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The Hardest Races in the World, From Mount Everest to Wales and Alaska to Morocco

Men's Health UK logo Men's Health UK 05/03/2021 Runner's World
a man standing next to a forest: Looking for a challenge with a difference? We've handpicked 21 of the hardest running races in the world - could your legs handle it? © JEFF PACHOUDGETTY IMAGES Looking for a challenge with a difference? We've handpicked 21 of the hardest running races in the world - could your legs handle it?

Many races (and racers) had to take a break in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And even some of the hardest races in the world had to hit pause. But for those of us who love tapping into our mental and physical grit, many of the world’s hardest and most difficult races are eyeing a comeback in 2021

But what makes a “tough” race? For starters, if you grimace when reading the race description, that’s a strong indication that you’ll need months of training to complete the route that’s ahead of you.

A good, hard race includes several things: steep ascents and descents, unforgiving temperatures, intense terrain, and unimaginable distances. Throw in crazy-tough cutoff times, dealing with fuel for long periods of time, and the mental fatigue that comes with being on your feet for that long, and some races are just all-out brutal.

Races with weird or cool quirks give them an extra edge, like if it is entirely self-sufficient from start to finish or it goes on for days like the (checks math...) Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile event.

Runners enjoy putting their bodies and minds to the test—it’s in our blood. But only the most dedicated and ambitious athletes will set out to complete these monsters. Take a look at what we consider the hardest, toughest races on the planet. (Order is based on scheduled race date, not necessarily by how difficult each race is.)

1.HURT 100 Trail Run

Where: Honolulu, Hawaii

When: Cancelled in 2021

Hosted by the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team (HURT), this race is what its acronym spells: hurt and pain for 100 miles. Racers have 36 hours to complete the course, which is 99 percent singletrack trails. The looped course has five laps of roots, puddles, rocks, and other treats through a semi-tropical rain forest. There are also 20—count them, 20—stream crossings, for an added bonus.

2. 6633 Arctic Ultra

a group of people standing on top of a snow covered mountain: These Are the Hardest Races in the World © W.MURRAY These Are the Hardest Races in the World

Where: Yukon Territory, Canada

When: February 24, 2022

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If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’ve reached the end of the world, this race is your ticket. The 6633 Ultra offers 120-mile and 380-mile races that start in Canada’s Yukon Territory and continue through the Northwest Territories. Get ready for a lot (and we mean a lot) of heavy winds and temperatures ranging from 9-30 degrees, but you can also look forward to beautiful panoramic views. Oh, and if you choose the 380-mile course (ouch), you’ll end your race at the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk along the banks of the Arctic Circle. Now that’s an epic finish line.

3. Iditarod Trail Invitational

a sandy beach: Iditarod-1503577952 Iditarod-1503577952

Where: Knik, Alaska

When: February 28, 2021

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In this annual invitational, participants literally run, fat bike, or ski the 1,000 mile Iditarod course. Since the inaugural year of 2000, only a few dozen individuals have finished the race to Nome (39 bikers, 15 runners, four skiers according to the race site). In order to even attempt the 1,000-mile race, you’ll have to complete the 350-mile version of the event that finishes in the village of McGrath.

4. The Barkley Marathons

a sign on a wooden bench sitting next to a rock: Barkley-sign-1522073522 Barkley-sign-1522073522

Where: Wartburg, Tennessee

When: Early April

Register: Find your way in

Welcome to five loops of death—if you’re strong enough to make it that far. Deep in the backcountry of Tennessee lies a 100-plus mile course (likely longer) created to break anyone who attempts it. Some “highlights” include: a conch shell in the middle of the night that alerts you to the start, 120,000 estimated feet of climbing and descent if you do the whole thing, and nice views of the valley while simultaneously being pierced by briars. One loop basically equals a marathon distance (or more), and runners must complete the loop five times in under 60 hours to be crowned a finisher. In more than 30 years, there have only been 15 individuals to finish (and no one finished in 2018). If you’re supposed to race the Barkley, you’ll find a way to enter (and you thought getting into the London Marathon ballot was tricky...)

5. The Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon

a group of bushes and trees: Blueridgeparkway-1508881234 Blueridgeparkway-1508881234

Where: Roanoke, Virginia

When: April 17, 2021

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In terms of southeastern marathons, the Blue Ridge is known to be one of the hardest road marathons in the U.S. because you are either constantly climbing or dropping. Its course begins and ends in downtown Roanoke and runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most picturesque drives in the south. Runners start up Mill Mountain and then progress to perhaps the most challenging part: ascending Roanoke Mountain, just more than 2,000 feet. After reaching the top, participants take a deep descent. They experience a total 7,430 feet in elevation change during the entire race.

6. Everest Marathon

Replay Video

Where: Mount Everest base camp

When: 29 May, 2021

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As if climbing Mount Everest wasn’t hard enough, someone thought running a marathon around it was a good idea. Participants are required to be in Nepal for three weeks prior to the race to get acclimated to the altitude. They will get a tour of Kathmandu and a trek to Kala Patthar for some epic views, so the vacation makes up for the few hours of hell. The 26.2 miles starts at the Everest Expedition Base Camp at almost 18,000 feet and finishes at Namche Bazaar at 11,306 feet. (Top runners are lucky to crack 4 hours.) The route is pretty much all downhill with two steep uphill sections. And it’s very, very cold, so pack accordingly.

7. Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run

Julian Huxley is cross country skiing in the snow: Westernstates100-0-1506450732 Westernstates100-0-1506450732

Where: Squaw Valley, California

When: June 26-27, 2021

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If you know at least one name of an ultra race, chances are it’s Western States. It’s officially the oldest 100-miler in the world and brings people from all over to master the infamous, hot course. The race starts in Squaw Valley, California, and ends in Auburn, California. Runners have 30 hours to conquer the west coast beast, and over time will climb more than 18,000 cumulative feet in elevation and descend more than 23,000 feet. At some points, runners are so high in elevation that they have to run through snow, and other times they are completely exposed in the summer heat.

8. Badwater 135

a person riding on top of a mountain road: Badwater-1503707482 Badwater-1503707482

Where: Death Valley, California

When: July 19-21, 2021

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If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to run the lowest valleys and highest peaks in the U.S., the Badwater 135-mile race is what you need. The course starts at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest elevation in North America, and finishes at the end of the road on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. The race covers three mountain ranges and participants experience 14,600 feet of cumulative ascent and more than 6,000 feet of cumulative descent.

9. Dragon’s Back Race

a man standing on a grassy hill: 166a6383-1544762431 166a6383-1544762431

Where: Wales

When: September 6-11, 2021

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There are lots of mountain races out there, but this one has its participants running for five days across Wales—not to mention over 50,000 total feet of ascent. Dragon’s Back only takes place once every other year, so competition is tight for this off-the-beaten-path, trackless mountain race. Runners can look forward to a total of about 196 miles (anywhere between 29-42 miles a day). While this quest sounds painful, runners can also expect incredible scenery, with a bonus of a few ancient castles along the way.

10. Marathon des Sables

a large mountain in the sand: Marathondessables-1508881237 Marathondessables-1508881237

Where: Sahara Desert, Morocco

When: October 1-11, 2021

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Smack in the middle of the Sahara Desert is one of the most demanding and scorching running routes in the world. The race’s total distance is 150 to 156 miles, adjusting year after year. Runners split up the course over six days and only have one day to rest, which is usually after the longest stretch. Who’s crazy enough to run 156 miles through the Sahara? Founder Patrick Bauer walked 217 miles through the desert, only supported by what was on his back. He turned it into a race in 1986 and it remains one of the most popular ultras in the world.

11. Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run

a man standing in front of a mountain: Gettyimages-814685026-1529695146 Gettyimages-814685026-1529695146

Where: Silverton, Colorado

When: July 16, 2021

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Runners have 48 hours to complete this bad boy: 100.5 tough miles that go through roads and dirt trails along the San Juan Mountains. Participants climb around 33,000 feet and and descend another 33,000 feet, and the highest point is over 14,000 feet on Handies Peak. Every year, the course changes direction (this year it was clockwise), and you’re not a finisher until you kiss the infamous “Hardrock” at the end. Oh, and be careful: the course is so harsh that even elite runners fall, get lost, or dislocate their shoulders.

12. Eastern States 100 a man in a forest: These Are the Hardest Races in the World © TANIA LEZACK These Are the Hardest Races in the World

Where: Pennsylvania Wilds

When: August 14, 2021

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What some people may not know is that the notorious Western States has a twin. Taking place in the Pennsylvania Wilds, the Eastern States 100 takes runners through classic east coast landscape. The 102.9-mile course starts and ends at Little Pine State Park and takes racers through some super technical terrain.

13. Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon a group of people standing on the side of a mountain: These Are the Hardest Races in the World © Pikes Peak Marathon These Are the Hardest Races in the World

Where: Manitou Springs, Colorado

When: August 21, 2021

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In the words of Runner’s World Runner-in-Chief, Jeff Dengate, who has completed the Ascent, “Pikes is nuts.” Unfortunately, the climb to the top is only half the battle for marathoners. Runners start at 6,300 feet of elevation and navigate a winding, narrow trail of gravel, rocks, and dirt on their way up to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet, then make the hellish descent. In years past, there has been fresh snow on the peak, which means runners have to prepare for 60 to 70 degree weather at the base and around 30-degree temperatures at the top. To make things even more interesting, there have been lightning strikes. If you’re not careful, you (or at least your shoes) could get fried.

14. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

a man standing on top of a mountain: Montblanc-1506450733 Montblanc-1506450733

Where: Chamonix, France

When: August 23-29, 2021

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It’s not every day you get to run through three countries. The Ultra Tail du Mont Blanc is a 106-mile loop that starts at Chamonix, France. Hitting 10,000 feet of elevation several times along the way, participants will circle around the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland. Needless to say, the views are pretty fantastic. But don’t let the scenery fool you—runners spend a lot of time on the mountains instead of enjoying them from the bottom. There are four other events within the UTMB, but this mountain race is the cream of the crop.

15. The Plain 100
Replay Video

Where: Plain, Washington

When: September 18, 2021

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This 100-mile, self-sufficient race sounds like it’s name: plain. Created in 1997 as an ode to the beautiful remote trails woven through Plain, Washington, this race is a fight between the runner and the road. You have 36 hours to finish (only 50 percent do, according the website) and there are no course markings, aid stations or pacers. So don’t get lost: if you do, you’re on your own.

16. Tor des Geants

Where: Aosta Valley, Italy

When: September 12-18, 2021

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There’s a saying these days that 200 miles is the new 100, and Tor des Geants is one of the O.G.’s of going double the distance—the name literally means “Tour of the Giants” in Italian. Runners face not only 205 miles, but almost every type of weather imaginable as well as enough elevation gain to climb Everest two and a half times.

17. Spartathlon

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Spartathlon-1508881236 Spartathlon-1508881236

Where: Athens, Greece

When: September 24-25, 2021

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For all the history nerds out there, the Spartathlon is for you. The race is what it sounds like: the route Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta—150-plus miles. Besides feeling like a Greek titan, runners will enjoy some perks like muddy terrain, crossing vineyards and olive groves, and ascending and descending the near 4,000-foot Mount Parthenon at night.

18. Moab 240

Replay Video

Where: Moab, Utah

When: October 8-12, 2021

This event covers nearly 240 miles through Arches National Parks, and runners can only spend 112 hours in its beauty before it’s considered a DNF.

19. The Patagonian Expedition Race

a man standing on top of a snow covered mountain: Patagoniaexpedition2-1508881231 Patagoniaexpedition2-1508881231

Where: Patagonia, Chile

When: November 2022

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If ultrarunning alone bores you, then maybe incorporating some sea kayaking and rock climbing will satisfy. The Patagonian Expedition Race offers every type of terrain a hardcore trekker could ever want: glaciers, forest, rivers, swampland. Runners conquer the Patagonian wilderness in teams of four, each required to know various skills, like map-reading and first-aid. The route changes every year, but usually totals to 375 to 500 miles. For 2018, the teams had to design a route that takes them through all of the challenges in southern Chilean Patagonia within a 10-day timeline. They won’t know the general route until 24 hours prior to the start. Do it, we dare you.

20. Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile

a woman is walking down the street: Selftranscendence-1508881233 Selftranscendence-1508881233

Where: Queens, New York

When: TBC 2021

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If you want to torture your body while simultaneously seeing sweeping views, the Self-Transcendence race is not it. As the longest certified road race (and possibly the most miserable, mentally), this ultra starts at 6 a.m. one summer morning in Queens. From then until midnight every day for 52 days, participants run the same route (an average of 59.6 miles per day) for 52 days. The race originated in 1997 and has been enticing runners ever since. Why? We have no idea

21. The Munga

a person walking down a dirt road: Mungatrail-1503707470 Mungatrail-1503707470

Where: Belfast, South Africa

When: TBC

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In the Mpumalanga Province in the northeast corner of South Africa, the Munga Trail waits to eat its prey. Okay, not exactly, but this route is no joke. Participants have five days (120 hours) to navigate via GPS the 400K (nearly 250 miles) route through indig/enous forests and plantations, deep valleys and grassland at an altitude above 6,500 feet. They’ll run from Belfast all the way to Blyde River Canyon, the third-largest canyon on earth. There are five race villages along the way where racers can stop to eat and sleep, but they are not obligated to.

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