Whether you’re a beginner, amateur, or seasoned runner, there will be a race on your running bucket list that you really want to do. But for a select few runners within the marathon world, it’s more than one race that captures the attention. It’s a prestigious bucket list — the World Marathon Majors (WMM).
This is a series of six marathons in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City.
Completing one of these marathons is something you can be proud of; completing two puts you in an elite group of very few, but running all six WMM races will see you receive a ‘Six Star Medal’. Less than 12,000 people worldwide can say they hold this title, so it really is a unique accomplishment.
Unfortunately, these races are becoming increasingly popular, and it can take years to get to all six. You may need to plan your registration and races strategically… and that’s before you even add training to the mix.
Whether you’re looking at running one of the Major races or plan to complete all of them, we’ll cover everything you need to know. From the races themselves and how they became Majors to which race is the most challenging, we have it all. So lace up your running shoes – let’s get into it.
- How Do Marathons Become World Majors?
- What Are The Dates of Each Marathon Major?
- How to Qualify and Register for a Major
- Registration Dates for Each Major Marathon
- Tokyo Marathon
- Boston Marathon
- London Marathon
- Berlin Marathon
- Chicago Marathon
- New York City Marathon
How Do Marathons Become World Majors?
Before a race can apply to become a Major race, it must meet certain criteria. These criteria are very specific and strict, covering every aspect of the marathon. As a runner, you can expect excellent professionalism and organization on the course and in the admin process.
Some criteria are bigger considerations, like distance (it must be exactly 42.195 km or 26 miles 385 yards) and registration process, to the smaller things like the number of aid stations, length of aid station tables, and number of cups per table.
Meeting each of the required criteria isn’t just about jumping through hoops; it’s to ensure all the Majors are organized to the same standard with consistency across the board.
What Are The Dates of Each Marathon Major?
The races are typically held on the same weekend yearly to help with planning (for competitors and organizers alike).
The dates of each major are as follows:
- Tokyo – March, first Sunday
- Boston – April, third Monday
- London – April, last Sunday
- Berlin – September, last Sunday
- Chicago – October, Sunday of Columbus Day weekend
- New York City – November, first Sunday
Organizers normally announce the next year’s confirmed race day on the weekend of the marathon, allowing runners to plan ahead.
How to Qualify and Register for a Major
To run in the Major Marathons, you need to qualify and register. Each race has its own times you need to achieve based on gender and age group, but there are a few other options to get a bib if you don’t meet the qualification criteria.
Each race has a random lottery that gives everyone a fair chance of being drawn. This involves registering on the race website, giving your details, then waiting for an email confirming whether you’ve been drawn or not.
You can also run with a charity partner – this means you fundraise for a certain charity, and you’re given a bib in return. You’ll also likely receive a shirt that promotes the charity so you can raise awareness while running. This is a popular option but can be quite challenging if you don’t have a wide circle of friends or a way to generate funds.
Lastly, you can enter with a tour group, such as Marathon Tours & Travel, who coordinate logistics and guarantee your entry to each race – for a price.
Registration Dates for Each Major Marathon
Most of the races have a short window for participants to register for the race. Below are some of the most important dates and helpful tips for each race.
Registration usually starts in August. For runners over 19 years of age who can complete a marathon in 6:40, the general lottery is the simplest way to enter. The lottery offers around 26,000 runners entry to the race.
If you’re a fast runner, you can take advantage of the RUN as ONE program, a semi-elite entry for international runners. This program requires applicants to achieve qualifying times in the events that are:
- World Athletics Label
- World Athletics Elite Label
- World Athletics Elite Platinum Label
The qualifying times set by the program are 2:32 for men and 3:19 for women. There aren’t age groups, but the faster your time, the higher your chance of receiving entry.
Lastly, you can run for one of Tokyo Marathon’s 33 worthwhile charity partners. There are three charity options:
- 3,700 entries: first-come, first-served non-crowdfunding entries for runners who pay 100,000 JPY (around US $950).
- 300 entries: crowdfunding entry for the “Run with Heart” charity for runners who raise the most money for the cause.
- 1,000 entries: runners can work with Tokyo Marathon-affiliated charities and need to raise at least 200,000 JPY (around $1,900). Bibs are given on a first-come, first-served basis.
Boston organizers typically open registration in September and accept entries for around a week. No matter your qualifying time, all runners register within this window.
Boston often doesn’t meet the minimum number of qualifiers, so you’re almost guaranteed a spot in the race if you run a qualifying time. But this wasn’t the case in 2021 when over 9,000 runners with qualifying times weren’t accepted.
You can also run for one of the Boston Marathon charity partners. There are around 30 different programs to choose from, so you can find one close to your heart and run on their behalf.
The London Marathon is all about the lottery, especially if you’re not a UK citizen or resident. You can apply for the lottery in April after the current year’s marathon is finished, and you’ll find out if you’ve been selected after the draw in June. This is one of the most oversubscribed marathons in the world, so your chances of being drawn in the lottery are less than 10%.
You can also apply for a Good for Age entry. It’s not a guaranteed entry, but your chances are higher than with the lottery. The London Marathon also has a well-supported Charity entry system, so if you’re keen to do some fundraising, you can give that a go.
You can start registering for the Berlin Marathon in October. Registration is normally around three weeks long, giving you more time to register than most other Majors. If you’re registering with a qualifying time, you’re guaranteed entry to the race.
If you didn’t run a qualifying time, there’s no need to fret – you can still enter the general lottery. It’s less competitive than the London Marathon, but the race has gained popularity since Eliud Kipchoge ran his World Record on the historically PR-friendly course.
As with the other Majors, you can also secure an entry by raising money and running for a charity. The race has several affiliated causes to choose from, each of which has different requirements to get your bib.
You can enter the Chicago Marathon lottery in October and find out if you’ve been drawn in December. If you’ve run the marathon five times or more in the last ten years, you’re guaranteed a bib (Legacy finisher entry). You also receive guaranteed entry if you’ve finished the Shamrock Shuffle 8K at least four times since 2008 and have registered for the next one (Shamrock Shuffle Legacy entry).
The Chicago Marathon has several well-supported charity entries available if you’d like to run for a good cause. You can also receive guaranteed entry if you fall into the American Development Program category – this is an entry for those who meet a qualifying time based on age. This entry is similar to the Time Qualifier entry but specifically aimed at US citizens.
New York City
As with the rest of the Marathon Majors, you can qualify based on the time standards. You can enter the random lottery if you aren’t quite at that level. The draw takes place over a month, normally from mid-January to mid-February.
Runners who live in the NYC area can join the 9+1 program. You join the New York Road Runners in January the year before the marathon, then complete 9 NYRR races plus volunteer at one (9+1) throughout the year. This will give you an entry to the New York Marathon.
Runners who’ve completed 15 New York City Marathons have guaranteed lifetime entry. If you want to run for a cause, you can get an entry by raising $3,000 minimum for a charity in exchange for your bib.
Other Registration Options
If you want to run all six World Marathon Majors but don’t want to worry about qualifying times, lotteries, or raising money for charity, you can use a tour group, as we mentioned earlier. This means your travel to all the marathons will be coordinated, but they will also ensure your entries are taken care of, so all you need to do is train and show up on the start line.
Which Major Marathon Is the Hardest to Enter?
No matter where you’re from, but especially if you’re from outside the UK, the toughest marathon to get into is the London Marathon. This race normally sees around 500,000 people register, but only 17,500 are accepted from general entry.
The race sees around 40,000 runners cross the start line, but more than half of those are elites, charity runners, time qualifiers, good-for-age entries, and deferrals from previous years.
Which Major Marathon is the Toughest to Run?
Each marathon has its highs and lows, challenges and highlights, but those who’ve run all six races agree that New York and Boston are the most challenging. They are both quite hilly courses. New York has bridges to cross, and Boston has many hills, including Heartbreak Hill.
London comes in third place for difficulty, not for being hilly or hot, but for the numerous 90-degree turns and overcrowding that happens in the first few miles. London is also known to get quite cold and rainy in some years. Next is Tokyo, which is quite an easy course, but it rains more on marathon day than not.
Lastly, we have Chicago and Berlin, both of which are famously fast and flat. Neither course has historically experienced much rain or wind on race day. In fact, the last 8 men’s marathon world records have been run on the Berlin Marathon course, showing just how fast and flat the course is.
No matter which marathon you’re running, you’ll need to prepare and train properly to ensure you finish strong with a smile on your face. Many runners train for years to get their race qualification times or to be drawn in the lottery – the last thing any runner wants after all that is to DNF. Do your research before race day and ensure your training is appropriate for the conditions.
What Do You Get If You Finish All Six World Marathon Majors?
A certificate, a medal, a cheer from your friends, and brownie points. Completing all six races is no small feat, and it often takes runners several years to do all the Majors. Sadly, you may never finish the race for the Majors.
The reason is that new races are always being considered and added – Tokyo was only added to the WMM list in 2013. So, much like training for a marathon, the hunt for the Major finish line is ongoing.
The Major Marathons: Fun Facts & Stats
Now that you know how to register for each marathon and which is the hardest, let’s look at what each race is about and some fun facts and stats from each.
This race is the first Major of the year, seeing runners taking on the streets of Tokyo on the first Sunday of each March. This race was first run in 2007, making it the youngest race of the Majors.
The race starts at Shinjuku’s Metropolitan Government Building and winds through the city streets before doubling back on itself. The second half of the route is a looped replica of the first half. Along the course, runners pass the Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, and Asakusa before finishing at the Tokyo International Exhibition Centre.
The male winner of the first race in 2007 was Daniel Njenga from Kenya, and the female winner was Japan’s Niiya Hitomi.
See more in our extended guide: running the Tokyo marathon.
Tokyo Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2022 – Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – 2:02:40
- Women’s record: 2022 – Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) – 2:16:02
- Men’s wheelchair record: 2020 – Suzuki Tomoki (Japan) – 1:21:52
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2020 – Kina Tsubasa (Japan) – 1:40:00
- Runners in 2023: 38,000
- Notable quality: Biggest elite start of all the Majors
This Major is the second Major of the calendar year, run on the third Monday of April each year: Patriot’s Day in the US. This race is the world’s oldest annual marathon and was first run in 1897. The Boston Marathon was inspired by the Athens Olympic Games in 1896.
The race was originally only for male participants, but in 1966, Roberta Gibb snuck into the race and completed it in 3:21:40. From 1972, women were officially allowed to enter the marathon.
The Boston Marathon starts at Hopkinton State Park and passes many local attractions, including Natick Center Cultural District, Ashland Clock Tower, and the Forever Young statue. This statue commemorates Johnny “Kelley the Elder” Kelley, who finished the Boston Marathon 61 times. The finish line is at Copley Square.
The male winner of the first race in 1897 was John J. McDermott from the USA, who ran the race in 2:55:10, and the first official female winner in 1972 was USA’s Nina Kuscsik.
See more in our extended guide: running the Boston marathon.
Boston Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2011 – Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya) – 2:03:02
- Women’s record: 2014 – Buzunesh Deba (Ethiopia) – 2:19:59
- Men’s wheelchair record: 2017 – Marcel Hug (Switzerland) – 1:18:03
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2019 – Manuela Schar (Switzerland) – 1:34:19
- Runners in 2023: 30,000
- Notable quality: Oldest annual marathon in the world
A whopping SEVEN world records were run on the London Marathon course, which is often considered the second-fastest Marathon Major route. The first marathon was held in 1981 and was the brainchild of Chris Brasher, an Olympic Games steeplechase gold medalist, and runner John Disley. After running the 1979 New York City Marathon, he wanted to create a similar race in London.
Running the London Marathon is one of the best ways to see the best of London’s attractions, including the London Eye, Cutty Sark, the Tower of London, and Big Ben. The race finishes in front of Buckingham Palace.
The male winner of the first race in 1981 was a tie between Inge Simonsen from Norway and the USA’s Dick Beardsley, who both ran the race in 2:11:48. London’s Joyce Smith was the female winner of the first two races in 1981 and 1982.
See more in our extended guide: running the London marathon.
London Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2019 – Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – 2:02:37
- Women’s record: 2003 – Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) – 2:15:25
- Men’s wheelchair record: 2021 – Marcel Hug (Switzerland) – 1:26:27
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2021 – Manuela Schar (Switzerland) – 1:39:52
- Runners in 2023: 49,000
- Notable quality: Most watched marathon in the world
For runners looking to smash their marathon PBs or run on a super-fast course, the Berlin Marathon has it all. Boasting over 12 world records, the Berlin Marathon was the site for Eliud Kipchoge’s official world record marathon – he ran a sizzling 2:01:09.
The Berlin Marathon takes place on the last Sunday of September. The rapid course starts and finishes in front of the world-famous Brandenburg Gate. This race was founded in 1974 by Horst Milde, a local baker.
The male winner of the first race in 1974 was Gunter Hallas from East Germany, who completed the race in 2:44:53. The female winner was Jutta Von Haase, who made her marathon debut at the inaugural Berlin Marathon and crossed the line in 3:22:01.
See more in our extended guide: running the Berlin marathon.
Berlin Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2022 – Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – 2:01:09
- Women’s record: 2022 – Tigist Assefa (Ethiopia) – 2:15:37
- Men’s wheelchair record: 1997 – Heinz Frei (Switzerland) – 1:21:39
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2018 – Manuela Schar (Switzerland) – 1:36:53
- Runners in 2022: 45,500
- Notable quality: Most world records (last 8 men’s world records set here)
Originally started in 1905, the current format of the Chicago Marathon was established in 1977 by Lee Flaherty and had only 4,200 runners in the initial race. Now, almost 40,000 elite and amateur runners take on the course that meanders through the Windy City.
The marathon starts and finishes at Grant Park. This race will tickle the fancy of sports fans – the course passes three of Chicago’s most well-loved, famous stadiums: Guaranteed Rate Field, the United Centre, and Wrigley Field. It’s also considered one of the world’s best marathons – definitely something worth being a part of.
Despite the possibility of being a windy race, Chicago is still one of the fastest courses in the Majors. In fact, some of the fastest marathon times in history have been run on this route, most notably Brigid Kosgei’s 2019 world record of 2:14:04.
The first male winner of this race in 1977 was USA’s Dan Cloeter, who ran the race in 2:17:52. The amazingly-named Dorothy Doolittle won the first race in 2:50:47.
See more in our extended guide: running the Chicago marathon.
Chicago Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2013 – Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) – 2:03:45
- Women’s record: 2019 – Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) – 2:14:04
- Men’s wheelchair record: 2010 – Heinz Frei (Switzerland) – 1:26:56
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2017 – Tatyana McFadden (USA) – 1:39:15
- Runners in 2022: 40,000
- Notable quality: Most neighborhoods covered in a marathon (29)
New York City Marathon
With almost 50,000 runners in 2022, the New York City Marathon is the biggest Major and the largest marathon worldwide. The inaugural running of this race had only 127 competitors in 1970, but only 55 runners crossed the finish line.
Gary Muhrcke from the USA won the race in 2:31:38. A year later, in 1971, Anne Beth Bonner, also from the US, became the first female winner in a then-world record time of 2:55:22.
A new course was mapped in 1976, including all five New York boroughs. The route started in Staten Island and finished in Central Park. Along the race, participants cross five bridges, run past iconic sites, and grind their way up steep hills.
Despite being fairly challenging, especially as some years can be quite hot (the highest temperature was recorded during 1979’s race, reaching almost 27 °C), four world records have been run on the New York City Marathon course, all by women. Grete Waitz (Norway) set three of these records in three consecutive years – 1978, 1979, and 1980.
See more in our extended guide: running the New York City marathon.
New York City Marathon Stats and Records
- Men’s record: 2011 – Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya) – 2:05:06
- Women’s record: 2003 – Margaret Okayo (Kenya) – 2:22:31
- Men’s wheelchair record: 2022 – Marcel Hug (Switzerland) – 1:25:26
- Women’s wheelchair record: 2022 – Susannah Scaroni (USA) – 1:42:43
- Runners in 2022: 50,000
- Notable quality: Most competitors in the world
Ready To Chase Your Six Star Medal?
From the biggest marathon to the oldest annual marathon, the World Marathon Major races leave nothing to be desired. Over 800 marathons are organized annually worldwide, but just six – Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York – have the honor and prestige of the WMM title.
Many runners set a goal of running one or two of these Major races; some aim to complete all of them. Doing so earns runners a Six Star Medal and puts them in an elite club of less than 12,000 runners.
Now that you know everything there is to know about the six Majors, you can decide which you’d like to complete and in which order. Good luck – you’re going to need it!