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Major Competition

New York is one of five "Marathon Majors." Photo:
New York is one of five "Marathon Majors." Photo:

How does the New York City Marathon measure up against the other World Marathon Majors?

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

There are five so-called World Marathon Majors: the Boston Marathon, held in mid-April; the Flora London Marathon, held in late April; the Real Berlin Marathon, held in September; the Chicago Marathon, held in October; and the ING New York City Marathon, held in November. Each has its own distinct personality. Here’s how the New York City Marathon compares to the other four in 10 different categories.

The biggest: New York

Isn’t it only fitting that the New York City Marathon be the world’s largest marathon? And it is, with nearly 42,000 starters and more than 38,000 finishers expected this year.

The oldest: Boston

The Boston Marathon is by far the oldest marathon in the world, dating all the way back to 1897, the year after the marathon was revived by the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

The fastest: Berlin

The fastest marathon ever run—Haile Gebrselassie’s world record of 2:03:59—was run in Berlin. So that makes the Berlin Marathon the fastest in the world by one standard. But perhaps a better standard is the average finish time for the top group of runners. By this standard, the fastest marathon changes from year to year, and is also usually not the same event in the same year for both men and women. Sometimes it’s Berlin, other times it’s London, and still other times it’s a non-Major such as the Rotterdam Marathon.

Coolest finish line: Berlin

The Boston Marathon has a very cool finishing experience, with its famous long homestretch on Boylston Street in downtown Boston. But we have to say that the Berlin Marathon finish is cooler, passing through the majestic Brandenburg Gate, built in 1788.

The toughest: New York

The London, Berlin and Chicago marathon courses are all almost completely flat. Boston has its famous Wellesley Hills, but the course is a net downhill and it has hosted some pretty fast times. The toughest course among the Marathon Majors is New York’s. It features three significant hills and a lot of small ups and downs. And cruelly, the toughest part of the course is the end, where tired runners are slammed by the rolling slopes of Central Park.

Most international: New York

Nearly a third of the more than 40,000 participants in the New York City Marathon come from overseas. No other marathon can match the international flavor of this event, which is one of its greatest charms. You can hear a million different languages spoken at the expo in the days before the event. Actually, you can hear a million languages spoken anywhere in New York at anytime, and that’s why it is so fitting that the city’s marathon field comprises such a diverse cross section of the world.

Most selective: Boston

The Boston Marathon is the only major marathon (and the only Marathon Major) that only accepts entrants who have met age- and gender-based qualifying standards. That makes it the most selective marathon in the world. But even though it lacks a qualification system, the New York City Marathon is not a heck of a lot easier to get into due to its popularity. More than 100,000 runners apply for 42,000 race numbers.

Best spectators: Boston

No city embraces its marathon quite like Boston does. It seems the whole city comes out to watch, and not just to watch but also to shout encouragement, ring bells, and hoist signs as runners pass. These people really get into it. And each year a morning Red Sox game is played in Fenway Park on race day, so that fans are streaming out just as the heart of the race field passes by, creating an environment that is without parallel for excitement.

New York is a close second to Boston for spectatorship, though. An estimated 700,000 people line the streets of the five boroughs, and they get pretty rowdy too—especially along 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

Best weather: London

When we say “best weather” we mean “best running weather,” of course. All five of the Marathon Majors are scheduled to take place at times when the weather is likely to be cool, but all five have the occasional bad year—either too hot or too cold. The weather is probably least cooperative in Boston, whereas the weather in London seldom hits the extremes of heat and cold that can ruin your race before you start. Veteran participants would probably say the New York City Marathon is more often too cold than too hot.

Best place to celebrate: New York

Part of the fun of participating in any big city marathon is celebrating with the city’s cultural resources afterward. Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York are all great cities, but we believe that no other city offers more options for fun and celebration than New York. After all, it’s the city that never sleeps!