Toughest Races in the World
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 DC Half & Half, where racers have to scarf down a chili bowl six miles in, or 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 150 to 156 miles, 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 53.5 miles). Who’s crazy enough to run 156 miles through the Sahara? Founder Patrick Bauer walked 217 miles 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: 100.5 tough miles that go through roads and dirt trails along the San Juan Mountains. Participants climb around 33,000 feet and and descend another 33,000 feet, and the highest point is over 14,000 feet 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 26.2 miles starts at the Everest Expedition Base Camp at almost 18,000 feet and finishes at Namche Bazaar at 11,306 feet. (Top runners are lucky to crack 4 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 backcountry of Tennessee lies a 100-plus mile 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, 120,000 estimated feet 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 Tail du Mont Blanc is a 106-mile loop that starts at Chamonix, France. Hitting 10,000 feet 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 ultrarunning 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 375 to 500 miles. 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 18,000 cumulative feet in elevation and descend more than 23,000 feet. 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 59.6 miles per day) for 52 days. The race originated in 1997 and has been enticing runners ever since. Why? We have no idea.
Where: Dallas, Texas
When: August 2018
Before the Hottest Half Marathon, there were no half marathons in Texas during the summer—you can probably guess why. The average high temperature in Dallas is 91 during the race month of August, but some would probably say it gets even hotter, up to 96 degrees. Apparently participants love the heat enough to keep coming back, because the race celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017. The course takes runners over the Dallas Trinity River and, as you would expect, is relatively flat compared to most of these other races.
Where: Death Valley, California
When: July 2018
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to run the lowest valleys and highest peaks in the U.S., the Badwater 135-mile race is what you need. The course starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest elevation in North America, and finishes at the end of the road on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. The race covers three mountain ranges and participants experience 14,600 feet of cumulative ascent and more than 6,000 feet of cumulative descent.
Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon
Where: Manitou Springs, Colorado
When: August 18-19, 2018
In the words of an editor who has ascended this race’s summit, “Pikes is nuts.” Unfortunately, the climb is only half the battle. While navigating a winding, narrow trail of gravel, rocks, and dirt, runners start at 6,300 feet of elevation, make their way up to Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet, and then make the hellish descent. In years past, there has been fresh snow on the peak, which means runners have to prepare for 60 to 70 degree weather at the base of the race and around 30-degree temperatures at the top. To make things even more interesting, there have been lightning strikes. If you’re not careful, you (or at least your shoes) could get fried.
Where: Belfast, 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 (nearly 250 miles) route through indigenous forests and plantations, deep valleys and grassland at an altitude above 6,500 feet. 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.
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 100-degree heat and 99 percent humidity. There are a few race distances: a marathon, a four-stage 80-mile ultra, and a six-stage 158-mile 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 102.9-mile course starts and ends at Little Pine State Park and takes racers through some super technical terrain.
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—150-plus miles. 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 4,000-foot Mount Parthenon at night.