Olympic athletes in ancient Greece ran naked — except for competitors in the hoplitodromos, a race that required runners to don 50 pounds of armor, a helmet and a bronze-clad wooden shield. Running in the raw? Sprinting suited as soldiers? These scenarios may seem strange, but they’re downright tame compared to many of the wacky races that take place today. Some of them are humorous, others dangerous — many end with alcohol! Whatever form they take, the races listed here get props for being some of the most bizarre footraces on the planet.
1. Le Marathon du Medoc: Pauillac, France
At Le Marathon du Medoc (pictured above) runners don't choose between water or Gatorade at hydration stations; instead they're asked, "red or white?" That’s because this race dedicated to all things grape has runners (and staggerers) racing through 59 vineyards in the fairytale villages of the Medoc region. The course reads more like a wine list at Le Bernardin than a race map: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Lynch-Bages, Pichon Lonqueville, Beychevelles. The 21 food stands don’t offer typical marathon fare like bananas; in this race they serve beef, oysters and ice cream. And the racers themselves often look more bacchanalian than Olympian, as more than half of them race in costume.
This celebration of wine and running is a blend of comedic exercise that's oh-so French. Seriously, where else can spectators watch a bunch of grapes, a flock of clowns, and Cirano de Bergerac in a sprinting stumble to the finish?
2. Wife Carrying Competition: Sonkajärvi, Finland
Harkening back to the practice of stealing women from neighboring villages (ah, the good old days), Finland’s Wife Carrying Competition requires male competitors to carry their wives along a 250-meter course that includes land and water obstacles. Drop your better half and incur a 15-second penalty (and the wrath of the missus, presumably) – win the race and receive fame, fortune and your weight in beer. Special prizes are also awarded to the team wearing the best costumes, the most entertaining couple and the strongest carrier.
2. Krispy Kreme Challenge: Raleigh, N.C.
A race fit for Homer Simpson, the Krispy Kreme Challenge begins at the N.C. State University bell tower and continues for 2.5 miles to the Krispy Kreme store, where runners must devour a dozen doughnuts before returning back to the tower – all in less than an hour. A dozen doughnuts! Stomachaches aside, the student-organized charity race benefits the North Carolina Children’s Hospital.
3. The Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race: Queens, N.Y.
The world's longest certified footrace, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race makes the thought of running in a hamster wheel seem wildly exciting. Created by Sri Chinmoy in 1996, this multi-day race happens annually in Jamaica, Queens during June and August. The distance of 3,100 miles is achieved by 5,649 laps around one extended city block. The runners have 51 days in which to complete the distance, an average of 60.78 miles per day.
If circling around the block 5,649 times doesn’t drive you utterly batty, consider yourself transcended. All finishers receive personal enlightenment upon crossing the finish line.
4. Man versus Horse Marathon: Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales
The Man versus Horse Marathon began in 1980 following a chat over pints in the back of a bar (where else?!). The proprietor, Gordon Green, overheard two men debating the merits of men and horses running cross-country — and off went the light bulb. The enterprising Gordon decided to put it to the test, and thus was born the Man versus Horse Marathon.
Racing over hilly farm tracks, footpaths, forestry roads and open moorland — it took 25 years before a man finally beat a horse on the 22-mile course. Since then only one other human on foot has beat the equine competition.
6. Siberian Black Ice Race: Irkutsk, Russia
The words “Siberia,” “black ice” and “race” in the same event title may strike fear in the hearts of most mortals, but for the supernaturally tough, this is a race for you. The Siberian Black Ice Race: "Longer than England, colder than vodka and harder than granite.”
Starting in the ancient Cossack city of Irkutsk, competitors race on top of the frozen surface of the oldest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal, with the choice of the short 155-mile marathon or the 379-mile ultra-marathon. What??? Yes, you read that right. 379 miles. In temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. With gale-force winds of up to 125 mph. Also known as the "world’s most terrifying race," the event is set over two weeks and competitors are required to be self-sufficient throughout the course of the race.
7. Run for your Lives (zombie-infested obstacle race): Various locations
Run For Your Lives is an apocalyptic 5K race complete with manmade and natural obstacles — not to mention bloody, brain-hungry, virus-spreading zombies.
You must run from the undead as they chase you. Although hungry, they have been trained not to eat competitors — but they will attempt to remove "health flags" from runners' belts (think flag football). Lose all your health flags and the zombies win — and you join their ranks — although lifesaving "health bonuses" are hidden throughout the course.
At the end of this adventure race-cum-horror-movie, runners get to celebrate survival (or zombie transformation) with live entertainment and music, and of course, beer! Zombies love beer!
8. Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll: Gloucestershire, England
Risking life and limb in the name of cheese, competitors in the Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll run (and stumble, trip, and roll) down a cliff-like hill in chase of a heavy wheel of Double Gloucester cheese as it reaches speeds of up to 70 mph. The person who catches the careening cheese gets to keep it as the prize. The unusual event has been celebrated for centuries and is thought to have roots in a heathen festival that celebrated the return of spring.
Broken bones, sprains, concussions and missing teeth among racers are common; the cheese itself generally remains unharmed.
9. Spartan Death Race
Billed as the race “built to break the weak of body and mind!” the Spartan Death Race is designed to present participants with “the totally unexpected, and the totally insane!”
Indeed. This insane, 48-hour adventure race requires competitors to complete a series of 15 to 20 grueling mental and physical challenges through a 40-mile course in the Vermont woods. Competitors may be asked to chop wood for two hours, carry a 20-pound tree stump around for hours, lift 10 to 30 pounds of rocks for five hours, build a fire, cut a bushel of onions, crawl through mud under barbed wire, or after 20 hours of racing, memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents or a Bible verse, hike to the top of a mountain and recite them back in order. Think "Fear Factor" meets "Survivor" meets "Jeopardy."
Oh, and 90 percent of the competitors will fail to complete this race.
Organizers of the event strongly suggest visiting a Death Race Camp before attempting the race, as they observe, “Death sounds cool until you’re dead.”
Related: 7 superhuman senses
Photo credits: Wife Carrying Competition: YouTube; Krispy Kreme Challenge: Dan Bock/Flickr; 3100 Mile Race: srichinmoybio.co.uk; Black Ice Race: YouTube; Cheese Roll: Mike Warren/Flickr