The List: The World’s 9 Toughest Races


If you build something painful, they will come. In the 21st century, it seems the only thing we like better than self-flagellating activities is self-flagellating activities with other folks, competing to see who can, in the words of Dean Karnazes, “survive the fastest.” Fortunately, we have all kinds of outlets when it comes to human-powered suffering over long distances. Here are our picks for the toughest of the tough.

1. Mountain Biking: Tour Divide/Great Divide Race
The world’s longest unsupported off-road cycling race began as the Great Divide Race in 2004, when four racers finished time-trialing the U.S. portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in less than 30 days. In following years, a handful of racers gathered to compete, and in 2008, an additional section of the route was added to the course, starting in Banff, and the race lived on as Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile string of jeep roads, singletrack, and pavement. Most riders start en masse in Banff the second week of June, and half will finish. In 2012, New Zealand cyclist Ollie Whalley sets a course record with a time of 16 days, 2 hours, 46 minutes. Or almost 170 miles per day. 170 miles a day. LINK

2. Road Cycling: Furnace Creek 508
For most mortals, mashing out 508 miles and 36,000 feet of elevation gain would be a good week on a bicycle — it’s roughly four mountain stages of the Tour de France ridden consecutively. Competitors in the Furnace Creek 508 have 48 hours to finish all that, over 10 mountain passes in the California desert. Drafting is not allowed. IV fluids are not permitted. It’s invite-only, with about 90 solo cyclists and 50 relay teams competing each year. Roughly 60 percent of entrants will cross the finish line. LINK

3. Exercising: Deca Ironman
Completed an Ironman triathlon? Ha! That’s nothing. If you want, to paraphrase Kenny Powers, to truly “be the best at exercising,” set your sights on the September 2013 Deca Iron Italy, which is 30 Ironman-distance triathlons in 30 days. You’ll only be considered if you’ve already completed a Deca Ironman, which is 10 consecutive days of Ironman Triathlons — and more than 20 competitors have already signed up. LINK

4. Trail Running: The Barkley 100
The Barkley Marathons is a 60-mile “fun run” and 100-mile run in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. Both races repeat a 20-mile loop for their respective durations, and the 100-mile course includes almost two Mount Everest’s worth of elevation gain — 54,200 feet. There’s no website, it’s kind of hard to enter, and only three people finished last year. The total number of 100-mile finishers since the race began in 1986 is somewhere around a dozen. So it’s not so much a race as it is a contest to see who can actually finish. And it’s timed: competitors in the 100-mile race must finish each 20-mile loop in 12 hours or less. Oh, and the course is also completely unmarked.

5. Canoeing: Texas Water Safari
There’s no prize money, it’s unsupported other than water and ice stations, and the time limit is 100 hours to paddle 260 river miles in a canoe from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico. Teams cannot have any support than fresh water and ice stations. Six-person canoe teams compete, usually half of them finish. Snakes, alligators, insects, heat, humidity, no mandatory checkpoints, and, from the website: “Teams must be prepared to travel day and night, nonstop, to be competitive but teams who occasionally stop for sleep have been able to reach mandatory checkpoint cutoff times and cross the finish line by the 100-hour deadline.” LINK

6. Sailing: Vendee Globe
In 1982-83, French yachtsman Philippe Jeantot had competed in the BOC Challenge, the solo round-the-world yacht race, and thought it wasn’t tough enough because it was raced in stages. So he created the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world yacht race that takes place every four years from November to February (so the competitors will be in the southern hemisphere during the summer). Competitors must race unsupported, and on a race course that takes them far from any normal range of rescue. Usually 12 to 20 competitors start the race, and some years more than half finish it. LINK

7. Running: Self-Transcendence 3100
The world’s hardest running race does not cross a desert in Africa or a desert in California or a mountain range. It crosses a tiny section of Queens thousands of times. Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3100, started in 1996 by Sri Chinmoy, hammer out 5,649 laps of an extended city block in Queens over a 52-day period, averaging 60-plus miles each day. They start in June, and finish, if they finish, in August. The course record is a slightly less-mind-numbing 41 days, 8 hours. LINK

8. Snow Biking: Iditarod Trail Invitational
So, 350 miles on a bike over one week, not so bad. In February? A little tougher. In Alaska? Okay. On snow? Brutal. Less than 50 people will line up at the start line of the Iditarod Trail Invitational each February, a mix of skiers, snowshoers, and snow cyclists, and only a handful drop out each year. We all know how fun postholing is — imagine postholing while dragging a “fat bike” alongside. Two 10-pound drop bags are allowed for each racer, placed at checkpoints along the route. LINK

9. Snow Footracing: 6633 Extreme Winter Ultramarathon
In 2010, seven people started this 350-mile foot race through the Arctic Circle. Two people finished (only one of six racers finished the previous year). Competitors must carry all supplies or tow them on a sled, save for two small drop bags along the course. After starting at a remote outpost off the Klondike Highway in Alaska, the route goes up and into the Arctic Circle, and finishes in Tuktoyaktuk, a tiny hamlet in the Northwest Territories. Competitors are advised to bring wheels for their sleds for traversing extremely windblown sections of the route. And if snow can’t stay on the ground, you can imagine how much fun it is to walk there. Oh, and it’s in March. LINK

Photo by Kathi Merchant/Alaska Ultra Sport

{ 27 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Casey Greene

    Hey Brendan,
    When you talk about the toughest races, there are the 3 “C’s” that make them tough: the course, the competition, and the conditions.
    Conditions and competition will vary, and so will people opinions on them. But, you can’t argue with courses, and the toughest ones are going to have no route. Just a start and a finish.

    So, here’s the top 3:
    1) Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
    2) Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic
    3) Bob Marshall Wilderness Open

    hopes alls good in the hood,
    casey

  • Rob

    You seem to be missing The Mongol Derby. Officially the world’s longest horse race (at 1000km) and most certainly the world’s toughest.

    http://www.theadventurists.com/the-adventures/mongol-derby

    Inspired by Genghis Khan’s legendary postal system riders race for up to two weeks to complete the 1000km course across the Mongolian steppe on wild Mongolian horses. Crossing some of the of the world’s most beautiful and varied terrain riders swap horses every 40km where they are thoroughly checked by equine vets (horse comes in over heart rate, rider gets a time penalty) until they eventually reach their goal. Riders face the elements (and tempremental horses) full frontal and risk everything to finish.

    In a typical year only about half of the riders who start the race will finish with riders in the past dropping out for injuries such as severe chaffing and even a broken neck!

  • Will

    When you asked me about swimming races, I really didn’t have a good answer, and I think I better understand why. The ones that are truly races usually last no more than 12 hours tops, and that’s for things like circling Manhattan. The events beyond that aren’t races, so the English Channel and Catalina Channel are supported solo efforts. The reason is simple, there are so few people who could actually race at those distances, paired with the need to wait for a favorable weather window that they are logistically improbable. If a swim organizer were to create an event of similar character to the nine listed, and they’d have a high likelihood that someone will die. In fact, most 10k swims require a support kayaker for every swimmer since if something goes wrong, being submerged in water can turn fatal in seconds. At least with some of these other races, you could stop and hunker down while help is radioed in, but with swimming in most conditions, you will probably be less safe if you stop, there is no shelter you could find, and hypothermia onset is rapid once exertion ceases.

    There was one swim that I heard about, maybe it’s an apocryphal story, but the organizer was Joe Oaks who swims out of one of the clubs in Aquatic Park in San Francisco. His idea was to do an organized swim, supported by kayakers, out to the Farallon Islands, which are something like 18 miles outside the Golden Gate. It’s not a far distance for serious openwater athletes, but when he asked some Farallon researchers what the chances of running into a great white were in September (when the water is warm enough for the swim), they told him an attack was all but guaranteed. Suffice to say, it never happened.

  • Mike

    Any solo sailing race like # 6 above Vendee Globe trumps everything by a huge margin. Although not human powered, it’s pretty physical work and mentally challenging. I personally feel that solo sailors are some of the toughest humans on earth. The main difference between this and other endurance races is that you can’t quit if the going gets tough or you get injured etc. Any competitor in an ultra marathon or expedition style race can quit pretty easily if something happens. You could even be plucked off the course by helicopter. If you dislocate your shoulder in the southern ocean you’re SOL … you have no choice but to fix yourself up and continue on. There are plenty of ‘dark zones’ at southern latitudes that can only be reached by ship. There’s no sport on earth that deals with so many extremes.

  • RobiP

    Pick a state or country and there’s a 1200k brevet scheduled soon. Randoneering is extreme enough for me and I’m only good for 300k. I’ll start in the dark or finish in the dark but I won’t do both. Those riders are tough and old. Not elite and not the toughest but tough enough for you or me.

  • Harry3w

    Surprised there is no mention of RAAM. Bike race from coast to coast, California to Maryland. Distance is just shy of 3,000 miles and riders spend roughly 20-22 hours a day on the bike for 8-13 days in order to meet the time cutoffs.

  • Troy Tritschler

    Speaking of Jay Petervary, he also owns the record for the full distance of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (Alaksa UltraSport)via the southern route, or the race after the race. His time: 17 days, 6 hours. Most competitors quit at the 350 mile distance. The truly commited continue on all the way to Nome. Jay and his wife, Tracey, own the men’s and women’s marks in this event. And at a distance of 1,000 miles in March, I think you have a new hardest race. BTW, Tracey holds the women’s mark for both the northern and southern routes, which are raced on alternate years. http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/race_stats.html#2012results

  • Kathi

    Hey that’s my picture at the very top I took of Bill Merchant, my husband. Both of us rode and pushed 1000 miles to Nome in 2008. It was a bad year and we pushed our bikes 350 miles. The first 350 miles to McGrath were great and the rest was really marginal riding or pushing. It is a bike and foot race in one event. If is for sure the world’s longest winter ultra race human powered as far as we know with very limited support.

    Kathi Merchant
    racer and race organizer
    Iditarod Trail Invitational, Alaska

  • LanceA

    I’m thinking the writer of the article was thinking that “The World’s 9 Toughest Races” means no support crews and you could die while doing the race (i.e. blizzards, subzero temps, +100DF temps in the desert, etc. Yes, competitors have died in races like RAAM, but it’s a fully supported race so when things get dangerous you can stop and jump in your support vehicle [unless you do it like Jay did last year... You know? That guy’s name just keeps popping up, what a manimal!]). It could also be the 9 toughest, so that all the comments would allow for the list become the 10 Toughest Races…

  • JayP

    appreciate the mentions of my name…

    when people refer to RAAM I like to put mention of my own RAAM ride. it was self-supported solo, under 12 days, under the actual supported RAAM cut-off.

    i personally find the subject interesting cause what is the toughest for one may not be for another. And if one’s toughest is a 10K and they accomplish it -GREAT!

    live for YOUR next adventure…

    -JayP

  • Kurt Refsnider

    I second Aaron Boatman’s suggestion that the Arizona Trail 750 should have made the list for toughest mountain bike race. It’s nearly entirely tough singletrack, and riders have to portage their bikes across the Grand Canyon. The Tour Divide may be through the mountains and usually done on mountain bikes, but it’s hardly a mountain bike race since it’s almost entirely run on decent dirt roads. Having done both, I’d say the AZT750 is most certainly tougher.

    As for RAAM, if was self-supported, it’d definitely deserve to be on the list. As it is now, it’s a damn tough event that costs a small fortune to enter and wastes an inordinant amount of gasoline with each rider having 2+ vehicles following along. But that’s clearly just my opinion :-o

  • boyonhisbike.com

    The World Cycle Racing – Grand Tour is worthy of a mention here. It’s the world’s only round the world cycle race to attempt to break the Guiness World Record. 18,000 miles of cycling.

  • Chris Martin

    How about one of the Ocean Rowing Races? Either across the Atlantic or this one across the Pacific Ocean – Pacific Rowing Race 2014 It takes up to 3 months for the slower solo boats (around 30 days for the faster four man boats) and is non-stop with nowhere to rest or stop off at. Sure enough though finishing in Hawaii might not seem that tough but you’ve got to get there under your own power first.

  • Mike

    Having done the Furnace Creek 508, it is nowhere near the hardest road race (nor is it the hardest 500 mile race in the US (Race Across Oregon gets my vote of the ones I’ve done or crewed for)). RAAM is way harder (I supported my wife on solo RAAM this year). You can argue between RAAM and the Tour Divide if you like. They’re both crazy.

  • Joan

    As others have pointed out, what about RAAM? It is far more difficult than the Furnace Creek 508 (6 times the distance). Regarding others’ comments about why it shouldn’t be included, if being self-supported is a criteria for the list, then the Furnace Creek 508 would not be eligible – it is crew-supported just as RAAM is. I agree that self-supported adds a whole new dimension to any race. My only argument is that if the Furnace Creek 508 qualifies for the list, then RAAM certainly does as well, and it is orders of magnitude more difficult (I’ve done both). The Furnace Creek 508 definitely draws the largest, most diverse field of competitors compared to other 500 mile cycling races (in the US at least), and is a very challenging and well run race (you won’t find a much better race director and advocate for the sport than Chris Kostman), but RAAM draws a field that is even more international in composition, and is exceedingly challenging (physically, mentally, and emotionally), so would certainly trump the Furnace Creek 508 in my ranking of “toughest” cycling races.

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