Whether it’s 10,000-foot peaks in the Swiss Alps or the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert, there are some running events that offer a challenge like no other. In fact, these ultrarunning races aren’t just meant to be difficult to complete, they’re meant to challenge the very essence of the human spirit.
Here’s our list of the eight most challenging running races in the world:
ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT-BLANC
If scaling the Alps in Switzerland, France and Italy sounds like your idea of a good time, this is the race for you. The 106-mile loop features fantastic views when your eyes aren’t glued to the rugged and tough terrain in front of you, and you will have to climb more than 30,000 feet to reap these rewards. Because of all the climbing, pacing can be really tricky — heading out even a little too hard can cause you to end your quest before reaching the finish.
Holding the title of the longest trail race in the United States, this fairly new event covers 238 miles through the desert, canyons, slick rocks, two mountain ranges and the beautiful Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Without a doubt, it is as beautiful as it is difficult, and though runners have 112 hours to finish the event, it will take plenty of fortitude to reach the finish. If you’re thinking about racing instead of just finishing, consider that Courtney Dauwalter finished the race in an amazing 2 days, 9 hours and 59 minutes — which was nearly 10 hours ahead of the second-place male finisher.
THE 6633 ULTRA
Yukon Territory, Canada
Dealing with scorching-hot temperatures is one thing, but the freezing cold is quite another. Choose from the 380-mile option or the less extreme 120-mile (which is still very extreme) while tackling temperatures near zero on the way to the finish in the Arctic Circle. Ice bridges, extreme winds and some of the most challenging landscapes you can think of have to be dealt with here. If that sounds bad, consider that participants also commonly pull sleds of supplies. It’s no wonder this race has been dubbed one of the most extreme ultras in the world.
Simply put, the goal of the Barkley Marathons is to make you fail. It’s a quirky race — and they even make registration hard to keep the participation low. With a course that changes every year, each of the five loops consists of a marathon through the hills of Tennessee. While the distance and 120,000 feet of elevation change might sound tough on its own, it’s the 60-hour time limit and the self-navigation you’ll have to do to find the correct checkpoints along the course that make this race truly one of the most difficult in the world. In the 30 years since the inaugural event, only 15 individuals have finished before the cutoff time.
MARATHON DES SABLES
Sahara Desert, Morocco
If there is a race hotter than Badwater (below), this one might be it. Run in the Sahara desert, the 150-mile course is split up over six days, with one rest day, and can feature temperatures rising into the 120-degree range. Participants are also tasked with carrying all of their own supplies, sleeping in tents between stages and often have to deal with sandstorms and high winds in addition to the heat. The race has become extremely popular over the years and entries are now limited to just over 1,000 participants.
Squaw Valley, California
This classic ultra is the oldest 100-mile race in the world — and the benchmark for all the other difficult running events that have since followed. Competitors have 30 hours to complete the grueling course known for its extreme range of temperatures spanning the 18,000 feet of elevation gain, with snow-covered peaks and triple digits in the valleys par for the course. Getting one of these legendary belt buckles at the finish line is an accomplishment you won’t soon forget.
Death Valley, California
While 135 miles and nearly 15,000 feet of ascent is nothing to sneeze at, there are longer and hillier races on this list. But what separates Badwater from the others is the location. Death Valley, California, in July is a place to be avoided, and those who choose to suffer through the extreme heat experience life-altering moments of clarity while learning just what the human body is capable of. If that’s not enough, the race has a 48-hour time limit and finishes at the top of Mount Whitney, which just so happens to be the tallest mountain peak in the contiguous United States.
THE SELF-TRANSCENDENCE 3100
Queens, New York
For a race to be difficult, it doesn’t always have to climb to unimaginable mountain tops. In fact, sometimes monotony can be much worse, challenging your mind to escape to some far off place to avoid the suffering in front of you. Runners have 52 days to complete the race by running 3,100 miles around the same city block in New York City, for an average of nearly 60 miles per day. That qualifies as the longest certified road race in the world, and the willpower required to complete the event almost guarantees you’ll change as a person by the time you reach the finish.