Your lungs are heaving. Your legs are burning. Your mind is screaming for you to quit. If this sounds appealing, then you’re probably an ideal candidate for an extreme endurance challenge.
Let’s face it, some people were just born to push their limits. And there’s something thrilling about lining up for a race where you’re not trying to PR — you’re just trying to make it across the finish line in one piece. Whether you’re battling icy temperatures or running through the desert, such races will test your mettle — and leave you wondering if maybe, just maybe, you should’ve updated your will before lining up at the start.
Of course, training for an extreme endurance challenge is different from training for a standard road race. “Each race is going to require tweaks to your training depending on the duration, technical difficulty, and conditions,” says Caitlin Snow, a two-time Ironman champion turned ultrarunner.
And there are a few things you should know before embarking on one of these epic adventures. “You want a whistle in case you get lost, and this is particularly important for remote events,” Snow says. “A headlamp is a must, because even if you’re fully prepared to crush it before sunset, extreme events inherently increase the risk of injury.” And that could leave you stranded after dark. Last but not least, she says, bring more fueling options than you think you need, just in case your body doesn’t absorb what you thought it might.
Still game? Here are a few insane races to sign up for.
Marathon des Sables (Morocco)
Often called the toughest foot race on Earth, the Marathon des Sables is a six-day ultramarathon that covers about 150 miles. That’s approximately the distance of six regular marathons, although the Marathon des Sables is anything but regular. For starters, it’s run entirely on sand in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. During the day, temperatures can reach 120 degrees with high humidity and the occasional sandstorm. At night, temps will drop by more than half as you snuggle up with seven other racers in a shared tent. And you’ll be carrying all of your own food and water with you in a backpack as you race. Needless to say, this event isn’t for the faint of heart.
DATE: April 5-15, 2019
IRONMAN World Championship (Hawaii)
In the triathlon world, there is no race more iconic, prestigious, or brutal than the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii, a.k.a. “Kona.” Held on the Big Island in October, Kona attracts the strongest, fittest and fastest triathletes on the planet. If the distance isn’t enough to intimidate you — 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a full 26.2-mile marathon — then the heat, humidity, and high winds might do it. Just qualifying for Kona is no easy feat. Amateur racers must compete in another full-length IRONMAN and perform well enough to earn a spot at Kona (each race awards between 30 and 75 Kona spots).
DATE: October 12, 2019
Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon
When it comes to extreme triathlons, Norseman is in a league of its own. This point-to-point race in Norway covers the same distances as an Ironman event — but the conditions and terrain make this an endurance challenge like no other. When the gun goes off at 5 a.m., racers jump from the back of a ferry into a freezing Norwegian fjord and swim 2.4 miles to the town of Eidfjord. The first 40 miles of the 112-mile bike course are uphill, and the last 11 miles of the marathon involve ascending an actual mountain. (On the upside, you’ll never complain about hills on a city course again.) You’ll also need to provide your own support team, which will be responsible for transporting your food and gear during the bike and run legs. The soup at the finish is free, though.
DATE: August 3, 2019 (but the enrollment lottery typically happens in early November)
Badwater 135 Ultramarathon (California)
Described by many seasoned endurance runners as the toughest ultramarathon of them all, Badwater 135 has near-mythical status in the world of ultra running. The race is held in the aptly named Death Valley in July, when the average high is more 100 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures often top 130 degrees. It covers three mountain ranges and some 14,600 feet worth of uphills. The extreme heat and colossal climbs take their toll on many. Bring plenty of water, of course — but you’ll also want to pack Elastikon tape for blisters, because the scalding-hot roads are no joke.
DATE: July 15-17, 2019 (applications will be taken between January 25 and February 8 only)
Jungle Ultra (Peru)
If hiking through the Amazon rainforest doesn’t sound difficult enough, why not try racing through it? The Jungle Ultra is a 142-mile race through cloud forests and dense jungle trails in Peru’s Manu National Park. Prepare yourself for river crossings, deep mud, and intense humidity — not to mention periods of running through the darkness with a headlamp, so try not to think of all the critters and creepy-crawlies you can’t see. Accommodations will be provided at research stations and lodges throughout the region, but participants are responsible for carrying their own food, safety equipment, and at least 2.5 liters of water (which can be refilled at the checkpoints).
DATE: June 2-3, 2019
Polar Circle Marathon (Greenland)
Hate racing in the heat? If so, the Polar Circle Marathon might be for you. Dubbed “the coolest marathon on Earth” (ba-dum-tss), this bone-chilling race in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, presents a unique opportunity to knock out 26.2 miles in one of the most remote parts of the world. As you run past glacier tongues and moraine landscapes, you’ll be dreaming of soaking your frozen toes in a warm bath later. Part of the race takes place on a slippery ice cap — and even the gravel road on the main part of the course may be snow-covered in spots — so wear trail running shoes or pack traction cleats.
DATE: October 2019
Self Transcendence 3100 (New York)
If you’re looking for a way to test your endurance and your sanity — and wear out a few pairs of sneakers along the way — then perhaps it’s time to sign up for the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Nope, that’s not a typo. This is the longest certified footrace in the world. Participants have 52 days to go the mind-blowing distance, which means they need to average just shy of 60 miles a day. And don’t expect to be distracted by varied terrain and gorgeous scenery along the way — the “race course” is a flat, half-mile loop around a sports field in Queens, New York. So why would anyone sign up for this? Well, that’s where the name comes from. The founder, Sri Chinmoy, was a pioneer in the application of meditation to sports, and he championed tapping into one’s inner strength to transcend physical limitations. Needless to say, this race will require a lot of tapping.
DATE: June 17 – August 7, 2019