7 of the World’s Most-Challenging Ultramarathons

To even consider running an ultra seems like a pretty astounding thing to me. To actually run one is amazingly remarkable. But to be an avid ultramarathoner willingly choosing to put yourself in the most brutal of weather conditions, continuously ascending and descending to various elevations during the race, and…

To even consider running an ultra seems like a pretty astounding thing to me. To actually run one is amazingly remarkable. But to be an avid ultramarathoner willingly choosing to put yourself in the most brutal of weather conditions, continuously ascending and descending to various elevations during the race, and all the while carrying heavy supplies on your back—well that, that just seems sadistic.

Nowadays though, these nearly-impossible achievements of the human mind and body are gaining in popularity amongst lifetime runners. According to The Guardian, in 2003, around 18,000 people completed an ultramarathon in America. Last year, 105,000 runners finished the over 26.2-mile feats across the US. Plus, over the past decade, the world’s biggest ultramarathons went from 160 listed globally to 18,000.

Clearly, the world of ultras is growing, but nowadays, merely running one is no longer grounds for bragging rights. Ultramarathoners are challenging themselves even more by taking on blazing temperatures, frozen landscapes, remote terrain and soaring elevations by signing up for some of the world’s most difficult ultras. If you’re part of this crazy brave sect of runners, here are seven extremely-demanding ultramarathons to check out:

the jungle ultra
Photo Credit: Beyond the Ultimate

The Jungle Ultra

You know that when a race boasts about being “mostly downhill,” that it means it’s going to be harder than a regular ultra. Peru’s Jungle Ultra is a 142.6-mile course that drops 10,500 feet from the cloud forest down into the Amazon with temps around 90 degrees F paired with 100 percent humidity. Plus, you’ll need to carry your supplies on your back the whole time. So it’s pretty chill. Adding to its difficulty are 70 river crossings and even some areas that require brief zip lining. Oh, and did we mention that there are thousands of bugs hanging out in the air waiting to give you a little nibble? Of course, those who’ve run it consider it one of the most beautiful races since you get to witness incredible scenery, exotic wildlife and nearby villages filled with indigenous tribes.

Dragon’s Back Race
Photo Credit: Dragon’s Back Race

Dragon’s Back Race

Sure, dragons are cool on Game of Thrones, but in Wales, they signify a brutal 188-mile race through the Welsh mountains. Starting at Conwy Castle in the north, the route makes its way all the way to the other end of Wales at the Carreg Cennen Castle in the south. The Dragon’s Back Race is filled with 56,000 total feet of ascents through rugged and wild terrain that easily lives up to its beastly name. Without a marked trail, runners have to rely on their navigation skills to cross the finish line. The first two of five days are the most challenging with the route involving rocky descents, mountain climbing and technical difficulty. To give you a clearer picture of how hard this run is, the first Dragon’s Back Race was held in 1992 and wasn’t attempted again until 2012. If you’re counting, that’s a whole 20 years later. According to a report by its current race director, its second year had 32 of 82 participants finish the course while in 2015, 65 of 142 racers completed it. Last year, 127 of 223 entrants successfully made their way across the finish line.

Photo Credit: Marathon Des Sables
Photo Credit: Marathon Des Sables

Marathon des Sables

How do you feel about running in the Sahara desert for 156 miles? If “not great,” is your immediate response, don’t worry, we’re right there with you. Dubbed “the toughest footrace on Earth” by the Discovery Channel, Marathon des Sables is a six-day trek in the sand underneath Morocco’s blazing sun and 100-degree weather. In short, it’s hell on earth. Changing from year to year, the route is meticulously planned for months and is not shared with runners until race day. In its 32-year run, the Marathon des Sables has grown in popularity and went from only 23 people entering it to over 1,200 in 2017. When finished, runners will have completed the equivalent of 5.5 marathons in the span of five to six days. Pretty amazing.

Photo Credit: Barkley Marathons
Photo Credit: The Barkley Marathons Documentary Film

Barkley Marathons

Fewer than 20 people have completed the Barkley Marathons in its over 30 years of existence. For one thing, it’s notoriously hard to even sign up for the race, let alone finish it. Especially since its exact distance is also somewhat of a mystery (over 100 miles-ish) and its unpredictable start times lead to a lot of confusion. In 2015 a documentary was made about the race entitled The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, and its official website hasn’t been maintained since 2000, so you can see where we’re going with this. But this unorthodox race calls out to some of the toughest competitors in the world because of its unmarked route that gains 60,000 feet of elevation (you’re basically climbing Mount Everest, twice) and its difficult trek through Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. To complete the race, competitors must make their way through its five loops, which are around 20 miles each, in under 60 hours. Oh, and just for shoots and giggles, you can’t use an electronic device or GPS to navigate your way.

Photo Credit: Badwater 135
Photo Credit: Badwater 135

Badwater 135

Similar to Marathon des Sables, the Badwater 135 ultra takes runners through extreme heat (up to 122 degrees F) to complete 135 miles of Death Valley terrain each July. Dating back to the mid-1970s, the race begins 280 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin—the lowest point in North America—and includes two grueling uphill sections. One of those ascents features more than 6,000 feet in vertical climbing for around 23 miles. Overall, the course gains 13,000 feet of elevation, crosses three mountain ranges and ends at the finish line in Whitney Portal, a.k.a the gateway to the highest summit in the contiguous US. Lest you think this all doesn’t sound that bad yet, you have to do the whole race in one go. It’s a non-stop competition going from the lowest point in the US to just about its highest.

UTMB ultramarathon
Photo Credit: Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

This wouldn’t be a complete list of challenging ultras if we didn’t include the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in our lineup. The European race takes place across France, Switzerland and Italy climbing to altitudes of over 8,200 feet of elevation and has more cumulative ascents than Mount Everest. Nicknamed “the race of all the superlatives,” the course boasts rainy and snowy conditions and plenty of downhill tracks to test your skills. But the exclusive race isn’t open to all runners, first you have to have the necessary points earned from previous marathons. These are scored on difficulty and given numbers between one and six. Next year’s UTMB requires 15 points to apply and you can only acquire those points within three marathons. Finally, if you’ve gotten your points, you still have to be entered into a lottery in hopes of getting your name pulled. Even then, only 67 percent of entrants finish the race since its cut-off time is 46 hours which includes your sleep time. Psssh, sleep is for the birds anyway.

Photo Credit: 6633 Ultra
Photo Credit: 6633 Ultra

6693 Ultra

This year will only be the 10th edition of the 6633 Ultra. But even as somewhat of a newbie on the race circuit, it’s already considered one of the coldest, toughest and windiest ultra distance footraces in the world. Dedicating its name to its longitudinal coordinates on the edge of the arctic circle, the ultramarathon takes place in Yukon, Canada each March. The 120- or 350-mile race (you can choose) finishes at either Fort McPherson or Tuktoyaktuk, respectively, and temperatures are typically below zero degrees with hurricane-strength winds. For most of the time, runners race through a hard-packed “forest” type trail that travels through a myriad of lakes strewn across the McKenzie Delta. To date, only 11 competitors have finished the non-stop, self-sufficient foot race which finishes at the Arctic Circle. Along with dealing with the elements, runners must drag their supplies with them via sled and finishers have been reduced to crawling across the finish line in years past.

Ultrarunner Sally McRae Doesn’t Make Excuses
How to Deal With Nature’s Elements on Ultras
Almost Any Runner Can Finish A 100-Mile Ultramarathon