10 Toughest Running Races in the World
Are you up for a challenge? In the running world, it is no longer sufficient to simply cover the marathon or ultramarathon distance. The races described here so physically and mentally challenging that they are considered among the ten toughest running races in the world.
In creating any list, it can be easy to overlook certain factors that could exclude participation in an event, such as exorbitant cost, necessity of highly specialized gear, or training to which most runners would not have access. With these factors in mind, certain criteria were developed for including a race on this list:
The races described here are all located in regions of the world that are (relatively) simple to reach by car or plane. Excluded are areas that require special permission or funds, such as the South Pole.
Each race listed here has a maximum entry fee near $5,000 USD to reflect the fact that many runners are unable to pursue the sport at a professional level.
These races are all open to amateur athletes, not simply professional runners.
While there are certain races in the world that may be more difficult, they are not realistic for the majority of athletes because they require weeks or months for completion. Only races that can be completed within a 2-week span are listed here.
In addition, there are numerous challenges that are exceedingly difficult and require a team in order to complete the race, however, the events here were chosen because of their individual and self-sufficiency aspect.
Location: Sahara Desert, Morocco
Time of Year: April
Price: $5,059 USD
Distance: 6 days, 156 miles
Greatest Difficulty: heat, sand storms, distance
Billed as the “toughest race on Earth” by the Discovery Channel, the Marathon des Sables is on most ultra adventurer bucket lists. This multi-stage race requires that competitors complete 7.7 km – 86.2 km per day, with only a single rest day during that period (if you make it in time). Athletes are subjected to extreme conditions, including high heat and the possibility of blinding sand storms.
If covering this distance in the required amount of time isn’t difficult enough, competitors are also required to carry all of their food, water, and equipment for the duration of the week. With the course kept secret until a couple days before the start, there is little chance for the runners to prepare for this grueling race.
2. Badwater 135
Location: California’s Death Valley
Time of Year: Mid July
Price: $1,395 USD
Distance: 135 miles
Greatest Difficulty: heat, distance, lack of stages
The Badwater 135 takes 100 qualified competitors non-stop through California’s Death Valley at the hottest and most humid time of the year. Also considered one of the world’s toughest races, competitors must traverse 135 miles over a period of 48 hours. With over 8,000
Location: Knik, Alaska to McGrath, Alaska
Time of Year: February
Price: $1,360 USD
Distance: 350 miles
Greatest Difficulty: cold, navigation, distance
Although the 1,000-mile distance of the Iditarod Trail Invitational is certainly the more difficult of the three course distances offered (130 miles, 350 miles, and 1,000 miles), the 1,000 mile foot race excludes itself from this list because it does not fit the “realism” criteria, requiring 30+ days for completion.
The 350 mile race is still difficult, but can typically be finished within a week’s time, including a mandatory overnight break. The 350 mile race begins in Knik, Alaska and follows the Iditarod Trail to McGrath, Alaska. Three snow machines lead racers through the course, but competitors must brave the elements (including wind chills that frequently reach -60o F) before reaching checkpoints at 59, 90, 130, 165, 200, 300, and 350 miles.
Location: Frozen Head State Park, Wartburg, Tennessee
Time of Year: March/April
Price: $1.60 USD
Distance: 100 – 130 miles, 60 hours
Greatest Difficulty: course conditions, navigation, elevation changes
The Barkley Marathons, which has been the subject of a popular Netflix documentary, seeks to recreate the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s assassin) from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The course is unmarked and takes runners through dense brush and 54,000 ft of elevation change.
Since 1989, there have been more races which have yielded zero finishers than races where at least one runner crossed the finish line within the 60 hour time limit. No woman has ever made it beyond 66 miles, and the current men’s record is 52:03:08.
5. Hardrock 100
Location: Silverton, Colorado
Time of Year: July
Price: $295 USD
Distance: 100.5 miles
Greatest Difficulty: climbing, distance, elevation
The Hardrock 100 is especially brutal given the sheer amount of elevation changes made over the course of 100 miles, with a total of 33,050 ft of climbing and 33,050 ft of descent. For many runners, going down is much more difficult than going up!
Another difficulty that racers face is that the 100.5 miles are completed at an average elevation of 11,000 ft, with the race topping out at 14,048 ft on Handies Peak.
6. Jungle Ultra
Location: Manu National Park, Peru
Time of Year: June
Price: $2882.25 USD
Distance: 230 km / 143 miles
Greatest Difficulty: extreme temperatures, heavy rain, rugged terrain, large descent
Racers in the Jungle Ultra start in the Andes Mountains and finish in the Amazon Basin. As if running 143 miles isn’t difficult enough, runners must be completely self-supported and prepared to deal with all types of rainforest encounters, including biting ants, suffocating humidity, dense brush, and water crossings.
Location: Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
Time of Year: April
Price: $324 USD
Distance: 168 km / 105 miles, 46 hours
Greatest Difficulty: terrain, climbing
As a sister race to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji race does not disappoint. Runners cover the circumference of Mt. Fuji while navigating difficult terrain, a long descent, and 24,000 ft of elevation gain. In 2015, only 564 of 1,400 runners finished the race.
8. Plain 100
Location: Plain, Washington
Time of Year: September
Price: $120 USD
Distance: 100 – 112 miles, 36 hours
Greatest Difficulty: self-supported, no aid stations
In the first 8 years of the Plain 100’s existence, only four people total finished the 100-mile race. Now, approximately 50% complete the race each year, which is still well below the norm of most ultramarathons that require participants to have completed a trail 100 miler prior to entry.
Location: France, Italy, and Switzerland
Time of Year: August/September
Price: $180 USD
Distance: 103 miles, 46.5-hour time limit
Greatest Difficulty: elevation, mountainous terrain
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is one of the most prestigious ultramarathons in the world, drawing the most elite runners across the globe to this race. This single stage ultramarathon begins at 6 PM with nearly 2,500 participants, and requires that runners traverse the mountains in all types of weather conditions overnight. Runners gain 30,000 ft of elevation, and descend only 3,000 ft.
Location: Swiss Alps
Time of Year: September
Price: $165 USD
Distance: 26.2 miles, 8.5 hours
Greatest Difficulty: climbing, elevation
If you aren’t ready for the ultramarathon distance but would like to test your fortitude at 26.2 miles, consider the Jungfrau Marathon. This marathon course takes runners through the Swiss Alps, climbing 5,960 feet total, with the highest point at 7,234 feet. Runners must be prepared for steep, zigzagging ascents through the mountainous terrain, as well as dangerous downhill descents.
Course times are slow, with the men’s record standing at 2:49:01, and the women’s record at 3:21:03. Race organizers suggest that athletes add 30 – 40% to their marathon time on flat terrain to predict their Jungfrau Marathon finish.
We skipped the famous 6633 Arctic Ultra because it did not fit in out criteria, but read our interview with the 2016 race winner here.