The marathon is one of the most iconic ways to test your endurance and it has been for hundreds of years. The marathon represents a great way to get into shape and have your eyes on a clear goal; something that features on many a bucket list. The amount of training and fitness required can be scary for any runner of any experience level and we’ve discussed ideal marathons for beginners in the past.
However, this time we wanted to look at the opposite end of the spectrum. What are some of the hardest marathons currently available to try around the world and just what makes them so difficult? We hope this serves as a useful source of inspiration for your bucket list and you might even want to give some of these a go in the future.
The Great Wall Marathon
The Great Wall Marathon is one of the most iconic marathons in the world and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly despite the historic setting. Taking place along one of the seven wonders of the world, the marathon is a gruelling challenge based in Huangyaguan and sees challengers make their way up 5,164 steps on their way to the finish line. The course is particularly well-known for its harsh cut-off times with contestants only having 8 hours to complete the race and needing to reach the gate leading to the wall for the final ascent in 6 hours, otherwise the gate is closed off. The combination of distance, ascents, stairs and time limits makes this a marathon with a deserved reputation of being one of the toughest on the planet. Nevermind the fact that China averages around 26 degrees celsius in May, meaning that temperatures can be fairly scorching before you even start the onslaught.
Marathon Des Sables
When it comes to the most difficult marathons in the world, a typical metric to use is the dropout rate. How many people decide to give up the ghost during the event can be a great indicator of just how rough the marathon is. For Marathon Des Sables, a 47% dropout rate tells the story. This is a vicious marathon, taking place over 6 days in the sun-drenched Western Sahara. To make matters worse, this is an entirely self-sufficient footrace. This means you are responsible for carrying your food and everything else you might need while also completing the race on your own. The only exceptions to this are the organisers providing a tent to sleep as well as water as these are necessary to survive in the harsh rays of the desert. If you are looking for a unique and ultimate test in a spectacular setting, Marathon Des Sables is one of the ultimate bucket list items.
Covering 217 km non-stop from Death Valley* to Mt. Whitney, CA, the Badwater 135 is among the most demanding and extreme running races offered anywhere on the planet. Starting in Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 85 m below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 2530 m, which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The race provides a unique ascent unlike anywhere else and if you are someone that enjoys a bit of a climb on your hikes, this may just be the ultimate race for you.
Baikal Ice Marathon
If you are someone that enjoys running in the cold rather than the blaring hot sun then this might just be the challenge for you. The Baikal Ice Marathon offers competitors the unique opportunity to race across the frozen waters of the largest, deepest and biotically richest freshwater lake in the world. The marathon forms part of the Winteriada Nordic Games Festival, which also includes ice golf, ice fishing, sled dogs, snow volleyball, and ice safaris which makes it the perfect getaway for running enthusiasts. If you are looking for something a bit more adventurous, this is the race for you. While the idea of running on the ice is a scary thought, the route is carefully selected by organisers. While many on this list will be rewarding in terms of visual elements, this is a long stretch on ice so there isn’t too much to capture the eye. However, the weird reality of running on frozen water is more than enough to keep the head focused and interested.
This race is named HURT for the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team but that doesn’t mean that your legs won’t be feeling a tad strained after this gauntlet. The Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run (HURT100) is a challenging and very technical ultramarathon taking place through gruelling terrain including loose soil, roots, puddles, and mud. The narrow trails traverse along exposed ridges and past vertical embankments. Frequent changes in surfaces and the slippery nature of the terrain make this a particularly gruelling adventure but the stunning views more than make up for it.
Kilimanjaro Trail Ultra
Kilimanjaro is one of the most fierce places on the planet even before you try running around it. The ultra is made up of a 74 KM loop race from Simba Farm to a high elevation at Kilimanjaro’s Moir Camp and back. There are a selection of different races you can take part in all of which are challenging and provide high ascension. The total climbing for the KTR Ultra is 3030 metres. The course is clockwise in even years and anti-clockwise in odd which provides the course with a certain uniqueness (not like running up part of the tallest peak in Africa wasn’t already unique!). This event is absolutely not to be taken lightly, as the combination of climbing, high altitude and unpredictable weather can be extremely difficult. This is also another event with harsh cutoff times with all routes limiting runners to a specific time that can be particularly gruelling in the conditions.
Pikes Peak Marathon
Often regarded as ‘America’s Ultimate Challenge’, The Pikes Peak Marathon is a race like no other! With a 7,800 foot vertical climb, the cycle route takes runners from Manitou Springs, Colorado, along Barr Trail to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet, and back down for a total of 26.2 gruelling mountain miles. With an average grade of 11%, the trail is often narrow, winding, or steep and may be gravel, rock or dirt with sharp turns and abrupt changes in elevation or direction. Due to limited access to the venue via vehicle, the marathon requires that all participants take part in a qualifying event though these guidelines are relatively open in terms of who can participate, it just helps to ensure no-one who isn’t physically capable takes part and risks endangering themselves. For endurance veterans looking for a challenging event to test themselves, this might be the pick for you.
Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race
Alright, now for something totally different. The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race is one of the toughest achievements on the planet, achieved by under 100 people across the 25 years plus it has been an official competition. The challenge itself is fairly simple; you need to run 3100 miles across 52 days. This means they must log an average of 59.6 miles per day over 7+ weeks, an unbelievable amount of distance to continually cover. That’s over 2 marathons every day. This is not going to be one that we expect anyone to accomplish but it’s a truly remarkable achievement for those who have.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)
Possibly the most iconic endurance event in Europe, UTMB is an absolute test of endurance across the incredible Mont-Blanc mountain range. Mont-Blanc also lays home to a particularly challenging marathon but the main attraction for those looking to really push themselves to the extreme is the ultra-trail event. Taking place over 171 KM with an elevation of 9,963m, this is one of the toughest events on the planet with a gruelling cutoff time of 2 days. With limited spaces available, qualifying for the ballot is always difficult but this is a certified bucket list item for many.
Sure, why not? Let’s just do a marathon at the tallest peak on the planet. This marathon reaches a height of 17,598 feet and takes 11 days to trek to, so you must be willing to camp. Described as a “once in a lifetime experience,” the Everest Marathon will challenge competitors with thin air, rough terrain, and temperature changes at different elevations. While this is going to require high levels of fitness, this is a huge bucket list item for many and the idea of climbing up Everest will never not be an inspiring challenge and this is a slightly more in reach challenge though still massively difficult.
Whether you’re looking for a marathon that will challenge you with heat, cold, elevation, or terrain, the above races have something for you. Trust us when we say these marathons aren’t considered the hardest for no reason and should be treated with the respect they deserve. Marathons on their own are a difficult challenge and one that commands high levels of endurance and commitment but these tasks above are some of the most difficult challenges on the planet. While some are frankly too big of an ask unless you want a new hobby for life, we hope this has given you a few more bucket list items and maybe inspired you to get back out there. You never know what you’ll find.