The 14 Toughest Races In The World
Only the strong will survive. – By McGee Nall
What makes a “tough” race? For starters, if you cringe when reading the race description, that’s a good indication. A good, tough race includes several things: steep ascents and descents, unforgiving temperatures, intense terrain, and unimaginable distances.
Races with weird or cool quirks give them an extra edge, like the Barkley Marathons, where participants have to traverse the hills of Tennessee with only the slightest direction.
Runners enjoy putting their bodies and minds to the test – it’s in our blood. But only the most dedicated and ambitious athletes will set out to complete these monsters.
Marathon des Sables
Where: Sahara Desert, Morocco
When: April 6-16, 2018
Smack in the middle of the Sahara Desert is one of the most demanding and scorching running routes in the world. The race’s total distance is 240 to 250 kilometres, adjusting year after year. Runners split up the course over six days and only have one day to rest, which is usually after the longest stretch (in 2017 it was 86 kilometres). Who’s crazy enough to run 250 kilometres through the Sahara? Founder Patrick Bauer walked 350 kilometres through the desert, only supported by what was on his back. He turned it into a race in 1986 and it remains one of the most popular ultras in the world.
Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run
Where: Silverton, Colorado
When: July 20-22, 2018
Runners have 48 hours to complete this bad boy: 162 tough kilometres that go through roads and dirt trails along the San Juan Mountains. Participants climb around 10,060 metres and and descend another 10,060 metres, and the highest point is over 4267.2 metres on Handies Peak. Every year, the course changes direction (this year it was counter-clockwise), and you’re not a finisher until you kiss the infamous “Hardrock” at the end. Oh, and be careful: the course is so harsh that even elite runners fall, get lost, or dislocate their shoulders.
The Everest Marathon
Where: Mount Everest base camp
When: May 29, 2018
As if climbing Mount Everest wasn’t hard enough, someone thought running a marathon around it was a good idea. Participants are required to be in Nepal for three weeks prior to the race to get acclimated to the altitude. They will get a tour of Kathmandu and a trek to Kala Patthar for some epic views, so the vacation makes up for the few hours of hell. The 42.2 kilometres starts at the Everest Expedition Base Camp at almost 5,486 metres and finishes at Namche Bazaar at 3,446 metres. (Top runners are lucky to crack four hours.) The route is pretty much all downhill with two steep uphill sections. And it’s very, very cold, so pack accordingly.
The Barkley Marathons
Where: Wartburg, Tennessee
When: Early April
Register: Find your way in
Welcome to five loops of death – if you’re strong enough to make it that far. Deep in the back country of Tennessee lies a 160-plus kays course (likely longer) created to break anyone who attempts it. Some “highlights” include: a conch shell in the middle of the night that alerts you to the start, 36,576 estimated metres of climbing and descent if you do the whole thing, and nice views of the valley while simultaneously being pierced by briars. One loop basically equals a marathon distance (or more), and runners must complete the loop five times in under 60 hours to be crowned a finisher. In more than 30 years, there have only been 15 individuals to finish. If you’re supposed to race the Barkley, you’ll find a way to enter.
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
Where: Chamonix, France
When: August 28-September 3, 2017
It’s not every day you get to run through three countries. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is a 170-kilometre loop that starts at Chamonix, France. Hitting over 3,000 metres of elevation several times along the way, participants will circle around the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland. Needless to say, the views are pretty fantastic. But don’t let the scenery fool you – runners spend a lot of time on the mountains instead of enjoying them from the bottom. There are four other events within the UTMB, but this mountain race is the cream of the crop.
The Patagonian Expedition Race
Where: Patagonia, Chile
When: November 17-30, 2018
If ultra-running alone bores you, then maybe incorporating some sea kayaking and rock climbing will satisfy. The Patagonian Expedition Race offers every type of terrain a hardcore trekker could ever want: glaciers, forest, rivers, swampland. Runners conquer the Patagonian wilderness in teams of four, each required to know various skills, like map-reading and first-aid. The route changes every year, but usually totals to 600 to 800 kilometres. For 2018, the teams have to design a route that takes them through all of the challenges in southern Chilean Patagonia within a 10-day timeline. They won’t know the general route until 24 hours prior to the start. Do it, we dare you.
Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run
Where: Squaw Valley, California
When: June 23-24, 2018
If you know at least one name of an ultra race, chances are it’s Western States. It’s officially the oldest 100-miler in the world and brings people from all over to master the infamous, hot course. The race starts in Squaw Valley, California, and ends in Auburn, California. Runners have 30 hours to conquer the west coast beast, and over time will climb more than 5,486 cumulative metres in elevation and descend more than 7,000 metres. At some points, runners are so high in elevation that they have to run through snow, and other times they are completely exposed in the summer heat.
Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile
Where: Queens, New York
When: June 18–August 8, 2017
If you want to torture your body while simultaneously seeing sweeping views, the Self-Transcendence race is not it. As the longest certified road race (and possibly the most miserable, mentally), this ultra starts at 6 a.m. one summer morning in Queens. From then until midnight every day for 52 days, participants run the same route (an average of 96 kilometres per day) for 52 days. The race originated in 1997 and has been enticing runners ever since. Why? We have no idea.
Where: Belfast, Mpumalanga, South Africa
When: April 18-23, 2018
In the Mpumalanga Province in the northeast corner of South Africa, the Munga Trail waits to eat its prey. Okay, not exactly, but this route is no joke. Participants have five days (120 hours) to navigate via GPS the 400K route through indigenous forests and plantations, deep valleys and grassland at an altitude above 1,980 metres. They’ll run from Belfast all the way to Blyde River Canyon, the third-largest canyon on earth. There are five race villages along the way where racers can stop to eat and sleep, but they are not obligated to.
Iditarod Trail Invitational
Where: Knik, Alaska
When: February 25, 2018
To add some chill to our race catalog, we thought a good Alaskan snow race would do the trick. In this annual invitational, participants literally run, fat bike, or ski the 1,000 mile (1,610 kilometre) Iditarod course. Since the inaugural year of 2000, only a few dozen individuals have finished the race to Nome (39 bikers, 15 runners, four skiers according to the race site). In order to even attempt the 1,000-mile race, you’ll have to complete the 3563-kilometre version of the event that finishes in the village of McGrath.
The Jungle Marathon
Where: Amazon Jungle, Brazil
When: October 5-14, 2017
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Tarzan or Indiana Jones, the Jungle Marathon might be your perfect opportunity. In the “world’s wildest eco race,” racers traverse through swamps and forests all while dealing with 40-degree heat and 99 percent humidity. There are a few race distances: a marathon, a four-stage 130-kay ultra, and a six-stage 255-kay ultra. Oh, and sightings of anacondas and piranhas wouldn’t be surprising either.
Eastern States 100
Where: Pennsylvania Wilds
When: August 2018
What some people may not know is that the notorious Western States has a twin. Taking place in the Pennsylvania Wilds, the Eastern States 100 takes runners through classic east coast landscape. The 165.6-kay course starts and ends at Little Pine State Park and takes racers through some super technical terrain.
Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
When: January 13-14, 2018
Hosted by the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team (HURT), this race is what its acronym spells: hurt and pain for 160 kilometres. Racers have 36 hours to complete the course, which is 99 percent singletrack trails. The looped course has five laps of roots, puddles, rocks, and other treats through a semi-tropical rain forest. There are also 20 – count them, 20 – stream crossings, for an added bonus.
Where: Athens, Greece
When: September 29-30, 2017
For all the history nerds out there, the Spartathlon is for you. The race is what it sounds like: the route Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta – 240-plus kilometres. Besides feeling like a Greek titan, runners will enjoy some perks like muddy terrain, crossing vineyards and olive groves, and ascending and descending the near 1,200-metre Mount Parthenon at night.