Just thinking about running 26.2 miles is exhausting. Yet, every year countless fitness fanatics, marathon veterans and curious first-timers actually run these races. If you're going to expend the blood, sweat and tears, you might as well make the scenery something to remember, too—not just the aches and pains.
Many countries and most U.S. states now offer marathons, half-marathons and, in some cases, even ultramarathons, longer races that reach 50 or 100 miles. If you can handle it, such races are often a combination of cardio and sightseeing. You might come home with more than an above-average workout. "My running life has been my vehicle of introduction—to people, places, cultures and animals on all seven continents," says Bart Yasso, Runner's World magazine's chief running officer and author of the book "My Life on the Run." "It's not the details of the race I recall. For me, it's the interesting people, the humorous travel mishaps, the opportunity of running alongside a total stranger in an exotic location. It's all intoxicating."
Yasso has completed 100 marathons in the past three decades. Like many other runners, he's pushed himself even further by finishing races on every continent. The organization of these challengers is formally and fittingly dubbed the Seven Continents Club; there are currently 180 members. But completing an official course on each wasn't even possible until 1995, when Thom Gilligan, president of Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel and a runner himself, made it his mission to start a race in the icy depths of Antarctica.
Only the most adventurous of runners make that journey. According to Gilligan, the ever-changing trail on the Last Continent consists of "a little bit of everything: rolling hills, mud, glacial streams, a rocky beach and a brutal climb up a glacier." But it's devoid of human activity and, surprisingly, much snow.
"A visit to Antarctica will change your life," he says. "You will become a better custodian of the environment after you learn about the sensitive ecosystem at the bottom of the planet. Very few people have the bragging rights to say that they have run a marathon in Antarctica."
While many who travel to such lengths do so for the sake of fitness, most cite the ability to travel as one of the biggest motivators. Ed Sylvester, a Seven Continents member and longtime marathoner, began his endeavors with the idea of seeing the world.
"For all of the members of the Seven Continents group that I know, the whole experience is tied to travel and, more so, adventure travel. You see the world differently," he says. "I always try to go for a run down the main street of any city I'm visiting when I first arrive. You see other people—locals—out running, and you share a common bond. Even if you can't communicate verbally because you don't share the same language, you always give a wave and a smile."
Running in foreign lands can also offer a good grasp on the country's environment, whether it's Easter Island, Mt. Kilimanjaro or Greenland. You could even be smack in the middle of a herd of gazelles, attempting to escape being some predator's afternoon snack. Sylvester experienced this firsthand.
"My wife and I once ran a marathon in Kenya and camped in the brush the night before the race," he recalls. "At one point, I was all alone on the path, and I rounded the curb to see two big elephant bulls with their tusks shining and trunks raised in anger. It was fantastic."
Then there are races—like the Great Wall and Everest marathons — that require a different sort of training due to the terrain, altitude or other extreme circumstances of the host country. Cliff Jennings, sales manager at Marathon Tours & Travel, has 76 marathons under his belt. He says the China marathon, which requires a 3,700-stair climb each way, was one of the most challenging he's ever completed. "The Great Wall is really, really hard — one of the toughest I've ever done," he says. "People have to do special training for it. We advise they find a football stadium and run up and down the stairs for hours."
Not every runner starts out with dreams of finishing those 26.2 miles in record time. For student Stuart Wainwright, the running bug bit him almost accidentally.
"My dad suggested one Saturday afternoon that we run the half marathon the next day," he says, "and so we did." Three years later, Wainwright has more than 50 marathons and ultramarathons to his credit. Yasso, like Wainwright, has more than a simple urge to run long distances. For him, it's having the race T-shirt that no one else has. "If someone finds out you're a marathon runner and they ask you what was your last marathon and you say 'Topeka,' the conversation will end abruptly," he explains.
But, he continues, "If you say, 'I just got back from running the Mount Kilimanjaro marathon,' the conversation is lengthy."