The best marathon in the world? Ones where women are allowed to run? This is a hard question to answer and you will get answers as varied as the people you ask. There are the well known marathons, like the New York Marathon in November, the London Marathon in April and the Berlin Marathon in September. Chicago, Boston, Stockholm and Paris follow suit. What about the best marathons in the Middle East? Now you are in for an adventure.
Adventurous, sustainable travel that’s good for you, and a marathon rolled into one? That’s a marathon in the Middle East. A marathon to support women runners? Maybe you have an eye on the prize or want to run around holy sites, the land of the cedars, or through gruelling but expansive deserts in the Sahara Desert? Maybe you are a global nomad who’s looking for the next location for roaming and running for the next few months. Nothing like training in situ like a local. Nothing like running for cardio health. And nothing like the Mediterranean Diet for heart health. We are Green Prophet so we’ve got your Middle East marathon bases covered. For this purpose locations in North Africa, the Arab parts of it, are lumped into what we call The Middle East.
From starts in capital cities to desolate deserts or a run to help save refugees, here is a list of the best runs, the month they run, with varying degrees of atmosphere, speed, beauty and even prize money. Want us to consider adding another to this list? Drop us a line to [email protected] or a message via Instagram.
The 10 best marathons in the Middle East
Marathon des Sables, Ouarzazate, Morocco – April
The Marathon des Sables is iconic and profits go to charity. It’s the marathon that might change your life or your status as an athlete. This marathon is more adventure and eco-tourism than any marathon you’ve ever met. “Sables” means sand in French, a second language of Morocco – after Arabic – and it’s in sand you will run. Sand will fill every crack of your soul.
It’s considered the world’s toughest footrace which combines 5 and a half marathons in one, spanning about 200 miles (251km) over five to six days. Everything you will need to eat is carried on your back, except water, as you run through the tops of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, in the heat of the sun, making it a coveted event for top athletes. Proceeds to this event go to a charity that help support desert dwellers. Funds go to solar energy systems and schools.
Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, Dubai, UAE – February
The Dubai Marathon is the largest mass sporting event in the Middle East, according to event organizers. It’s an annual road-based marathon hosted by Dubai, United Arab Emirates, since 1998. The marathon is categorized as a Gold Label Road Race by World Athletics. In 2007, it was announced that the 2008 marathon would become the world’s richest long distance running event in history, with one million dollars offered as a prize for a world record and $250,000 for first place for both men and women.
Top cash prizes still attract the world’s best runners. Participants from the past claimed that while the architecture is beautiful, and the weather is great for Europeans looking for a bit more heat in the winter, most of the race takes place through flat and boring scenery.
But if you’ve come for the prize month or the ecological attractions before and after, and you are in the trance of running, who cares?
Bahrain International Marathon, Bahrain- February
The Bahrain Marathon is older than you’d think. It was This race was inaugurated in 1979 to coincide with a visit from Queen Elizabeth II, where 15 participants ran. In 1983 Mustafa Fulad became the first Bahraini to complete a full marathon but more and more locals participate in it every year as sports, and the joy of running, catches on in the Middle East.
Today this marathon is known for crossing both desert and mountains on Amwaj Island in Bahrain. Definitely not boring. As per Middle East style, the purse money is about $100,000 every year for top winners in male and female categories.
ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon, Abu Dhabi, UAE – December
Enjoy running with marathon elites in the heart of Abu Dhabi, while taking in iconic landmarks, stunning scenery and cheering crowds as you stride in style to finish line success. Run past the Zayed Sports Center, and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. People come for the biggest prize money at this race, totalling about $300,000 USD dollars every year.
Sahara Marathon, Algeria – February
This intense course, a humanitarian and activist race at its core, starts in the Sahara, and you have to fly in to reach it at Al Ayoun, Algeria. Aid stations are set up throughout as you run in the world’s largest desert. This marathon event has brought together thousands of runners for a few decades to the Saharawi refugee camps of Tindouf in Algeria.
The Sahara Marathon is an international sport event to demonstrate solidarity with the Saharawi people with the aim of promoting sport among Saharawi young men and women and financing and developing humanitarian programs to help these people overcome conflict in the region.
Who are the Saharawi people?
The Sahrawi, or Saharawi people, are an ethnic group and nation native to the western part of the Sahara desert, which includes the Western Sahara, southern Morocco, much of Mauritania, and along the southwestern border of Algeria. They are of mixed Berber, Arab and Black African descent. Systematic human rights abuses, police brutality, violations of international law and fundamental rights, the Sahrawi people of Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara, have endured decades of repression at the hands of Moroccan occupying forces. Since replacing Spain as coloniser, Morocco has attempted to control a territory about the size of the UK, using military force to suppress free speech and pro-independence protests.
Jerusalem Marathon, Jerusalem, Israel – March
Going for a Holy Run? The Jerusalem Marathon is an annual marathon running event held in Jerusalem during the month of March when the weather is pleasant and warm in this Israeli city, also known as The City of David.
The course begins at Israel’s parliament, passes through Mount Scopus and the Old City, and finishes at Sacher Park. Prize money for winners is only a few thousand dollars, so this is a run you do for your soul.
Jerusalem’s big brother marathon is the Tel Aviv Marathon, which happens in February attracts more runners and prizes (about $7,000 USD for winners, $40,000 for record breakers) and this year about 40,000 runners made it to the event. Our advice? Stay for a month and come for both marathons.
Antalya Marathon, Anatolia, Turkey – March
The Antalya Marathon, officially International Öger Antalya Marathon, and for a short time known as Runtalya, is an international athletic event that takes place in Antalya, Turkey since 2006. It is one of the best marathons of the Middle East. Run along the sea, a most refreshing course that winds along one of the prettiest parts of the Mediterranean Sea. After the flat course race, rip off your shoes and head to the beach. A most sporting holiday with up to 10,000 others.
Antalya is a Turkish resort city with a yacht-filled Old Harbor and beaches with plenty of boutique hotels. It’s a gateway to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean region, known as the Turquoise Coast for its blue waters. And it’s a great destination for stargazing or launching a yacht to cruise along the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.
Remnants remain from Antalya’s time in the past as a major Roman port. These include Hadrian’s Gate, built to honor the Roman emperor’s visit in 130 A.D and 2nd-century Hidirlik Tower, with stunning views of the harbor.
The Dead Sea Ultra Marathon, Ein Bokek, Israel – February
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and one of the world’s wonders. Also known for Spencer Tunick’s naked Dead Sea. Cleopatra’s beauty secret too. The highlight of the race, then, is a run towards the sea on the border embankment of the Dead Sea Works that surrounds the southern part of the Dead Sea. It happens only once a year, in marathon and ultra marathon distances, and just for this race, that security forces allow this scenic route to be open along the dikes, giving runners breathtaking views that have so far been observed by employees of the Dead Sea factories. The Dead Sea is dying. Run this race to draw awareness to the devastation caused to it from water overuse and the Dead Sea factories on other side of the sea.
The dike serves as the border area between the Israeli side of the Dead Sea and the Jordanian Dead Sea and they serve as a barrier without a fence between the two countries that maintain a peaceful relationship. So straddle both sides on this once of a lifetime run.
“Amazing location,” says one runner who ran the Dead Sea, “I think you’d struggle to find a cooler place to run! Not crowded, fantastic photos and drone photos included, plentiful aid stations. But the main plus is definitely the awe inspiring location.”
BDL Beirut International Marathon, Beirut, Lebanon – November
Beirut is considered the cool kid on the block in the Middle East. It’s a modern city, with modern free thinkers, like the kids nearby in Tel Aviv. Although the two can never meet as conflict with Hezbollah terror groups keeps the borders closed.
Beirut has suffered some terrible setbacks from corruption, explosions and terrorism. Running around this Mediterranean Sea city is a powerful way to bring life back to Beirut after devastating losses in the past couple of years. After the run there are plenty of hikes and eco-tourism options to follow around Lebanon.
Istanbul Eurasia Marathon, Istanbul, Turkey – November
Crossing from Asia into Europe, this full marathon The Istanbul Eurasia Marathon race spans two continents and you cross a bridge to connect them. The Istanbul Marathon starts 300m behind the Bosphorus Bridge; the race course divides in Besiktas turnoff after passing the bridge, then goes down from Barbaros Boulevard to Besiktas, and follows the coastal road to reach Karakoy.
Founded in 1979 in an effort to host a marathon for visiting German tourists, it is one of the oldest races in the region and certainly a foundation for one of the best marathons in the Middle East. And no doubt, visiting Istanbul is an experience you will never forget. The prize money is pretty good, about $50,000 USD every year for the winners.
Lesser known marathons in the Middle East
Already tried these 10 best marathons of the Middle East? Don’t forget there are some other new and noteworthy marathons in the Middle East region: Cairo hosts a stunning race but you need to run 4 times in a loop, the Erbil marathon for peace in Iraqi-held Kurdistan in November.
Amman, Jordan hosts a marathon every year but I don’t love the city. It’s polluted and not walkable. If you want to visit Jordan, try the Petra Marathon in the south and which runs around antiquities; or the Dead Sea Marathon you access from the Israeli side, via Jerusalem. The run starts in Israel and then head over to Aqaba and Petra for tourism before going to Bir Sweir in Sinai, Egypt for a week.
If you are near Jordan, you can also try the Riyadh Road Runners, a marathon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia meant for social and professional runners. Women are allowed to run in regular running gear but adapted hijabs make it possible to run covered. There will be a women’s only group running starting in 2022. So join the race and when you run, run in solidarity with the women too. And remember, at ultra-long distances women can outrun men.
Want us to consider adding another to this list of the Best Marathons in the Middle East? Have a sporting event for us to cover, an event which makes sustainable travel even better? Drop us a line [email protected] or a message us via Instagram.