The 20 Hardest Endurance Races of the World…

…or a list of 20 things to do in your lifetime (if you’re crazy enough):

1. The Marathon des Sables…

The Marathon des Sables is an excruciating 151-mile long race through the Sahara desert. Can’t imagine what camels must be thinking when they see us folks trying to be like them by trekking across the flipping Sahara desert like that, but ah well.

The miles are spread over 6 days. In a desert, especially the Sahara (don’t let the gentle name fool ya), surely a mile must feel like ten times that on the human body. A popular event, places for Marathon de Sables 2010 were apparently sold out by 2008. (img credit:

2. Badwater Ultramarathon…
(Death Valley to Mount Whitney peak)

Imagine a road so hot you can fry an English brekkie on it. Now imagine running down it for not one mile, not two, but a gruelling non-stop 135 miles. Oh and did I mention you’re in Death Valley which is one of the hottest places in the world? And not only that, it’s that time of the year when the valley’s temperature’s at an all-time high – over 120 degrees hot. God bless ya, for you my friend have just found yourself in the Badwater Ultramarathon. They don’t call it Badwater for nothing.

Apparently, the only mercy – small one, mind you – is that you can run on the lines on the road. That way, if you’re in luck, your running shoes won’t melt. Good luck. (img credit:

3. Hawaii Ironman World Championships…

This is a one-day event starting with a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bikeathon, then finished with a run for 26.1 miles. (Meh, I could do all that in my sleep …for I am Superman’s only love child).

It’s said to be quite picturesque at times as competitors get to see the renowned Kona lava fields on their excruciating journey. Hopefully makes for quite a distraction from the physical pain. (img credit:

4. The Crocodile Trophy…

An Australian event. The Outback.1400km of mountain biking over a range of different territories that have serious chips on their shoulders (from Amazon-type terrain to Sahara-like terrain, plus dangerous animals to boot). 10 stages - each stage as challenging as the next.

The best thing to do: don’t count the stages - let each level blend into the next. The race has been known to mentally and physically flabbergast the most experienced sports people who go into it, saying "I expected it to be hard but completely underestimated it." Gluttons for punishment, they’ll probably go and do it all again next year. The human condition: beautiful. (img credit:

5. The Barkley Marathons…

Tennessee. Frozen Head State Park (strange name, by the way). A 100-mile race over five loops (20 miles each). 52,900 ft ascending. 52,900 ft descending. There’s a 60-hour cut-off time to finish the race and it’s said that only 8 people (distant relatives of Popeye?) have ever reached it since the event started in 1986.

It almost always rains but I expect anyone who’s acclimatised to the predictably grey and wet British weather will have somewhat of an advantage.

p.s.: there’s a 60-mile fun run. ‘Fun’ doesn’t exactly come to mind (unless you’re one of the Popeye-Eight.) (img credit:

6. The Iditarod…

Sometimes called The Last Great Race, the Iditarod is a 10-17 day 1150-mile sled-dog competition that starts from Anchorage and ends at Nome in Alaska. It’s obviously really cold out there and the constant exposure over the race can’t be pretty; however, when you account for the wind chill factor that’s been known to kick in during a race, then you’re looking at unbearable subzero temperatures.

Then add other things like whiteouts during the day, hours of dark that seem to stretch on and on, jagged-edged mountains and thick forest, and you’re looking at hell really.
Nope. Not pretty at all. (img credit:

7. Tour de France…

Cycle through France. For 3,500 km. Over 3 weeks. The Tour de France is one of the most popular endurance races in the world. Having started in 1903, it might possibly be one of the oldest too. Reading the list is exhausting, let alone taking part in it:
- 1 prologue
- 9 flat stages
- 6 mountain stages - 3 summit finishes - 4 medium mountain stage - 1 individual time-trial stage (51km).

Tour de France? Or Tour de Force? A name change might be in order.

Lance Armstrong has won the most races – 7 times – consecutively. An absolutely incredible feat. (img credit:

8. Race Across America (RAAM)…

Well, the name says it all: 30% longer than the Tour de France, this bike race is a mind and body numbing 3000+ miles across America in about a week. Tour de France is 2300 miles for 3 weeks so it gives you some idea of how tough RAAM is.

From the looks of it, different start and end points have been chosen over the course of the event’s history, but it’s usually from one end of the US to the opposite (West Coast to East Coast). For 2009 it was from Oceanside, California to Annapolis in Maryland.

Started in 1982, it’s built a reputation as one of the longest-standing and most popular endurance races on the planet (ok, the world – but ‘planet’ makes it sound way cooler). (img credit:

9. Arctic Circle Race…

Definitely not for summer babies, the Arctic Circle Race is a cross-country skiing competition held in Greenland covering a distance of 100 miles (160km) over 3 days. It’s one thing to hold a race at the warmest time you can get your hands on in the Arctic (which isn’t warm really). It’s quite another to hold a race when temperatures dip below zero.

One of the requirements of the race is that competitors are of “a stable mentality”. Odd thing to say - hmm - a bit scary too as it gives some indication of just how challenging the race is. If ski supremo Bjorn Daehlie can attest to how incredibly hard the race is because he’s tried it himself, then by god, it’s got to be bloody hard. (img credit:

10. The Jungle Marathon…

When someone says “extreme footrace” and it “isn’t the distance, it’s the terrain”, then I don’t know about you but I’m thinking that’s got to be some special kinda terrain. Tarzan, where are you when we need you?

The Jungle Marathon is an eye-opening 200km race spread over 6 stages through the Brazilian Rain Forest. There’s a shorter 4-stage 100km one. What seems like the scariest stage is Stage 5. Known as the Dark Zone, it runs from 4pm to 5am. Yeah, yeah, the ‘dark zone’ path is “clearly illuminated” and “easily navigable” but doesn’t that mean that beady-eyed snakes, leeches, bats and a thousand other whatnots will be able to get a better look at the racers? (img credit: - u. klaiber)

11. The Yukon Arctic Ultra…

This race (in Canada) is said to be more challenging than the Iditarod. It’s hard to imagine how as Iditarod sounds pretty suicidal. The Yukon Arctic Ultra claims to be “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra”. I’d rather take their word for it and leave it at that, thank you very much. One can choose to do a marathon, 100 miles, 300 miles or 430 miles either via running, xc-skiing or mountain biking. In February when the race is run, temperatures can apparently dip down to -50 degrees Celsius and even lower.

They have a section for Hypothermia and Frostbite. Nuff said. (img credit:

12. Primal Quest (Expedition Adventure Race) – USA…

“The World’s Most Difficult Human Endurance Competition”. And they mean it. The Primal Quest is an intense salad of different activities that demands that competitors kayak, climb, trek, raft and mountain bike their asses off through unforgiving terrain.

The whole event lasts 5 to 10 days on very little sleep. Started in 2002, a different location is chosen from year to year including Lake Tahoe, Utah and Washington State. There’s also a range of prizes offered to the top winners. (img credit:

13. Everest Challenge Stage Race…

On their website are the words “the hardest 2-day USAC Race and Ride EVER” (emphasis on ‘ever’ is theirs, not mine). The pain isn’t really in the miles though (167 miles in total), but in the climb.

The first stage is 102 miles at a 15,465’ climb while the remaining 65 miles (2nd stage) is a punishing 13,570’ (probably why the race is split up over two days). Some people have been known to call it a day after Day 1, but it’s definitely still a cracking-good achievement to get that far. (img credit:

14. The Norseman Xtreme Triathlon…

Strutting its pecs as “the world’s toughest ironman-distance triathlon”, this event cuts to the chase with a 3.8km swim in a fjord (about 15.5 degrees centigrade – don’t sound too warm to me), followed by 180km of biking, then a 42.2km run that ends at mountain Gaustatoppen (around 1850 meters above sea level). Only 200 people are allowed to compete.

The run’s the hardest as it’s up a sharp incline for approximately 17km. Can’t feel too good after a 180km bike ride, surely. By the time the three stages are complete, most competitors would have achieved a total climb of 5000 metres. (img credit:

15. Ironman France (Nice)…

Ironman France consists of a 2-loop 3.8km swim (2400m & 1400m), followed by a 180km bike race (total 1800m climb), and finally a 4-loop 42.2km run (10.5km x 4). The water temperature is usually around 24 degrees centigrade. I reckon the more picturesque an event is, the more gruelling the race itself is.

The ‘eye-candy’ is intended to pacify the pain and motivate the racers – a bit like listening to music while you’re jogging. The bike and run are said to be quite picturesque as the route passes through several charming villages and landscapes (13, to be exact). Might be indicative of just how hard the race is. (img credit:

16. Arch 2 Arc…

An 84-mile run from London’s Marble Arch to Dover, then a swim across the English Channel (21 miles) and then a spot of biking from Calais to Paris (Arc de Triomphe) - 180 miles of it.

Think of all the croissants and cheese you can stuff your face with when you get there… that’s if you’re one of the six that have ever made it to the end. Yep, apparently, only six people have ever crossed the finish line. (img credit:

17. Triple Bypass (Evergreen, Colorado)…

Are the event organisers trying to scare people away with a title like that?

I guess it wouldn’t put off the most determined of people, though. The title is really in reference to the three mountains every bike rider must pass over in the race. Oh, and it has to be done in a day too. In the grand scheme of endurance races, 120 miles is what it is, but when you factor in an excruciating elevation gain of 10,000 feet over that distance, then now we’re talking. (img credit:

18. Death Ride (California Alps)…

This is worse than the Triple Bypass: a 15,000 ft climb over a distance of 129 miles and all over not 3 but 5 mountain passes. Phew. Death ride, indeed. The event organisers have a picture of a grrr-looking skeleton on their website ( just for good measure.

Enter the race if you dare. WO-HA-HAAAAA. (img credit:

19. Vendée Globe…

The Vendee Globe is a 24,000 mile solo round-the-world boat race held every few years. One of the rules of the game is that soloists must sail without assistance and without any stopovers.

It’s one thing to go through the physical challenge, it’s quite another to be able to deal with the isolation it entails; we’re looking at a couple of months of no physical human contact in a boat that isn’t that big (i.e., possible claustrophobia). (img credit:

20. The North Pole Marathon… Frankly, 5 minutes of exposure in the sub-zero space that is the North Pole is asking for it…but 26.2 miles? You’ve got to be kidding me. (apparently not)

The North Pole Marathon is called the world’s coolest marathon and they’ve got it damn right there. Essentially, they’re running on the Arctic Ocean, not land. Their security blanket is the 6-12 feet separating them from the Ocean (the ocean’s 12,000 ft deep, y’all). Brave. Very brave.

With global warming, it’s a wonder how long that 6-12 ft will stay that way. (img credit: