Best Marathon/Vacation Combo: Vancouver, B.C.
It's about time somebody recognized our neighbors to the north. Vancouver, whose marathon is typically at the end of April, is a beautiful historic city with a British feel and plenty of entertainment for everyone. The race itself is a well-organized, athlete- and spectator-friendly race that gives you a jumpstart on sightseeing. Plus, the hills aren't so bad that you'll have to spend the rest of your vacation holed up in the hotel. www.adidasvanmarathon.ca.
Best Race to Leave the Kids Behind: Las Vegas
Running is to Vegas as gambling is to the Vatican. Running means early mornings, carb-fests and sweat-drenched shirts. Vegas means sleepless nights, all-you-can-eat shrimp and sweat that smells like rum and Coke. Maybe that's the allure: If you're going to sacrifice your social life in the pursuit of endurance, you might as well celebrate the end of it all in Party Central. Tom Stieg of Washington state knows. He came up short of a Boston qualifier in a windy Vegas last year.
"I was so disappointed I didn't get to Boston, I headed right for Monte Carlo Brewery and just went crazy," he says. "I was there for the rest of the day, still in my running stuff." Some runners say they come for the fast course. We say they're bluffing.
Best Race with a Half Marathon: Flying Pig (Cincinnati)
Many people don't know that Cincinnati was once known as "Porkopolis," or that it houses one of the best rib joints in the country (a favorite of the late Bob Hope). In fact, pigs are ubiquitous in the 'Nati; even the statue commemorating the city's bicentennial has four winged swine on top of a riverboat's smokestacks.
Now, for the first time, the Flying Pig Marathon (purveyor of one of the best medals on the circuit) serves up a half-slab of marathon in addition to the full slab. It's a great addition for those who don't quite have the appetite for all those hills. www.flyingpigmarathon.com.
Best Race Off the Radar: Cal International
This marathon is actually pretty well known, if you live west of Boise. But Cal International is held in December, after all of the major fall marathons have come and gone. To many runners east of the Rockies, it never crosses their minds. Their loss.
Cal International is one of the best point-to-point marathons going. It runs downhill from Folsom Dam to the center of Sacramento, and is impeccably organized. Typically good weather greets runners, as does a varied course, a fantastic finish line and good crowds -- which makes Cal International a good change of scenery, or a great place to rebound from a fall marathon disaster. www.runcim.org.
Best Race That Lives Up to the Hype: Twin Cities
The Twin Cities Marathon lays claim to being the "Most Scenic Urban Marathon." Apparently, it's all true. Talk to anyone who has run it, and it's as though they've been hypnotized by the fall foliage and the pristine neighborhoods.
"I would say if you're going to run a marathon in a city, you'd be hard-pressed to beat Twin Cities," says Jesse Pagels of Chicago, who has run all the big ones. Twin's course traipses through stately neighborhoods, along the shoreline of the lake and on the banks of the Mississippi. But it's not just scenery that draws people: Twin's point-to-point course begins just outside the Metrodome, which means a cozy warm-up and plenty of restrooms. At the other end in St. Paul, the finish up Summit Avenue then down past the capitol is one of the most memorable in the country. www.twincitiesmarathon.org.
Biggest Bang for the Buck: Houston
Way back in the '90s, the HP Houston Marathon was having an identity crisis. They were losing elite runners to other races, and registration was stagnant even as marathoning was experiencing a second boom. Enter new race director Steven Karpas, a runner with a marketing and finance background. Exit prize money for elites. Karpas and the marathon staff plugged that money back into runner benefits and race technology. For $65, each entrant gets a training T-shirt, official race T-shirt, finisher's sweatshirt, finisher's beer mug, finisher's medal, finisher's certificate and a hot breakfast at the finish line. Houston also helped pioneer the art of tracking runners online.
"We wanted to grow our race, and thought the one way to do that was if runners were direct beneficiaries of the aspects of the race," Karpas says.
It's worked. Since 2001, the HP Houston Marathon has added a half marathon and 5K and has grown its participation to 18,000 total runners. The half marathon is the men's national championship race, but every runner feels elite in Houston.
"Lots of races claim they do everything for the runners," says Randy Moore of Minneapolis, who ran Houston last year. "Houston lives up to everything it claims." www.hphoustonmarathon.com.