Wickedly steep mountain slopes. Rough, rocky terrain. Weather that is either blood-boilingly hot or chillingly frigid. These are just a few characteristics of some of the most challenging races in America and, indeed, the world. Spanning almost 4 million square miles from sea to shining sea, America has enough blistering deserts, craggy mountain peaks, and windswept plains to put any thrill seeker in heaven—and any comfort-lover in hell. If you’re craving your next adventure, or just want to make yesterday’s training session seem like a piece of cake, read on to learn more about the top 6 toughest races in the U.S.
Grand to Grand Ultra, Arizona/Utah
This grueling 170-mile race takes place between two of America’s most iconic geological formations: the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Staircase. For 7 days, runners compete in 6-stage stretches between campsites, navigating through a desert landscape of red canyons, sand dunes, mesas, hoodoos, and buttes. While the first few stages of the race are in 26 and 53 mile stretches, the final day is a heart-pounding 7.6 mile sprint. A combined ascent and descent of 39,000 feet makes this one of the toughest races in the world, but the sheer beauty of the backdrop also makes it one of the most scenic, with runners able to experience one of America’s most breath-taking landscapes in its largely-untouched natural beauty.
Badwater 135, Death Valley, California
The race that bills itself as “the world’s toughest foot race” takes place in the hottest spot in the U.S. in the hottest month of the year. Runners must survive searing desert heat and blinding sun in a grueling 135-mile trek that combines both distance and elevation. The race begins 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley and ends at 8,360 feet above sea level at the trailhead to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The course spans three mountain ranges for a total of 19,000 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 of cumulative descent. To ensure the worst conditions possible, the race is held in mid-July, and temperatures can reach over 120° F. Perhaps surprisingly, this invitation-only event is still extremely popular among runners, and demand to participate in the race usually far exceeds available spots.
Barkley Marathons, Tennessee
This race has one of the most unusual race origin stories in the world. It all started when founder Gary Cantrell learned about the escape of famed assassin James Earl Ray, who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. After escaping from prison, the killer ran through the woods for 55 hours, making it only 8 miles before his recapture. Upon hearing the story, Cantrell reportedly thought to himself, “I could do at least 100.”
This race, therefore, is designed to test runners as if they themselves were the famed convict. Unlike most races, the Barkley Marathons are designed for participant failure, with only 14 out of 1,000 runners officially completing it within its inception in 1986. To be considered officially finished, runners must complete the distance within a 60-hour cutoff period, a difficult feat to accomplish through 59,100 feet of poorly-marked suggestions of forested trail. Even participating in the race is difficult, as there is no website or official explanation of how to enter. “If folks have business out here in Barkley, they’ll find it,” Cantrell has said.
Mount Marathon Race, Alaska
Number 4 on our list of hardest races: like many other Alaskan things, the Mount Marathon Race is famously difficult, brutal, and dangerous. The ruthless 5k is proof that size doesn’t matter, cramming primitive winding trails, treacherous mountain climbs, and rugged terrain into a relatively small package. Competitors scramble up 3.5 miles of vertical cliffs, mud, and shale, only to hurtle back down the same way they came at their own peril. Waterfalls, loose scree, and jagged cliffs pose significant threats, and the race has caused many broken bones and other injuries in its 88-year history. The mountain has even claimed one racer’s life in recent years. Runner Michael LeMaitre was last seen 200 feet below the Turnaround Point in July 2012, and never returned back down the mountain. Though search and rescue teams have spent hours scouring the trail, his body has never been found. Nevertheless, countless runners still vie for a chance to compete in this race, for there is no other one like it in the world.
Mt. Washington Road Race, New Hampshire
Running up a hill isn’t hard. Unless that hill happens to be Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. Runners sprint 7.6 miles up a 12% grade slope, which becomes a lung-busting 22% grade in the final 100 yards. In addition to being steep, Mount Washington is also home to extremely unpredictable weather, with winds known to top 200 miles per hour at the summit. Factors like snow, ice, fog, wind, and cold can make the race exceptionally challenging, not to mention dangerous, for those who run it. The harsh weather and insanely steep gradient are actually a key attraction for most runners, however, and the race has been considered a rite of passage for New England racers since 1961.
Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile, New York
All athletes know that the biggest challenge a runner faces is himself. The Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile embraces this philosophy by testing not only runners’ bodies, but their minds. Runners must cover 3,100 miles in 52 days by completing 5,649 monotonous laps around one city block. As writer Martin Fritz Huber put it, “that’s like running from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, California, on a patch of urban landscape with little in the way of distinguishing features, save perhaps the perplexed stares of adolescent soccer players wondering what the hell you’re doing.” The race was founded by prolific Bengali guru Sri Chinmoy, who believed that the mark of a true athlete is the ability to summon enough courage, concentration, and power of will to transcend fatigue, boredom, repetition, and pain. The Self-Transcendence is the longest certified foot race in the world—and it all takes place on a tiny patch of grass in Queens.
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