The hardest races in the world

Ian Carroll

If you thought running laps in gym class was a real test of stamina, then you have another thing coming. An ultra-marathon is generally defined as any race over 100 miles long. Some are done in a single push, others are done in stages. Usually, each stage or day of the race is no less than an entire marathon in length.

It’s not only the distance that makes these the hardest races in the world. It’s also the terrain, the climate, and the rules. These races take place in the most inhospitable places on the planet. From the desert in summer, to the Amazon rain forest and the Arctic Ocean, nowhere is off limits.

If you think the human body has limits, then get ready to rethink things. Competitors in these races will change the way you understand the world. They’ll change the way you understand your own limitations, and they’ll certainly inspire you to get off the couch and go for a run. Just maybe not a 135-mile run…

Badwater 135

hardest race in the world
David Goggins running in the Badwater 135

For many people, the Badwater 135 is considered the world’s hardest foot race. It’s not just the distance or the terrain that competitors have to overcome. It’s the temperature. The Bad Water ultra-marathon starts in Death Valley in the middle of summer. Competitors then scale three different mountain ranges totaling 14,600 feet of ascent.

Even qualifying for the Badwater 135 is something harder than almost anyone ever achieves. The Badwater Salton Sea race takes runners in teams of two or three through 81 miles of road and trail running for a total elevation gain of over 9000 feet. The race starts at 234 feet below sea level and finishes atop one of the tallest mountains in San Diego County. If you can complete this race in late April, then you’ll have a couple of months to recover before the Badwater 135 is held in July.

Self Transcendence 3,100 mile

hardest race in the world
Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race in New York 2012. – Author: John Gillespie – CC BY-SA 2.0

Most ultra-marathons take runners through some pretty spectacular scenery. At some of the hardest times, just the epic nature of the course is often enough to motivate and inspire. When it comes to the infamous Self Transcendence 3,100 that is not the case. This race for some is the be all and end all of endurance running, and it’s all held on a single city block in Queens, NY. That’s right, contestants lap one city block 5,649 times in 52 days.

Let’s put this into some perspective. Because few of us can even conceive of such a long distance. The continental United States is only about 2,500 miles across as the crow flies. Add 600 extra miles or about five more ultra-marathons to that and you have the Self Transcendence 3100.

In case you don’t want to do the math yourself, that comes out to about 60 miles per day, every day, for 52 days. This goes beyond what other ultra-marathons call you to accomplish. The task is even tougher mentally than it is physically. And that’s saying something because most people will never run even close to 60 miles in a day once. Let alone 52 days in a row.

6693 Ultra

Preparing for the race
Preparing for the race

It seems like a pretty strange name, doesn’t it? Well, the name 6693 isn’t just a random number. It’s the longitudinal coordinates of the edge of the arctic circle. This race takes competitors either 120 or 350 miles across northern Canada into the arctic circle and to the edge of the arctic ocean at Tuktoyaktuk.

In the eleven years that this race has run, only 11 people have ever finished. That’s because not only do you have to run this insane course at subfreezing temps. You also have to do it in complete self-sufficiency. That means competitors are pulling all of their supplies behind them in sleds the whole way. So, imagine running 350 miles in minus twenty degrees while pulling a weighted sled behind you. Then you start to get an idea of how hard this is. Oh, wait… did we mention hurricane strength winds?

The Jungle Ultra

Held in the jungles of Peru, this race takes competitors 142.6 miles through some of the most spectacular and challenging terrain on the planet. Temperatures average 90 degrees with humidity right around 100%. The race course is almost entirely downhill, which sounds inviting to the inexperienced, but not to anyone who’s tried to run even a tenth of this distance downhill.

hardest race in the world
Running in the jungle is anything but easy.

Runners are self-sufficient for the entire race, carrying all their supplies, food and water. You contend with all the giant jungle bugs imaginable and at least 70 river crossings. However, this race takes contestants to places that few outsiders have ever been. Checkpoints are in small indigenous villages. God only knows what they think of the crazy people that come running through once a year.

The Barkley Marathon

Everything about the infamous Barkley Marathon is designed to challenge and trick you. It’s even held the week of April fools day. In twenty years about a thousand runners have competed in this race held in the backcountry of Tennessee. Out of those thousand competitors, only 14 runners have ever finished within the 60-hour time limit.

Hardest race in the world
The start of the 2009 Barkley Marathon – Author: Michael Hodge – CC BY 2.0

You don’t just have to run to finish this race. You have to carry all of your own supplies except for water. You have to navigate and run the backcountry course yourself. There is no trail, nor markings to guide you. And trickiest of all, you have to find a hidden book on each lap of the course, tear out a page and bring it back, otherwise, your lap doesn’t count. Remember how there are no trails, these books are just hidden in the woods. It’s like high-speed geocaching for 100 miles.

If you aspire to run an ultra marathon

Don’t expect to be competing in one of these races anytime soon. The people putting on the show hold no illusions about how dangerous these events can be. That’s why there are strict rules about who does and does not qualify for each of these races. For most of them, you have to have run an Ultra already at least once. That means 100 miles, often you’re required to do so in 24 hours or less.

Many, many, many hours of training go into achieving something like this.

However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never make it to this level. One of the most famous ultra runners today, David Goggins ran 101 miles in under 24 hours having never even run a marathon before. Certainly, we don’t recommend doing anything like that. He broke his feet and fractured his shins during the effort. However, nothing is impossible. That’s what ultra-marathons are all about.

If you have any comments then please drop us a message on our Outdoor Revival Facebook page

If you have a good story to tell or blog, let us know about it on our FB page; we’re also happy for article or review submissions, we’d love to hear from you.

We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it. Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the Outdoors.


ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival