Thursday 21 February 2013

10 Days in Nicaragua - Fuego y Agua Ultra

Writing this on my way home from an incredibly memorable trip to the Fuego y Agua ('Fire and Water') set of races on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, it seems I've been away for a month, not 10 days. Developing countries always throw interesting experiences your way and my first trip to Central America didn't disappoint. It was great to get away from winter and into 90F+ weather but I'll be glad to get a good night's rest where the air doesn't try to cook me at night while the bugs are kept away by industrial levels of repellent.

Volcanoes - Concepcion (left) and Maderas (right) in Lake Nicaragua

With two volcanoes on the island, separated by an isthmus and several miles, there were three running races on offer (25k, 50k and the main event in the 100k) as well as an intriguing new 70km obstacle race called the Survival Run. The latter barely registered on my radar when I signed up, but when I got there and started hearing about it I found out all about a parallel sub-culture to the running world. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to know - it was like a baseball fan finding out that basketball exists.

The first couple of days were spent with irunfar's Sean Meissner and Eric Orton (Christopher McDougall's coach in 'Born to Run'). We were treated exceptionally well by Race Directors, Josue and Paula Stephens, and his team with trips to sight-see the town of Granada, a mini boat cruise and a plush press conference with national TV coverage - not something you expect at an ultra. But one thing that would have helped is if any of us could speak more than restaurant-menu-level Spanish. Not many Nicaraguans speak any English and I only ever learnt any French and German, which didn't help (despite one failed never know!).

Over the next few days we headed over from the capital, Managua (not particularly fascinating) to Ometepe, involving a choppy small ferry ride. By this point Nick and Jamil Coury (fast Race Directors for Aravaipa Running who put on the 24-hour races I ran in December) had joined the group, as had Margaret Schlachter (an obstacle racer and owner of Dirt In Your Skirt, which is similar to irunfar but for that sport and with more of a female focus). Nick Clark, Dave James, Yassine Diboun and the elite obstacle racers started arriving and it began to get a feel like Transvulcania last year where plenty of fast runners were just hanging out and catching up. The main difference this time was more beer.

Thursday morning included a group trash pick-up on the streets of the village of Moyogalpa, where the races started and half of them finished. Having never done this, it was a fitting way for the 90% of the racers from abroad could help out with the local community and raise the impact of the race for the locals. Mind you, there's so much trash I'd guess that by now it's already back to its previous state.

After that I hiked up the nearest volcano, Concepcion, with the Courys and we found it was scorching under the sun, albeit with some cover on the way up through the jungle. Monkeys could occasionally be seen and always heard and iridescent butterflies added to the exotic assault on the senses. It was also way steeper than expected with not much in the way of switchbacks on the 3,000ft climb to the high point that the race follows on that climb. Views from the top were obviously spectacular and the top of the volcano was visible with smoke trickling out from the lava within. This is a rare thing to see since the top half of the mountain is usually cloaked in puffy clouds.

Nick and Jamil Coury heading towards the volcano for a hike

High on Concepcion. L-R: me, Nick and Jamil Coury

Dodging the barbed wire on the final descent

We had to hurry back down since I'd arranged a beer mile at 4pm, my first foray into race directing. Beer was definitely a theme of the whole week and local beer, Tona, sponsored the race - we certainly justified that and chose it as the official beer of the inaugural Fuego y Agua Thursday Beer Mile, using an out-and-back 1/8 mile stretch of road by the main race start.

Most people can guess how these things go with each runner drinking a beer before running a quarter of a mile and repeating four times with a penalty lap for not keeping it down. In the heat, a bare-footed Patrick Sweeney ran his slowest beer mile ever to win in 6:29 while I was beaten by the remaining 12 or so runners, including a close run-off for last with Sean Meissner after virtually everyone else had had time to have a shower. I believe I posted a 21:20, so purposefully left myself plenty of improvement for next time. But serious runners, Nick Clark and Dave James (both highly favored in the pre-race odds) chose to not run because they'd already been drinking earlier in the day and had just got off the ferry...a very poor excuse.

Beer mile winner, Patrick Sweeney
Race directing the beer mile. Photo: Matt B. Davis

The race itself started at 4am on Saturday so we didn't get much sleep with all the contenders in the 100k staying at the race hotel/hostel in a dorm room in the heat. Given I've had knee issues since early December which flared up at Across the Years 24-hour on NYE, I'd decided that the Carlsbad Marathon at the end of Jan needed to be my last run for a month. Missed training and not wanting to make the knee continue to be a problem meant I dropped out the race a couple of weeks previously but decided to do an irunfar-style job of live tweeting what I could by cycling along the course.

Unfortunately the road sections were often on sand or were rocky enough to require a 4WD vehicle and my cheap rental road bike was broken within minutes with the back wheel bending and rubbing the frame. I barely made it to the 50k point (finish of the 50k race and half-way for the full distance) before the runners. That was with them having to climb up Maderas volcano through mud, cliff-edges, a 'jungle gym' of scrambling through trees and some descents that needed ropes. This isn't a beginner-level race and even the leaders took almost three hours to cover 10k of Maderas volcano.

Nick Coury had the lead 100k lead in 5:14, ahead of the 50k front-runners, then Dave James, Nick Clark and Yassine just behind. Around 5:43 the next runner was the 50k winner from Costa Rica, Diego Mendez, around a minute ahead of Jamil Coury who claimed second in that race with Alex Kurt in third. Alex was at the race to write an article for Trail Runner Magazine so that'll be out in a few months.

Jamil relaxing in the lake after taking second in the 50k

50k and Survival Run finish

Nick Coury in the lead in the earlier miles

Nick Clark at about 17 miles around dawn

Since my bike wasn't much use, I waited for a shuttle back with Jamil and Alex but it took a very long time (one of the few areas to improve in future) so I tried to ride back to make sure I'd be at the 100k finish in time for the winners. I got half way before Jamil and Alex drove past in the shuttle bus and got the driver to pick me up, saving me from the burning sun and lack of shade. Luckily we did make it back in time to see Nick Clark predictably come in first in a new course record of just under 10:35. Dave James was next in 11:06, also under the old record and Nick Coury held on for third around 11:20 while Yassine had to drop with pain in his kidneys at 70k (he's fine now). All suffered through the heat and with the climb up the Concepcion volcano, plus course markings weren't ideal so there was some time spent getting lost for many runners that day - Clarky reckons he went wrong to waste 10 mins.

However, the race I really wanted to see more of was the Survival Run because they followed the 50k route plus lots of additional diversions. Margaret's blog covers their race in detail, but they all had to start by running the first five miles with a chicken then they got put in handcuffs by the local police to run for another two miles (without the chicken). Obstacles included climbing trees, carrying 40lbs of wood and cutting down trees. Even their packet pick-up the day before involved not knowing what they'd need to do, then they had to swim out to a boat to pick up their numbers and swim back within a short time limit.

Given this was the first year of the event and most obstacle races are much shorter than an ultra and include looped courses in more controlled environments, this was at the very hardcore end of the spectrum. Of 50 entrants, only two finished - world class Junyong Pak (apologies if I mis-spelled but couldn't find his name anywhere) and local hero Johnson Cruz. Johnson was the big story of the whole event, not just for winning by almost half an hour and finishing, but because he lives on the island and holds the 50k course record (5:06). He's also about the nicest guy you could ever meet, shown by the fact he helped out Jun Yung on one of the obstacles (not a normal thing in a race from what I understand unless the person is in danger or a back of the pack competitor just trying to finish).

Yassine Diboun out acting as a life guard for the Survival Run  packet pick-up and having to dodge a ferry

Starting the Survival Run with a chicken

Survival Run packet pick-up

The start of the 50k, 100k and Survival Run at 4am

Overall it was a fantastic course and I'll have to come back to see the Maderas volcano since it's dormant (unlike Concepcion) and has a crater lake and unique jungle and terrain. Everyone seemed to have a great time at the race, but the Survival Racers had a lot of cuts and bruises to show for their efforts.

The drama wasn't over with the race finish since the weather turned and by Monday was cloudy and windy with some rain too, stopping the ferries from being able to operate due to poor infrastructure at the mainland side. The next day the only ferry was at 5am and many of us sat in the port all day long until we finally accepted nothing would be operating. However, the ferry problems meant most people who didn't leave on Sunday had to rearrange flights, often at great expense and hassle. We did get off the island on a 5:30am ferry on Tuesday and got a chance to relax back in Managua before heading back to the cold of more northern winters. However, since we didn't see any lava we did still get the fuego side of things to go with the agua of the island - a security guard started a fire on an empty lot 200ft from our Managua hotel because he'd been told to clear the land. Smart guy...almost burnt down the neighborhood.

Yassine fire-watching (from a safe distance)

Overall, I'm honored to have been lucky enough to experience the long week with so many great runners and to have met kindred spirits (even if they do like Cross-Fit) in the obstacle racers. I'm even going to do a Spartan Race at some point to see what it's like and why the sport has grown from nothing a couple of years ago to many times larger than ultrarunning in the US. Might need some gym work first!

Full results from the races are soon to be on Ultrasignup. Of note, Sean Meissner came 4th, which he hates, but he did break the female course record. Sean also wrote up articles on irunfar about the event.

More links:

Yassine Diboun's report
Sean Meissner's irunfar write-ups of before, race report and after
Nick Clark's report

Other random photos:

Relaxing on the island

Granada's cathedral

Meissner and Tona

Pre-race press conference

Church on Ometepe Island

Pre-race dinner

Clarky winning in 10:34

Meissner and the grande cerveza

Yassine trying out a Survival Run training piece

This is how Meissner coaches people at irunfar

Not so sure he wants to dangle on the rope

The podium prizes - locally crafted masks

Monday 4 February 2013

International Road Marathon Comparison (Updated Feb 2013)

Rome Marathon

Back in 2011 I wrote up a comparison of the road marathons I've run around the world since I thought it could be useful for people when deciding which ones to choose. There's a lot of great races out there and many in locations that make for a great trip - a perfect way to see some fantastic cities. But I've run a few more now so thought I'd update it and put it all together.

Bear in mind the list isn't exhaustive but includes over 50 different marathons across the world, including a good portion of the most well-known ones, so there's some decent variety.

After each description I show my estimate of how many minutes to add on to your perfect time due to the course/conditions for a three hour marathoner to give a comparison, so add on more of less minutes in proportion for your pace.

Amsterdam Marathon, The Netherlands (October) - Very fast course with typically perfect weather. Helps to be at near the front but not too big a race. Pancake flat and not necessarily very scenic but it does finish in the 1928 Olympic stadium so you can pretend you're finishing an Olympic marathon around the Great Depression, which isn't that far off the truth. Highly recommended, especially as it's a good excuse to visit the legal(ish) version of Sin City. ADD 0 MINUTES

Arizona Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, Arizona, USA (January) - If you want to have no off season then this is a great one to focus on for pure speed with comfortable temperatures and a slightly dull, but flat course around the Phoenix megapolis. They bill all the Rock 'n' Roll series races as a party but it's probably the most corporate running experience you could ever have (pay extra for VIP toilets at the start!) with less music along the course than many big city marathons. But the point of this one is really to have an easy course that's fast and to get away from winter snow. ADD 0 MINUTES

Athens Marathon, Greece (November) - Not particularly pretty but it does cover the original route from Marathon to Athens which is 24 miles, so it includes a loop to reach the adjusted distance of 26.2 miles. Flat first half then gently up before the last quarter is all downhill, finishing in the 2004 Olympic stadium. Kind of has to be done at some point just because of the history, but no need to do it a second time. ADD 2 MINUTES

Barcelona Marathon, Spain (March) - A great city to run around and a fast course too. Beautiful views of the sea and less overcrowding than at some of the larger city races. ADD 0 MINUTES

Beaujolais Nouveau Marathon, France (November) - a large percentage of people run in costumes and the race is similar to other wine country marathons like Medoc in that it's a way to celebrate the new season's wines. Wine, bread and cheese at every aid station, including pre-race so it's not exactly a fast marathon for most people. The highlight was running down steps into a wine cellar, past huge barrels of wine and an aid station, before running out the other end of the cellar and continuing on the course. ADD 5 MINUTES

Belfast Marathon, Northern Ireland (May) - Often windy, rainy and with a few hills to slow people down, yet strangely enjoyable even with sections along a motorway out to the airport. But running through republican Falls Road and loyalist Shankill Road with their sectarian murals is an interesting experience (especially if you're English). ADD 3 MINUTES

Berlin Marathon, Germany (September) - Fastest marathon course I've seen and the multiple world records broken there (the last four men's records were set there...excluding the disallowed Boston 2011 time). It starts on a wide road so the masses get moving faster than at similar-sized marathons. That allows more of the field to have a fast start, although many people still inevitably have to go very slow in the initial miles. Beer at the finish too. ADD 0 MINUTES

Big Sur International Marathon, California, USA (April/May) - Adding the word 'International' shows the aim of having people travel from all over the world and it fills very quickly but has a reasonable-sized field of 4,500 runners. Incredibly scenic along a beautiful stretch of California coastline but this is generally one to enjoy the views rather than go for a time. There's also a Boston 2 Big Sur challenge for people who run both, usually about a week apart. ADD 4 MINUTES

Boston Marathon, Massachusetts, USA (April) - In the US this is the big one everyone wants to get to thanks to the need to qualify, the history and the fact the locals get into it more than for any other marathon I can think of. I love it and it does feel special but it's not the fastest course normally due to cross-winds and those famous Newton Hills. Highlight is definitely the Wellesley girls whose screaming you can hear a mile before you get there at halfway. 2011 had a tailwind for much of the course but the 2:03:02 by Geoffrey Mutai may not have been an official world record due to the net downhill and point-to-point course, but I have no doubt it was the best run ever. This course can be fast, but on average ADD 2 MINUTES

Brussels Marathon, Belgium (October) - Pretty parks along the course and you get to see a good selection of the Brussels scenery including parts of the EU bureaucracy. Warning - your time may be worsened if you sleep through your alarm on race day like I did. ADD 1 MINUTE

Carlsbad Marathon, California (January) - Want to get away from the winter cold? This is certainly a good option in South California and is well organized with a pretty course along the beach-front for most of the race. The half marathon attracts a world class field and the marathon is reasonably competitive too, but this isn't the place to come for a fast time due to the rolling hills (especially the big one at mile 9) and 900ft of ascent. ADD 4-5 MINUTES

Copenhagen Marathon, Denmark (May) - Much of the course is run twice with overlapping loops, but I wasn't very inspired by the course which was fairly average, without too many memorable sights. ADD 1 MINUTE

Crater Lake Marathon, Oregon (August) - There aren't many road races in National Parks and this one circumnavigates the hilly road around the Crater with views of the lake most of the time. Plenty of big hills plus the elevation is mainly between 7,000ft and 8,000ft so it's not fast. It also finishes with a nasty steep two mile climb up on a fire road then straight back down the same way to trash the legs. ADD 16-20 MINUTES

Dublin Marathon, Ireland (October) - Not a very scenic course, with wind and some small inclines to make it slower. But it gives an excuse to drink Guinness where it comes from and hang out with the Irish. ADD 3 MINUTES

Duchy Marathon, England (March) - One of the oldest marathons in the UK which used to be extremely competitive for a small event, attracting the top British marathoners back when if you ran a three hour marathon you were last. Surprisingly tough course with a beautiful exposed coastal stretch that can be blustery and has to be run past twice. ADD 4 MINUTES

Edinburgh Marathon, Scotland (May) - Net downhill but not a fast course thanks to the majority being along the Scottish coastline, famous for howling winds and rain. Only the first four miles are really in Edinburgh then it heads out along the coast into a prevailing headwind which turns into a tailwind on the return last eight miles, still finishing way out of the city. The out-and-back is lonely in terms of supporters but then has the entire field supporting each other as they run past both ways. ADD 3 MINUTES

Eugene Marathon, Oregon (Apr) - Fast and flat, as befits 'Track Town USA' and the home of so many Olympians. There's something special about finishing around the historic Hayward Field track and the weather will probably help your speed, even though it'll probably be wet. ADD 0 MINUTES

Florence Marathon, Italy (November) - The first few miles are downhill so it's easy to go off too fast, then dead flat along the river for most of the rest of the way. One of the best city marathons for scenery as well as being incredibly fast if you don't overdo those first miles. It includes virtually all the main tourist sights in one of Italy's most beautiful (and romantic) cities. ADD 0 MINUTES

Fukuoka Marathon, Japan (December) - If you get a chance, you're male and you're reasonably fast then you have to do this race at some point. Before there was a marathon world championship, this was the effective race where the best male marathoners came to duke it out. There's two qualification times: 2:27 for the A standard and 2:42 for the B standard with each having a separate start. You line up in rows in the exact order of your qualification times and can't drop below a 2:45 marathon pace or you get pulled from the course. It's a unique experience with a lot of crowd and TV support from the marathon-crazy Japanese. So if qualifying for Boston is too easy for you, give this a go. Highly recommended. ADD 0 MINUTES

Louis Persoons Memorial Genk Marathon, Belgium (October) - Not many marathons to choose from in January, especially in Europe, and this one has since moved to October. This is a very small, cosy race with a multi-loop course using bike paths and small sections of easy trail. It's a shame they moved it to the middle of the Autumn marathon season instead of the sparse winter marathon famine. It was a novelty to run this in the snow but that's unlikely any more. ADD 2 MINUTES or 5 MINUTES if under snow

Halstead and Essex Marathon, England (May) - A two-lap course with rolling hills in the Essex countryside. Full of people who didn't get a spot in the London Marathon and plenty who did it too. ADD 3 MINUTES

Hastings Marathon, England (December) - I'll include this even though the race was a one-off in 2008 to commemorate 100 years since the London 1908 Olympics where the marathon distance was defined. It may come back at some point and it'd be great if it does. A rolling course including some beach running near the finish and a generally fun, low-key event. ADD 3 MINUTES

Helsinki Marathon, Finland (August) - I did this to complete the set of Scandinavian capital city marathons and it rained. Surprisingly interesting course with some waterfront running and random city streets. But it finishes in the Olympic stadium built for the 1940 Olympics but used in the 1952 Olympics, which is a plus. ADD 2 MINUTES

Honolulu Marathon, Hawaii, USA (December) - The definition of a destination marathon but some gentle climbs and guaranteed humidity and heat mean you'll be slowed. You probably won't mind since it just means more time to enjoy running in Hawaii. And you'll be doing it with a lot of other people since this is one of the largest marathons in the US, plus the out-and-back course lets runners cheer each other on (and lets you see a lot of costumes). ADD 8 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Emerald Bay Marathon, California/Nevada, USA (September) - Day one of the triple marathon around Lake Tahoe, and each is one of the most spectacular road marathons out there. Not the fastest course thanks to the big climbs and 6,000ft altitude plus most people will be doing the marathons over the next two days too. Fit this in if you get a chance since it's a perfect excuse to go to Tahoe and do so outside of the main tourist seasons, yet often with great weather. ADD 4 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Cal-Neva Marathon, Nevada/California, USA (September) - Day two of the triple or a stand alone race and the fastest of the three days with smaller climbs and a net downhill from the highest point of the three days (7,000ft) back to the lake level. Easy to hammer those downhill miles too fast and ruin the legs, but if you're doing all three days it's easier to be sensible. ADD 2 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Main Marathon, California, USA (September) - This is the biggest race of the three days and the one that has a lot of single day runners. It's also probably the hardest with some nasty climbs up to Emerald Bay and the best road views in Tahoe (where the first days starts). After the crest of the hill its downhill then flat for the last six miles then a barbecue on the sandy beach. ADD 5 MINUTES

London Marathon, England (April) - In the UK this is THE marathon and most people don't even realize there are other ones out there. Most people run for a charity with a huge number doing so in costume and there's a lottery for non-charity entries, although foreigners can just buy an over-priced package to get in. If you want to run a fast time (and you definitely can on this course), then you'll need to qualify with a 'Good For Age' or Championship time to get near the front or you'll be stuck walking with the masses, being deafened by the crowds, especially near the end. ADD 0 MINUTES (more if not at the front of the start-lines)

London Marathon through Canary Wharf

London Marathon - 1908 Olympic Route, England (July) - This course from Windsor Castle to BBC Headquarters may never be used again, but was recreated (without road closures) for a centennial commemoration of 1908 in 2008 by the 100 Marathon Club. Not a great route, including some dodgy areas of town but it has the same appeal as doing the Athens marathon and maps of the course can be found online if you want to try it solo. ADD 3 MINUTES or more if you allow for traffic and map navigation

Luton Marathon, England (November) - A three-lap course with joys such as scary council estates where you may get mugged mid-race, nasty headwinds that somehow follow you around the loop and the chance of cancellation due to icy roads. But it does have a good challenge for a small race, in that there's a three-man relay to race against. ADD 5 MINUTES

Luxembourg Night Marathon, Luxembourg (May) - An interesting twist in this race is that it starts soon before sunset, heading through the bridges and old buildings of the city. As it then gets dark part-way through the race, the final mile has candles lining the route and then finishing in an indoor stadium with techno music and disco lighting. Not a fast course due to the continuous rolling hills but pretty and unique. ADD 4 MINUTES

Marrakech Marathon, Morocco (January) - Maybe not the most effective organization but it's a great city to visit and weather will tend to be at least comfortable, but possibly hot. The course is mainly outside the old town with the souks and windy little side-streets so has some desert-like views but it's all on flat roads so is very fast if the heat stays low. ADD 2 MINUTES

Napa Valley Marathon, California, USA (March) - Scenic point-to-point run through the Napa wine region with your weight in wine as a prize if you win (they're smart - the winner is unlikely to be big). The course rolls slightly but is quick in general with comfortable, if potentially wet, conditions. ADD 1 MINUTE

New Forest Marathon, England (September) - A scenic run through this forest in the south of England on roads with very small trail sections. Some gentle rolling paths and wind can slow the pace slightly but generally a relaxed and enjoyable smaller race. ADD 3 MINUTES

New York City Marathon, New York, USA (November) - The world's biggest marathon with multiple start areas and routes that stay separate until several miles into the course. This one has to be on every marathoner's to do list despite the fact it's fairly tough due to the bridges acting as nasty hills. If you want to run fast here then you need to qualify to be at the front but the times required are tightening from 2012 due to the popularity of the race (for a senior man it will be 2:45, with times dropping for masters' age groups). It's a fun race with a chance to see plenty of NYC, much of which you might not need to really see, so this is really about the experience and it isn't cheap (I can't think of a more expensive entry fee for a road marathon). Don't expect to be running in those early miles or where the starts merge later on unless you're very near the front. ADD 3 MINUTES (much more if not in the front corrals)

The New York Marathon start line

Newport Marathon, Oregon, USA (June) - An ideal race to go for a time plus some scenic views of the sea, a large bridge and along a river in the beautiful Oregon coast. Small enough that everyone can run immediately but fast and flat enough to let people nail the race, especially since the weather tends to be ideal for running. Only remotely difficult bit is a tiny hill in the first few miles, unless you decide to do the oyster challenge and eat as many oysters as you can as you go past the oyster farm on the way out and heading back (current record 80 oyster shooters).  ADD 0.5 MINUTES

Night of Flanders Marathon, Belgium (June) - The marathon isn't the main event here as it's more focused on the 100k which has previously been the 100k World Cup race. But the courses are the same and the 100k just includes more loops through the countryside and small Flemish villages. The novelty here is that it starts in the evening and so some of the marathon is in the dark while most of the 100k is. Flat, slightly windy and with each lap going past weekend revelers in bars (who seem to be oblivious to the race). ADD 2 MINUTES

Oakland Marathon, California, USA (March) - Oakland doesn't have a great reputation and has very high crime rates, even though it's just across the Bay from San Francisco and near much less dangerous places. The marathon starts with a gradual then steeper climb up to Piedmont, which is the rich part of town and takes an effort. Then after 10 miles there's downhill into Oakland proper and flat, speedy roads. The front-runners spread out so if you go significantly under 3h pace then you'll run though much of the dodgy part of Oakland solo. So each time you see a cop blocking a road for the race, you'll be happy. This shouldn't be an issue for most people but I felt unsafe running along (having run through ghettos in Africa and several third world countries). ADD 3 MINUTES

Oslo Marathon, Norway (September) - A course that mainly goes along the bay in one of the richest and most expensive countries in the world. A chance to see Viking ships but if you want to do a Scandinavian marathon then Stockholm is prettier and more fun, not that this is a bad race at all. ADD 1 MINUTE

Oslo Marathon

Paris Marathon, France (April) - Starting along the Champs-Elysees by the Arc de Triomphe so that it's a very wide start allowing the field to spread out on the very gentle downhill. Then you get the chance to see most of Paris' sights, two very French parks and a finish back at the Arc de Triomphe. Fast course, beautiful course and it includes a trip to Paris - highly recommended. ADD 1 MINUTE

Portland Marathon, Oregon, USA (October) - Although Portland is a very green city in every way, this course shows less pretty parts of town and has a big bridge crossing around 16 miles. A relaxed atmosphere and not too large a field, plus a focus on making the race good for beginners and be female-friendly means this is a chilled race. People aren't fighting for position at the start like at many races. It'll probably rain and could be cold and windy so this isn't a super-fast course but is good as a first race or if you want to avoid the over-competitiveness you get at many races (particularly near the front). ADD 3 MINUTES

Prague Marathon, Czech Republic (May) - As my first marathon, this feels particularly special to me and Prague is always a great city to visit, particularly the ancient old town where the race starts and finishes. The course has been improved slightly since I ran it but still involves some running on boring roads away from the center. Fast, although some people may not like the flat cobbles near the start and finish. ADD 1 MINUTE

Prague Marathon start/finish area

Quebec City Marathon, Canada (August) - Not many marathons in August but this is a fun one that includes a chance to see a large part of the city along the water then finish at the bottom of the old town. Easy first half including some bike paths then there's a steep climb up to a big bridge halfway through and a prevailing headwind to the finish which can really slow everyone down. ADD 4 MINUTES

Reykjavik Marathon, Iceland (August) - Iceland is an interesting place to visit and the race coincides with their summer festival so the locals do the two things they're famed for - drinking heavily and being promiscuous (the latter is just what I've heard). The course is mainly along the Atlantic coastline and typically is windy, plus even August is generally cold. So even though this course isn't fast, it's the road marathon I've done the most and somehow led to four PBs in a row. But beware that if you run faster than 3h pace you'll be on your own for most of the time. ADD 2 MINUTES

Robin Hood Marathon, England (September) - This race in Robin Hood's locality in Nottingham follows the half marathon route, which is quite hilly, then heads off around man-made rowing lakes where there can be headwinds. A medium-sized marathon where a Brit is almost guaranteed to bump into a runner he or she knows. ADD 2 MINUTES

Rome Marathon, Italy (March) - This is one of the best road marathons out there and even has a quick course. Undoubtedly the most impressive city marathon course given you run past so many world famous sights (unlike, say, London which avoids most tourist areas). Starting and finishing at the Colosseum then including the Vatican, Roman Forum and everything else you'd want to include on a trip there. Some cobbles but they're flattened and shouldn't be an issue for 99% of people. Do this race and fit in a longer trip to Italy if you can. ADD 1 MINUTE

Salt Lake City Marathon, Utah, USA (April) - A net downhill, but starting at almost 5,000ft which takes a tiny toll on sea-level dwellers. The start is around dawn with the views of the mountains surrounding the city just starting to be lit with purples and blues, so that distracts you at first before some rolling hills. The half starts at the same point then splits off a few miles in before joining back up near the end. Some freeway running but generally a decent course for views. ADD 3 MINUTES

San Francisco Marathon, California, USA (July) - Even though its at sea-level with mild weather, this is probably the hardest city marathon course I've seen given the significant hills (ok, trail runners, it's flat in mountain terms). Starting pre-dawn means cold and probably misty conditions but the main draw is the chance to run over the Golden Gate Bridge on an out and back. I loved the course despite the fact it slowed me down a lot. Great excuse to visit a cool city too. ADD 4 MINUTES

Santa Rosa Marathon, California, USA (August) - This small town race in wine country is very fast, despite the short sections of graveled trail. Basically a two-lap course along a river with a small field and so an ideal course to go for a PB if you don't mind potentially running alone. ADD 1 MINUTE

Seattle Marathon, Washington, USA (November) - One of my favorite marathons and a good reason to go to Seattle just after Thanksgiving. Not a fast course but lots of running by the water before coming back inland to the finish, which includes some sharp hills. Another race run concurrently with the half marathon, but the half takes a short-cut so marathoners pop out into the back of the pack half runners, which can be really motivating given the mutual support runners provide to each other. ADD 3 MINUTES

Shakespeare Marathon, England (April) - A marathon in Shakespeare's base of Stratford-Upon-Avon which rolls through country lanes for two laps. Usually very close to the London marathon so it tends to include people unable to get a spot there. An ideal way to run through some gentle English countryside without doing a trail race. ADD 3 MINUTES

Silicon Valley Marathon, California, USA (October) - Out and back from San Jose to Los Gatos along a canal for most of the course. The first half is gradually uphill then the return leg is fairly easy and the parks and greenery is better than you usually see in the area (I used to live there). ADD 2 MINUTES

Stockholm Marathon, Sweden (May/June) - Another of my favorites, this involves two slightly different laps across the islands of Stockholm with the only hard part being the double crossing of the long bridge back to the main city. It's scenic, involves visiting a great (if expensive) city, and usually has really pleasant weather although has been too hot a few times.  ADD 2 MINUTES

Sunriver Marathon, Oregon (September) - Fast and flat around the golf course of beautiful Sunriver Resort, just south of Bend, OR. Mountain views of the Cascades mean there's always something to keep you occupied and the 4,000ft elevation will barely have an effect. ADD 1-2 MINUTES

Tri Cities Marathon, Washington, USA (October) - A small race through all three of the cities that make up the Tri Cities, along the Colombia River. Completely flat except the four river crossings but these hardly affect your speed, although it can be windy so that's the only risk. Great for a PB attempt, but this may involve running alone given the small field. ADD 0.5 MINUTES

Valencia Marathon, Spain (November) - This race used to be in February and filled a gap in the calendar nicely but has since moved to November. A surprisingly good-looking city with some interesting modern architecture which you see along the route. It's also a well-designed course that is completely flat and easy. ADD 0 MINUTES 

Vilnius Marathon, Lithuania (September) - One of the things I love about running is that way it takes me places I wouldn't ever think of going otherwise. Lithuania is one of those places and it's a beautiful small city with plenty of Gothic architecture, windy little streets and, I found, rain. The course varies from old city streets to bike paths through woods plus it's not got any obvious difficulties. ADD 1 MINUTE

Warsaw Marathon, Poland (September) - As with Vilnius, I probably wouldn't have visited this historic city if it hadn't been for the marathon. It's a larger race but not as interesting since it includes some Eastern Bloc-style views of concrete faceless buildings and boring main roads as well as some of the old town. ADD 2 MINUTES

Zurich Marathon, Switzerland (April) - I usually prefer to run in the mountains when in Switzerland, for obvious reasons, but this marathon is executed with typical Swiss efficiency. Plus it has great views the whole way since most of it is out and back along Lake Zurich with the mountains adding a perfect backdrop. The course does have some gentle rolling sections but is still fast. If you miss out on London, this is a more than adequate alternative. ADD 2 MINUTES

I'll try to update this with additional marathons when I run more of them, but for now that's been fun to remember some fantastic trips in the past few years. Hope you find it interesting and useful.