Which World Marathon Major Is the Hardest (And Easiest)?

While every runner might have a different opinion, here’s what the data says.


Marathoners have all different kinds of goals, but an increasingly common one is to run all six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors. The Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo Marathons are the six largest and most well-known marathons in, well, the world. As of the 2023 New York City Marathon, 12,772 runners have completed their “six-star journey,” named for the massive medal earned with the completion of the sixth Major.

It can take years (decades!) for a runner to finish all six; five of the races are lottery-based, while the Boston Marathon requires a qualification time or a hefty amount of fundraising for entry.

Race logistics and financial facets aside, the Majors vary significantly when it comes to runners’ experience on the course. Some are known for world record-breaking courses; others are known for challenging uphills and downhills. Some majors boast deafening cheer sections; others are more subdued. Each is a bucket list destination race for countless runners — and those runners who have completed all six have lots of ~feelings~ about which Major is the hardest and which is the easiest. That’s why we decided to rank them, based on data.

How We Ranked Them
With different field sizes, start times, course profiles, and event dates, there are all kinds of variables that influence an individual runner’s performance at any World Marathon Major. To rank the six as objectively as possible, we looked at hundreds of data points provided by each race, as well as activity-tracking platform Strava, in order to understand how runners perform at the Majors.

Most of the races offer publicly available stats on average finish time and completion rate; we crunched five years’ worth of finish times and entrant and finisher numbers (excluding 2020, when most races were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) to determine an overall average. For those that didn’t share stats, Strava provided two years’ worth of data. Keep in mind: Likely due to a faster user base, Strava’s numbers skew about 15 to 30 minutes faster than the stats from the full race field.

Strava also shared two year’s worth of data on the percentage of runners targeting a 3:30:00-3:59:59 finish who hit their goal time (using the first 13 kilometres of a runner’s race to estimate goal time; this is Strava’s largest pool of data, plus a popular time goal, according to Runner’s World data); the percentage of runners targeting a 3:30:00-3:59:59 finish who negative split (which may reflect the calibre of the field or the difficulty of the course); and the percentage of runners targeting a 3:30:00-3:59:59 finish who slowed down by 10 or 20 percent (comparing the difference in a runner’s pace before and after “the wall,” a.k.a. around the 32K mark).

Because weather conditions can play a significant role on performance — especially as they’ve gotten more extreme during recent years—we also checked historical weather reports to see what runners are most likely to be dealing with on race day. And, finally, we turned to six-star finishers to get opinions from those who can compare all of the Major races.

Easiest: Berlin Marathon
The Berlin and Chicago Marathons both hold current marathon world records, but, according to the data, Berlin—which takes place at the end of September — has a slight edge over Chicago. A total of 12 world records have been set on this flat, looped course through the German capital, including Ethiopian Tigst Assefa’s 2:11:53 from 2023, which blew the previous women’s record out of the water.

While the course is often described as “pancake flat,” runners gain 241 feet and lose 260 feet of elevation over the 42.2 km — the tiniest bit of net downhill that could contribute to the brisk finish times, which, according to Strava, average out to 3:53:13 over the past two years. (The Berlin Marathon did not share official average finish times.)

Running on what’s touted as the ‘fastest’ marathon course in the world makes you soar.

What really makes it a tad easier than Chicago, though, is the generally favourable weather conditions. “I think Berlin and Chicago are kind of neck and neck, but I’d give Berlin the nod because it tends to be more consistent weather-wise, whereas Chicago is more variable,” says Rob Dalto, who earned his six-star medal in 2023. “You’re just going to have a better shot at having good conditions in Berlin.” The average weather for the last two years was a high of 15 degrees and low of 12 degrees, with 77 percent humidity, partly cloudy conditions, and 22km/h winds.

World records aside, Berlin — which, with more than 46 000 runners, is the second-largest World Major Marathon after New York City — outperformed the other Majors in a number of areas. This race boasts the largest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (6.5 percent), the highest percentage of runners who negative split the race (16.5 percent), and the second lowest percentage of runners who slowed down by 10 and 20 percent after the 32K mark (52 percent). On the flip side, it had the second lowest completion rate (88.9 percent) of the five races who shared that data.

“Berlin was the easiest and by far my fastest of the six,” says Holly Wittsack, a six-star finisher who completed her journey in Tokyo last March. “It helps that the course is pancake flat, but I think there’s this element of knowing you’re running on what’s touted as the ‘fastest’ marathon course in the world that makes you soar.”

Chicago Marathon
The Chicago Marathon currently holds the men’s marathon world record: a mind-blowing 2:00:35 run by the late Kelvin Kiptum in 2023. Also in 2023, Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands won the women’s race in 2:13:44 — the second-fastest time in history and a new course record.

In good-weather years, this course (and its enthusiastic crowds) can spur runners to big PB’s — a carrot that draws just under 46 000 runners to the Windy City on the second weekend of October each year. “I’ve run Chicago three times, and this is the ultimate PR course,” says Nick Fung, a six-star finisher who completed his journey in Tokyo in 2023.

Over 42.2K, runners gain 74m in elevation and lose 73 m; it doesn’t get flatter than that. Of the Majors, Chicago boasts the third largest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (5 percent), the third highest percentage of runners who negative split (14 percent), and the third largest percentage of runners who slowed down by 10 and 20 percent after mile 20 (68 percent). Those numbers are likely affected by the fact that the flat course makes it hard to hold back in the early kilometres. Despite the relative ease of the course, Chicago has the fourth-fastest average finish time, clocking in at 4:23:36.

The big variable in Chicago is weather — it’s been as low as -6 degrees and as high as 30 degrees on race day, so PB conditions are always a gamble. The 20-year average for start line conditions is 10.5 degrees, 77 percent humidity, mostly cloudy conditions, with 11 km/h winds, often with runners heading into it. However, recent years have seen big swings, like 5 degrees and 91 percent humidity at the start in 2019 to 28 degrees and 84 percent humidity at the start in 2021.

“The weather on race day can have an overriding effect. For instance, in 2021, Chicago was hot, humid, and windy. I had a difficult time with leg cramps that day,” says Joe Drake, who received his six-star medal in Tokyo in 2023 and is going for his second one this year in Japan. “But in 2023, the temperature at race time was a perfect 8 degrees and I had a wonderful time and my third fastest major.”

Tokyo Marathon
Tokyo, which hosts about 35 000 runners in early March each year — similar to the field in Boston — is notoriously difficult to get into. But those who do get a bib are in for a treat: It’s a mostly flat course that starts on a subtle downhill and includes a number of out and backs; at no point during the race do runners gain more than 3 meters in a km (the total gain is 60m and loss is 98m ). In 2022, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei set then world records of 2:02:40 and 2:16:02, respectively.

Even with such a gentle course profile and relatively mild conditions — the six-year weather average for start is 8 degrees with 55 percent humidity and sunny conditions with 9 kmph winds — Tokyo isn’t necessarily an “easy” marathon. The completion rate of 93.5 percent is the second highest from the Majors that provided entrant and finisher information, though, and the average finish time of 3:57:42, according to Strava, is on par Chicago’s finisher times from the platform. (Just keep in mind Strava data skews faster than the times reported by the races, but Tokyo did not provide average finish times.)

Tokyo also has the fourth highest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (3 percent), fifth highest percentage of runners who negative split (11 percent), and second largest percentage of runners who slowed down 10 or 20 percent after the 32K (57 percent)—the effects of jet lag can hit like a brick in that final 10K.

The on-course experience is a mixed bag, according to runners. “There are crowds but the energy doesn’t compare to other marathons—this is the most tame out of the six, and the lack of cheering makes it hard to get going,” says Fung. “There’s also a ton of weaving in the first couple miles, and the many out and backs of which were mentally taxing.”

On the flip side, the fast and flat course can help runners reach their bests, and in some cases the unique route can offer some motivation. “On a very positive note, it is worth pointing out that given the course is laid out with several out-and-back branches, it is possible to see the lead pack [of pro runners] coming back toward you, running in the opposite direction,” says Drake. “Until Tokyo I had never seen the elite runners live and, wow, do they fly.”

London Marathon
London is a tough one: It shares a lot of characteristics with faster races like Berlin and Chicago, but its data tells a slightly more challenging story. Similar to those record-breaking courses, London is mostly flat as it travels from Greenwich to the Mall, with a looped out-and-back after crossing the London Bridge. Runners will gain 127 m and lose 161 m over 42.2K.

This race has the second-highest completion rate (98.5 percent) and the second-highest percentage of runners who negative split (14.5 percent). But it also has the second largest percentage (77.5) of runners who slowed down by 10 or 20 percent after the 32K, and is tied for the lowest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (2 percent). With an average finish time of 4:49:22, the overall field is only faster than that of the New York City Marathon. And while Kelvin Kiptum ran a 2:01:25 to set the course record in 2023, England’s own Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 record of 2:15:25 still stands.

“I felt London was the hardest not because of the course profile, but because of the environment on the course,” explains Wittsack. “It definitely has almost like a carnival feel with all the people running in costumes to break the different Guinness World Records. Don’t get me wrong, that aspect of it is cool and part of the London Marathon experience, but it’s hard to run it as a fast ‘goal’ race because road space is limited.” That said, the crowds in London are comparable to those in New York City, according to most runners.

Boston Marathon
The Boston Marathon stats show a speedy story: This point-to-point race, which dates back to 1897 and is the oldest of the Majors, has the fastest average finish time of 3:49:42, the second largest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (6 percent), and the second lowest percentage of runners who slowed down by 10 and 20 percent after the 32 K. (42.5 percent).

But remember: Around 80 percent of the field had to hit a time qualifier to be there, which definitely skews the data toward the faster end of the spectrum. “There’s something about the prestige of Boston that makes it feel more imposing,” says Caitlin Carlson, who earned her six-star medal in Tokyo in 2016.

Even with those speedy stats, what makes Boston — which takes place on the third Monday of April — so difficult is the fact that it’s a net downhill point-to-point course: Runners start in Hopkinton and cross through eight Massachusetts cities and towns, ending in Boston. “You get bussed 42.2K outside of the centre city and on the bus ride you’re thinking ‘oh, wow, I have to run all this way back?!’ That’s psychologically more challenging [than any other race] in my opinion,” says Carlson.

People make a lot of noise about the four Newton hills, which start at kilometre 25 and don’t end until just before kilometre 33, but the real killer isn’t the 248 m of elevation gain over the course, it’s the 388 m of elevation loss. Too many runners take those first three downhill kilometres too fast, and blow up their quads before they even hit the real hills (you could argue even Eliud Kipchoge made that mistake in 2023, finishing in sixth place in 2:09:23). The current course records, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 and Ethiopian Buzunesh Deba’s 2:19:59, have stood since 2011 and 2014, respectively.

The subtle difficulty of the course may be why this race is second to last when it comes to the percentage of runners who negative split (10.5 percent), and the lowest completion rate (87 percent) of the five races who shared entrant and finisher data.

Unpredictable weather can change the game for runners on race day in Boston, too. Remember the cold, rain, and 22 kmph headwinds in 2018 when Des Linden pulled through for the win? Overall, however, the average of the last 23 years has been a pretty stellar 12 degrees at the start with 57 percent humidity.

To succeed in Boston, the key is to run smart — and if you don’t, you’re going to feel it. “You’re dealing with rolling hills throughout the course, and the downhills completely zap your quads,” says Fung. “I always leave Boston feeling the most fatigued post-marathon.”

Hardest: New York City Marathon
There’s no arguing with data: The NYC Marathon is the hardest of the six. The New York City Marathon had the slowest average finish time — 4:49:00, according to race data — and tied for the lowest percentage of runners who hit their goal time (2 percent). (With more than 50,000 runners, those results reflect the larger field.)

That said, the NYC Marathon has the highest completion rate — 98 percent! — of the World Marathon Majors, which goes to show how dedicated people are to finish this iconic race.

You can blow the end of your race right at the start simply going too hard in the first kilometre.

And it does take serious dedication to run 42.2K through New York’s five boroughs. The point-to-point course crosses five bridges, including a 442 m climb up the Verrazano Bridge in kilometre two and more than 30 m to cross the Queensboro Bridge in kilometres 24 and and 25; runners gain a total of 246m feet across the course and lose 251 m. No wonder this race has the lowest percentage of runners who negative split (6 percent), and the largest percentage of runners who slowed down by 10 and 20 percent after the 32K (84 percent).

“NYC has the most elevation change of any of the Majors, and you can blow the end of your race right at the start simply going too hard in the first kilometre, which is completely uphill,” says Dalto. The whole course is rolling hills, and to add insult to injury, runners have to climb nearly 30 m in kilometre 38 on Fifth Avenue. “It can get super ugly with tons of carnage on Fifth Avenue and Central Park in the tail end of the race,” says Chris Chavez, founder of Citius Mag, who completed his six-star journey in Tokyo 2019.

The pros aren’t exempt, either; the current women’s course record of 2:22:31 was set in 2003 by Kenyan Margaret Okayo, and the men’s course record, which stood for 12 years, was only broken by eight seconds in 2023 by Ethiopian runner Tamirat Tola, who clocked a 2:04:58.

The weather also plays a role here; even on the first Saturday of November, with later start times (the last wave goes at 11:30 a.m.), runners are subjected to more extreme temperatures, like 22 degrees and 73 percent humidity in 2022. The average weather for the last 20 years is 11 degrees, 59 percent humidity, clear conditions, and 14 kmph winds.

“The one that always hurts me is New York City (I have run it three times), possibly because the hills — also known as bridges, especially Queensboro and the ones in and out of the Bronx — are deceptive. They are more challenging than they appear and are often overlooked in one’s race strategy,” says Drake. “However, the most outstanding feature of NYC is the spectator support. All the Majors have fantastic crowds but NYC goes over the top. When running it, especially if you have your name written on your bib or clothing, it is easy to believe that the millions of spectators have assembled specifically to cheer you on.”

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