There is something deviously twisted about ultramarathons. On the one hand, you have to be at least a little batty to think it's something even remotely worth trying. From running across elevation changes the equivalent of the height of Mount Everest, to running through the hottest point in the United States during the peak of summer, these races are designed to push humans to the absolute (sometimes fatal) limit. So you have to ask: Why?? And yet on the other hand, you look at the intensely beautiful scenery, the drawn and exhausted yet happy faces of other runners, and you wonder, could I? Might I?
For most runners, the idea of completing the New York Marathon might be enough of an exciting, limits-testing challenge. But the ultramarathon is a whole new level of endurance. Here are some of the most physically and psychologically grueling footraces in the entire world, many of which go through some of the most beautiful landscapes and one of which goes around a single city block. I wouldn't blame you if, after reading about them, you have the tiniest, faintest goal of trying your luck on these courses. (Like I said, ultramarathons are twisted like that.)
Billed as "the world's toughest foot race," the Badwater 135 race is most well-known for its 135 grueling miles that includes a jaunt through Death Valley ... in July! The race starts in Death Valley and ends on Mount Whitney, covering "three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent." To even qualify for the Badwater 135, you have to complete the Badwater Salton Sea race, which covers 81 non-stop miles from below sea level at the Salton Sea, through the desert to the top of Palomar Mountain.
The Jungle Ultra
It's tough to run 142.6 miles. Now put that 142.6 miles in Peruvian rain forests and cloud forests, where the temperature is 90 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and an elevation change of 9,000 feet (all downhill but frankly that doesn't make it any easier) plus about 70 river crossings. Add that you have to be self-sufficient, carrying the weight of your hammock, sleeping bag, food, water and other supplies for the entire race. And add that you're in a rain forest with massive bugs and critters that bite and sting. To make things a slightly more pleasant, you do get to experience some of the most incredible scenery and spot wildlife, plus visit villages of several indigenous tribes, as you work your way through the the Jungle Ultra's five stages. It is an experience of a lifetime, if you can hack it.
Marathon des Sables
The 156-mile Marathon des Sables goes through the Sahara desert. (Photo: tent86/flickr)
Each ultramarathon claims to be the toughest. And each is, in its own different way. But this marathon is easily among the very toughest of the tough. Why? Because it is 156 miles through the Sahara desert. Not only that, but you have to be self-sufficient, carrying everything you need for the entire race. The only things the race hosts provide to you is water and a place in a tent at night. As the hosts note, when you finish, "You will have run the equivalent of five and a half marathons in five or six days" and that you will have done it in 100-degree heat. Despite this, the race has grown in popularity every year since it began in 1986.
Grand to Grand Ultra
From the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the summit of the Grand Staircase in Utah, the Grand to Grand Ultra certainly isn't short on spectacular geological formations. The only thing is that runners have to go over, around and through them to get to the finish line. That finish line is 170 miles away from the starting line, and each runner has to carry his own supplies for the trip. You get water refills and a tent to sleep in but other than that, it's all you and only you. While the website's FAQ says that "the Course is not technical and a relatively fit person should be able to complete it in a safe manner," let's not kid ourselves. You're running 170 miles in seven days (just short of a marathon a day), with an elevation change of 19,000 feet, while carrying a pack with supplies. It ain't easy.
Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race
Wanna run around the block ... 5,649 times? (Photo: John Gillespie/flickr)
By now you might be thinking that amazing landscapes are a given with ultramarathons. Think again. The Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race is more a test of mental stamina than physical stamina — hence the name. Held during two months in the summer, the race course is a single city block in Queens, New York. Yes, you're looping the same city block 5,649 times until you hit 3,100 miles. You have 52 days to complete your miles, which is equivalent to 60.78 miles a day. Each day. Every day. For many, many days. Why? Because the founder of the race, Sri Chinmoy, "felt that running provided an excellent opportunity for people to challenge themselves and overcome their preconceived limitations – what he referred to as self-transcendence." In his quest for peace in the world, he felt that challenging one's self in this way would help us understand that we don't need to compete with others, only ourselves. And you need to be extraordinarily competitive with yourself to finish this race. The best times on this race have been, for males, 41 days, 8:16:29 and for females, 49 days 14:30:54. Plan on taking some vacation leave from work for the race, and some sick leave for recovering after the race.
The Hardrock 100 is an apt name. It is, after all, filled with hard rocks that rock your knees hard. You have 48 hours to cover 100.5 miles, but those 100.5 miles are a loop that includes 33,992 feet of ascent and descent. Runners cross above 12,000 feet of elevation a total of 13 times, with the highest peak at 14,048 feet. Weather, cold temperatures, high altitudes and scree-covered trails that some racers need to navigate at night by headlight if they want to make the time limit, all mix to make sure this 100 miles feels anything but easy. Your goal is to kiss Hardrock, a big rock with a ram's head painted on it. While it sounds like a cheesy way to end the race, you'll probably be so happy to be done that you'd kiss just about anything. If you love amazing alpine scenery and you're ready for tough terrain, inclement weather, the threat of elevation sickness, and of course exhaustion, then this is a race made for you.
The dull name of this marathon might make it seem slightly tame. But oh, it isn't. Since the first race in 2007, only 11 people have completed the course. You can select a course length of either 120 miles or 350 miles, depending on how sane you are. The course pushes from the starting point at Canada's Eagle Plains hotel on the Klondike Highway, across the Arctic Circle (yes, you read that right) to the Arctic Ocean, and runners do this all while dragging their supplies in a sled behind them. Temperatures are always below zero degrees (the race is in March), and the winds can be hurricane-strength. Checkpoints — where you can eat, sleep and recuperate — are anywhere from 26 miles to 70 miles apart. When the race hosts describe the 6693 Ultra the "Toughest, Coldest and Windiest Extreme Ultra Marathon on the Planet" they aren't exaggerating.
Once upon a time (or, in 490 B.C.), there raged the battle of Marathon in which an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides ran 153 miles from Athens to Sparta — arriving in Sparta the day after he left Athens — to get help, and that deed played a huge role in Athens winning the battle. Setting a good deal of Grecian history aside, we focus on the distance that messenger covered within 36 hours. Is it even possible? John Foden wondered, and came up with the idea of retracing the route as an ultramarathon. Sure enough, it's possible! That is, if you have the dedication and wherewithal. After it was discovered that it's possible, the Spartanthalon was born. If you think a jog through Greece sounds like fun, just be aware that, "At most, only about a third of the runners who leave Athens end the course in Sparta." The rest, we assume, drop like flies along the way. Which makes it even more amazing to look back at what Pheidippides managed to accomplish, changing history along the way.
The Barkley Marathons have a twist that makes the challenge mental as well as physical. (Photo: Michael Hodge/flickr)
This is an ultramarathon that is designed to get people to fail. It's not just the distance — you can pick a 60-mile or 100-mile course — but it's the mind games along the way that do you in. The Barkley Marathons have a twist: You have to find hidden treasure along each 20-mile loop of the race. Think of it like geocaching while running an ultramarathon. There is no trail, so you're running through brush and bramble, and within this frustrating terrain are hidden books. You have to navigate to the book, find it, tear out a page, and head back. Your loop is not considered complete unless you bring back a page. And there is a 60-hour cut-off. Oh, and you don't get any aid along the race except water, so you carry your supplies with you the whole time. Still think it sounds easy? Consider the fact that only 14 runners out of about 1,000 have finished within the 60-hour cut-off in 20 years (20 years!). There is a reason this race is held on April Fool's weekend.
Dragon’s Back Race
There be dragons here — in the form of blisters, cramps, cuts, bruises and the mental challenge of just maintaining forward movement. The Dragon's Back Race is 188 miles through the Welsh mountains, with 56,000 total feet of ascents. The landscape is wild and rugged, the altitude a constant struggle, you carry your supplies on your back, and because there is no trail, you need to know how to navigate. In other words, you push your brain and body to the max. The ultramarathon was first run in 1992 and was so hard, it wasn't attempted again for 20 years! If you've always wanted to see the peerless Welsh mountainscape, well, here's one way to do it.
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
European sightseeing is a dream for many of us. If you'd like to take in several countries across several days, might I suggest the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. It's not exactly a honeymoon trip, but you do get to take in scenery from France, Switzerland and Italy during the trip. The run travels along mountain terrain in high altitudes, with more cumulative ascents than Mount Everest, and the weather can be spotty at best with snow and rain at any time. However, even if you think you can tackle this beast, it is so popular that you have to have the points earned from previous marathons, plus a lottery. Only about 67 percent of participants finish the race in the 46-hour cutoff time (which, by the way, does not include time to sleep). But for the runners who take it on, it seems to be more than worth it.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in June 2014.