I travel to a lot of races. Partly, that’s so I can run marathons year ‘round, but mostly, it’s so I can use the races as an excuse to travel. Running is a great way to see a city. Most urban marathons courses are designed to take you past the most attractive parts of the city. It’s like a 26.2 mile walking tour, except you’re able to see everything in three to five hours.
Running also lets you see some of the landmarks from a perspective you might not get if you were in a car. This is probably most evident when you’re crossing a bridge. I’ve done a number of races that give you the opportunity to run cross an iconic bridge. It’s a rare opportunity to run in lanes that are normally reserved for motor vehicles.
I have no idea how many bridges I’ve run across. I can think of one race where I crossed 15 bridges just in the last 10K. Here are 10 of my favorite race bridges. Rather than try to rank them, I’m listing them in the order I ran them.
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – New York City Marathon
The first time I ran across an iconic bridge was in the first two miles of the New York City Marathon. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. It’s a suspension bridge with a main span of 4,260 feet. The bridge deck reaches a peak height of 693 feet, making it by far the biggest hill in the race. Fortunately, you get this one done while you still have fresh legs.
To accommodate all the runners, they have to use all lanes of the upper deck, plus half of the lower deck. I’ve done this race twice. The first time, my start group used the eastbound lanes of the upper deck. The second time, I ran on the westbound lanes of the lower deck. The upper deck definitely gives you better views.
Your best view of the bridge is while you’re lined up in the toll plaza, waiting to start the race. Once you begin running, you need to pay attention to the thousands of runners around you, all trying to get off to a good start.
Queensboro Bridge – New York City Marathon
I didn’t have to wait long before running the next bridge on this list. It was in the same race. About 15 miles into the New York City Marathon, you begin crossing the Queensboro Bridge, which takes you from Queens into Manhattan. This bridge is the second biggest hill in the race. Unlike the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, this one comes far enough into the race that it can wear you down. More than once, it was on this bridge that I realized I had started too fast.
The first time I did this race, the running surface was a steel grate. They covered it with a long red carpet to make the surface runnable. The next time I ran it, we were on pavement. The pavement is a better surface for running, but I missed the carpet. It was one of the things that made this race unique.
Bixby Bridge – Big Sur Marathon
The Big Sur Marathon follows scenic Highway 1 along a rocky shoreline on California’s Pacific Coast. Halfway through the race, you cross the Bixby Bridge. This is the bridge that’s invariably featured in race brochures. It’s the crown jewel in a race that’s all about scenery.
There are many races with rock bands paying along the course. This race features classical ensembles. When you finish crossing the Bixby Bridge, you’re greeted by a concert pianist, playing a grand piano.
Ambassador Bridge – Detroit Free Press Marathon
About three miles into the Detroit Free Press Marathon, you cross the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River. As you cross the river, you enter Windsor, Ontario. It’s one of the few races where you get to cross an international border during the race.
Anywhere else, that would be the highlight of the race. In this race, it’s overshadowed by another border crossing that comes four miles later. You return to Detroit by running through a tunnel underneath the river. Later in the race, you run onto an island in the middle of the Detroit River. This race really lets you experience the Detroit River from above it, below it and within it.
Tower Bridge – London Marathon
The London Marathon is full of landmarks. In the last three miles alone, you see London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace. For me, the biggest highlight was Tower Bridge.
When I ran the London Marathon, it was my first visit to London. I was running on streets I had never seen before, so at times, I didn’t really know where I was. That allowed the bridge to sort of sneak up on me. Until you get there, it’s hidden behind buildings. Then I turned a corner and whoa. There it was towing above me. Not seeing the bridge until I was about to cross it made a majestic sight even more impressive.
Later in the day, Deb and I returned to walk across the bridge and see it from all angles.
Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco Marathon
For years, I put off doing the San Francisco Marathon, because the course didn’t include the Golden Gate Bridge. I always said if they changed the course to include the bridge, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Then they did.
You get to cross the Golden Gate Bridge twice during this race. First, you run from San Francisco to Marin County. Then after completing a short loop, you run back to San Francisco. Crossing the bridge twice, gives you lots of views. Just before the return trip, you get a good view of downtown San Francisco from across the bay.
My favorite part was being able to look straight up and see the red-orange suspension towers reaching up toward the sky. You can’t get that view in a car. Well, maybe if it’s a convertible … and someone else is driving … and they drive really slow.
St. John’s Bridge – Portland Marathon
The visual highlight of the Portland Marathon is a trip across St. John’s Bridge. This bridge is the first of two crossings of the Willamette River. Before crossing the bridge, you follow the river toward it, giving you a chance to see the whole bridge in profile. Then you have to climb up to the bridge deck to cross the river. Fortunately, it’s still early enough in the race, that you can expect to have fresh legs.
Pontoon bridge over the Grand Canal – Venice Marathon
This bridge is only existence for one day each year. It’s not even there all day. On the morning of the race, they erect a pontoon bridge across the mouth of the Grand Canal. As soon as the race is over, they take it down. They can’t leave it in place, because it blocks boat traffic.
The pontoon bridge is the longest of 14 bridges in the last three kilometers of the race. That’s what makes the Venice Marathon unique. You’re running a marathon through a city without streets.
Tromsø Bridge – Midnight Sun Marathon
The Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø, Norway, is run mostly on an island, but twice during the race, you cross the Tromsø Bridge. The bridge is asymmetrical, so each crossing feels different. In one direction, the climb is gradual; in the other direction, the climb is steep.
This race is run in the late evening, so you can see the midnight sun while you’re running. As I crossed the bridge for the second time, it was about 10:15 PM. I could see the sun peeking through the clouds. I had a strong race, allowing me to finish before midnight, but it never got dark. The sun was always above the horizon.
Bosporus Bridge – Istanbul Marathon
Istanbul may be the only city on Earth where you can cross a bridge that connects two continents. It’s certainly the only place where you can do it while running a marathon.
The Istanbul Marathon begins on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. The first thing you do is cross the Bosporus Bridge. When you reach the other side, you’re in Europe.
Next: Charles Bridge
In two weeks, I’ll get to add to this list. I’ll be running the Prague Marathon, which crosses several bridges over Vltava (a.k.a. The Moldau). The highlight will be Charles Bridge.