I remember a time when running a 5K seemed like a superhuman feat, attainable only to the genetically gifted few who could endure the leg searing, lung crushing effort required to survive the 5,000 metres of asphalt standing between them and glory.
Over time, my perspective on what is humanly possible in the endurance realm has broadened. Don’t get me wrong, I still find running a 5K hard, but I’ve stumbled into a world of masochistic athletes who push their bodies to the limits in a variety of races that stretch from hours to days.
Having competed in a number of gruelling races across the globe over the past decade, I’ve compiled a list of the eight hardest, but most enjoyable races I’ve ever competed in. For those of you interested in truly testing your mettle, put these on your bucket list!
1. YUKON ARCTIC ULTRA
(Multisport options; Canada)
In ultra-endurance racing, the weather can make or break you. Running through the dead of winter in northern Canada, this race follows the Yukon Quest Trail, which is also the route of the world’s toughest sled dog race. Racing non-stop and entirely self-supported for days, athletes will battle extreme weather conditions and can expect to add frostbite and hypothermia to mere exhaustion. Racers have the option of covering 100, 300 or 430 (every other year) miles on foot, bike or skis, and can expect long stretches of solo travel over rough, unmaintained trail, while towing your survival gear on a sled.
2. CHARLIE RAMSAY ROUND
Although not an official race, this is a 100K fell running, or mountain running, time trial on all of the 3,000-foot peaks encircling Ben Nevis, the highest peak on the British Isles. At the time of this writing, only 84 runners have officially completed the round in less than 24 hours, which is the true challenge of it. The round was created in 1978 when young Charlie Ramsay decided to run all 23 Munros around Ben Nevis in under 24 hours, succeeding by a mere two minutes. In doing so, he laid down a daunting challenge that has stymied many ambitious runners. If the 12.5K of elevation gain don’t get you, the notoriously bad weather of the Scottish Highlands will bring you to your knees — as it did to me. If you’re lucky, maybe Charlie will greet you atop one of the Munros.
3. TOR DES GEANTS
This non-stop 333K, week-long ultra running race through Italy’s Aosta Valley takes the cake for the toughest race in my books. Think of this race as running on a saw blade, with constant ups and downs and hardly any flats. For those at the front of the field, sleep deprivation, technical terrain, steep climbs and brutal downhills destroy knees, ankles and quads. For those who simply want to participate, it can be a much more civilized experience, provided they can make the cut-offs. Expect fantastically appointed life bases and refuges for sleeping, great food (pasta, cheese, wine and beer) to refuel on. This race rewards those looking for a scenic, yet demanding race.
4. AMAZON RIVER INTERNATIONAL RAFT RACE
(River rafting; Peru)
This little known race starts in a city that can only be reached by air or water, draws no professional paddlers, has a horrible website, a defunct Facebook page, is really only known through word of mouth, yet doles out over $20,000 in prize money annually. Teams of four must construct their own balsa wood rafts, then paddle 180K (it is the longest raft race in the world) down the mighty Amazon River from the town of Nauta to Iquitos, Peru. Bring your A535, lots of sunscreen and mosquito repellant. It’s a well-organized event that runs every September and infuses local culture with a nightclub atmosphere at the end of each stage. Expect to be racing against 30 to 50 rafts.
5. SALZKAMMERGUT TROPHY
(Mountain bike; Austria)
Marathon mountain bike racing is extremely popular in Europe and this is the crown jewel of difficulty. You have 16 hours to complete a very rideable 210K mountain bike course through the alps with 7,000 metres of elevation gain. It’s a well organized, well supported race with never-ending climbs that test the best and bring many others to their knees long before the finish line. If you’re not ready to join the 500-600 fellow riders for this epic race through Austria, you can register for one of the shorter options held the same day. An incredibly gruelling ride, the final downhill finish is one of the greatest feelings in the world!
6. 4-DESERTS RACE SERIES
(Ultra-run; Sahara, Gobi, Atacama and Antarctica)
This company specializes in organizing self-supported desert stage-running races that are hot — damn hot. There is a certain sick fascination runners seem to hold with running in temperatures over 40C. With no place to hide from stifling heat, you will learn what true suffering is as your body heats to the point where you can no longer convince yourself to run, settling only for a slow shuffle as you wait for a breeze to materialize. The only shade you’ll find is at the aid stations and the finish line. Finally, you will have to live with the dread of the long stage, which is usually later in the week, once you’re sufficiently softened from the heat. Then there’s the Antarctic race…
7. MB RACE CULTURE VELO
(Mountain bike; France)
Located spitting distance from Mont Blanc, this race takes a mostly French field of over 1,000 riders through 140K and 4,500m of elevation gain as it snakes through stunning mountains and quaint villages. Though 8K shorter, it demands the same level of fitness, stamina, and grit as Salzkammergut, but requires another element — technical riding skills. The route negotiates single track of all description: smooth and fast, steep, rooty, rocky, off-camber and muddy. While Salzkammergut can be ridden fast on a hardtail, this race is best done on full suspension. If you don’t have the legs on race day, you can salvage the day and “officially finish” at 70K, or 100K.
8. WORLD’S TOUGHEST MUDDER
(Obstacle course event; USA)
Obstacle course racing is the fastest growing endurance sport in North America and this is the toughest race of the bunch. A 24-hour, non-stop sufferfest, athletes must complete as many loops of a 5K course as they can. In addition to numerous challenging obstacles, there are several water obstacles that will chill racers to the bone during the night, which has resulted in competitors donning wetsuits to survive the cold. Huge prize money, a big field and a fun and challenging course make this Lake Las Vegas event worth training for.