Running an ultramarathon is pointless, and ultrarunning is fatuity. 99% of your time you spend alone, away from family and friends, alienated on long lonely dark hours, castigating your body to extreme limits of pain, then transcend over crazy terrain and weather conditions to earn that 1% of the time where you are either not in senses or annihilated. There is going to be no fame, mostly a good Instagram picture, a nice Facebook update, a fancy blog post, a finishers t-shirt and a shiny bling buckle in the end. Even in the best case, it is not supposed to get you one sponsor for a can of beer. It is pointless. Is it really?
For decades, these maniacs have found ways to push themselves further, apparently for no reason. Probably in hallucinations. Probably sleep deprived. Probably on painkillers. Probably dead. Some extreme ultramarathons demand years of physical and mental training, a good knowledge of survival skills, a skill for orienteering and then to give out everything when you have burnt your 100% already. The world is full of such crazy ultramarathons devised off late and more in the process of definition.
There can be no official list of TOP 10 or 20 Toughest Ultramarathons in the World as each race poses a different challenge, a different threat to the physiology of the body, a different danger to life, a different landscape, a different terrain, different weather conditions and attract a different breed of runners. Some races being remote demand mandatory crew support, however, some races pose an additional challenge by asking runners to carry all their supplies from the Start. If there is such a list of top 10, it is humanly very close to impossible for one human to finish all those races in a lifetime. There are over a dozen lists available online already that claim World’s Top 10 Ultramarathons listing. No list is perfect, just like this. And no list can be final. It’s always a working list that needs to be updated regularly as Race Directors keep tweaking the races, and new races keep showing up, challenging the challenge of existing ones. Each list offends certain community of ultrarunners, rightly so, because there is no possible perfect list. Each race is toughest in its realm.
So, in order to simplify, I have considered only single-stage footraces that are 100 miles or longer. Thus, coveted races like Jungle Ultra, Marathon des Sables, Dragon’s back – all have to be left out. Having run on roads, trails, mountains, I have a special affection for trail runs so like any other list, the list might reflect a bias towards trail races despite all efforts to stay neutral. The selection criteria include – distance, challenges and threat the race imposes, historical nature and finish rate that reflects the odds of finishing that race if you sign up for all 15, a history of minimum three years of existence, the degree of self-sufficiency and special gear/skills needed to compete.
Before we go to our Top 10, first I introduce the five races that are World’s Toughest (in no particular order), by all means, however, they did not quite make it to my Top 10 World’s Toughest Ultramarathons
Arrowhead Ultra 135 is like Hydrogen in the periodic table, fitting in every position and still a misfit, hence placed in this special list. AH135 is recognized as one of the toughest races in the world. It is essentially a human-powered Ultra Marathon held in the icebox of USA, Minnesota, in the coldest part of winter. 135 miles in frigid Winter across Northern Minnesota on rugged, scenic Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail from International Falls to Fortune Bay Casino, the race features best of winter ultrarunners in temperatures cold as -40 C. The race is self-supported, that means no crew or pacers are allowed and participants can not accept any outside aid. Competitors are allowed to have one drop bag and can choose to compete in three different categories: bike, foot or ski. Racers must carry a long list of survival gear (including camp stoves and sleeping bag), food, water from start to finish on a sled (for runners). There are only three checkpoints along the way where racers can stop to warm up. If this is not challenging enough, there is an unsupported category as well where no aid can be accepted even from fellow racers or volunteers.
The Brazil 135 mile is held in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountains (a sub-range of the Andes Cordillera) in the state of Minas Gerais. Inspired “in concept and in spirit” by the Badwater 135 in Death Valley, California, BR135+ event includes five races simultaneously, split into two solo runs. 135 miles runners have a 48-hour cutoff to make it to the finish and qualify for Badwater 135. Considered the most difficult foot race in Brazil, it is run on the hardest and most challenging segment of the Caminho da Fé (Path of Faith or Way of Faith), a Brazilian pilgrimage path, comprising of stretches of dirt roads, forests, waterfalls, asphalt, trails within farms and railroad tracks. The race is crew supported which means your personal support vehicle follows you through the race to provide any aid needed during the race. With over 30,000 ft of elevation gain and similar descent in warm, humid conditions, this race will push you to your extreme limits to just make it to the finish.
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is probably the most respected, competitive and toughest ultramarathon on this planet. Amid tens of thousands of application, 2000 participants get to start the race in the French Alps where they follow the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland. With cumulative elevation gain varying between 31000-34000ft, runners run 171 km with a target to finish under 46.5 hours. Being immensely competitive, runners have to collect 15 points from 3 ITRA certified races before they can send the application to the lottery for getting selected. Amid breathtaking landscapes, endless climbs, steep descents and unpredictable tough weather conditions, UTMB is the most unique and a must-do ultramarathon for anyone who embraces nature, pain and accomplishment all in one package with a remarkable festival atmosphere at the Start/Finish in Chamonix in France.
Hardrock 100 is one of the toughest 100 milers out there runners seek to challenge once in their lifetime. Open to only 150 participants, the race is held in the San Juan mountains, starts from Silverton School and ends in the same spot, passing through Lake City, Ouray and Telluride along the way. With elevation gain and an equal loss of about 34,000 ft, a stiff cutoff of 48 hours is incredibly tough to chase when runners are exposed to forces like thunderstorm lightning, rain, hail on an extremely rugged terrain including steep scree climbs and descents, snow packs, river crossings, and boulder fields. In order to complete the event, instead of crossing a finish line, runners are required to “kiss the Hardrock”, a picture of a ram’s head painted on a large block of stone mining debris. Every year the race is run in opposite direction than the previous one, keeping it a tough nut to crack.
Last Annual Vol State (LAVS) is 500 km long race across the state of Tennessee in the USA. It is like no other ultramarathon. The Vol-State is advertised as a journey, an adventure, and an exploration of inner space. It begins with a ferry ride across the Mississippi River, from Missouri to Kentucky, and finishes at “the Rock,” high atop Sand Mountain in Northeast Georgia. The runners, or fondly called Vol-Staters, are totally reliant upon their own physical and mental resources. In brutal July heat and humidity, the Vol-Stater must make their way on foot, along highways and backroads, from one small town to the next, over hills and across rivers, up mountains and down long valleys, all the while accounting for all of their most basic needs like food, water, shelter. There are no aid stations, no pacers. Over the years, those who have the courage to continue and finish on the rock reaching there on foot, the Vol-State has been a transcendental experience.
Now, here are ranked TOP 10 Toughest Ultramarathons.
Type: Road Race | Where: New York, USA
Key Challenge: Ridiculous distance, hot weather condition, monotonous
The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 mile is a unique race – the longest certified race in the world. Competitors seek to complete 3100 miles which involve 5649 laps of a 0.5488 of a mile course (883 meters) in a timespan of 52 days. The record for the event is currently held by Madhupran Wolfgang Schwerk of Germany. In 2006, Madhupran completed the race in 41 days 8 hours, averaging 75 miles per day. The challenge of Sri Chinmoy race is the monotony of running in circles of less than a kilometre for seven weeks, sustaining a minimum 60-mile mileage to have a realistic chance to finish. The runners begin at 6 am and run for extended periods throughout the day, taking breaks as needed. If they want to, they can continue as late as 12 midnight when the course closes for the night. Each year about 10 runners get to start for 3100 miles and only half of them end of finishing.
9. Ouray 100
Type: Mountain Race | Where: Colorado, USA
Key Challenge: Endless climbs, high altitude, unpredictable weather,
With over 41,862 ft elevation gain, 83,724 ft change, Ouray 100 is one of the toughest 100 milers you will ever attempt, claims the Race Director. Situated in the rugged and stunning San Juan Mountain range in southwest Colorado, it’s a low key event with no frills. Other than the ridiculous amount of climbing that will overwhelm the quads and lungs, the key challenge is the vast landscape, extremely fickle weather. 2018 Finisher Razvan Lazareanu describes the races as “pick 14 mountain summits and bring people in to run to the top, over and down to the other side (sometimes more than once), repeat non-stop with no rest for 2 days and 2 nights, throw in some crazy rain and hail, thunderstorms, altitude between 10,000 and 13,000 feet and then mix everything together really, really well and Ouray 100 is the result of all this.” The race starts and finishes at Fellin Park, runners must hole punch their bib at numerous unmanned out and backs along the route. Runners are allowed to have a pacer after half way mark and crew may be positioned at dedicated aid stations. Ouray, in many ways, is similar to Hardrock 100 which is much more competitive, which is a good training race for The Barkley Marathons.
Type: Road Race | Where: California, USA
Key Challenge: Extreme heat, vast exposed desert landscape
Famous as World’s Toughest, Badwater Ultramarathon is the holy grail of Ultrarunning. Staged in Death Valley, California, Badwater starts from Badwater Basin (279 ft below sea level) and ends at Whitney Portal, trailhead of USA’s highest mountain peak Mt. Whitney. Running in conditions as 55 degrees Celsius, through a desert with no place to hide, even the most trained and hardened ultramarathon runners struggle to just finish the race. With an elevation gain of over 13,000 ft, the 217 km or 135-mile long race is essentially crew supported which means each runner must have a dedicated crew with support vehicle that must align with traffic and race guidelines. Famous for the quote “running on the white line” as it can melt your shoes, Badwater is only for the most trained ultramarathon runners and have well defined qualifying criteria on their website. If you think Badwater is extremely tough, they also feature Badwater Ultra Cup that is awarded to the runners who finish 51-mile Badwater Cape Fear, the 81-mile Badwater Salton Sea, and the 135-mile Badwater 135 in the same calendar year.
Type: Mountain Race | Where: Courmayeur, ITALY
Key Challenge: Long distance, unpredictable weather, endless climbing, mostly self-supported
The Tor des Géants claims to be the first and only race to combine long distance with the individual style of runners, i.e., no compulsory stage cutoffs, and the one who completes the race in the shortest time, making their own decisions on when and how long to stop for rest and refreshment is the winner. The race runs along spectacular paths at the foot of the highest Four-Thousanders in the Alps and through the Gran Paradiso Natural Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park. All of these particular features help make this such a unique, inimitable race that has a distance of 336 km with 79,000 ft of elevation gain, all under 150 hours of a ridiculous cutoff. However, runners claim to have climbed over 101,000 during the entire distance. The race has seven aid stations, called life bases, that are about 50k apart and located in larger towns or villages, where runners can have access to drop bag and help from their crew. With all the challenges, only the experienced mountain goats are recommended to embark on this unforgiving and brutal journey.
Type: Mountain/Trail Race | Where: Derbyshire, UK
Key Challenge: Ridiculous distance, unpredictable weather, varying terrain, self-supported
Claimed as one of the world’s toughest endurance races by the race director, The Spine Race is a truly epic challenge designed to test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. A single stage non-stop race along the iconic The Pennine Way National Trail in the UK, it exposes runners to the full intensity and ferocity of the British Winter. The race, that three different categories are open to anyone with appropriate experience who wish to test themselves and compete in a truly demanding race. 429 km long distance from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland with tight sectional cutoffs, organizers warn runners to expect to face extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, groundwater, storm force winds and driving rain in a gruelling, non-stop race series up to 7 days. With 44,000 ft of cumulative elevation gain, tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation and exposure to the extremes of winter weather are all to be expected to finish this monster under 7 days. The race has been designed to have a more expedition approach, so runners carry what they need with checkpoints, each with sectional cutoffs. The race draws on many skills and is advantageous to be skilled in a number of areas related to outdoor activity in fell/ mountainous terrain if you want to apply.
5. 6633 Ultra
Type: Road Race | Where: Yukon, CANADA
Key Challenge: Long distance, extremely cold unpredictable weather, extremely windy, self-supported, winter survival skills needed
Toughest. Coldest. Windiest. The true Arctic Ultramarathon flags off in middle of nowhere in Eagle Plains, 225 miles away from Dawson City in Yukon and ends 380 miles away in Tuktoyaktuk in Northwestern Territories on the banks of the Arctic Ocean. Essentially non-stop self-supported race takes participants across the Arctic Circle, hence the name 6633. Where organizers claim to be the toughest, they also state that race is perfectly doable for those willing to prepare physically and mentally in the extreme wilderness of Yukon. Unlike Yukon Arctic Ultra, this race is largely a road race where participants run with all their supplies in a wheeled sled that they drag for close to four hundred miles of icy frozen highway. The race offers a unique option of choosing the distance while being in the race as well, where runners are allowed to upgrade to 380 miles from 120 miles category if they feel like continuing making their previous result invalid. This, of course, has to be indicated before the start. The racers experience storm force winds, complete whiteout roads and temperatures of -40 C during most of the race, with just 7-8 hours of daylight.
Type: Trail Race | Where: Yukon, CANADA
Key Challenge: Long distance, extremely cold unpredictable weather, self-supported, winter survival skills needed
430 miles of the trail followed by Yukon Quest, Yukon Arctic Ultra is one among the most extreme races on this planet. The race takes participants from Whitehorse to Dawson City on a marked trail, which is often difficult to find hidden in fresh snow or blinded by strong winds. Thus, GPS is strongly advised for navigation for orienteering. It is not just the ridiculous distance, but the extreme cold of Yukon in peak winter, the nature of the trail that passes through hills and no support makes it life-threatening and give the organizers all the rights to call themselves the toughest ultra race in the world. Racers drag their supplies and a long list of mandatory survival gear on a sled for up to 10 days. here are multiple checkpoints on the route, generally 30 miles apart, that offer food and hot water until the final stretch which is 100 miles of emptiness in the wild, exposed to all forces on the mercy of Canadian winter. The race also features distances like 300 miles, 100 miles and a marathon.
3. La Ultra
Type: Road Race | Where: Ladakh, INDIA
Key Challenge: Long distance, dangerous high altitude, unpredictable weather, rugged terrain
There are races that are tough, some are challenging, but only a few are dangerous. Staged in the cold desert of Ladakh traversing through The Great Himalayan Mountain Range, La Ultra is 333 km long foot race that takes runners through brutal terrain crossing three of the World’s highest mountain passes above 17,500 ft. If you think the extreme distance of 333 km makes it tough, it’s not even close to the real challenge. 50% lesser Oxygen levels, the temperature that fluctuates between 40 degrees heat and 10 degrees Celsius below freezing in a matter of hours, and ridiculous altitude of the course, potentially pose serious health risks of high altitude sickness, particularly pulmonary edemas that may lead to death. The race allows runners to have a personal crew, but only after you succeed to survive the first 90 km. The race director denies any comparisons, and rightly so, as no other race goes even remotely close to such extreme altitudes. La Ultra have the bragging rights to call themselves the toughest ultra marathon in the World. Other than 333 km, the race features distances like 222 km, 111 km and 111 km relay.
Type: Mountain Race | Where: Tennessee, USA
Key Challenge: Race entry, unmarked off-trail route, No GPS, endless climbing, sleep deprivation, tight cut-off, unpredictable weather
The Barkley Marathon is a flat 26.2 mile Boston Qualifier road race on a well-marked course. With aid station every mile, the race features massage stations and Spa centres every 5 miles and you have 12 hours to finish the race. Okay, I lied. The Barkley Marathons, a race that survived the media eyeballs for about three decades, is now a classic in ultrarunning following the popularity it got through 2012 Documentary – “A race that eats its young”. Staged in Frozen Head State Park, Tennesse, BM100 is told to be a 100-mile race, with 5 loops of 20 miles with cumulative elevation gain of 64000 to 66000 ft to be run under 60 hours, averaging 12 hours per loop. Anyone who has run there would vouch for each loop being 26-30 mile long. The route is not marked, GPS is not allowed, so no one knows the distance or elevation. Runners have to collect 9-13 pages from books placed on the race route to prove they completed the loop. Runners are allowed to have a crew, however, they can provide support only during the time between the end of the previous loop and the start of next loop. How to enter the race? The course map? – it’s all still a guarded secret, however, there are bits and pieces available on the internet. Race map is revealed during check-in and race may start anytime between midnight to next morning, an hour after the conch. Only 40 poor souls get to start this race every year and its history of 32 years, the race has featured only 15 finishers. There is a lot of information available online, so I’d rather leave this to you to search for yourself.
Type: Trail Race | Where: Alaska, USA
Key Challenge: Ridiculous distance, extremely cold unpredictable weather, self-supported, winter survival skills needed
Iditarod Trail Invitational was born about 18 years ago on the trail that featured the legendary dog sled race “Iditarod – The last great race on the planet”. Iditarod is a 1049 mile long dog sled race through the extreme winter of Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome through Iditarod Trail. The ITI follows the historic Iditarod Trail from its trailhead at Knik Lake near Anchorage to the remote interior village of McGrath, continuing to the Bering Sea before reaching the trail’s conclusion in Nome. After the village of Ophir, the trail diverges into northern and southern routes before rejoining in Kaltag. Generally, in even-numbered years, the northern route is followed, and in odd-numbered years, the southern route is used. With seven checkpoints that fulfil basic needs, ITI allows runners to have three drop bags that may contain the consumables and runners carry rest of the stuff on a sled that is often 50 pounds for about a month in planet’s most brutal winter conditions. If the distance of 1000 miles was not brutal enough, the participants face anything between temperatures from -50F to 35F, gale force winds, rain, blizzards, waist-deep snow, mud, glare ice and bright sunny skies – all in the same day as they traverse the final 500 miles of the Iditarod Trail without support, relying only on the supplies they carry with them and those they send to remote villages prior to the race. It is the ultimate adventure and tests the participants to the core to make it to the seemingly impossible finish in 4 weeks. The race also features distances like 350 miles and 150 miles and other modes of participants are bike and ski. Similar to Iditarod Trail Invitational is Iditasport featuring similar events in all three disciplines. For more information, you may visit their website.
If you like here’s list of India’s Top 5 Toughest Ultramarathons.
Feature Image: Tor des Geants