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Chris Carlson/AP
Racers in the final group start Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif., Monday,
July 23,
2007. (AP)

The World’s 5 Hardest Races

January 17, 2010
by Christopher Coats
Athletes in search of ever-greater challenges have set out to create competitions across the globe that make marathons look like walks in the park.

Pushing Boundaries

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Although most of the world’s 6.5 billion people would consider a marathon the pinnacle of human athletic achievement, there is an ever-increasing group of men and women who have set out to create, and subsequently conquer, challenges that some might never have thought humanly possible.

These contests are held in some of the most hostile regions on the planet. Leaving trophies and cash prizes at the starting line, these contests are less about recognition, fame or glory, than about conquering what the world thought could not be conquered.

These events test the very boundaries of human ability and tenacity, reaching the utmost of an athlete’s physical and mental capabilities.

From the depths of Death Valley to the peaks of the Swiss Alps, these competitions all share a common requirement for those strong enough to sign up—strength and endurance.

Here's our list of the five hardest competitions in the world.

The Badwater Ultramarathon

At some point in the history of running, some athletes decided that a 26.2 marathon was not enough of a challenge, and the ultramarathon was born. Ranging from 50-mile races to competitions that stretch across continents, “ultras” push runners to the limits of ability and health. One race, however, stands out not only for its terrifying distance, but also for the unending obstacles it throws in the path of those (arguably) brave enough to attempt to complete it.

First completed in 1977, the race from the depths of Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney became an official competition in 1987, requiring runners to complete a 135-mile course that took them from 282 feet below sea level to an elevation of 8,360 feet. If the distance and drastic change in altitude were not enough, participants are made to endure midsummer temperatures far exceeding 100 degrees.

Marathon des Sables

Skipping the Badwater all-in-one approach, the Marathon des Sables casts runners into the stark, empty wilderness of the Sahara Desert to complete a distance of 151 miles over six or seven days, depending on personal ability. Broken up into a series of progressively longer treks, the Sables race is for those who have the mental and physical wherewithal to complete the equivalent of five and a half marathons over a stupefying terrain of desert sand and rocks, carrying the weight of one’s gear and tent for the night and experiencing temperatures that reach 120 degrees. This all-encompassing race requires runners to carry and prepare all of their own food, with water rationed and distributed at rest points throughout the desert.

The Race Across America

Though some see the Tour de France as the pinnacle of two-wheeled excellence, imagine a trek that takes bikers approximately 1,000 miles further, and is meant to be completed in a third of the time. The Race Across America (RAAM) sets off from the West Coast of the United States with a simple goal—reach the opposite coast as fast as you can. With trails that vary from year to year, the RAAM is unique in that it does not break the trek into stages. Bikers can, and often do, ride as long as they possibly can, night or day. Winners of the legendary competition take an average of eight to nine days to cross the continent.

The Primal Quest

Finally, those in search of a bit of athletic variety should look to the field of eco-challenges, or those competitions made up of an array of skills, from kayaking to climbing to running up mountainsides. Arguably the most difficult eco-challenge emerged with the Primal Quest series of races, which changes location and lineup with each passing year. With previous events held in Washington’s San Juan Islands, Utah’s southern red deserts and last year in the wilderness of Montana, the Primal Quest sets competitors off to tackle a trek that can take over a week to complete, though winning teams usually complete the challenge in about six days. While the assorted tasks change from year to year, last year’s edition required teams of no less than four to cover 500 miles set across a 10,000 foot increase in elevation, including climbing sheer cliffs, hiking mountainsides, white-water rafting, orienteering and trail-running.

The Ironman Triathlon

No list of the world’s most challenging races would be complete without the inclusion of the Ironman Triathlon. Really a series of races held throughout the world, the most celebrated and well known is the original running of the race in its birthplace, Hawaii. Originating as a competition between Navy friends to decide whether running, biking or swimming produced the strongest and most complete athlete, the triathlon has since become the measurement by which all other races are compared. Ironman begins with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride before rounding it out with a complete marathon—26.2 miles. With almost two dozen qualifying events held across the world, the Ironman culminates with a championship series in the event’s home of Oahu each year.
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