Most Charitable: Marine Corps (Washington, D.C.)
People can, and in fact are, raising money for charity at almost any marathon these days. Some have become destinations for charity groups; others are linked directly to organizations. Along those lines, Marine Corps staff have turned what used to be a sore spot for them (the difficulty of gaining entry) into a chance to do good: Raise money through one of their chosen charities and you receive a coveted race bib. So you can feel good about your race, even before the gun goes off. www.marinemarathon.com.
Most Legendary: Boston
The Boston Marathon has taken quite a beating recently--by the weather, by the press, by the inability of anyone not born in the Rift Valley to win the thing. Sure, it's got some issues. Like the fact that the trip out to Hopkinton feels like a cross-country tour in your parents' old station wagon, the one with vinyl seats and without air conditioning ("We're on a pilgrimage to see a Moose!"). But this is still the granddaddy of them all--the one on every runner's wish list, either to run in or to win. It's a fabled course, steeped in history, and you feel its magnitude at the starting line. There's just nothing like Boston. And until you've suffered through the journey like the rest of us, there's a little piece of your running puzzle that's missing. www.bostonmarathon.org.
Best New(er) Race: Baltimore
Baltimore, seemingly rife with orange cones and potholes, was not in the running for "Most Scenic Marathon" on our list. But it's here because those in charge are determined to keep improving their race. Michael Shilling of New Jersey has run every Baltimore Marathon since it began in 2001.
"The beauty of this marathon lies in the fact that the race director and race management company listen to the runners," he says. "They have changed the marathon every year based on runner feedback."
That includes the course, which has been smoothed out since its inaugural year and starts and finishes at Baltimore's coolest feature, the stadium area that houses both the Ravens and the Orioles. Note the plentiful pre-race restrooms, top-notch expo, swank race shirt (Under Armour is the main sponsor) and lots of spectators. www.thebaltimoremarathon.com.
Best Race at Altitude: Salt Lake City
Yes, the air is thin. Salt Lake City rests at around 4,500 feet. But the vociferous encouragement may make you forget that it feels like you're breathing through a straw. "This town took ownership of the race from the time it was announced," says Jeff Wilson of Columbus, Ohio. "They took the race as their own and made it special."
"Special" included a finish through the Olympic Plaza and boisterous crowds, in addition to a race management company that sweated the details.
"Great races combine a tireless service to the athlete with an attitude of fun," says Wilson, a veteran of 31 marathons. "We're all out there to celebrate the day, the sport and each other. The best (races) build on that." www.saltlakecitymarathon.com.
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Most Scenic: Big Sur
So you know that car commercial, where a sedan is knifing down a two-lane road high above the ocean with some overdone Led Zeppelin song cranking in the background? You know how your eyes drift from the car you can't afford, over to the dazzling view? That's Big Sur, a breathtaking stretch of Northern California coastline. And you, my friend, are going to see it at a much more reasonable speed. Because as beautiful as it is, the Big Sur Marathon is also hilly, and no place to shoot for a PR. Looking west, that won't matter much.
"Spending the better part of four hours watching the California coast is a pleasant way to spend a morning, even as the pain in my legs constantly increases," says Rick Swayne of Los Gatos, California, a regular here. Be sure to bring along a portable camera; you'll want to document your slow, painful, gorgeous journey. www.bsim.org.
Best Place to Feel Like a Movie Star: Los Angeles
Drawn to the bright lights of show biz like a moth to a porch light? You'll dig the 8:30 a.m. start (though some have complained of the heat). Love hearing people call out to you? The personalized bibs (with your first name in big letters) will be right up your alley. Dream of competing in a reality television show? Try crying at the end of a marathon in front of a grandstand full of beautiful people. Los Angeles makes you feel like a somebody.
"The city made such a big deal about it," says Kelli Picon of Greeley, Colorado, who ran the race in 2004. "There were posters all over L.A., Hollywood and everywhere else we went. We saw coverage of it on TV--it made us all feel very important." www.lamarathon.com.