by Mbio Staff September 04, 2018


Hardship is part of the deal when you're a fan of extreme endurance running. There are plenty of things that make extreme running difficult. Some races take it to a whole new level.

The 934-mile Great Himalaya Trail is likely the most extreme. Current record holders, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel recently completed this grueling route in 25 days.

The GRT isn't a race, it's a personal achievement, but there are plenty of official marathons of a similar ilk. Endurance athletes can choose their poison from a range of sanctioned events that take extreme running to a new level.

By combining long distances, unique challenges, remote locations, and punishing circumstances, these challenges appeal only to the most hardened athletes.

Here are the top 7 official events vying for the title of the toughest endurance race in the world.

Extreme Running at Its Fiercest

It's difficult to decide which is the hardest race in the world based on the facts alone. It's also unnecessary.

Anyone who can complete one of the following events achieves instant hero-status in the eyes of every the running community.

1. The Barkley Marathons

Fancy running up and down Mt Everest twice in a row? The Barkley Marathons is for you. It may not be as far, but you'll accumulate the altitude.

The course traverses 5-loops of over 20 miles each in the backwoods of Tennessee. Runners have to negotiate a treacherous unmarked trail on the steep slopes of Frozen Head State Park.

There are 60,000 feet of elevation as well as soul-destroying mind games to deal with along the along the way.

No 2 loops are ever the same. Contestants must collect a page which corresponds with their race number from selected books hidden along the paths. Your number changes every loop and you can expect to encounter publications themed around pain, suffering, and madness.

The starting time is a secret until an hour beforehand, and you have 30 hours to make the gong. Cruelly, 'Taps' sounds through the air every time a runner fails and when the time has run out. It's like Hunger Games for endurance runners.

This totally unreasonable, near-impossible race has the distinction of no finishers in 2018.

Adding to this is a convoluted entry procedure that has many athletes doomed before the start.

The actual Everest Marathon with its 26-mile route around the mountain seems like a walk in the park by comparison. If you can take the freezing cold temperatures and altitude sickness. Like it hot? Read on.

2. Western States 100-Mile

The oldest race of its kind, the Western States is famous for packing on the heat. Except when it's snowing.

California's Squaw Valley is the scene of this crime against sanity. During the 30-hour ordeal, runners climb a cumulative 18,000 feet only to plummet another 23,000 ft before they're done at Auburn.

In a bad year, you bake in the lowlands and wade through snow up in the peaks. River's, canyons and punishing downhills are all in the day's work when you take on the Western States.

The inspiration behind the race was a 100-mile horseback event call the Tevis Cup. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh decided, "I can do that too" - and he did, completing the test in 23 hours, 42 minutes.

Three years later, the race had 14 starters and 3 finishers. Nowadays, the organizers cape the entries at 369 runners. Before you can even consider this event, you need to train for at least a year and complete one of the 90 qualifying races.

Somehow, hundreds of people manage to finish this race every year. In 2018, a 73-year old man was among them.

3. Hardrock 100-Mile

Known by many as America's hardest ultra-marathon, Colorado's Hard Rock is an extreme test of staying power at altitude.

You'll encounter 30,000 ft of ups and downs during this 100.5-mile course in the San Juan Mountains. Steep scree paths, river crossings, boulder fields, and snow are in store for those who dare to enter.

Contestants race through the night in sub-zero temperatures with headlamps as their only guide. It's not uncommon for participants to see the sunset twice during their ordeal. Inclement weather with fierce winds, hail, rain, and lighting often adds to the fun.

The good news is you have 40 hours to complete the Hardrock 100-Mile. There's no finish line, but you aren't done until you've kissed the 'hard rock' which is a painting of a ram's head found at the end of the race.

Despite the extended time, even runners at the top of their game have tried and failed. There are only 175 spots up for grabs and about a third of the field fails to make the time every year.

4. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

If it's extreme mountain running you like, that's what you'll get on the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This 103-mile marathon race takes the scenic route through the Alps from France through Italy to Switzerland.

The event is part of a week-long celebration of running centered around the village of Chamonix in France. It's a day-night match and one of the largest running races in the world.

Every year, over 1000 hopefuls leave the start in stages but over 40% don't make it. Those who do rise to the challenge usually finish between 20 and 46 hours later.

Starting out from Chamonix, the race gets off to a gorgeous start with gorgeous valleys, forest paths and blooms along the way. Arriving in Italy, the scene changes dramatically with the appearance of fierce, dark peaks and rough terrain. Switzerland once again brings scenic relief, if you're not too tired to notice.

Along the way, runners travel past 400 summits, 7 valleys, and 71 glaciers. There are over 50 checkpoints along the way, with refreshment stations placed at 6-mile intervals. Four 'life stations' provide race essentials like beds, massages and hot meals.

Not all adventure races provide these luxuries.

5. The Patagonian Expedition Race

As if running for days isn't enough, this team event packs on the challenges by adding sea kayaking, mountain biking and climbing to the mix.

Dubbed, the race at the 'adventure at the end of the world', the Patagonian Expedition Race takes place somewhere in southern Patagonia. The route remains a secret until the last minute

Contestants must climb, kayak, bike, and trek through more than 400 miles of glaciers, mountains, forest, swampland, rivers, and lakes. You have up to 14 days to complete the challenge.

To reduce the environmental impact on these lands where few men have gone before, only 20 teams at a time can enter this race. People from all over the world clamor for a chance to experience this true wilderness.

Teams must consist of 4 members, both male and female. Make sure you get along with your teammates, you won't see another living soul for 100's of miles at a time in this part of the world.

You'll need to come prepared with the best marathon gear, high-energy foods, and lightweight camping gear. The checkpoints are only there to keep tabs on everyone and help you to switch equipment.

6. Marathon des Sables

Africa is a tough customer no matter what you're attempting. Endurance race running in the heart of the Sahara Desert takes it to a new level.

When you sign up for the Marathon des Sables, you're in for the long haul. The route comprises 370 miles of hot, sandy terrain with daytime temperatures in the 120's.

One grain of desert sand can cause blisters that will burn in your memory forever. Apart from sand gaiters and sun protection, you're also expected to carry all your own food, first aid kit, clothes and water with you.

While you won't have to worry about rain, sandstorms can wreak havoc and there aren't many landmarks along the way. A former Olympian athlete, Mauro Prosperi got lost in the desert for 9 days after becoming disoriented during this race.

Despite these challenges, over 1000 runners arrive in Morrocco for the Marathon des Sables every year.

7. Jungle Marathon

Going to the other extreme, the Jungle Marathon takes place over either 63 or 150 miles in the depths of the Amazon. It's more of a scramble than a run with vines, swamps, and trees to disrupt your flow.

You'll get a taste of what the jungle can throw at you from the word go, with rivers, tangled forest, swamps and steep climbs to negotiate. Twisted ankles, intense humidity, and wild animals are par for the course.

The race has 5 stages no matter which distance you choose, which makes it a little easier to run through the pain to your next stop.

You won't find much more than a hammock strung between the trees and bottled water at these venues though. You have to carry all your own food and gear with you.

Choose Your Battles

You don't have to take part in these extreme running races to get the most out of your sport. After all, they defeat the object of running for health reasons in several ways.

They do offer a chance to test your limits and see amazing destinations though. Stick to your own goals and focus on your personal best and before you know it, you could be reaching for these insane heights.

Casual or competitive, you'll find something to motivate and encourage you in our blog. We have all the advice you need and all the best gear.

Mbio Staff
Mbio Staff

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