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The Toughest Races in the World

Putting a number on toughness is impossible. For some lethargic types, getting from the couch to the fridge can be a test of staying power. For others, ironman triathlons (swim, cycle, marathon run) is a challenge easily overcome.

The prime ingredients required to qualify for tough-race accolades is to set a challenge that involves endurance and a high tolerance for pain.

Marathon des Sables

Have you ever tried walking up a sand dune? It’s tough isn't it? Now try doing it for 156 miles (251 km) over a period of six days in 120 F (49 C) degree heat. That’s the gruelling event known as the Marathon des Sables held in the Sahara Desert.

After each stage of the race, competitors sleep in tent villages set up along the route; eight runners per tent. This rest time is used for tending to blisters, applying salves to sunburns, and eating.

Runners have to supply their own kit. Alfie Pearce-Higgins, who writes about running, took part in the Marathon des Sables and sent a daily report to The Guardian. He wrote that “For me, kit preparation has boiled down to one fundamental dilemma: pleasure of eating vs. pain of carrying.”

He abandoned items for personal hygiene and spare clothing and his food supply was noodles, “pepperoni, home-made flapjacks, and Jelly Babies―unmistakably the diet of champions.”

Organizers also require each competitor to carry, among other items, a sleeping bag, penknife, 200 Euros, a distress flare, snakebite antivenin, and, curiously, 10 safety pins. In Pearce-Higgins’s case his backpack and contents weighed eight kilos (17 pounds).

And, here’s a comforting note from the race director: “In the event of [a] sand storm lowering visibility to zero, competitors must stop in their tracks and wait for instructions by the organizers.”

Enduring the torture that is the Marathon des Sables doesn’t come cheap; the registration fee of €3,190 ($3,617), plus the cost of getting to and from Morocco.

A couple of people have paid the ultimate price of dying during the race. However, given that more than 1,000 runners take part every year, the mortality rate is low.

Torture in the desert.

Torture in the desert.

Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon

From desert heat, let’s go to mountain air; very thin mountain air. The Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (THEM) starts at the Base Camp from which mountaineers launch their attempts to climb to the top of the world’s highest peak. It’s named after the first two people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Various length challenges are offered―60 km (37 miles) Extreme Ultra, 42 km (26 miles) Full Marathon, and 21 km (13 miles) Half Marathon. These are not the monstrous distances offered in ultra marathons, but what they lack in length they make up for in oxygen deprivation.

Before competitors can start the THEM run, they have to get to the Base Camp start line; that’s no easy matter. It involves a trek of about 10 days from the town of Lukla, and getting to Lukla involves a white-knuckle, 30-minute flight from Kathmandu.

A short runway and surrounding mountains make Lukla Airport one of the most dangerous landing places in the world.

A short runway and surrounding mountains make Lukla Airport one of the most dangerous landing places in the world.

Base Camp is 5,364 metres (17,598 feet) above sea level. At that height, the air contains only 50 percent of the oxygen found at sea level, and pressure is one third of that at sea level; these conditions trigger altitude sickness in some people. In its mild form, the ailment causes headaches, nausea, and fatigue. In its severe form, it causes death.

Having overcome all those obstacles, up to 250 people each year think it’s a fun project to run a marathon. On the plus side, the race is mostly downhill, although there’s a gut-wrenching 500-metre climb just before the finish line. The terrain is rocky and snow covered in places.

A compensating factor is that runners will never travel through more spectacular scenery anywhere. And, they get a t-shirt.

Iditarod Trail 1,000 Invitational

Before there was a human-powered race in Alaska, there was the famous Iditarod dogsled competition. First held in 2002, the human race is one in “which participants travel the legendary 1,000-mile course via fat bike, foot, or skis instead of a dogsled” (Outside Magazine).

Organizers of this Alaskan odyssey cannot be accused of deceptive advertising. They note that “competitors may face temperatures from -50F to 35F, gale force winds, rain, blizzards, waist-deep snow, mud, glare ice, and bright sunny skies―all in the same day.” They add the obligatory claim that it is “the world’s longest, toughest race.”

In order to qualify for the event, people must first have completed the tiddly little 350-mile race. They must also show an expert knowledge of wilderness survival skills. The word “Invitational” in the race’s title says it all, you can’t show up on race day and hope to compete.

A total of 26 hardy souls are chosen to compete each year, but the cull begins quickly as exhaustion and frost bite take their toll. Those that complete the whole 1,000-mile route do so in from two to three weeks, depending on the mode of transport.

There is no prize money, but, on the plus side, the race is run while the grizzly bears are hibernating.

The Barkley Marathons

This race owes its origin to James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. Ray was serving a 99-year sentence in the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee when he escaped in June 1977. He took off into the wooded hills surrounding the prison; but, the terrain was so difficult he only travelled eight miles before his recapture.

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, inspired by the story of Ray on the lam, created the Barkley Marathons. If an escaping convict with a high level of motivation to get out of the neighbourhood could only cover eight miles the going must be tough.

Cantrell set a course of about 20 miles in length in the Frozen Head State Park. To complete the race, runners have to do five circuits within a 60-hour time-frame. Sometimes, runners are on blazed trails and sometimes crashing through bush with all the briers, thorns, and loose rocks that that entails. Outside Magazine calls it “among the hardest, most sadistic, unreasonable races in the world.”

Cantrell is a man who seems to have an appetite for intrigue and eccentricity. He restricts the race to 40 entrants and the criteria for selection are secret. Those whose applications are successful, if that’s the right word, receive a letter of condolence. There is a minuscule entrance fee and runners are encouraged to bring along an article of clothing for donation.

The start time is unpredictable and occurs one hour after Cantrell trumpets through a conch shell. The runners gather at a yellow gate that they must touch at the start and finish of every loop. The race cannot begin until Cantrell lights up a cigarette―the essential stimulant for all marathoners.

Over the 30 years the race has been held, only 15 people have completed the entire course.

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell gives the start signal.

Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell gives the start signal.

Tough, Tougher, Toughest

Bonus Factoids

  • One competitor in the Marathon des Sables said one of the biggest challenges was trying not to think about cold beer.
  • To complete the Barkley Marathons, runners will have climbed an accumulated 60,000 feet of elevation; twice the height of Mount Everest.
  • Since 1980, an annual man versus horse race over 35 km of rugged Welsh scenery has taken place. Humans have won twice.
  • The Tough Guy Challenge is held annually on a farm in central England. Its theme is men versus mud. According to organizer Billy “the Mouse” Wilson, the mud always wins.


  • “Everything You Need to Know About the Barkley Marathons.” Andrew Dawson, Runner’s World, March 29, 2019.
  • “Marathon des Sables: the Perfect Preparation.” Alfie Pearce-Higgins, The Guardian, April 2, 2014.
  • “Race Regulation 2020.”Marathon des Sables, 2020.
  • “Nepal Runners Complete Quake-Delayed Everest Marathon.” BBC, October 5, 2015.
  • “The Masochists Who Race the Iditarod Without Dogs.” Erin Berger, Outside Magazine, March 1, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 04, 2020:

Another extremely interesting article, Rupert. I admire these marathon competitors. I know why I always preferred spring races however.