Health and wellness

Epic Marathons Worth a Trip

A fitness journalist rounds up her bucket-list marathons around the world

This month, you can run a marathon in Hong Kong, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Dubai or Xiamen. And that’s just in Asia.

For travellers, there is an ever-growing number of epic races around the world – not just marathons, but ultra-marathons, vertical climbs, 10Ks and some very strange races indeed. In Berlin, you can jog past historic memorials; in Paris, you run under the Arc de Triomphe; while in Wales, you run against a horse. Le Marathon de Médoc runners get to taste 23 wines along the way.

Here are a selection of running challenges worth flying for.

Red Bull 400

When: May-October

Where: Worldwide

Participants compete in the Red Bull 400 at the Okurayama Ski Marathon, Jump Stadium in Sapporo,
Jason Halayko/Red Bull Content Pool

 The vicious 17-race series is often called the ‘toughest 400-metre race in the world’. You run up ski jumps used for Winter Olympics in Courchevel and Sochi, trudge through a 35-degree incline in Whistler, or surrender to climbing on all fours on courses from Turkey to Japan with dozens of other competitors.

Marathon des Sables

When: 5-15 April 2019

Where: Sahara desert

Josuef Photo

Six days, six marathons and endless sun – such are the conditions of the Marathon des Sables, an ultra-marathon across the Sahara desert. Around 1,000 runners brave 251 kilometres while carrying food and supplies. Terrain spans sand dunes, salt flats and stony desert tracks. By the end, you can expect heavily bandaged feet. Race organisers advise wearing roomy shoes.

Great Wall Marathon

When: 18 May 2019

Where: Northern China

Small goat trails, uneven paths, relentless stairs and brutal hills all make China’s Great Wall Marathon incredibly difficult. Yet the allure of jogging over the manmade wonder and into smaller villages entices some 2,500 runners every year. Temperatures are high, but the 5,164 steps will take you higher.

Barkley Marathon

When: Late March to early April

Where: Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee

There were no finishers in the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathon in 2018. This gruelling 160-kilometre course (also available is a 97-kilometre ‘fun run’) involves a punishing total ascent of nearly 18 kilometres. The race is run in five consecutive loops – each must be finished in under 12 hours. Still tempted? Good luck getting one of the 40 slots. You’ll need to write an essay on why you should run the marathon, submit US$1.60 (HK$12.5) and hope to become what race organisers call ‘one of the unfortunate few chosen’.

Angkor Wat International Half Marathon

When: December 2019

Where: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Runners follow dirt paths around numerous temples before ending up outside the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor Wat. There are also ten- and three-kilometre races. Proceeds go to children’s hospitals and victims of landmines, while special race categories also accommodate athletes in wheelchairs or those with artificial limbs.

North Pole Marathon

When: 9 April 2019

Where: North Pole

North Pole Marathon
Mark Conlon/North Pole Marathon

This cool race requires flying into Svalbard, Norway, then travelling to the North Pole camp on arctic ice floes. Next come 10 laps of a 4.2-kilometre loop in sub-zero temperatures. Hypothermia, frostbite and even polar bears are all real risks, and runners often nip into a heated tent between laps to recover from the harsh conditions. There’s one extra harsh condition – the fee of 16,000 euros (HK$143,000).   

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