Best Rural Race: Napa Valley Marathon
You don't need to be a pretentious snob with a lifetime subscription to Wine Spectator to understand the appeal of Napa. The race is miles of pristine rolling countryside (mustard fields that will later be replaced with grapevines), with only the last mile in town. The fast course requires a Herculean effort between several municipalities, and has 1,300 volunteers for a 2,300-person race. Runners get a plethora of perks in return for their entry fees.
"I think the most important thing is we treat every runner like they're the only one in the race," says race co-director David Hill. www.napa-marathon.com.
Best Small-Town Race: Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is a smaller city that thinks big. Its marathon offers prize money and has many of the same features of Chicago or New York, but without the crowds. Instead, you'll run by stately neighborhoods on tree-lined streets, albeit with a smaller audience.
"You get a lot more of the funky urban multicultural experience in Chicago," says Meg Daniel of Kennesaw, Georgia, who has run both. "In Richmond you get a little bit of everything else: the stately old neighborhoods, the quiet Zen-like tranquility of the river, and the historical in-town setting."
Plus, race directors entice marathoners with two dedicated "Junk Food" stops (miles 16 and 22), stocked with cookies, pretzels, Gummi Bears, soda and other sweets to keep runners on a high www.richmondmarathon.com.
Best Big-City Race: New York City
The New York City Marathon is doing what the city has always done--embracing those from abroad. New York's field is comprised of a stunning 12,000 international runners, and the town welcomes them with some of the largest marathon crowds going (two million or so). The runners tours all five boroughs of the largest city in the U.S., and is one of only two marathons to garner national television coverage, which is why "big" doesn't really do it justice. Now that ING is ponying up one of the largest prize purses in marathoning, look out: New York's only going to get bigger. www.ingnycmarathon.org.<!--pagebreak-->
Best Destination: Honolulu
Here's some running therapy for you: Think December. Think white sand, warm temperatures, the sound of waves lapping against the shore. Good. Next, visualize running in shorts while your friends back home are trying to find ways to keep their extremities warm. Now think fireworks over a pre-dawn sky, torch-lit roadways, Japanese banners, costumes and drums. Picture a long, dramatic uphill that will suck the wind out of your lungs, followed by a view that has a similar effect. The Honolulu Marathon is one of the world's greatest spectacles of running. If you're up for scenery and a wild time, this is the place. www.honolulumarathon.org.
Best Chance for a PR: Chicago
There are some obvious reasons why those seeking to catch lightning in a water bottle invade Chicago. The crowds are enormous, and no matter how fast you are, there's someone to run with. The course is flat, which means even pacing--the best route to a PR. But there are other explanations why people speed here. An underrated one is that runners can walk out of their hotels, across the block and up to the starting line in Chicago. In many other "fast" marathons, you sit on a bus for an hour or more, then anxiously kill time (outdoors) in a temporary village that is often as welcoming as Amityville. Chicago removes a great deal of the stress before a marathon by nature of its loop course, which means you run relaxed. And when you run relaxed, you run very, very fast. www.chicagomarathon.com.
Toughest Marathon: Pikes Peak (Colorado Springs)
A race that began as a challenge between smokers and non-smokers, Pikes Peak has enough standing between you and the finish line without chronic emphysema.
"The joy of running the event is really overwhelmed by the agony of it," says Ron Ilgen, race director. "I was one of many who say while they're running, I'll never do this again.'"
But they just can't stay away. Keith "Curly" McKenney of Georgia finished just four minutes before the cutoff. "Standing thereI could only think of how well we had all done, and how I never wanted to do that again." This year, he'll attempt "The Double": the Pikes Peaks Ascent, Saturday, followed by the marathon (up AND down) on Sunday. If you think that's brutal, try volunteering. Twenty-two garden hoses are hooked together to transport water to the last aid station. Then there's the occasional snowstorm. It's a world-class mountain race, but it's still a mountain race. The point? Yes, you're a badass if you run it, but know what you're getting into before you decide to conquer Pikes Peak. www.pikespeakmarathon.org.