Ever since the days of ancient Greece—when Pheidippides ran the first marathon to announce the defeat of the invading Persian army to the people of Athens—long-distance running has been seen as a measure of how fit and strong someone is And ever since then there have been countless foot races held all over the world. Now, 2,500 years after that historic run, we still look for ways to challenge ourselves on foot.
But in the modern age we’ve managed to take the pain and suffering that comes with long-distance running to entirely new levels, finding even more devious ways to punish ourselves out on the trail and road. Some races that are held each year are so incredibly difficult that just completing them almost defies logic. These are the toughest foot races in the world. Here are five examples of some of the most extreme.
Marathon des Sables
Held in the Sahara Desert of Morocco each year, the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) is a six-day stage race that covers 156 miles through one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. That is the equivalent of running a marathon a day, every day, for nearly a week. Participants in the MdS don’t just have to be fit, but they must be self-sufficient too. They’re required to carry all of their gear and supplies—including water—on their back for each leg of the race, and they must navigate their way across a course that is remote and desolate. Those elements definitely make it one of the most difficult races in the world.
Each July a hardy group of endurance athletes gather in California to run an ultramarathon across the hottest place on the planet. They start at the Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, which sits at 279 feet below sea level, and end at the Whitney Portal on Mt. Whitney, which sits at an altitude of 8,360 feet. In between are 135 miles of deserts and mountains that must be traversed without stopping. Those who manage to finish Badwater in under 48 hours are awarded a belt buckle and a medal, but there is no prize money given out. The top runners complete the run in less than 24 hours.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc passes through three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland), covering 103 miles through the Alps, and includes a total elevation gain of more than 31,000 feet. The route circumnavigates one of the most famous mountains in the world, Mont Blanc, on a trail that is both ruggedly beautiful and brutally demanding. This race has also been known to throw some nasty weather at competitors, who can face heat, rain, snow, and sleet—as well as both hot and cold temperatures—all on the same day.
Another stage race, Peru’s Jungle Ultra covers 143 miles over five grueling stages that take place in the Manú National Park region of that country. It begins in the cloud forests of the Andes and drops more than 10,000 feet to the Amazon Basin below. High temperatures and humidity levels conspire with one another to sap the strength from the legs of runners, who must once again carry all of their supplies, water, and equipment with them across each stage of the race. Some of the dangers include swarms of biting insects, poisonous snakes, and other unique creatures.
The Barkley Marathons
The state of Tennessee seems like an unlikely place for what just might be the most difficult running race of them all. The Barkley Marathons challenge runners to complete five 20-mile loops on an unmarked course that runs through Frozen Head State Park, a place that is renowned for its incredibly difficult terrain. The route includes more than 65,000 feet of elevation gain, and just to make things a bit tougher, competitors must finish in less than 60 hours. The first edition of the race took place back in 1986, and over the course of 30 years only 14 people have managed to finish it. That should give you an idea of just how difficult the Barkley Marathons truly are.
If your local 5K and 10K races aren’t giving you much of a challenge these days, why not give one of these events a shot instead? Any one of them is tough enough to push even the fittest runners to their absolute physical limits, and they all take place in scenic outdoor environments that are amazing to behold. If you’re looking for a new running challenge, one of these will definitely give you what you’re looking for.