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The mission of the World Marathon Majors (WMM) is “to advance the sport, raise awareness of its elite athletes, and increase the level of interest in elite racing among running enthusiasts.” To celebrate the start of the 2015 WMM season in Tokyo this weekend, we asked: Which seven global marathons are the best candidates for a 7th World Marathon Major?

We invited RaceRaves contributor, blogger and amateur WMM scholar Dan Solera to join the discussion. First, we looked at what the six current Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City) have in common. All are IAAF Gold Certified races that take place in global business and tourism hubs. All except Tokyo have at least 24 years – including Boston’s whopping 118 years – of experience. Five are held in the spring or fall and the other (Tokyo) in the winter, which allows for the cool temperatures that aid fast times. The smallest of the group is Boston, which fields on average about 25,000 runners, making it one of the largest marathons in the world. And lastly, all adopted some sort of lottery or qualification system as the demand to run their courses far exceeded their ability to provide everyone a spot.

We compiled our separate lists of candidates and discovered, not surprisingly, that four races appeared on both lists. Below we evaluate these four heavyweights along with (plus or minus) three wild cards each. Races within each group are listed in chronological order by their 2015 date.

Agree? Disagree? Got your own favorite? Weigh in with your thoughts below!

The four heavyweights:

Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon (January; est. 2007)
The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates is best known to Westerners as a playground of the wealthy and home to the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa). Fortunately for elite runners, the city’s lavish mindset extends to its marathon. Known as the world’s richest marathon, this IAAF Gold Certified race routinely draws some of the world’s fastest runners, mostly from Ethiopia, by luring them with huge cash prizes for winning the race as well as for setting a new world record.Since 2008 this promise of riches has spurred the elites into blitzing the course, leading to average finish times in the low 2:05s. And to further improve the chances of a world record, organizers simplified the course in 2014 to create a monotonous T-shaped route featuring only six 90° turns (compared to three in Boston and 17 in Berlin). Given its revamped course and lucrative payoff, it’s no wonder the race now attracts top elites (this year’s field featured more than 20 men with previous sub-2:10 finish times) among its field of 25,000+ participants. Dubai officials are clearly hoping money can buy happiness, in the form of a marathon world record.Logistically, Dubai’s strategic January time slot enables elites to run three marathons in a calendar year, with Lelisa Desisa winning both Dubai and Boston in 2012. And the Arabian Peninsula is much closer to Kenya or Ethiopia than any European or American city.However, the race is still very new, having started in 2007. And we’re in agreement that to be a Major, you have to boast a storied history in the sport. Although Dubai has certainly left its stamp in recent years – creating such in-demand runners as Ayele Abshero, Yemane Adhane and Tsegaye Mekonnen – it perhaps doesn’t have the prestige of a Major just yet.
ASICS LA Marathon (March; est. 1986)
With the largest and third-largest cities in the U.S. already hosting Majors, it made sense to investigate number two, especially since all three current U.S. Majors lie east of the Mississippi River. Inspired by Joan Benoit’s gold medal performance here in the 1984 Summer Olympics, Southern California’s signature marathon delivers on the Hollywood hype with its glamorous “Stadium to the Sea” course that routinely draws some of the world’s top runners. And as its Olympic pedigree testifies, Los Angeles is certainly no stranger to hosting large sporting events.After taking the reins in 2013, CEO Tracey Russell immediately went about securing L.A. as the host city for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. And with the addition of American marathon record holder Ryan Hall (2:04:58) to the field of elites, this year’s race promises to attract plenty of eyeballs. With Russell’s stated goal to take the L.A. Marathon to the next level, and with more than 25,000 runners now competing annually in her conveniently slotted March race, the “next level” definitely feels like the 7th World Marathon Major.However, the course is not IAAF certified. And unless you count Markos Geneti’s 2011 finish time of 2:06:35, it’s not very fast. Granted neither is Boston, so this should not rule out Los Angeles, especially if we operate under the assumption that earning Major status would boost the quality and depth of its elite field.
Schneider Electric Paris Marathon (April; est. 1976)
Ginormous road race with nearly 40,000 participants? Check. Unfortunate lottery system for registration? Check. Lightning-fast IAAF Gold Certified course with winning times under 2:06? Check. And a host city that’s one of the world’s most romantic and popular tourist destinations? Checkmate. Not that Europe needs or deserves another World Marathon Major, but it’s impossible to discount the influence and allure of Paris.One person alone further elevates Paris as a legitimate contender for the seventh Major slot: Kenenisa Bekele. Regarded as one of the best track and field athletes of all time, his much-anticipated transition to the marathon had been a source of much speculation. He surely didn’t lack in options for his debut, many of them likely Majors. Yet he chose Paris, a race whose finish times have not risen above 2:06:41 since 2007, and conquered the field with a course record 2:05:03 in his 2014 debut.More seamlessly than any other race on this list, Paris would slide right into the WMM portfolio without missing a beat. And maybe that’s our problem with it – it almost feels too perfect for the role. As potential European Majors go, it would be more meaningful to see Athens, as the birthplace of the marathon, earn consideration before Paris.
Honolulu Marathon (December; est. 1973)
What better way to say “mahalo” to the racing season? With its mid-December time slot, a World Marathon Major in Hawaii could be a year-end celebration of running similar to another Honolulu tradition, the NFL Pro Bowl (though infinitely more competitive and watchable). The predominately flat course features world-famous beaches, volcanic craters and a 27th mile that leads directly into the Pacific Ocean. And while there are only so many ways to broadcast your standard flat, big-city race, elites running through a tropical paradise might entice more viewers, which in turn would attract more advertising dollars.About 30,000 runners participate annually, and Honolulu has the international reputation necessary for consideration as a Major. Case in point, when Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon, current world #1 ranked marathoner and reigning WMM champion Wilson Kipsang chose Honolulu instead.However, we have to admit it’s a logistical challenge to make it to Hawaii rested and ready for a competitive marathon, no matter where you live. So to stage an event like this with a deep elite field would be a challenge. And with race-day temperatures that tend toward steamy the course record is a sluggish 2:11:12, which in a circuit with such a bloodlust for fast times is a big strike against Honolulu.

Dan’s Wild Card Picks:

NN Rotterdam Marathon (April; est. 1981)
This IAAF Gold Certified race is known for its incredibly fast times, with William Kipsang’s 2:05:49 course record in 2008 being the slowest time of the last seven years. Nail-biting duels have taken place on its streets, from the scorching sprint between James Kwambai and Duncan Kibet in 2009, whose equal finish times of 2:04:27 made them the second fastest men at the distance. The next year would see another brilliant race between Patrick Makau and Geoffrey Mutai, soon to be household names in the marathon world, battling it out until the last second. Even Moses Mosop, whose 2:03:06 marathon debut in the 2011 wind-aided Boston blew everyone’s minds, chose Rotterdam as his third marathon.The biggest reason for passing over Rotterdam is the size of its field. In 2014 the race ushered just over 10,000 runners across the finish line, making it a large race by almost any standard. But in order to match the smallest Major in Boston, it would need to more than double its participation.
Frankfurt Marathon (October; est. 1981)
Just a few weeks after Patrick Makau became the newest marathon record holder at the 2011 Berlin Marathon, a relatively unknown Kenyan by the name of Wilson Kipsang put Makau’s title in extreme jeopardy by running a 2:03:42 on the streets of Frankfurt. He was just four seconds shy of ruining Makau’s party, instantly making him a superstar on the world stage.Kipsang’s run was the cherry on top of a six-year streak of improved times. Since then, the past three men’s winners have notched 2:06 finish times on this IAAF Gold certified course. However, there’s already a Major in Germany, and I don’t know if the storied time-trial course in Berlin would want to cede any glory. Secondly, although Frankfurt is a major European business and travel center, it doesn’t have that sexy allure of a London or New York. Lastly, at 15,000 participants, it doesn’t boast Major-level numbers.
Honorable Mentions: There are a few other races that check off several of my boxes but don’t quite make the cut. There’s Beijing and Shanghai, both IAAF Gold Certified races but held in cities plagued by frequent problems with air quality. Several cosmopolitan cities in Europe have marathons that regularly produce fast times – Amsterdam and Eindhoven come to mind – but whose numbers don’t add up to a Major-sized enterprise. A large race in Africa would be perfect for the sport’s top tier of athletes, but there simply isn’t one with the logistical and organizational might that fits the bill.

AND DAN’S WINNER IS… Ultimately, I think any of the above candidates would be worthy of joining the prestigious Major circuit. However, after carefully thinking it out, Paris is the best option and top candidate. In fact, most people already assume that Paris is one of the world’s top marathons, so why not just make it official?

Mike’s Wild Card Picks:

Chevron Houston Marathon (January; est. 1972)
If everything is indeed bigger in Texas, then aspirations for the state’s largest marathon (in the nation’s fourth largest city) are no exception. As evidenced by Houston’s rave reviews on this site, race director Brant Kotch knows how to stage a world-class event, a fact that earned him election into the 2015 Running USA Hall of Champions. Coincidentally or not the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were staged in Houston, setting the stage for this discussion.Worth noting is the race’s mid-January date, which may serve as either a drawback (if WMM officials deem it too early in the season) or an advantage (as it wouldn’t impinge on any of the existing majors). And though its current field size is smaller than those of the six existing World Marathon Majors, Houston is a “go big or go home” type of place, and there’s little doubt sufficient room could be made on the streets of a town nicknamed “Space City”.
Debno Marathon (April; est. 1966)
Sure, the idea of a World Marathon Major in Poland may seem absurd, particularly one that falls on the same weekend as both Paris and Rotterdam. And sure the race website lacks an English translation, as if indifferent to whether any non-native speakers actually want to run the country’s oldest marathon. But with its flat, straight course and ideal racing weather (average temp 42°F in early April), Debno recently earned a shout-out from Alex Hutchinson in Runner’s World as a race in which the two-hour barrier – the holy grail of the sport – may eventually be broken. With WMM status would come the top elites; mix in a healthy dose of prize money, and suddenly you’ve got all the makings of a tantalizing competition that would capture the world’s attention.
Sanlam Cape Town Marathon (September; est. 2007)
Since Tokyo was added to the roster two years ago, 23 of the 24 men’s and women’s World Marathon Majors winners have hailed from East Africa, the lone exception being American Meb Keflezighi’s victory in Boston last year. So it seems time that the African continent hosted its own Major, and the most likely candidate is South Africa’s Cape Town Marathon.The course through Africa’s picturesque “Mother City” is reasonably flat, with an overall elevation change of less than 100 feet. And consistent with the ethos of the running community, the 2015 edition will be one of South Africa’s first carbon-neutral sporting events. Despite falling the weekend before Berlin, the marathon’s September date also provides a compelling opportunity to cage-dive with Cape Town’s most notorious group of locals, its great white sharks.
AND MIKE’S WINNER IS… With such a loaded starting lineup, how do I choose an MVP (Most Viable Possibility) for the next World Marathon Major? Paris with its WMM sheen has to be considered the frontrunner, but I think the media coverage and sponsorship money that would accompany a fourth U.S. World Marathon Major are forces too powerful to ignore. Especially if that Major were to land in the nation’s second-largest media market. For that reason I’d have to agree with Randy Newman in saying, I love LA!

Learn more about the World Marathon Majors HERE.

About our Contributor:

Dan Solera was bitten by the running bug in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. At any given point, he is training for his next big race, which will likely contribute to his goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. His love of running is matched only by his predilection for heavy metal, skiing and writing, interests which seldom intersect. His dream is to take a three-month summer sabbatical and travel through Europe, running races in every major city until his medal rack is flush with mementos from the Old World. Follow along with his marathon musings at dans-marathon.com.


3 thoughts on “The next World Marathon Major?

  1. I am happy to see LA and Houston on the list.  I already consider LA one of the world’s greatest. Houston has gone back and forth on its approach.  For a few years they will put money into getting elites to run.  And then they will switch and put the money towards common runners with bigger goody bags.But if you are going to list the 7 Wonders of the Running World you have to list the Athens marathon.   Now that race has history!Great list with some interesting surprises (Poland). 

  2. I was trying to do a little more research on the WMM. Wiki says it started in 2006, making it barely a decade old. Interesting to know. Also interesting to learn from this article that it’s mission and focus is all abot

  3. Sorry, hit post too soon. 🙂 I was trying to do a little more research on the WMM. Wiki says it started in 2006, making it barely a decade old. Interesting to know. Also interesting to learn from this article that it’s mission and focus is all about the elite aspect of marathons. I think it is unfortunate that this group would call itself “World,” when in fact only three (Western) nations are represented– with the US represented 3x! This is disappointing! There are about 200 nations in the world, and I would guess upward of 100 have marathons (?) including many non-Western. The name should be changed to more accurately reflect what the organization stands for, which is not promoting World Marathons, but the notion of elite Marathon-ing. IMO..or get a few non- Western races!!

Your turn – what do you think?