Running a marathon is an extraordinary feat—preceded by extraordinary amount of training and followed by an extraordinary amount of pain. But as any runner can attest, the incredible sense of accomplishment after covering 26.2 miles makes the misery well worth it.
After all, there must be a good reason more and more people are going the distance: According to the 2014 Running USA Marathon Report, an all-time high of 550,637 marathon finishers last year, up from 541,000 in 2013.
If you’re considering signing up for a marathon, make sure your first race is a good one. To help you out, we asked the experts—running coaches, triathletes, and fitness enthusiasts—to find the best marathons for first-timers across the country. What makes an awesome racing experience? It’s a combo of an energetic atmosphere, a relatively flat course, good weather, and gorgeous scenery—and no matter which aspect is most important to you, this list has got you covered.
Where: San Francisco, CAWhen: July 31, 2016Why: San Fran welcomed 18.4 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most toured cities in America. So it’s not surprising that 25,000 runners pick the city’s namesake marathon as their race of choice every year. Plus, taking in the picturesque neighborhoods, water views, historical landmarks, and running the majestic Golden Gate Bridge make the course one to remember. Of course, there are hills (the total amount of elevation is 880 feet), but the one-of-a-kind crowds cheering you on more than make up for it.
Where: Newport, RIWhen: October 9, 2016Why: The only marathon in Newport, this race features breathtaking views and a nice downhill finish. Along the 26.2-mile route you’ll enjoy all the sights the “City by the Sea” has to offer, including gorgeous views and stunning historic mansions. Registration isn’t capped (so there’s no pressure to sign up early), and participants are treated to pace groups and free on-course photography—perfect for capturing all the excitement of your first big race.
Where: Tacoma, WAWhen: May 1, 2016Why: Voted by Runner’s World as one of the top 10 small town marathons in the U.S., this race shows off coastal views (nearly a third of the race is along the water) as you race a one-mile stretch across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and check out the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. A small race field of 600 runners ensures you’ll stand out among the crowd, especially if you have fans looking out for you along the course. You will encounter some challenging hills, but fortunately this course offers a net downhill elevation overall, which is ideal for first-timers.
When: January 10, 2016Where: Orlando, FLWhy: Well, why not run the most magical race on Earth? This is a great choice for beginners both mentally and physically—you can’t get more scenic than running through all four Walt Disney World theme parks (and alongside the whole cast of Disney characters). Plus, the course is pretty flat and features plenty of live entertainment to keep you distracted. The run starts at Epcot, continues through Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios before an exhilarating finish back at Epcot. And the best part: You can spend your recovery day riding Space Mountain!
Where: Long Branch, NJWhen: May 1, 2016Why: Perfect for making your marathon debut, this course is virtually flat, except for a few gentle hills and bridges. You’ll run past iconic parts of the New Jersey shoreline, from the Asbury Park boardwalk to Pier Village to an epic oceanfront finish. (Snooki sightings not guaranteed.) Plenty of on-course support from spectators also make for a successful first-timer experience. And the icing on the cake may be the weather: Race day conditions typically feature high temps in the mid 50s to low 60s.
Where: Fargo, NDWhen: May 21, 2016Why: This small-time event (roughly 2,000 participants) has a big-time feel that’s ideal for beginners. The very flat and fast course is a looped route, meaning you’ll receive plenty of local support along the way, and friends and family will have a chance to see you multiple times along the route. Adding a little extra excitement, the race begins inside the Fargodome, the 18,700-seat home of the North Dakota State Bison, and loops back into the stadium for a laser light show finish. Post-race runners can celebrate with the 27th Mile Pub Crawl, a giant street party for finishers and fans in downtown Fargo.
Where: Sacramento, CAWhen: December 6, 2015Why: For a race that’s not quite as hectic as most urban marathons but is just as well organized and still heavily attended (9,000), look no further than this Sacramento-based race. Winding through rural roads and small towns and ending in the middle of the city, the flat course is optimal for speedy times or just a solid premiere race performance. Plus, the finish line falls in the shadow of the California State Capitol building, so you’re guaranteed to get some pretty awesome photo ops.
Where: Los Angeles, CAWhen: February 14, 2016Why: Love is in the air at this Valentine’s Day race. The epic “Stadium to the Sea” course begins at the historic Dodgers Stadium and ends just steps away from the beach near the famous Santa Monica pier. But it’s what you pass along the way that makes this race truly memorable: Runners can check out Rodeo Drive, Fox Studios, Beverly Hills, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater while covering the net downhill course. Bonus: If you’re a newbie, you definitely won’t be alone: Around 53 percent of the runners who make up the field will also be first-timers.
Where: Chicago, ILWhen: October 9, 2016Why: With a reputation for being flat and fast, the Windy City course makes is an great choice for novice runners. While you don’t need to qualify, there is a lottery system for this race—understandable, considering the marathon is one of the six World Marathon Majors. Along the course, runners will admire downtown Chicago, take in several different neighborhoods, and enjoy the support of 1.7 million cheering spectators.
Where: Nashville, TNWhen: April 30, 2016Why: An ideal debut for first-time marathoners, this race will take runners through the midst of Music City, starting on Lower Broadway, past the Country Music Hall of Fame, and ending with a concert and festival in a field. Plus, the Rock ‘n’ Roll race series organizers have their marathon execution down to a science: These races draw great crowds, the on-course entertainment is on point, and the runners always have fun. Though the course terrain does include rolling hills, you’ll feel buoyed by the historic sights, live music, helpful support crews, enthusiastic fans, and costumed runners as the 26.2 miles fly by.
Where: Virginia Beach, VAWhen: March 20, 2016Why: Love St. Patrick’s Day? Love beer? Then the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon is for you. You’ll have the luck of the Irish during this road race, featuring great crowd support and aid stations along the course. Capped at 4,000 participants, it won’t be easy for spectators to lose you in the crowd. Along the flat and fast course, you’ll pass the Camp Pendleton military base, the Cape Henry lighthouse, and finish on the famous Virginia Beach boardwalk. With the Atlantic Ocean as your backdrop and free beer at the post race party, it makes your first-ever marathon Instagram-worthy for sure.
Where: Washington, D.C.When: October 30, 2016Why: To get runners pumped up, a full fighter jet air show takes place at the starting line—and that’s just the beginning of race day excitement. This marathon takes runners through an incredibly scenic route along the best sights in and around the nation’s capitol, including historic Georgetown, the Pentagon, the Capitol, the National Mall, and the FDR Memorial. If the scenery and fail foliage don’t keep you occupied, the enthusiastic crowds, aid stations staffed by marines, and live bands along the course provide ample entertainment. Plus, listening to the National Anthem takes on a whole new meaning when you’re standing next to armed services members, veterans, and family members of those in service.
Where: New York, NYWhen: November 6, 2016Why: Because it’s the New York freakin’ marathon. Yes, it’s a difficult race to get into, but with the odds in your favor and a little bit of luck, you could be randomly accepted via the New York Road Runners’ (NYRR) lottery system. (Or, if you live in New York City, you can enter the NYRR’s 9+1 Program.) The course, which goes through all five boroughs and ends in picturesque Central Park, is hard to beat. And the spectator support is unreal: The only places where the are no screaming crowds are over the bridges. While runners say it’s an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, it can also be overwhelming and might be better to save once you’ve got a sturdy running resume. However, if you’re going to just do one marathon, this may be it.
Where: Philadelphia, PAWhen: November 22, 2015Why: Channel your inner Rocky and get ready to run 26.2 miles through the City of Brotherly Love. This relatively flat course is perfect for newbies thanks to its enthusiastic spectators, top-notch swag, and pace groups for runners looking to hit their goal time (or for more on-course support). You really get the best of both worlds with this race: The first 13 miles are urban, then the second half of the course passes through tree-lined, rural roads. And throughout, expect plenty of rambunctious crowds of spectators, including college students from the surrounding schools. On race day, there are typically cool yet manageable temperatures (approximately 45 degrees at start time and 54 degrees by the finish).
Where: Portland, ORWhen: October 9, 2016Why: If you’ve always wanted to run a marathon but felt nervous about the time restriction (most races have a limit of around six hours), this race, with a generous eight-hour time frame, is for you. Perfect for slower runners or anyone looking to run and walk the course, this mid-size race begins and ends in the hipster paradise and craft beer mecca known as downtown Portland. There’s plenty of entertainment along the way, including live bands, acrobatic dancers, and cheerleading teams, and the weather is usually quite cooperative: Portland’s average temp in early October is 55 degrees.
Where: Anchorage, AKWhen: June 18, 2016Why: For 40 years, this event has provided an ideal way for runners to take in the natural beauty of Alaska during the summer solstice. The course will take you through foothills and downtown Anchorage and along the waters of Cook Inlet. And with eight hours to finish, the race allows you plenty of chances to take in the scenery and get your mind off your tired legs—even walkers who can log 20-minute miles are free to participate. To mix things up even more, you’ll also enjoy a variety of surfaces from scenic city bike trails to paved roads to rocky wilderness paths. And weather-wise, you really can’t beat it: In the past 31 years, it’s only rained seven times on race day, with average weather being partly cloudy and temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees.
Where: Honolulu, HIWhen: December 13, 2015Why: Hawaii is one of the only places you’d ever want to run 26.2 miles in December (or really, any time of year!). Open to runners and walkers, the no-time-limit race begins on Ala Moana Boulevard, which in Hawaiian means “path by the ocean,” which describes almost the entire course. The large runner field is relatively slow overall, making this a great no-pressure first race. And it’s not like you need an excuse, but it’s a great festive time of year to visit Hawaii: You’ll be likely to hear Christmas songs blaring along the course. To avoid the midday heat, the race begins at 5 a.m., though temperatures can climb to the low 80s by 10 a.m., so be sure to hydrate properly.
Special thanks to the following runners for their input: Chris Lopez, co-leader of The Rise NYC; Christopher Ho, co-leader of New York City’s The Most Informal Running Club, Ever; Michele Gorman; Tom Harley; Laura Beachy; Jasmin Roman; Tom Holland, author of The Marathon Method; Ken Szekretar; Meredith Kessler; Chris Warren, co-founder of Marathon Maniacs.