For many people, completing a marathon is the accomplishment of a lifetime. For others, racing 50 or even 100 miles is the ultimate challenge. Some people, however, seek out events that border on impossible. By combining extreme distances with rugged terrain, heat, cold, elevation, and route finding difficulties, these competitions—and those that complete them—compete for the title of toughest races in the world.
Held in Morocco each year, the Marathon des Sables bills itself as the “toughest footrace on Earth.” Participants cover 156 miles over the course of six days. During this time, they must traverse the Sahara desert crossing dunes, mountains, sand, and storms. Unlike other races on this list, the Marathon des Sables is a stage race meaning competitors stop each day and rest. The twist, however, is that they must also carry all of their own supplies—save a small ration of water given out each day—including food, clothing, a sleeping bag, and other items.
Another race that refers to itself as the “world’s toughest footrace” is the Badwater Ultramarathon. Like the Marathon des Sables, Badwater runs through a desert but here, the clock doesn’t stop as participants try to cover the 135 mile course. Starting in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level, it climbs to the finish at Whitney Portal at 8360 feet. In addition to the increasing elevation, participants must endure extreme heat—sometimes reaching 120 degrees—and a wind that is compared to a hair dryer blowing in the face.
Located in the San Juan Range of Colorado, the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run covers 100.5 miles, all above an average 11,000 feet of elevation. During the race, participants climb more than 33,000 vertical feet and most struggle to meet the 48 hour cut off time. Though intense heat is not an issue, elevation, thunder storms, and technical alpine terrain all help to ensure Hardrock has a place among the world’s toughest races.
Covering 142 miles through the rainforests of Peru, participants in the Jungle Ultra Marathon face humidity that hovers around 100 percent, dangerous river crossings, and relentless steep climbs and descents. Like the Marathon des Sables, participants must be self sufficient, carrying all of their gear during the entire race.
Taking place on some of the trails of the well known Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the Iditarod Trail Invitational covers 350 miles in Alaska. To make things more interesting, the race takes place in February, meaning competitors must contend with short daylight and extreme cold. For those that are not content with a 350 mile footrace, there is a 1,000 mile option that runs from just outside Anchorage all the way to Nome.
As strange as these races may seem, there is one that is truly bizarre. In the forests of Tennesse each March, the Barkley Marathons—both the 100 mile and 60 mile “Fun Run”—circle the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The races take place off trail and without any aid. Participants must use maps to find their way to books, hidden under rocks and in old stumps, from which they must tear a page. Credit is not given for a loop unless the page is returned. The idea is simple, but the course so devious and difficult—tromping up and down hills and cliffs, through brier patches, and during changing spring weather—that only 10 people have finished the 100 mile race in more than 20 years of its existence.