7 Brutal Ultra Marathons

Spartathalon

Let’s start with our honorable mention and nod to history. The Spartathalon began in 1982 when five RAF officers arrived in Greece to see if it was possible to run the 153 miles from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours. Following the fable of Pheidippides, the course runs from Athens to Sparta and has a strict cutoff time of 36 hours. Some hardcore runners will run the 153 miles to Sparta and then run back 153 miles to Athens, just as Pheidippides did. I could not find any runners who then continued from Athens to Marathon and back, the true route Pheidippides ran.

 

Photo: marty_myers
Marathon des Sables, Photo: marty_myers

Marathon des Sables

A six day shuffle through 154 miles of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Temperatures at MDS are guaranteed to break 100 degrees and three runners have died on the route. This well-known ultra typically sees 1,000 runners each year.

 

Photo: The Arizona Republic
Badwater Marathon, Photo: The AZ Republic

Badwater Marathon

Badwater is a 135 mile race through Death Valley, CA in July (the hottest month). This ultra has no stops and 13,000 feet of elevation. Runners traverse two mountain ranges as they run from Badwater Basin to the slopes of Mount Whitney.

 

Hardrock, Photo: Matt Trappe
Hardrock, Photo: Matt Trappe

Hardrock 100

Runners have 48 hours to cover nearly 34,000 feet of ascent over 100 miles of rough Colorado trails in the Hardrock 100. By comparison, Mt Everest’s peak is just over 29,000 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is the standard and the winner of Hardrock becomes a legend in the ultra community.

 

Jared Campbell @ The Barkley
Jared Campbell @ The Barkley

The Barkley Marathons

There are so many elements that make the Barkley insane. The race starts when the race director decides to blow a conch, sometime between 11pm and 11am. The course is billed as 100 miles, but in practice, it ends up being a series of five marathons that must be completed in 60 hours. There is one “master map” that is passed around before the race starts. Each runner must make their own copy of the map and is issued a compass to navigate the cliffs of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. No GPS allowed. About 800 people have attempted the Barkley and only 14 have completed it in 60 hours. When you have the time, check out The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats it’s Young on Netflix.

 

6633 Ultra
6633 Ultra

6633 Ultra

350 miles from the Eagle Plains hotel to the Arctic Ocean. That’s the task tackled by a dozen or so runners every year in March. The course is completed over seven days and competitors pull all their provisions for the race including food, cooking items, clothing, sleeping kit and other safety gear on sleds. Checkpoints are spaced along the route between 23 and 70 miles apart. Hot water and Shelter are the only things guaranteed at the checkpoints.

 

Yukon Arctic Ultra
Yukon Arctic Ultra

Yukon Arctic Ultra

The Yukon Arctic Ultra is billed as “the world’s toughest and coldest ultra” and the longest distance available to runners is 430 miles. The race follows a portion of the Yukon Quest trail, the same trail used for the world’s toughest Sled Dog Race (1000 miles). The race takes place in early February and runners can expect about 8 hours of sunlight each day and temperatures far below zero (think -50F). Not for me.

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