The world’s toughest ultra runs

You would not believe the incredible distances of these races over mountains, deserts and jungle.

Hardrock 100: One of the world's toughest ultras
© Katie DeSplinter

There's tough, like running a marathon tough. Then there's off the charts, 'are you serious?' tough. Running for 300km with so much climbing you'd enter space? Running in extreme heat, in temperatures as low as -20°C, or in the stifling humidity of a jungle, where the next footstep could be on a poisonous snake? Oh yes... welcome to the world of ultra running. We asked seasoned ultra runner and writer Fredrik Ölmqvist for the lowdown on the hardest. Here's his selection.

THE TOUGHEST RACE IN AMERICA

Hardrock Endurance Run 100
Distance: 100 miles (160km)
Climb: 10,000m
Where: Colorado, USA
Hazards: Altitude, wilderness, storms, steep drops
Tough factor: 8

Don't let the title fool you. Those are miles, not kilometres. Considered the toughest 100 miler in the US, the Hardrock 100 takes place at an average altitude of 11,000ft (3,500m). The terrain is technical and thunder storms are not uncommon. “Mountaineering, wilderness survival and navigation skills are as important in this event as your endurance,” say the organisers. Runners finish by kissing 'the Hardrock', a picture of a ram's head painted on stone.
www.hardrock100.com
 

Runners during the Hardrock 100
Running 100 miles is no bed of roses© Hardrock100.com

THE BEST RACE FOR WILDLIFE

Jungle Marathon
Distance: 254km
Climb: Not recorded
Where: Brazil
Hazards: Swamps, snakes, mosquitoes, leeches, crocs, mud...
Tough factor: 9

Running a marathon is one thing. Running six? In the jungle? Over six stages, runners have to battle their way across 254km of inhospitable jungle terrain, including swamp and river crossings with lurking anacondas, caimans and piranhas. ”They add to the excitement,” says one competitor.

You will be followed by jaguars, woken up by howler monkeys and bitten by fierce ants and wasps. Did we forget to mention the spiders, mosquitos and scorpions? Feeling tempted anyway? Next edition is in October.
www.junglemarathon.com

competitors cross a river in the Jungle marathon
Watch the snakes: the jungle marathon is 254km© Alexander Beer

THE RACE FOR COLD LOVERS

MONTANE® Yukon Arctic Ultra
Distance: 700km
Climb: 6,000m
Where: Canada
Hazards: Hypothermia, frostbite, exhaustion
Tough factor: 9

This race prides itself as being the world's coldest and toughest ultra  thanks to the epic conditions: extreme and sometimes scary coldness, very soft and slow trails and course distances up to almost 700km. Racers have to pull a sled with all mandatory equipment and food. Temperatures average between -12° and -25°C. Just surviving is an achievement. “When the cold comes in at night you cannot make a mistake,” says 100-mile course competitor Jacob Hastrup.”
www.arcticultra.de/en/
 

A competitor during the MONTANE®-Yukon-Arctic Ultra
Nothing but a long cold road ahead. © MONTANE® / Martin Hartley

THE RACE WITH NO TRAILS

Dragon’s Back Race
Distance: 300km
Climb: 15,000m
Where: Wales
Hazards: Technical ground, wet and cold, navigation, sheep
Tough factor: 9

First held in 1992, it took 20 years for the race to make a comeback in 2012. Afterwards, one seasoned ultra runner stated that any day of the Dragon's Back Race was tougher than any of the 100 milers he'd done – and he'd done over 100 of them! Held on a unmarked course, participants have to straight-line navigate across the harshest terrain Wales has to offer, often in poor visibility.
www.dragonsbackrace.com
 

A runner climbs a ridge during the Dragon's Back
Enter the Dragons Back to test your soul. © Jon Brooke

THE RACE FOR MADMEN

The Grand Raid Réunion / Diagonale des Fous
Distance: 164km
Climb: 9,917m
Where: La Réunion, Indian Ocean
Hazards: Huge drops, 10,000m of ascent, volcanic rock, extreme weather
Tough factor: 8

The name tells you all you need to know – the diagonal of madmen. It's a non-stop 164km run with 9,917m of elevation. Add the tropical climate, temperatures that go from heavy rain to thick fog to extreme heat and sharp, volcanic rock that can be painful to run on, and it's easy to see why the Diagonale has mythic status. “If you're prone to vertigo, pick another race, as some sections will scare the shit out of you,” says one seasoned pro.
www.grandraid-reunion.com
 

Runners during the Diagonale des Fous
Diagonale des Fous: the madman's race© JP VIDOT / Grand Raid

THE RACE FOR MASOCHISTS

Tor des Géants
Distance: 336km
Climb: 24,000m
Where: Italy
Hazards: Extreme weather, sleep deprivation, hallucinations
Tough factor: 9

The TDG, or 'the Tor' is feared even by seasoned ultra runners and the stats speak for themselves: 336km, 24,000m of ascent, 25 mountain passes over 2,000m – only 50 percent finish. The record time is three days. Conditions are often miserable. Imagine freezing cold temperatures with strong gusts trying to push you off the mountain, rain, sleet, hail, thunder, lightning and long dark nights. Then there's the sleep deprivation and hallucinations. On the plus? You experience sunrises, nights glimmering with stars, amazement, rage, fear, desolation, tears and joy. Go on, sign up here:
www.tordesgeants.it
 

A runner climbs during the Tor des Geants
Even seasoned ultra runners are scared of the TdG© Stefano Torrione

THE RACE TO GET HIGH

La Ultra – The High
Distance: 333km
Climb: 3x 5,000m passes
Where: Indian Himalayas
Hazards: Altitude sickness, lack of oxygen, massive mountains, heat and cold
Tough factor: 8

Nothing beats the Himalayas when it comes to high altitude. This single-stage race’s nickname is “The High”. Apart from the extreme altitude, runners have to cover 333km in under 72 hours and contend with the perils of altitude sickness, which in extreme cases can cause death. Along the way are three 5,000m passes. (Shorter options of 222km and 111km also exist.) It's so extreme, organisers discourage rivalry. The views however, are worth the sweat and pain. Maybe...
www.thehigh.in
 

Runners in La Ultra 333
High altitude in La Ultra 333© Shilpi Sharma

THE RACE TO BECOME A LEGEND

Spartathlon:
Distance: 246km
Climb: 1,200m
Where: Greece
Hazards: Exhaustion, scorching heat, ruthless cut-off times
Tough factor: 7

The ultimate test of physical strength and endurance, Spartathlon in Greece is one the most prestigious ultras in the world and the one that top runners want to do. Only 40 percent finish this single-stage race over 246km from Athens to Sparta. First there is the speed. With very tough cut-off times runners rarely get any time for rest – there's just 36hrs to finish. The course is part of Greek legend. Finish and you'll join the pantheon of legends. The tattoo is optional.
www.spartathlon.gr
 

Spartathlon tattoo
The Spartathlon will stay with you forever. © Shilpi Sharma

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