The 25 Best Boston Marathon-Qualifying Courses in The U.S.

The 25 Best Boston Marathon-Qualifying Courses in The U.S.

If you run marathons, you have most likely dreamed of running the Boston Marathon. And why wouldn’t you? It’s one of six World Marathon Majors (alongside New York City, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo), the largest and most renowned marathons on the planet which draw hundreds of thousands of participants, including top female and male elite athletes. Out of all six, Boston is definitively the most storied and iconic. It’s also the oldest, dating all the way back to the first race held in 1897.

More importantly: it’s prestigious. Every runner wants the bragging right of getting a “BQ”, otherwise known as a Boston-qualifying time. And it’s not easy. For men between 18 and 34, the cutoff is 3:05, and for women, it’s 3:35. The higher the age, naturally, the slower the pace. For example, 50- to 54-year-old women need to run it in under four hours, while men that age need to do so under 3:30.

So how do you get there? Well, besides training your butt off and getting in those weekly long runs, you might want to set yourself up by entering a race in optimal conditions: cool weather (we like 40s to 50s Fahrenheit), flat or even sometimes a net-downhill course filled with other runners also chasing a BQ, and, as a bonus, some beautiful backdrops to make the miles fly by. Here are the 25 marathons in the US that will pave the smoothest route to that Boston starting line.

  • California International Marathon

    california marathon
    image via California International Marathon | Facebook

    When you hear veteran marathoners talk about the fastest marathon course in the country, you can’t have a single conversation without the California International Marathon coming up. Held in Sacramento, the course is also the site of the U.S. Marathon Championships. The route is point-to-point, so you don’t have to worry about seeing the same part of the California State Capitol twice. It’s flat, a net downhill, and includes a sweet finish at the actual state capitol building. Ladybird fans, you’ll especially love this one. Held on December 2, 2018

  • St. George Marathon

    st. george marathon
    image via St George Marathon | Facebook

    Descend over 2,500 feet, starting in the Pine Mountains, passing through scenic southwest Utah, and finishing in Worthen Park in the city of St. George. This race makes for a fast qualifier with majestic scenery. For the past two years, almost 20 percent of the field of about one thousand runners hit the Boston mark. Held on October 6, 2018

  • Chicago Marathon

    marathon chicago
    image via Choose Chicago | Facebook

    Chicago is a World Marathon Majors course and a fast, flat one too. Elite runners show up in Chicago year after year seeking PRs, and you should too. Take a journey  through 29 unique and diverse neighborhoods, with over a million spectators cheering you on your way. In terms of participants, you’ll have no shortage of running buddies to bond with mid-marathon: 40,000 people run this race. Enjoy the early-October, Midwest fall weather, which is usually mid-40s to low-50s (excluding a few randomly unlucky hot years), making the conditions optimal for fast times. Due to the size of the field, participants can enter the lottery for registration, raise money through a charity, or qualify based on time. Held on October 7, 2018 (applications closed, but you can still run through a charity)

  • Twin Cities Marathon

    minneapolis marathons
    image via @rachel_runner | Instagram

    MarathonGuide.com reports about 700 runners hit a BQ in 2017 out of a field of about 7,500. It’s a relatively flat course, but there’s a 200-foot climb from miles 20-23 — which only prepares competitors for Boston’s Newton Hills (when you qualify, of course). Enthusiastic spectators line the course to cheer you on, and there are pace teams to lead you, guiding runners in 10-minute increments from 3:05 to 3:45, and then every 15 minutes from four to five hours. You run by multiple lakes on the course, making the journey to the finish a very beautiful one. And there’s a bonus: free public transportation to the start. Held on October 7, 2018

  • Eugene Marathon

    best marathons in the usa
    image via Eugene Marathon | Facebook

    The marathon takes place in “TrackTown USA”, taking you around the beautiful Amazon Park and the University of Oregon, on scenic river trails, in and out of more parks, and finishing on the historic Hayward Field — home of countless Olympic Trials, NCAA Championships, and U.S. Championships. Need we say more? Oh wait, we should mention that 22 percent of the field qualifies every year for Boston. Held on April 28, 2019

  • Last Chance BQ.2 Chicagoland Marathon

    image via @andreasaakn | Instagram

    Given the name itself, this marathon was designed with qualifying for Boston in mind. It’s proven to live up to the name, with over 50 percent of field qualifying for Boston every year. Held outside Chicago in Geneva, Illinois just a few days before the Boston registration opens, the course is shaded and flat, and all the runners are treated like elite athletes. In recent years, due to the ever-increasing popularity of the Boston Marathon, the race organizers have even had to reject some of the qualifiers, so the more you dip under your BQ the more likely you are to be able to toe that Boston starting line. Plus, the race just added a second location in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the same day, and, new in spring of 2017, they added a race the Saturday after Boston for those runners who want BQ for the following year. Held on September 8, 2018 and April 20, 2019

  • Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon

    lakefront marathon
    image via milwaukeelakefrontmarathon.org

    This marathon, much like the city of Milwaukee, is a hidden gem in the Midwest. The course is a point-to-point downhill course, starting in rural neighborhoods and finishing in the city (just like Boston — only without the hills!), right along Lake Michigan. The race has been around since 1981, and don’t get it mixed up with the Milwaukee Marathon, which started in 2015 and improperly measured their course distance last year (it was almost a mile too short and runners’ BQs did not count). It’s a totally different (and correctly measured and USATF-certified) race. Held on October 7, 2018

  • Erie Marathon

    great lakes marathon
    image via Great Lakes Marathon Series | Facebook

    Over 30 percent of participants on this shady, flat, and fast Pennsylvania course qualify for Boston. As you run, take in beautiful views of Lake Erie, as well as the City of Erie Bayfront, miles of coastline beaches, marshes, and wooded paths. The route is two loops, which include lots of support — like bathrooms and fuel stations every mile. Held on September 9, 2018

  • Wineglass Marathon

    finger lakes marathons
    image via Wineglass Marathon | Facebook

    In the heart of Finger Lakes, this point-to-point, flat and fast countryside course is super picturesque. The marathon starts in Bath, New York and travels the valley to Savona, onto Coopers Plains and Painted Post, and finishes on historic Market Street in Corning, New York. At the finish, you’re handed a one-of-a-kind glass medal. After the race, you can enjoy wine tasting, local breweries, fall shopping, or visiting one of the nearby museums to experience the community’s local flavor. Held on September 30, 2018

  • Mohawk Hudson River Marathon

    best marathons in the US
    image via @alexandra.p.ellis | Instagram

    Here’s another fast, small town New York race that is likely to help you secure your BQ. With the help of a 370-foot drop over the course of the race, a quarter of the participants are known to pick up a Boston-qualifying time here. With the route being right next to the Mohawk AND Hudson rivers (how did you get so lucky!), you’re guaranteed scenic views. Held on October 7, 2018

  • Indianapolis Monumental Marathon

    best marathons in indianapolis
    image via Team World Vision | Facebook

    Indy’s fast, looping marathon sells out quickly every year. There are 4,000 participants in this race, and to match the large number of participants, there’s also a large number of spectators cheering you on. Run past Indiana’s state capitol and Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, and finish at the art museum. The race has been known to sell out, so be sure to register as soon as possible. Held on November 3, 2018

  • Philadelphia Marathon

    philly marathon
    image via Philadelphia Marathon | Facebook

    This race is always held on the weekend before Thanksgiving, which means you won’t have to worry about missing any holiday festivities and it’s usually perfect marathon weather (low in the 40s to highs in the mid-50s). Philly fans have a reputation for getting rowdy, so you can expect that spectator cheering will be next level. In a city filled with rich history, you’ll run past historic landmarks like Ben Franklin’s grave and the Liberty Bell. Plus, there’s never a more epic finish than crossing the line at the base of the Rocky Steps (with a BQ, no less!). Throw your hands up like Rocky when you do. Held on November 18, 2018

  • Fargo Marathon

    image via @fargo.marathon | Facebook

    Held in mid-May every year, you can expect cool, North Dakota weather for this race. The fast and flat course starts and finishes in the Fargodome (home of the North Dakota State University football team). Every runner receives small town, Midwestern hospitality—with plenty of aid and fuel stations as well as cheering spectators along the course—and the 40+ live DJs and bands on the route will keep you entertained and motivated all the way to the finish line. Held in May 2019, date TBD (this year held on May 19, 2018)

  • Los Angeles Marathon

    best marathons in LA
    image via Los Angeles Marathon | Facebook

    This race might just be your March escape to warmer weather — and your ticket to the Boston Marathon. If you’re worried about the heat, don’t be. The race starts at dawn in order to combat the potential for hot weather. The average temperature tends to hover around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in a typical Los Angeles March, and some runners aren’t even bothered by this temperature at all. The course is net downhill, you’ll have scenic views of over 25 diverse LA neighborhoods, and you’ll finish at sea level on the Santa Monica Pier, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. If you’re still unsure about this marathon, it was site of the last U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and the future site of the 2028 Olympics (and the Olympic marathon). And when else can you run in LA without a crazy number of cars on the road? Held on March 24, 2019

  • Houston Marathon

    marathons houston
    image via Houston Marathon

    The Houston Marathon course is well-known for being fast and flat. Usually, elite marathoners come here to test their fitness in the half marathon for their upcoming spring marathons (the half marathon course is mostly the same as the full marathon, but only covers a portion of the full course). Molly Huddle broke the American record on the half marathon course. The forecast is usually clear skies, minimal wind, and not too hot in January in Houston, with temperatures hovering between 45 degrees Fahrenheit for a low and 60 degrees for a high. As a bonus, there’ll be more than 200,000 spectators cheering you on. Held on January 20, 2019

  • Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon

    Flying Pig Marathon Cincinatti
    image via @runflyingpig | Instagram

    The Flying Pig Marathon draws 40,000 runners every year, so you’ll have plenty of competitors around you to help push you to your BQ. The course does have significant climbs in the first eight miles, but then you’ll cruise downhill all the way to the finish. On the route, you’ll receive a full tour of Cincinnati, with scenic views as you run along the Ohio River. The coolest part of the race: you’ll hit not one but TWO states — the course takes you out of Ohio and into Kentucky for a few miles. Held on May 5, 2019

  • New York City Marathon

    TCS New York City Marathon
    image via TCS New York City Marathon | Facebook

    The New York City Marathon is known for being a hilly course. The bridges between the boroughs are steep, long inclines, and even running up First Ave. for almost five miles is a climb. It shouldn’t necessarily be a fast course based on the design, but the roar of 2.5 million spectators will cheer you on to a BQ. The NYC Marathon is another World Marathon Majors course, with 50,000 participants, of which 37 percent are international, according to Forbes data. Travel through all five boroughs of the City That Never Sleeps, take incredible skyline views in as you run over the bridges, and finish in the iconic Central Park. Participants can enter the lottery for registration, raise money through a charity, participate in enough New York Road Runner races to guarantee themselves an entry, or qualify based on time. Held on November 4, 2018

  • Phoenix Marathon

    best marathon in phoenix
    image via Mesa-Phx Marathon | Facebook

    A flat and fast course featuring zero hills or mountains, the Phoenix Marathon will provide scenic views of the desert as you journey through 26.2 miles. Temperatures are usually in the mid-60s in early February while much of the country is still frozen solid, so if you’re a runner that can handle the slightly warmer marathon weather and you badly need an escape from the cold, this marathon is for you. Catch your favorite professional baseball team after the race, as spring training baseball starts the same day in Phoenix. Held on February 9, 2019

  • Montana Marathon

    Montana Marathon USA
    image via Montana Marathon | Facebook

    For runners who want a little more open space than World Marathon Majors races like New York City and Chicago provide, the Montana Marathon is for you. Over the course, you’ll experience an 800-foot elevation loss — the first 10 miles have rolling hills, but the last 16 miles are all downhill. Experience amazing countryside views and the incredible Echo Canyon as you run, finishing inside Daylis Stadium in downtown Billings. You’re not far from Yellowstone National Park for a post-race adventure. Held on September 16, 2018

  • Mt. Charleston Marathon

    Mt. Charleston Marathon
    image via Trudi Pacheco | Facebook

    In 2018, 30 percent of the field BQ’d on this fast and beautiful point-to-point race in Nevada. The course loses 5,000 feet of elevation as you run from the forests of Kyle Canyon on Mt. Charleston to the finish in Las Vegas. Post race, you can explore nearby state and national parks, like Spring Mountain Ranch State Park or a three-hour drive to Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park. You could always check out downtown Vegas as well to play a few rounds of blackjack, if that’s also your speed. Held on April 27, 2019

  • Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

    Mountains 2 Beach Marathon
    Marathon image via Mountains 2 Beach Marathon | Facebook

    This race sells itself as “Your SoCal Boston Marathon Qualifier”, and it holds up to the name, with over 30 percent of the field BQ-ing last year. Held in the Ventura River Valley in California, take in the beautiful scenery of the Ojai Mountains and incredible beach views of Ventura, known for being one of the best surf towns in the US — the course starts at 700 feet and finishes at sea level. The race finishes near downtown Ventura’s pier, right next to the ocean. Held in May 2019 TBD (this year held on May 27, 2018)

  • Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon

    tunnel marathon
    image via Tunnel Marathons | Facebook

    Run past mountains and waterfalls, and take in the state of Washington air on this race held about an hour west out of Seattle. The route takes place on a downhill trail, so this one’s for trail runners who still want that BQ. Every year, 30 percent of the field punches their tickets to Boston here. The race is also for any runners looking for a nontraditional Boston-qualifying marathon. After all, you’re running through a pitch-black tunnel, and how often will you get that chance? Headlamps are strongly recommended! Held in June 2019 TBD (this year held on June 10, 2018)

  • Hawaii Bird Conservation Marathon

    Hawaii Marathon
    image via The Hapalua - Hawaii's Half Marathon | Facebook

    In running a marathon in Hawaii, you’re guaranteed an incredibly naturally beautiful adventure. In the Bird Conservation Marathon on the Big Island, you’ll be engulfed and captivated by rainforests and volcanoes as you run — starting in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, entering the community of Volcano, and then finishing in front of the Boy Scouts’ Kilauea Camp in Hilo. There are a few rolling hills right in the beginning, but you lose almost 4,000 feet in elevation over the course of the race. You’ll be distracted by the chorus of indigenous Hawaiian birds surrounding you, including the endangered and native Nene (Hawaiian Goose) and the ‘Io (Hawaiian Hawk). Held on December 16, 2018 (registration is already full, but you can sign up for the waitlist on the website)

  • Green Bay Marathon

    Green Bay Marathon USA
    image via Lauren Kalil | Instagram

    Home to some of the greatest fans in the country (go Pack, go!), the marathon spectators at this race are known to cheer so loudly, you might actually run all the way to Boston. Besides the crazy Packer fans (and huge fans of runners too—at least for the day) cheering you to the finish, you’ll have a flat and fast course working in your favor. Every year, 14 percent of the field BQs. Run through tree-lined (think lots of shade), picturesque little neighborhoods, and finish the race inside the legendary Lambeau Field. After the race, you’ll experience small town, Midwestern hospitality and a true Wisconsin tailgate party experience in the Lambeau parking lot. Held in May 2019, date TBD (this year held on May 20, 2018)

  • BOSTON MARATHON

    best marathons in the USA
    image via Boston Marathon | Facebook

    What better place to qualify for Boston than Boston itself? You can run Boston without qualifying — if you raise money through a charity (minimum of $5,000), and then you can re-qualify for the following year while running the race. The spectators are the best in the country (think screaming college students at the all-girls Wellesley College, for an example), and the history and prestige of the marathon—like conquering Heartbreak Hill—is unmatched and truly like no other. Isn’t that why you were trying to qualify for it in the first place? Held on Patriot’s Day, April 15, 2019