The Hardest Marathons in the United States

Blue Ridge Parkway Marathon
The challenging Blue Ridge Parkway Marathon in Roanoke, Virginia is one of the most difficult marathon courses in the United States

For most marathoners the quest is to set Personal Records (PRs) or qualify for the Boston Marathon. Often these journeys include finding the fastest marathon courses with the most favorable running weather.  For some runners, however, the goal is to challenge themselves on the most difficult marathon courses. These runners seek out the hardest courses in terms of elevation change, warm, humid weather, or run at a consistently high altitude.

We’ve listed the four most challenging marathons in the United States and Canada based on the race’s Personal Record (PR) Score*, elevation change, median finish times, and the lowest percentage of finishers running Boston Marathon qualifying times.

All races on the list are certified by The USATF and are Boston Marathon qualifiers.

Race Personal Record Score Percentage of Boston Marathon qualifiers Median Finish Times High/Low Elevation Difference
Black Mountain Marathon 90.85 0% 5:40:08 (2015) 2,879’
Blue Ridge Parkway Marathon 92.61 1.7% 5:11:45 (2015) 1,230’
Red Rock Canyon Marathon 90.81 3.9% 4:37:28 (2015) 1,107’
Kauai Marathon 89.12 3.1% 5:02:37 (2015) 803’

* PR Score utilizes the course profile, elevation, and typical race day weather to create a score that can be compared to other marathons to determine at which race you could expect to run faster. The higher the score, the faster the race.  Read more on our FAQ page.


Marathons Made for BQ Hopefuls


The past decade has seen significant growth in the number of people running marathons as well as the number of marathons held each year. Each of the of the 50 most populous cities in the United States hosts at least one marathon each year with several of these cities holding multiple marathons.  If you look at our marathon calendar , there will be more than 700 marathons held this year in the United States and Canada with an estimated 600,000 finishers.

As more people run marathons, the allure of the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon, has also increased. First held in 1897, Boston is the goal for thouBostonMarathonMedalsands of runners each year attempting to achieve the elusive BQ (Boston Qualifying time).  Last year more than 57,000 marathon finishers (10.2% of all finishers) ran under the Boston Qualifying standards for their age group in certified marathons.

Race organizers have taken notice of runner’s obsessions with chasing BQ’s and created races specifically to attract Boston-seeking runners.  We have listed five of these races developed with this segment of runners in mind.

Chasing the Unicorn Marathon
Washington Crossing, PA
August 16, 2015

As the name implies, this race is aimed at runners pursuing the iconic symbol of the Boston Athletic Association, the organization behind the Boston Marathon.  The very flat, double out-and-bChasingtheUnicornLogoack marathon is scheduled for August 16th, approximately one month before the opening of registration for the 2016 Boston Marathon.  Last year 22% of the 211 finishers ran under Boston Marathon qualifying standards for their age groups.*

Last Chance BQ2 Marathon (Chicagoland)

Geneva, IL
September 12, 2015

Last Chance for BQ2 Marathon (Grand Rapids)
Grand Rapids, MI
September 12, 2015

Organized by the same group that hosts the Fox Valley Marathon, the twoLastChanceBQ2MarathonChicagoland Last Chance BQ2 Marathons truly offer runners a last chance to qualify for Boston.  Both races, one held in Geneva, IL and the other in Grand Rapids, MI, are scheduled for September 12th – two days before the Boston Marathon registration starts.

Both races boast a high percentage of Boston Marathon qualifiers.  Last year over 60% of runners ran BQs at the Chicagoland edition and 57% qualified at the Grand Rapids race.  The marathons had the highest two BQ percentages of all marathons held in the U.S. and Canada in 2014.

The Chicagoland course is eight repetitions of a flat 3+ mile loop while thLastChanceBQ2MarathonGrandRapidse Grand Rapids course is six loops of a 4.1 mile route (plus start/finish, and first loop spurs).  The spectator-friendly courses also features two aid stations per loop with an Elite Water Bottle table where runners can stock their own fluids just like elites at major road races.

Rivanna Greenbelt Marathon
Charlottesville, VA
September 12, 2015

The Rivanna Greenbelt Marathon is a very small race with a limit of 30 runners Rivanna Greenbelt Marathonand was created to help runners achieve Boston Marathon qualifying times.  The race is purposely scheduled on September 12th, just before Boston registration opens. Like the other races on the list, the marathon consists of several repeats of a short route.  The very flat course is six repetitions of a four mile out-and-back route (plus a shortened seventh out-and-back).

Last Chance for Boston Marathon
Dublin, OH
February 2016

Held at the end of February, the Last Chance for BostoLast Chance for Boston Marathonn Marathon was first run in 2002.  At that time, runners were still able to register for Boston as late as the end of February. No longer a ‘last chance’ race, the race still maintains a high percentage of runners qualifying on the one mile loop course.  In 2014, 20% of finishers qualified and 30% booked their ticket to Boston the previous year.

* BQ percentages are based on the runner’s age at the time of the race.  Actual percentages may be be higher due to some runners moving into new age groups prior to the Boston Marathon.