Maybe you’ve heard of the Big Five? The elusive, exotic and awe inspiring to see in the wild animals of Africa. Well, runners have a similar set of must see’s that are hard to get into and see on foot, the Big Six, aka the World Marathon Majors.
Athletes who complete all six races are then known as Six Start Finishers.
There are the marathon maniacs, the half marathon maniacs, the bling chasers, the 50 staters and my friend the all 50 states by 25 race seekers.
There’s even a very small group that do what’s called the World Marathon Challenge, which is a marathon on all 7 continents in 7 days…can you say, stinky, ouch and look fast before it’s gone.
What Are the World Marathon Majors?
The World Marathon Majors Series was founded in 2006 with a goal of promoting running by pitting the best male and female runners around the world in six of the largest most fantastic marathons.
- Elite runners earn points for winning (or placing) in each race.
- They’re required to run at least two qualifying races, but can run more if they’re super ambitious.
- They only get points from two races.
- The top six after all races, split a pot of $1 million. ($250,000, $50,000 and $25,000 per top male and female)
- There are now also age group rankings (which are available through 125 marathons) and a wheelchair division
How Many World Majors Are There?
They make up some of the largest marathon races around the world and because of the elite fields they draw, often get more television coverage and thus even more of us want to cross those finish lines.
These races are unfortunately extremely hard to get in to for that very reason. Though most are over 30,000 runners, a portion of those slots goes to elites, media, charity, tour operators, and even past participants. Which means most of us are crossing our fingers to get in through a lottery system.
But the experience is absolutely worth it to many thousands of runners to put in the training, the waiting and eventually the travel to become part of a small club of people who are Six Star finishers.
As a reward for that effort, you’ll get this special six star medal and pride of course, buckets of prideSource
What Races are Part of the Marathon Majors?
- Tokyo Marathon – March
- Boston Marathon – April
- Virgin Money London Marathon – April
- BMW Berlin Marathon – September
- Bank of America Chicago Marathon – October
- TCS New York City Marathon – November
I will breakdown more details on each race below.
Will There be a 7th World Major?
In August 2017, there was an announcement of a new partnership which hopes to further expand the series by adding a seventh race by 2025.
Australia’s Sydney Marathon, South Africa’s Sanlam Cape Town Marathon and China’s Chengdu Marathon are all candidates for the seventh spot. Cape Town would be the first of the major marathons in Africa, and Sydney would be the first in Oceania. And of course, adding the Chengdu marathon would be a major win for Asia.
But being added to this prestigious list is no small feat, and the cities must go through a 3 year evaluation process.
And so far we’ve not heard anything official.
What is the Six Star Journey?
The Six Star Finisher medal is like the Holy Grail for marathon enthusiasts. The Six Star Journey consists of completing each of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors. It’s a symbol of not just endurance but also a love for the sport that takes you around the world.
Completing this journey often takes years, but the payoff is worth it. You get to experience the culture, spirit, and character of marathons across continents.
How many people have done all 6 major marathons?
So far, over 11,000 people have completed all six races.
AND BONUS points because they do actually feature the everyday runner who completes all Six in their Six Star Finishers List and with a special certificate.
What Does it Take to Be a Marathon Major?
One of these races brings in not only a massive influx of tourism dollars, but requirements to truly be “enough” to make the list:
- Race must be able to provide a good payout for the elite runners to draw them to the race. (This is why the Marine Corps Marathon, though large, cannot be included.)
- City must be able to accommodate the large influx of people and shutting down major roads for the race. They want it to feel like a true global city.
- The US already hosts 3 of the majors, so it’s unlikely to be awarded a 4th.
- Singapore and Paris have been the first one’s discussed.
The Tokyo Marathon is the newest of the six renowned marathons in the world. It showcases both the old and the new sides of Japan’s capital, starting at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and ends near the Imperial Palace.
The course passes along the Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, and Asakusa. The race loops around, where the second half of the course is basically a mirror image of the first.
When: First Sunday in March
Inaugural Year: 2007
Estimated # of Runners: 38,000
What its known for: It’s the youngest of the World Marathon Majors.
Hosted by the Boston Athletic Association, it is one of the most widely-known racing events and New England’s most viewed sporting event. It brings about a half million spectators to the city each year.
The race is known for the infamous “Heartbreak Hill,” located between miles 20 and 21 of the Boston Marathon. This half-mile stretch is a 91 foot incline towards the end of the race, where runners are already struggling with fatigue and questioning their endurance. It’s a crucial moment in the race that can make or break a runner’s resolve.
When: Third Monday of April (Patriot’s Day)
Inaugural Year: 1897
Estimated # of Runners: 30,000
What its known for: It’s the oldest marathon, coming up on it’s 128th year in 2024.
Crossing the River Thames and passing through Greenwich, the London Marathon is more than just a race; it’s a cultural and historical tour of the English capital. The race is famous for its enthusiastic crowds and also for its charitable focus.
It’s a mostly flat course run around the River Thames, and also passes by the London Eye, Big Ben, the Tower of London, and the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. Checkout my complete London Marathon Course Tips!
When: Last Sunday in April (with a few exceptions in the last few years)
Inaugural Year: 1981
Estimated # of Runners: 45,000
What its known for: It’s the largest charity partner/fundraising event in the world.
The Berlin Marathon draws in over a million spectators each year. 2024 will be the 50th year for the run, and it’s super fun to watch, with over 80 bands along the race course.
The course is incredibly flat and smooth, and several world records have been set here. Runners pass through Brandenburg Gate and cover various landmarks throughout the city. It’s a race where athletes often aim for PRs.
When: Last weekend of September
Inaugural Year: 1974
Estimated # of Runners:
What its known for: It’s considered to be the fastest course of the 6, with many elite athletes setting world records at this race.
If you’re looking toward a BQ, checkout these Boston Qualifying Tips from everyday runners.
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is another flat and fast course that starts and finishes in Grant Park, passing through 29 Chicago neighborhoods along the way. Over 1.7 million spectators come to watch each year, according to the race’s website.
Chicago temperatures can vary widely in October, with some years offering near perfect running temps and other years having extreme temps from down into the 20s to high 80s. You just never know what you’re going to get with this one.
Here’s my complete guide to the Chicago Marathon Course.
When: Columbus Day weekend (October)
Inaugural Year: 1977
Estimated # of Runners: 40,000
What its known for: It’s know for it’s flat course that runs through 29 Chicago neighborhoods.
New York City Marathon
Over 1.2 million people from 140 countries have completed the New York City Marathon since it was started in 1970 by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) organization, making it the world’s largest marathon.
The course stats in Staten Island and runs through the five boroughs of New York City, finishing in Central Park. It includes several inclines over bridges and hills, so it’s definitely not the flat course you’d expect from Chicago or Berlin, but you’ll certainly catch some gorgeous views of one of America’s most iconic cities.
Interested in running NYC? Check out these NYC marathon course tips and FAQs.
When: First Sunday in November
Inaugural Year: 1970
Estimated # of Runners: 53,000
What its known for: It is the largest marathon in the world.
How to Run the World Marathon Majors
Elite runners need to qualify for these races and are usually then invited to race, chasing that point system. B
oston will give nearly 80% of it’s slots to runners who have qualified from a previous marathon time, but the other races are open to a much larger pool.
Fast runners can submit their time from a AIMS-certified marathon in the last two years. Qualifying times are slightly different for each marathon major, but here’s a breakdown from the NYC marathon:
- 18 to 34 years old — 2:53 for men, 3:13 for women
- 35 to 39 — 2:55 for men, 3:15 for women
- 40 to 44 — 2:58 for men, 3:15 for women
- 45 to 49 — 3:05 for men, 3:38 for women
- 50 to 54 — 3:14 for men, 3:51 for women
- 55 to 59 — 3:23 for men, 4:10 for women
- 60 to 64 — 3:34 for men, 4:27 for women
- 65 to 69 — 3:45 for men, 4:50 for women
- 70 to 74 — 4:10 for men, 5:30 for women
- 75 to 79 — 4:30 for men, 6:00 for women
- 80 and over — 4:55 for men, 6:35 for women
Everyday runners like you and I get to put our fate in the hands of a lottery system for every single one of these races. Usually a month or so after the race is completed the online lottery applications will open. You’ll enter your information and agree to pay should you be selected.
A few months (sometimes many months) later an email will go out to everyone who entered and some will rejoice, while most will get the “we’re sorry you did not get in this year.” With only 40,000 slots available in most races and over 200,000 applicants the chances aren’t fabulous.
But if you apply for them all, you up the odds!
Alternatively, you can get yourself a guaranteed entry to one of these races going through a charity. In that case, you’ll likely be raising anywhere from $3500-$5000 and will then also have the support of that group, possibly traveling with them as well. It’s extra effort during training, but you get what you want and someone else benefits too!
Finally you can also sign up through an approved tour operator.
The logistics of getting into all the races, planing the travel and training can be a lot. Luckily, my friend The Runner Beans has done it all and written a great article on the process.
She goes into all the details of requirements for each race and all the lottery information you’ll need! It’s going to take a little more planning than your local 5K Turkey Trot. I can’t believe I’ve only done NYC on the list and truly London is the next one I would LOVE to do…then Berlin…then…dang it a slippery slope.
If you’ve missed out on all of the big one’s there are some other incredible Fall marathons you should consider!
Should The Marathon Majors Be a Goal For You?
Every runner has different motivations for what keeps them showing up mile after mile. But a few things to consider if you are attempting this goal:
- Due to the lottery system there’s no guarantee you’ll complete a major every year. This could be a long goal.
- Due to the varied locations, you’ll need to be ok with long travel times to some races.
- It can be an expensive endeavor between race fees, travel and well all the ongoing gear to keep training.
- It will most certainly put in a small pool of people of who have accomplished something pretty incredible.
- You’re non-running friends will be equally impressed when you finish any marathon whether it’s a major or not.
- These are all very large, very crowded courses which for some runners isn’t as enjoyable. Know that about yourself!
Who Has Won the Marathon Majors?
If you’re anything like me and find yourself glued to the TV when the NYC and Boston marathons are televised, marveling at the long smooth strides of these majestic creatures plowing through 5 minute miles, well then a few of the recent winners will likely ring a bell:
- Mary Keitany
- Edna Kiplagat
- Eliud Kipchoge — oh hi, the guy who unofficially broke the 2 hour marathon mark
- Geoffrey Mutai
Why the Marathon Majors are Important?
You might look at these massive races and find out how hard it is to get in to them and of course realize you aren’t in the running for that $1 million and think, ehh who cares? At which point I would question your runner card, just kidding..mostly.
- We care because they all happen to pretty amazing races.
- We care because it’s super fun to have a big crazy goal.
- We care because runners are always chasing the next new goal, the ways to keep it fun and interesting.
- We care because we want the world to keep getting more excited about our sport.
- We care because traveling and running is like peanut butter and jelly…perfection!
Not quite up for a marathon, then checkout my MUST run half marathons across the US. The half marathon is my all time favorite distance, which is why though I’ve done 8 marathons, I’ve only knocked out one of the majors!
Other ways to connect with Amanda
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