26.2 Miles of a Lifetime

Destination Marathons: U.S. and Canada
Destination Marathons: International
Spectator Guide: New York City (Sun., Nov. 5)
Spectator Guide: Chicago (Sun., Oct. 22)
Marathon Mania: Training information from Active.com
Look for spectator guides for Boston (2007 race date: Mon., Apr. 16) and London (2007 race date: Sun., Apr. 22) early next year!

In 490 B.C. a messenger named Pheidippides ran from the village of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks' victory over the Persians. The distance was approximately 24 miles, the concept of aid stations was approximately 2500 years in the future, and he promptly died on the spot after delivering the good news.

In 1952 a Czech runner, Emil Zatopek, won three gold medals at the summer Olympics in Helsinki. He'd already established new Olympic records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters when he decided, at the last minute, to enter the marathon -- a race he'd never run before.

Not only did he win the gold, he set his third Olympic record.

Zatopek is often quoted as saying "If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience life, run a marathon."

Since the readvent of the race in modern times, marathoners have mostly occupied a small, but well-respected, niche in the running community, an elite group of athletes who prize endurance over speed. Speed has all the flash and dazzle, but the key to winning a marathon isn't to run the fastest -- it's slowing down the least.

The first New York City marathon was held in 1970. There were a 122 entrants and 55 finishers. Two years later, marathons got a big boost in the U.S. when the gold Frank Shorter brought home from the Munich Olympics caught the public's eye.

By the beginning of the 21st century, marathoning had hit the mainstream and now halfway through its first decade, the popularity of the race continues to rise.

Last November, 36,872 runners crossed the finish line in Central Park. If you're reading this, there's a good chance you've run a marathon, or know someone who has -- a friend, family member, co-worker. According to MarathonGuide.com, over 382,000 people went the distance in 2005, an increase of 20,000 from 2004, the fourth consecutive year marathon finishes have increased.

Event organizers around the globe have taken notice and kept pace. At last count, MarathonGuide.com listed 384 domestic marathons and over 500 international races. A record 28 of those marathons made their debut in the past year. All 50 states host at least one. So do each of the seven continents.

And because the whole world's hopped on the marathon bandwagon another trend's taken hold: mixing marathon and vacation. To some that might sound like the ultimate contradiction in terms, but more and more people are finding marathons double really well as athletic accomplishment and vacation destination. In fact, would-be marathoners are often advised to choose a race someplace they've always wanted to go.

Does a run through a Kenyan game preserve with giraffes as your pacers sound intriguing? Perhaps your taste runs more to the civilized and Buckingham Palace or the Brandenburg Gate sound better.

Maybe your fancy is running down the Champs-Elysees, one of 35,000 strong, or instead, maybe you'd like to test your strength and will against the ascent up Pikes Peak.

Would it thrill you to run through the tunnel and across Lambeau Field? Or would you rather run with the wild horses in Green River, Wyoming?

Mountaintops or skyscrapers, seashores, desert floors, solitude or the multitudes, we found such an amazing array of marathon destinations that we've split the guides into two installments, domestic and international. We then tried to narrow them down into categories.

The races aren't listed in any order or even necessarily "the best" in any category, we just wanted to present a cross section of the incredible selection out there.

Surfing the web is an excellent way to begin training. MarathonGuide.com is a terrific resource and good starting point. With fifty states and seven continents to choose from your next big challenge will be narrowing down your destination.

It may be the location, the inspiration, the challenge, or even on a challenge. People take part in marathons for many different reasons. Some cross the finish line and just walk away with tired feet. Others are so uplifted their feet barely touch the ground. Regardless, what they have accomplished will stay with them a lifetime.

Linda Vessa has run -- and completed -- the New York City and San Francisco Marathons. She is a tour guide at beautiful AT&T Park in San Francisco, and lives in Santa Cruz.