Paris in the springtime? And what better way to see this fabulous city than taking to its streets for 42 kilometers? From the stunning start down the Champs-Élysées to the Avenue Foch finish, the route reads like a travel guide: the Louvre, Place de la Bastille, the Bois de Vincennes, Ile de la Cite, and Eiffel Tower views along the Seine. Runners can stop for a foot massage at Trocadero, and feast on chocolate, oysters, beer, wine and cider at the fuel stations. The very first Paris Marathon was run in 1896. There were 191 participants and over 2000 spectators. 2006 runners numbered 35,000; however, spectator support hasn't grown in the same proportions. Parisians are known for being blasé about the event; well, maybe not everybody -- this spring 2000 medals were "stolen," claimed by people pretending to runners.

COSMOPOLITAN
Stockholm Marathon (June)
Stockholm, Sweden
http://www.stockholmmarathon.se/Start/index.cfm?Lan_ID=3

The two-loop waterway route is considered to be among Europe's most beautiful urban marathon scenery. Sweden's capital is situated at the spot where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and the city's center -- and marathon course -- is spread over fourteen islands. If you like to sleep in, this is the race for you. The June days in Stockholm are long, and the race doesn't start until 2 p.m. No matter the Circadian rhythms, everyone agrees that having the race finish in the 1912 Olympic Stadium is terrific. Spectators are on the light side, but compensate with enthusiasm. All organizational aspects of the race are well-done.

ING Amsterdam Marathon (October)
Amsterdam, Netherands
http://www.ingamsterdammarathon.nl/

Flat translates to "vlak" in Dutch and this course is vlak, vlak and more vlak. Which translates to fast. Very fast. Another two-loop style route, it begins and ends at the 1928 Olympic Stadium. In between are canals, windmills, well-stocked support stations, hot showers and free massages at the finish. Staged since the late '70's, its reputation as a place to post a great time while you're having a great time has begun to gain international recognition. Over 19,000 participants this year, with 22,500 expected in 2007.

Dublin City Marathon (October)
Dublin, Ireland
http://www.dublincitymarathon.ie/

The Guinness Storehouse and a city full of pubs pouring Guinness like you've never tasted in the States. Do you need another reason to go to Dublin? How about historical sights galore, museums, churches, castles, parks -- entire books have been written in praise of the city's sights and diversions. Now the Dublin City Marathon deserves its own chapter. It's become a bona fide attraction -- 2006 entries are expected to top 10,000. The course is mostly flat and offers a great tour of the city center. The city extends a warm welcome to participants, enthusiastic supporters line the streets, and, with terrific organization, the race is gaining an international reputation as the Friendly Marathon

Athens Classic Marathon (November)
Athens, Greece
http://www.athensclassicmarathon.gr

The origin of the marathon dates back to 490 B.C. Legend has it the soldier Pheidippides ran from a battlefield near the village of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians, and then the unfortunate messenger promptly perished after delivering the good news. And it is indeed a challenging route, 13 miles are uphill. The scenery does little to inspire and don't expect much hoopla along the way. Most of the crowd waits for the finish at the gorgeous marble Panathinaiko Stadium. Held on the same day as the New York City Marathon, it attracts only about a tenth of the runners. But while it may not have the glitz or glamour of Gotham, no other course can claim to be the very source of the marathon itself.

Roma (Rome) Marathon (March)
Rome, Italy
http://www.maratonadiroma.it

From start to finish, the sightseeing on the Roma course is bellissimo: Capitol piazzas, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Vatican, St. Peter's, the Pantheon, Coliseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Forum of Rome and the Imperial Forums. No hills along the route but the surface presents a challenge -- cobblestones are plentiful. Well, when in Rome... which also means no place in the world offers such fabulous pre-race pasta feeds.

Marato Barcelona (March)
Barcelona, Spain
http://www.maratobarcelona.com

Not quite as ancient as Athens or Rome, but Barcelona still goes way back -- believed to have been founded in the third century by the Carthagians or Phoenicians. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, it's Spain's largest port and second most-populated city. Hip and historic, Barcelona has great museums, cutting-edge architecture, a serious nightlife scene and outstanding beaches -- it's certainly one of Europe's most popular travel destinations. A new route was introduced in 2006. Kudos to the designers -- they were able to achieve a flat course without sacrificing any of the city's best-known landmarks. The race begins and ends at Placa Espana and includes the famed soocer stadium Camp Nou, La Pedrera, the Placa Catalunya, the Arc de Triomf, the unique Torre Agbar building and the unfinished 19th century Sagrada Familia basilica. Great scenery, great event organization and an excellent web site (with an English version).

Maraton de Buenos Aires (November)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
http://www.maratondebuenosaires.com/english/index.html

Here spectators shout: "Si se puede!" It is possible! If you're looking for a springtime marathon in November, Buenos Aires is a great choice. The capital of Argentina, birthplace of the tango and often called the Paris of South America, the city offers an abundance of cultural and recreational activities. The race course highlights some of the best sights -- the grand avenues, the barrios of La Boca, Puerto Madero and Palermo, the River Plate Stadium -- and still manages to be ultra level. Runners will find dodging the considerable traffic to be their biggest challenge! Buenos Aires drivers are notoriously impatient with pedestrians, whether they are walking or wearing a race bib.

Maratona da Cidade Rio de Janiero (June)
Rio de Janiero, Brazil
http://www.maratonadorio.com.br/

A gorgeous run along Rio's most famous beaches: Barra, Sao Conrado, Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Botafogo, and Flamengo. Organization is excellent, the race instructions and web site are very foreigner-friendly, but the weather often is not. It's hot and humid, but there are plenty of well-stocked aid stations and even massages along the course. Massages, Ipanema and an excellent web site. Marathons have come a long way since Pheidippides.

Blackmores Sydney Marathon (September)
Sydney, Australia
http://www.sydneymarathon.org/

If you want to include a marathon from Down Under on your resume then definitely consider Sydney. Tough route, especially the second half, but beginning with a magnificent Harbour Bridge crossing and finishing at the Opera House, focusing your eyes on the city's impressive scenery will help take your mind off the plentiful hills. Increasingly popular, upwards of 13,000 have been drawn to the Queen City of the Pacific Rim to participate in the race.

Lake Kawaguchi Nikkan Sports Marathon (November)
Tokyo, Japan
http://www.sports-info.co.jp/kawaguchi/info.html

One of the five lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji, Kawaguchi is about a three-hour drive from Tokyo. The race is headquartered in the popular resort town of Kawaguchiko, where you can soak in the stunning view of Mount Fuji while soaking in the many local hot-spring spas. And those soothing spas are a welcome post-marathon sight. The course is very arduous, hilly and steep, but this is also Japan's "kouyou" -- fall foliage season -- and maple trees along the route provide plenty of crimson and gold against a resplendent mountain backdrop.

Budapest Marathon (October)
Budapest, Hungary
http://www.budapestmarathon.com

Short on time, on a budget, or maybe both? The marathon's official web site entices potential participants with the promise their course is a smorgasbord: a taste of running six different cities: "the quays of Paris, Prague's cobblestone streets, Vienna's imperial architecture, Barcelona's alleys, London's Parliament and Lisbon's hills and winding roads." Not that the city's short on sights of its own: the route includes the 150-year-old Chain Bridge, the Buda Castle, the palaces along Andrassy Avenue, the art-nouveau Gresham Hotel, Margareth Island, and their own, spectacular Parliament building. And rather than hot springs, runners can revive their aching feet in one of the 22 pools of the Széchenyi thermal baths. Organizers go the distance to make this a great experience from start to finish.

White Nights Marathon (July)
St. Petersburg, Russia
http://flaspb.narod.ru/wnwn.html

At this June race with a unique 5 p.m. start, runners will experience the White Nights phenomena -- a few weeks before and after the summer solstice, the sun doesn't dip far enough below the horizon for the city to need to even turn on the streetlights. The route is designed to show off St. Petersburg's dazzling architecture, imperial palaces, cathedrals, museums, monuments and gardens. Runners will see the Palace Square, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage, and views of the Neva River, where the battleship Aurora sits anchored. The gun signaling the start of 1917 revolution was fired from her decks. Two lanes of traffic are closed exclusively for the runners; occupants of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction cheer runners as they pass. The aid stations are a stark contrast to the ornate city -- they stock only water, cool sponges, brown bread and salt. All in all, it's an awesome race in a marvelous setting. Kathy Loper Events offers a great tour in conjunction with this race. And Kathy has hands-on experience -- she was teammates with a member of the U.S. Embassy in this year's half-marathon relay.

ADVENTURE
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle -- when the sun comes up, you'd better be running -Unknown

Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon (March)
Moshi, Tanzania
http://www.kilimanjaromarathon.com/

Say Kilimanjaro and the majestic snow-topped peak immediately comes to mind. Now imagine running the foothills of the spectacular mountain. Africa's highest peak, the world's highest free-standing mountain, and the inspiration for one of Ernest Hemingway's most famous short stories. Villages, farms, coffee and banana plantations dot the rugged but well-supported route, which has plenty of aid stations stocked with water and wet sponges. Now in its fifth year, the race is beginning to attract some of premier marathoners in East Africa, who also happen to be the world's best. Marathons are taken pretty seriously in this part of the world, so organization is top-notch, with logistics handled by the Kilimanjaro Marathon Club. Sponsors include Tanzania Breweries (be sure to sample some Kilimanjaro Premium Lager!).

Safaricom Marathon (June)
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
http://www.marathontours.com/kenya

The race course is entirely within the 55,000-acre Lewa wildlife conservancy. The reserve is home to black rhino, zebras, elephants, antelope, leopards and cheetahs. Expect to encounter the park's four-legged residents along the route -- giraffes are particularly sociable and often accompany runners for as much as a half mile. Park rangers patrol the course and a spotter plane and helicopter hover overhead just in case other predators aren't feeling so friendly.

Kenyans dominate the race both in number of participants and times posted. Sponsored by Safaricom, Kenya's primary telecommunications company, the focus of the event is to raise funds for community and conservancy programs, and to that end, runners are required to seek sponsorship. Their efforts have been tremendous -- pledges have amounted to almost $750,000 since the 2000 race inception

North Pole Marathon (April)
North Pole Camp, Russian Federation
http://www.npmarathon.com

This event takes the marathon concept to new heights, literally -- it's at the top of the world, certified by the 2006 Guinness Book of Records as the northern-most marathon on Earth. Over and above hardcore with sub-zero temperatures, an entire route run on Arctic floes (in other words, frozen water!) -- only six to 12 feet separate runners from a lot more water in the Arctic Ocean. Never mind running shoes, snowshoes are standard gear here. Undaunted by the challenge of ice hillocks and swirling snow, 43 men and eleven women started, and completed, the 2006 race. Irish novelist Michael Collins took the gold with a time of 5:28:35, Alison Hamlett of England was less than a half hour behind him at 5:52.56. The expedition departs from Norway is put together by Richard Donovan, an Irishman with the distinction of completing marathons on all seven continents.

Antarctic Ice Marathon (December)
Anarctica, South Pole
http://www.icemarathon.com

What goes up must come down. Another Donovan "Polar Running Adventure," the Antarctic Marathon is truly at the bottom of the globe. It begins at a latitude of 80 degrees south, and can make claim to being the most southern race on the planet. 80 degrees latitude also means temperatures hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Runners must also contend with an altitude of 3,300 feet and strong Katabatic winds. The course is well-packed snow, groomed in advance, and the scenery is endless expanses of white terrain against the backdrop of the Patriot Hills. The excursion departs from Punto Arena, Chile, where participants are flown by private jet to the race location. Entry is limited. The price tag is $15,000. The experience, priceless. Which is fitting since Anarctica has no national currency.

Antarctica Marathon (February)
King George Island, Antarctica
http://www.marathontour.com/antarctica

As extreme as staging a marathon at the ends of the earth seems, there's actually two to choose from on Antarctica. Set on King George Island, just off the tip of the Antarctica Pennisula, describing the race route as "difficult" is an understatement. The course is a series of unrelenting inclines, and the surface is gravel, rock and muddy, slippery roads. Scientific research bases representing Russia, Uruguay, Chile and China are located along the route and serve as support stations. Penguins and seals serve as the spectators. There were 176 finishers in 2005. William Jennings, 66, was the oldest participant and posted an incredible time of 5:36:36. The event wasn't held in 2006. Don't think anyone noticed -- 2007 is already sold out!

Easter Island Marathon (June)
Easter Island (Chile)
http://marathontours.com/easterisland

2007 will mark this marathon's sixth anniversary. This is a trek as well as a marathon. The tiny South Pacific Island, known to the natives as Rapa Nui, is one of the most isolated inhabited places on the planet. The closest population center is 2,300 miles away. About 4,000 people live on the island, but it's famous worldwide for the over 800 mysterious statues that rim its shores. It's yet to be determined how the ancient "Moai" sculptures got to their various locations. Carved from hardened volcanic ash, they often measure as high as 13 feet and weigh as much as 14 tons. Paro, one of the largest Moai discovered, is almost 33 feet tall and weighs about 75 to 80 tons. The course runs across the island, along its only paved road, so it doesn't include the massive Moai, not that it matters -- their presence is pervasive -- especially when you consider the entire island is only 63 square miles. And if you're trying to chalk up your seven continents, Rapa Nui is a Chilean possession, so this technically counts for South America.

Great Wall Marathon (May)
Beijing, China
http://www.great-wall-marathon.com/

The ultimate wall. And the concept of one step at a time takes on a whole new meaning here -- runners must climb the 3,700 stone steps, descend, run up and down a few mountains, then return and conquer the steps once again. How demanding is this race? A comment on Marathonguide.com summed it up best by beginning: "I thought Antarctica was tough until I ran the Great Wall Marathon." Race organizers put a slightly different slant on the incredible task of climbing two miles of steps twice: "A little tougher than a usual course -- but no extraordinary experience is obtained ordinarily."

The marathon is actually held about three hours from Beijing in the picturesque Tianjin province. It's organized in part by province authorities but entry must be booked as part of a tour group to insure participants are adequately prepared for the grueling conditions. The race debuted in 2000 and, amazingly, to date, 25 percent of the finishers were first-time marathoners.

Marabana Havana Marathon (November)
Havana, Cuba
http://www.cuba1tours.com/running.html

2006 will be the 20th anniversary of Marabana Havana. The marathon is the culmination of a week-long festival celebrating athletics. Cubans run for free, buses are provided to bring people from throughout the island to Havana to participate. The route follows the Malecon Seawall and provides a complete tour of the city's landmarks, including political sights and once-posh hotels and casinos. Despite the terrific scenery, it's tough going -- hilly, with tropical temperatures and high humidity contributing to the difficulty. Details are low-tech -- no fancy timing chips or mats -- but there are a multitude of volunteers handing out orange slices, water and good wishes. There's no expo with vendors selling all the latest running gear and gizmos either, but the awards ceremony is a wonderful step back in time. It's held in a gymnasium dedicated to Kid Chocolate, a Cuban boxer who attained legendary status for his success in the ring during the 1930's.

Some of the Cubans run the race barefoot, others in all types of badly tattered footware. Many foreigners give their shoes to the Cuban runners after they cross the finish line. Medallions, however, are given to all participants at regististration. Sometimes it's more about the journey than the destination.

Great Tibet Marathon (September)
Tibetan Plateau, India
http://www.great-tibetan-marathon.com/

High on a remote plateau, ringed by the Ladahk Mountain Range, the route runs monastery to monastery. At the start, participants are blessed by monks from the Hemis Gompa. Pistols or fireworks would be an inappropriate starting signal in such a sacred setting, so instead monks blow on long Himalayan horns. This is a land of enlightened beings and, in keeping, the course offers expansive views of the Indus Valley, its small villages and monasteries nestled among the mountains. The terrain is very rugged, much of it on narrow dirt roads that often are washed out from the melted snow coming down the mountainsides. Altitude is also a factor, but fortunately much of the race is downhill. The support stations are often staffed by Buddhist monks, masters in the art of giving comfort. Runners will also find an additional, non-traditional form of aid along the route -- colorful prayer flags and prayer wheels.

SCENIC
Jungfrau Marathon (September)
Interlaken, Switzerland
http://www.jungfrau-marathon.ch

As one would expect, there's stupendous scenery... and also an arduous course in the Swiss Alps. Beginning at Interlaken, the first six miles are deceptively level, then the course proceeds on a brutal 5,960-foot climb, almost half of which is on unpaved hiking trails. Runners brave enough to take on the route are rewarded with some of the most awe-inspiring vistas in the world: Alpine meadows, sparkling lakes, fabulous views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains. And, as you would also expect, race details are handled with impeccable Swiss precision.

Baxters Loch Ness Marathon (October)
Inverness, Scotland
http://www.lochnessmarathon.com

Up for a monster run? The sound of bagpipes sends runners off to face a challenging course through the Scottish Highlands. The route includes moors, forests, a stretch along the southeastern shores of Loch Ness, then across the River Ness to Inverness for one final celebratory lap at Queens Park Stadium. The lure of a possible "Nessie" sighting, as well as the idyllic landscape, is attracting more and more participants. The race premiered in 2000 with a field of 800 -- by 2005, the ranks had swelled to 4,550. Organizers offer a well-run race, a festival of activities and a monster meal at the finish.

Marathon de Monaco et des Riviera (November)
Monte Carlo, Monaco
http://www.monaco-marathon.com/us/index.htm

Splendid coastal Cote d'Azur scenery, luxury, glamour.... The French Riviera is normally pretty pricey real estate, but runners get a bargain -- Monaco is too small to accommodate an entire marathon route so the course is spread over three countries (Monaco, Italy and France). Beginning at the Monte Carlo Casino, runners take a symbolic lap in the Principality, a second pass over the starting line, and then it's on to Italy until the halfway mark, and to France before returning to Monaco for the finish at the Stade Louis II. There are two demanding climbs... but their difficulty is sweetened by the chocolate served along with fresh and dried fruit at all the support stops.

Reggae Marathon (December)
Negril, Jamaica
http://www.reggaemarathon.com

Good music, good vibes, gorgeous scenery, great time. Created and sponsored by the Jamdammers, a Kingston running club, every aspect of the race is attended to with tender loving care, beginning with a three-day expo which includes local art exhibits along with standard running goodies, a gourmet pasta party the night before, and a predawn 5:15 start featuring flaming bamboo torches, drummers and the sweet sounds of Bob Marley. The first two hours of darkness provide some cool running before the heat of the day sets in. With reggae at every mile, a flat, forgiving course hugs the magnificent coast (the Negril cliffs and white coral sand beaches were the backdrop for the 1965 James Bond flick, Thunderball). Instead of grabbing sloshy paper cups full of water, runners can cruise by the aid stations without breaking stride and stock up on plastic to-go pouches filled with a water/Gatorade combo. They can simply tear or bite the corner and sip as needed. His-and-hers Bob and Rita Marley trophies are awarded to respective marathon winners in the male and female categories. If it weren't for the scorching temperatures, this would be the coolest marathon on the planet.

ING Thailand Temple Run (March)
Bangkok, Thailand
http://www.thailand-temple-run.com

The actual race location is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Bangkok. A unique run mostly on asphalt, but interspersed with some dirt stretches, the course winds through the Thai countryside -- passing villages, temples and fruit orchards, and traversing rice paddies and small bridges across numerous klongs (canals). On this predominantly flat course, the thermometer presents the greatest challenge. Temperatures will often reach the 80s by the 5:30 a.m. start. Organizers do an exceptional job providing relief from the heat -- frequent aid stations are well-stocked with water, sport drinks, icy sponges and a most refreshing touch, watermelon. It's also a good idea to partake in the blessings offered by the monks at the starting-line opening ceremony.

Ultra Sports Cyprus Pafos Marathon (March)
Pafos, Greece
http://www.ultrasportspafosmarathon.com/index2.htm

Aphrodite's playground also happens to be an outstanding marathon destination, with ancient ruins among modern amenities, balmy Mediterranean breezes, golden beaches, mountain peaks, citrus groves, olive trees, vineyards and fragrant wildflowers. Oh yes, and the marathon! The race begins at Aphrodite's Rock, the spot where the goddess of love and beauty is said to have emerged from the sea. Locals call this landmark "Petra tou Romiou," Rock of the Greek. Legend has it the Byzantine frontier guard Digenis Akritas kept the Saracens at bay by heaving the huge rock at them. A source of inspiration for poets and painters for centuries (the most famous depiction is Botticelli's Birth of Venus), the scene is certain to jumpstart your run. From there, the course follows the coast to Pafos. There's only an occasional hill -- but plenty of water, juice and icy sponges -- until the finish at the Pafos Medieval Fort Square. The route is marked in descending kilometers, and note that you may need to keep your own time. In the past, there haven't been actual clocks along the course. But when you've been around 10,000 years, what's an hour or two....

Buller Marathon (February)
Westport, New Zealand
http://www.bullermarathon.org.nz/

Set in the northwestern region of New Zealand's South Island, the small coastal community of Westport hosts the race. The course follows a spectacular route along the Buller River -- runners will be treated to waterfalls, whitewater rapids and a variety of extraordinary native flora. The marathon will celebrate its silver anniversary next February and finishers will receive a special commemorative medal. The area is famous for another precious metal, as Buller Gorge was the site of New Zealand's version of the Gold Rush. Prospectors flocked there in the 19th century to seek their fortunes. Hosting a mini-sized marathon with a field of less than 200 last year, Westport extends a tremendously warm welcome to race participants.

Marathon de Cheverny (April)
Cheverny, France
http://www.marathondecheverny.com/

Paris in the springtime might be rivaled only by running the countryside of the Loire River Valley. It's an exquisite pastoral landscape, made even more so the many chateaux and castles. Long recognized as the "Garden of France," the central part of the valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Starting at the grand Chateau Cheverny, built somewhere between 1624 and 1630, the runners go off on a jaunt along a level, shady course that will pass chateaux, stone cottages, villages, and vineyards. Spectators are mostly scarce, but do turn out in full force in the towns to cheer runners on. Support stations stock water, juice, fruit and chocolate, and wine and cheese are also offered twice along the route. You get a four-course pasta pre-race meal, a post-race feast, a commemorative bottle of wine along with your t-shirt and medal. Overall, the event is a foreigner friendly affair.

Marathon Deutsch Weinstrasse (April)
Bockenheim, Germany
http://www.marathon-deutsche-weinstrasse.de/wEnglisch/seiten/introduction.shtml

France gets all the love, but Germany's wine country has some of the most beautiful scenery you'll see anywhere, and its mild Mediterranean-like climate makes it perfect for cultivating the grapes that produce the region's "white gold." Deutsch Weinstrasse, the "German Wine Road," begins in Bockenbeim, and the marathon route follows it faithfully through vineyards, Black Forest towns and quaint villages. It also offers panoramic views of mountaintop castles, fortresses and half-timbered houses. It's a very small race, usually about 300 to 400, but organizers go to great lengths to accommodate participants.

Regensburg Marathon (May)
Regensburg, Germany
http://www.regensburg-marathon.de/

Forget Disney World. This is the authentic Magic Kingdom. The Bavarian capital was spared from the destruction of World War II, and Regensburg may be the best-preserved medieval town in Europe. Even the location seems out of a fairy tale; situated on the Danube, the river flows east through the town. Regensburg's German Gothic cathedral, Dom St. Peter, dates back to the 13th century. The route is flat, fast and goes through Regensburg's center, passing palaces, monasteries, teutonic temples, and the remnants of Celtic and Roman ruins. The course crosses the Danube via "Steinerne Brucke," a stone bridge built sometime between 1135-1146 -- it's considered to be a medieval engineering miracle. The marathon is well-supported with frequent fuel stops stocked with water and sports drinks. The web site doesn't offer an English option, so you'll need to plug in your favorite translation page. I'm still trying to decipher mine, but I know, yes, they will have bananas, and "no babyjogger on the distance may be carried." Also your "goal" -- i.e., finisher's medal -- gets you a free massage at the "massagezelten" beside the race grounds.

PARTY TIME
Marathon du Medoc (September)
Pauillac, France
http://www.marathondumedoc.com/accueil_fr.html

Marathon du Medoc blew every other race out of this category so badly that we decided to award it sole possession. Set in the famed Bordeaux region of France, it's been called a moving "Cirque du Soleil," a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween in San Francisco's Castro district -- multiplied by ten.

Almost all the runners -- and many spectators -- are in costume, the more outrageous, the better. Cleopatra has been spotted on a litter carried by toga-clad attendants, as have chain gangs of prisoners, pirates, Vikings, clowns, Supermen, Zorros, knights, nuns, priests, nurses and surgeons. Charlie Chaplin often makes an appearance, so do the Marx Brothers and Santa Claus. There's always a Noah's Ark worth of animals, not to mention bumblebees, butterflies, dragonflies, dragons and unicorns. And a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.

As for the route, the event's organizers bill the race as the world's longest marathon. Beginning and ending in the lovely village of Pauillac (where tables of croissants, brioche and pain au chocolat are set out for runners), the course still measures the standard 42.2 kilometers, it's just that participants won't want to rush through the grounds of the magnificent chateaux and lush vineyards that comprise the route.

In addition to conventional aid stations, there are 21 wine-tasting stops, and some of the world's most renowned vintners participate -- Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Léoville Las-Cases and Chateau Lynch-Bages to name a few. The best grand cru wines are poured in real glasses that are rinsed in bathtubs after each taste. Hors d'oeuvres are plentiful and runners can also feast on a variety of pates, cheeses, canapes, saucissons, plus beef roasted on a spit right at roadside. At mile 24, they'll encounter the world's longest oyster bar. It's estimated somewhere between 15-22 thousand oysters are consumed during the race.

After a red-carpet finish, runners receive a bottle of Medoc wine in a finely crafted wooden box. And both first and last place are awarded their weight in wine. To whet the marathoner's appetite, the official prerace pasta feed is a formal four-course affair, although many of the chateaux offer their own smaller parties. Postrace festivities include fireworks, dancing and partying late into the evening. The event is limited to 9,000 and needs to be planned far in advance or through a tour group. Over 10,000 people were turned away last year.

The brilliant Czech runner Emil Zatopek said "I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time." He never ran Marathon du Medoc.

Linda Vessa has run -- and completed -- the New York City and San Francisco Marathons. She is a tour guide at beautiful AT&T Park in San Francisco, and lives in Santa Cruz.

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