Unless world records are within your reach, visiting the host countries should be a big reason for going. Most runners won't set personal bests in places where different time zones can throw off your body clock, and altitudes, road and weather conditions, even the energy drinks at rest stops may be as foreign as the language. Treat such trips as vacations first, and you won't be upset by differences from courses at home.
The changes can be sharp. Racers in the Monaco Marathon on Nov. 13 will be treated to mountain and seaside running on a course that varies from 49 feet above sea level to 275 feet. The upside: They'll zip along the Riviera, dashing by castles and venturing into France and Italy. "It's incredibly beautiful," says Chicagoan Richard Salt. "As you go by the cafés, people hold up drinks to toast you."
Runners can expect cordiality. Edward Stuart, a Northeastern Illinois University economics professor, passed many miles in one Stockholm Marathon debating American free-market views with a Swedish socialist. Later a half-dozen runners saw his race T-shirt and invited him to dinner. "Nothing binds people together like common pain," says Stuart.BIZARRE COSTUMES
Plan early to avoid being shut out. The Flora London Marathon, with 32,000 runners, gets three times as many applicants and admits by a lottery. For this year's Apr. 17 race, places were awarded last October. By November, no spots were available, even through groups such as Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, which books guaranteed-entry packages. The Apr. 10 Paris Marathon had no lottery, but all 35,000 places were filled by mid-January. Registration for the 36,000-runner Sept. 25 Berlin Marathon will likely close by May.
That's why some veterans take roads less traveled. Cities such as Copenhagen and Prague -- both hosting races on May 22 -- draw fewer people, but make up for that in charm. Copenhagen's 7,000 entrants run through the Carlsberg brewery. Prague's 5,000 runners hail from 55 countries. You can register online, as with most runs, or sign up through tour operators. For details, visit sites such as marathonguide.com and aims-association.org, run by the Association of International Marathons and Road Races.
Plenty of runs cater to the offbeat. A lucky 8,000 run the Medoc Marathon, scampering through the estates of 50 grape-growing chateaux in southwest France. Bizarre costumes are de rigueur, and wine is served at rest stops. The Sept. 10 race "is great for people who love wine and happen to run," says Thom Gilligan, head of Marathon Tours.
If you're more adventurous, you can scale a stretch of the Great Wall of China on May 21 or zip around Easter Island in June. In July you can run with giraffes in Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where temperatures in the Safaricom Marathon begin in the 40s and end in the 80s. Marathoning abroad isn't as easy as at home. But conquering a course in an exotic location could be as exhilarating as crossing the tape on your first 26.2-miler. By Joseph Weber