When I finished the Xenia Avenue Marathon, I finally completed a goal that I started pursuing in 2012. I came close to completing this goal in 2014, but since then, I’ve been stuck. What was this elusive goal? I wanted to run marathons or ultras for every letter of the alphabet.
Here's how it works. It’s based on the first letter of the name of the race, not the city where the race is held. Sponsor’s names are ignored. For example, the New York City Marathon would count for “N.” It wouldn’t be “T” for TCS New York City Marathon. Sponsors come and go. Before they started calling it the TCS New York City Marathon, they called it the ING New York City Marathon. Originally, it was simply the New York City Marathon.
An exception to this rule about sponsors is if the entire name of the race is the name of the sponsor. Grandma’s Marathon, for example, was originally named after Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, which organized the marathon to promote the restaurant.
I’m going to highlight one race I’ve done for each letter of the alphabet. In most cases, there are several races from which to choose.
Athens Classic Marathon
There’s no better to place to begin than with this race, which starts in Marathon and finishes in Athens.
There’s a legend that after the Battle of Marathon, an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides ran all the way to Athens to deliver the news that Athens had defeated the Persians. In some retellings, he’s said to have died right after delivering this message.
That story is part fact, part fiction. What’s important is that it inspired the creation of a race called a marathon when the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896. That first Olympic Marathon was 40 kilometers. Later, 42.195 kilometers was adopted as the international standard distance for a marathon.
When the Olympics returned to Athens in 2004, they modified the route slightly to conform to the 42.195 kilometer standard. The new route included all of the 1896 route, but added a loop around the Tomb of Marathon, where Athenian soldiers who died in the battle are buried.
I ran the Athens Classic Marathon in 2010, when they were celebrating the 2,500 year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. As part of the festivities, they relit the Olympic cauldron, which is near the starting line of the marathon.
The route for our race was the same route used for 2004 Olympic Marathon. It included the entire route of the 1896 Olympic Marathon, which was an approximation of the route that would’ve been taken by an Athenian messenger in 490 BC.
You can’t find a race anywhere which encapsulates more of the history of the marathon.
I’ve done a number of marathons that start with B, but the Boston Marathon is my favorite. It’s the only marathon that I do every year. It’s also the oldest annual marathon in the world.
In 1896, the United States Olympic team that went to Athens included several members of the Boston Athletic Association. They were so inspired by the marathon that they decided to create their own. The first Boston Marathon was held in 1897, and it’s been an annual event ever since.
Long before any of the other major marathons was established, the Boston Marathon was the race where the world’s best distance runners came to compete with each other.
Besides its long history, another part of the alure of the Boston Marathon is the challenge of qualifying for it. There are other ways to gain entry, but most runners get in by running a qualifying time. You don’t need to be an elite runner to qualify. I believe a runner of average ability can do it if they train hard enough. That said, you have to really commit to the training. Most people consider qualifying for Boston to be a standard of excellence.
The Comrades Marathon is actually an ultramarathon. It’s a point-to-point road race between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa.
The first Comrades Marathon was held in 1921, to honor fallen comrades, who perished during World War I. It’s been an annual event ever since.
Comrades is a huge event for an ultramarathon. It annually draws 20,000 runners, which is comparable to some of the largest marathons. By contrast, the largest ultramarathon in the United States is limited to about 1,000 runners.
For South African runners, Comrades is a rite of passage. You’re not considered to be a real runner until you’ve finished Comrades.
They alternate directions each year. When the race finishes in the highland city of Pietermaritzburg, it’s called an “up” race. When it finishes in the coastal city of Durban, it’s called a “down” race. I ran Comrades in back-to-back years, so I could experience the course in both directions.
The largest D race I’ve done is the Dublin Marathon, which draws more than 20,000 runners. I ran the Dublin Marathon in 2014. It’s a single-loop course. It starts in downtown Dublin, goes through Phoenix Park and past some of the historic sights, continues through some of the surrounding communities, and then returns to downtown Dublin. After the race, you have to celebrate at a pub with a pint or two of Guinness.
Extra Terrestrial Full Moon Midnight Marathon and 51K
I’ve done larger E races, but this one is the most unique. It’s held on a remote highway in Nevada that’s hours away from the nearest large city. The highway in question is Nevada State Route 375, which is better known as the Extra-Terrestrial Highway. It got that name from the large number of UFO reports over the years.
Highway 375 is near the eastern boundary of a vast top secret government installation, which has come to be known as “Area 51.” Because of its large size and remote location, Area 51, is an ideal location for testing experimental aircraft. That probably explains all the UFO sightings.
There’s a marathon and a 51K race. I’ve done them both. Both of these races start at midnight. There aren’t many lights, so these races are always held on the weekend in August that’s closest to the full moon. All runners are required to wear reflective vests. There aren’t a lot of cars, but there are some, and you want them to see you. Flashlights or headlamps are also recommended.
The races finish in the small town of Rachel, NV, and post-race breakfast is served at a café called Little A'Le'Inn.
FANS 6/12/24-Hour Race
The FANS 24-Hour Race was my first ultramarathon, back in 1998. Over the years, I’ve done the 24-hour race nine times, the 12-hour race twice, and the 6-hour race once.
I’ve set some significant PRs in this race, including 124.81 miles in the 24-hour run and 101 miles in the 24-hour walk.
This race is a fundraiser for a local program that works with inner-city students. I’m there almost every year. When I’m not running or walking, I’m crewing or volunteering.
This is a small race in Narragansett, RI. What makes it unique is the requirement to run a qualifying time. Other races -- most notably the Boston Marathon – have qualifying standards, but there are usually other ways to get into the race. The organizers of the Gansett Marathon took pride in the fact that you could only get into their race by running a qualifying time. Just to underline that point, they made their qualifying standards five minutes faster than Boston’s.
For me, the appeal of this race was the fact that it used to be held on the same weekend as the Boston Marathon. That made it convenient to run the Gansett Marathon on Saturday, drive to Boston on Sunday, and run the Boston Marathon on Monday. It’s only 80 miles from Narragansett to Boston. I did that in both 2012 and 2013.
The Honolulu Marathon is the fifth largest marathon in the United States, drawing more than 20,000 participants. One reason it’s so large is because of huge number of runners from Japan.
Japan Airlines is a major sponsor, and runners traveling from Japan can get discounted airfares if they’re doing the race. Whole families from Japan will do the race together, often walking the whole way, as part of a Hawaii vacation.
If you plan to run the whole way, you need to line up near the front, as most people walk the whole way.
The city of Istanbul spans both sides of the Strait of Bosporus, which is the boundary between the European and Asian parts of Turkey. The race starts on the Asian side of the strait. After crossing the Bosporus Bridge, you’re in Europe for the remainder of the race. As far as I know, this is the only marathon in the world that starts and finishes on different continents.
Jackson Hole Marathon
The Jackson Hole Marathon is the only J race I’ve done, but that wasn’t my only motivation to do this race. At the time, it was the only marathon in Wyoming that had a certified course, so it was the only place I could get an official Boston qualifier in Wyoming.
Running a fast time on this course wasn’t easy. The elevation is 6,300 feet, and the last 15 miles are slightly uphill. I was rewarded for my effort with frequent views of Grand Teton.
Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon
The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon is held one week before the Kentucky Derby. The highlight of the course is running through Churchill Downs. Sometimes you’ll see horses on training runs.
I’ve had good results in this race, despite a hilly section in the middle. The two times I ran it, I qualified for Boston. The time I race-walked it, I set my walking PR.
The London Marathon is one of the World Marathon Majors. It’s very difficult to get into this race, unless you’re a British resident who can run a “Good for Age” qualifying time. I was able to get into the race by traveling with a tour group, but even those spots are difficult to obtain.
I ran this race in 2011, when I saw a rare opportunity to race in Paris and London on back-to-back weekends. That 11-day trip was the first time Deb and I traveled overseas together. It’s still my all-time favorite trip, although Deb would disagree. Her favorite was Venice.
Marine Corps Marathon
This race is the fourth largest marathon in the United States, but you won’t see many elite athletes there, because they don’t offer prize money. Instead, it’s a marathon for the average runner.
The course starts and finishes in Arlington Cemetery, near the Marine Corps War Memorial. The majority of the course, however, is in the District of Columba, where you run past several of the best-known federal buildings and monuments, including the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.
New York City Marathon
This the largest marathon in the world. I ran it in 1989, 2011, and 2018. I was also scheduled to run it in 2012, when it was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy and this year, when it was cancelled because of COVID-19.
The first time I ran this race, there were roughly 25,000 runners. Since then, it’s grown to more than 50,000. It has the largest crowds of any race I’ve run, and the course takes you through all five boroughs of New York City.
Olander Park 24-Hour Race
I ran this race in 1998, when it was the USATF National Championship for 24 hours. That year, I ran 118.97 miles, which placed me among the top 10 men. I was also on the ALARC Minnesota team, which took second in the team championship.
The most memorable thing able this race was sharing the course with some of the best ultrarunners in the country.
Of all the marathons I’ve done, this one has my favorite course.
I’m a long-time follower of Le Tour de France. The final stage of that race always concludes with several laps of a circuit that includes riding the full length of Champs-Elysée in both directions.
The Paris Marathon starts with 40,000 runners all lined up on Champs-Elysée and running toward Place de la Concorde. That alone was enough to get me excited about the course.
The rest of the route is a single loop that takes you past many famous sights, along one bank of the Seine, and through two large city parks before finishing within walking distance of where you started. It’s a wonderful tour of a wonderful city.
Quad Cities Marathon
It’s not hard to find a race that starts with Q. I can think of three of them in North America, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.
I chose the Quad Cities Marathon, because it’s close enough to home that I could drive there. The Quad Cities refer to Moline, IL, Bettendorf, IA, Davenport, IA, and Rock Island, IL. The marathon route goes through all four cities, crossing the Mississippi River twice.
When I ran this race in 2014, it gave me 25 letters of the alphabet. Since then, I’ve just needed X.
The Reggae Marathon is in Negril, Jamaica, which is home to Seven Mile Beach. Several things about this race made an impression on me.
First, they have the best pre-race pasta dinner I’ve ever seen. There are several tables of pastas dishes, salads, and local favorites.
The race starts before dawn, so you can run close to half of the race before having to endure the heat of the sun. To provide light in the start area, dozens of teenage boys lined both sides of the road holding torches.
Heat and humidity make the race difficult, but your spirits are lifted by Reggae music all along the course.
Finally, the race finishes at a beach park, where you can go straight to the beach party after refreshing with coconut milk and Red Stripe.
Singapore is a fantastic destination. It’s like a melting pot for Asian culture, with heavy Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. The marathon route gives you a good tour of the city, so in a way it’s like getting a tour of Asia in one race.
This race aspires to be the next addition to the World Marathon Majors. Whether or not it attains that status, it’s a great destination race.
Twin Cities Marathon
The Twin Cities Marathon isn’t the largest or best-known T race that I’ve done, but it’s one of my favorites. It was my first marathon in 1983, and it’s the one I’ve run the most times.
The “Twin Cities” refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul. The race starts in downtown Minneapolis, outside the football stadium. It finishes in downtown St. Paul, in front of the Minnesota State Capitol. In between, it’s entirely along tree-lined parkways, around lakes, alongside rivers, and past mansions and churches.
University of Okoboji Marathon
This race has an unusual name. There isn’t actually a University of Okoboji. Okoboji is a lake resort area in northern Iowa. There’s an athletic store in a neighboring town that sponsors a number of athletic events, including the marathon. They created their own line of athletic gear that incorporates the logo of a fictitious university.
I’ve run this race four times. It’s in July, when there aren’t many races in the Upper Midwest. More often than not, it’s hot as hell.
What could capture the imagination more than running a marathon through a city without streets?
Here’s how it works. The first 20 miles are on the Italian mainland. The next few miles are on the bridge out to Venice. Only the last few miles in actually in the city.
There are footbridges over the smaller canals. Running up and down all the steps would be impractical, so they put long wooden ramps over the steps to transform the bridges into hills. It’s intense. You run over 13 of them in the last two miles of the race.
They also temporarily erect a pontoon bridge over the Grand Canal. The year I ran it, it was rainy and windy.
I was tempted to list the Walt Disney World Marathon, but I don’t want to quibble over whether that counts as W for Walt or D for Disney. The Wyoming Marathon isn’t as large, but I’ve done it twice, and it’s among the more challenging races I’ve done.
The Wyoming Marathon is a no-frills race on dirt roads in the Laramie Mountains. The elevation ranges from 8,000 to 8,800 feet. There are three long uphill sections and three long downhill sections.
When I ran it in 2004, I gave it my best effort, but I ran out of gas on the difficult climb in the last four miles. I finished in 4:05. That was good for fifth place overall, which tells you something about the difficulty of this race.
Xenia Avenue Marathon
For almost six years, I just needed an X race to finish this goal. Unfortunately, there aren’t many. I considered the Xiamen International Marathon in China, but Xiamen isn’t a tourist destination. In all likelihood, I’d have to travel there by myself without knowing the local dialect.
There’s a cross-country race in Florida called the X-Country Marathon. While technically an X race, that name seemed kind of cheesy to me. Besides that, it always fell on the same weekend of another race that was more important to me.
There’s a marathon in Xenia, OH, and the finisher medal features a big “X” but it’s called the Ohio River Road Runners Club Marathon. Since it’s the name and not the city that counts, that’s an O race, not an X race.
The Xenia Avenue Marathon was the obvious choice. Since it’s in Minnesota, I would’ve wanted to do this race even if it didn’t start with X. As an added bonus, it was a rare opportunity to run a marathon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yakima River Canyon Marathon
I’ve run the Yakima River Canyon Marathon twice. It’s a scenic race that winds through the valley of the Yakima River.
For many years, this race was directed by Lenore Dolphin, who also ran the 100 Marathon Club North America. The club’s annual meeting was always held at this race.
Sadly, Lenore passed away earlier this year. The race may continue, but it won’t be the same without Lenore.
Zoom! Yah! Yah! Indoor Marathon
This is an indoor marathon on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. It was organized by the track coaches of St. Olaf College and Carlton College, which is also in Northfield. One of them was trying to run marathons for every letter of the alphabet, but was having trouble finding a race that started with Z. The name, “Zoom! Yah! Yah!” is based on “Um! Yah! Yah!” which is from the St. Olaf College fight song.
To complete a marathon, you need to run 150 laps around the track. Laps are counted manually by members of the St. Olaf women’s track team. Each runner has their own personal lap counter, who doubles as their personal cheerleader.
In an indoor race, you see all the other runners throughout the race, regardless of how fast they’re going. Either you’re passing them, or they’re passing you. That makes this race a social event.
I’ve run this race three times. It was after hearing the history of this race that I wondered how many letters of the alphabet I was missing. As I recall, it was about six. I gradually chipped away at them until I only needed X. Then I got stuck.