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London is gearing up for the biggest party of the year this weekend - no, not that one - this is the one where everyone's invited. Ok, so maybe we're a little bit biased, but we happen to think that no other city on earth hosts a marathon quite like London does, especially now it has a new sponsor at the helm (ahem).
The Virgin London Marathon - Sunday 17th April
As well as being one of the world's most prestigious races, the Virgin London Marathon holds the Guiness world record as the largest annual fund raising event in the world, and it's easy to see why. Despite it being a serious fixture on the running calendar, it's still an inclusive, mass-participatory event, evidenced by the sheer volume of bizarre and outlandish costumes on display, most of which are worn for charity. Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the route along the Thames from Blackheath to the Mall, and as anyone who's ever been involved will tell you, the atmosphere is something very special indeed.
So - after London, where next? If you're doing London this weekend, chances are you'll have definitely caught the running bug by the end of it so here's some inspiration for your next trip, with a guide to the best marathons in Virgin Atlantic's destinations for the rest of 2011...
The Boston Marathon - Monday 18th April
The third Monday in April is Patriot's Day in the United States, or in Boston, more commonly known as Marathon Monday. This is the race all serious marathoners aspire to run. A member of the championship-style World Marathon Majors series (along with London, Chicago, Berlin and New York), the Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon race, and requires athletes to qualify by running a previous certified course in a challenging set time - 3hrs 05mins for 18 - 34yr males, for example. Simply qualifying for Boston is a huge achievement in itself, hence its billing as a "people's Olympic race", though a small proportion of places are open to charity runners of all abilities.
California: The Big Sur Marathon - Sunday 1st May
The International Big Sur Marathon must surely be one of the most scenic races in the world. It's certainly one of the most challenging. Starting just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in Monterey County, the route follows the twists and turns (and very steep hills) of the Pacific Coast Highway north to Carmel, with fantastic views of the cliffs, the ocean and multi-million dollar houses to distract you. About 11 miles in, the notorious Hurricane Point - a 600ft climb - is the real killer point of the run, though it's followed by a downward cruise to the famous Bixby Bridge. The race attracts around 5,000 hardcore runners annually, and is consistently voted the #1 destination marathon in the world.
China: The Great Wall Marathon - Saturday 21st May
If the Big Sur Marathon is challenging, then China's Great Wall Marathon is nothing short of sheer madness. Taking place along the Huangya Pass section of the Wall, which lies on a precipitous mountain ridge, the race traverses more than 5,000 steep stone steps with hair-raising ascents and descents, which probably accounts for why the entrants tend to number less than a thousand each year. Not for the faint-hearted, but not just for elite athletes either. According to the organisers, anyone can do it as long as they're fully prepared and have a lot of willpower. And be prepared to hit the wall...literally.
Kenya: Safaricom Marathon - Saturday 25th June
The 12th Safaricom Marathon and Half Marathon is organised by Tusk, a wildlife conservation charity that provides financial, logistical and practical support for a wide range of field projects across 17 African countries. The marathon takes place within the 62,000 acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, home to more than 100 black and white rhino, herds of elephant and a plethora of game including oryx, giraffe, zebra and buffalo, and even some lions and leopards. Fear not! The course is patrolled by an experienced team of armed rangers. One for the ultra tough - you'll need to deal with searing heat and high altitude to reach the finish line.
South Africa: Big Five Marathon - Saturday 25th June
Another one for the adventurous wildlife enthusiast. Sometimes described as the toughest race in South Africa, the Big Five Marathon takes place in the private Entabani Game reserve in Limpopo province between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. Expect to see hippos, crocodiles and many species of antelope along with the Big Five, though you'd be wise to keep your eyes to the ground on occasion - the latter part of the course is described as "steep, hard uneven stony ground with plenty of large rocks of all sizes." Not your average jog in the park then.
The San Francisco Marathon - Sunday 31st July
Fancy running across the Golden Gate Bridge and back? The San Francisco Marathon is a loop course and takes in all the best bits of this beautiful city. Starting and finishing on the Embarcadero (near the Ferry Building), you'll run through Fisherman's Wharf, the Marina, across the famous red bridge and back, through the Presidio and into Golden Gate Park. From there you'll run down Haight Street and weave your way through the Mission, Potrero and Mission Bay districts before finishing. Better, greener and much more invigorating than a tour bus.
The Chicago Marathon - Sunday 9th October
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is another member of the World Marathon Major series and since its inaugural running in 1977, has established a global reputation for its super-fast, record-setting course. Starting in Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, around 35,000 runners from all 50 states and more than 100 countries line up to compete, and the cool autumn climate should help with achieving a personal record.
Washington, DC Marathon - Sunday 30th October
The Marine Corps Marathon is held every year in Washington, DC and across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. It's the eight largest marathon in the world, and is often referred to as the "People's Marathon" due to its lack of prize money and open policy allowing anyone over the age of 14 to enter. The course, which begins in Arlington, takes in all the best bits of DC including Georgetown, Potomac Park and the Jefferson Memorial before entering the National Mall and along past landmarks like the Lincoln and Vietnam War Memorials, the Washington Monument and the U.S Capitol.
The New York City Marathon - Sunday 6th November
The ING New York City Marathon is the world's largest, with more than 43,000 finishers in each of the last two years. The race attracts many world-class elite runners, has a $600,000 prize money fund, has two million cheering spectators and a worldwide TV audience of 315 million viewers. The very first New York Marathon in 1970 was simply four laps of Central Park, but now the race takes in all five boroughs and zigzags through dozens of diverse neighbourhoods. The finish line remains in Central Park though, and anyone who's crossed it will tell you it's one of the biggest thrills of a lifetime.
The Las Vegas Marathon - Sunday 4th December
Billed as the world's largest nighttime running event the 2011 Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon starts in the fading light of late afternoon and ends in the glow of neon lights up and down the Strip. Whether you're a serious athlete or planning on dressing up as Elvis (you'll certainly be among friends if you do) you'll need to be pretty fit. The roads are re-opened after just 4hrs 30mins so if you're a back-of-the-pack plodder, beware!
The Barbados Marathon - Sunday 4th December
Come for the run, stay for the fun says the blurb, and let's face it - with a 4.30am start, you might as well just arrive at the starting line fresh from the previous nights partying. Since the Barbados Marathon began in 1983, it's always taken place in a party atmosphere and is a very inclusive affair - the whole weekend is taken over by running events, with a Midnight Mile, a 5k Fun Run, a 10k, a half marathon, and full marathon. Lots of serious world-rated road runners turn up though - it's an ideal end-of-year training event on an exciting course with gorgeous views. And best of all, you can have a fab, instant holiday afterwards.
Are you running London this weekend, or have you ever run one of the races listed here? How did you do? We'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
For the best fares on flights to all these destinations and more, log on to www.virgin-atlantic.com. For the best way to raise money for your endeavours, with every penny of your donations going to your chosen cause, visit Virgin Money Giving.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.