The world’s seven hardest winter races

Frostbite, ice running and masochism, welcome to the world of winter racing.
Participants skitouring at night during the Patrouille des Glacier in Switzerland.
Skitouring at night at the Patrouille des Glacier © Juerg Kaufmann go4image.com
By Katy Dartford

For anyone who likes to suffer, the arrival of winter must be a special time. Opportunities abound for test your body, spirit and sense of humour: running across a frozen lake that could crack at any moment? Battling through hurricane-strength winds, sub-zero temperatures, altitude? These seven sufferfests have them all...

Likeys 6693 Ultra

Best for: Professional masochists

Distance: 560km
Where: Yukon, Canada
Hazards: Sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-strength winds
Frostbite Factor: 10
Where do I sign: www.6633ultra.com

Endless frozen plains, constant sub-zero temperatures and hurricane-strength winds, this race has literally reduced people to crawling. Named after the longitude/latitude of the point where the race enters the Arctic Circle, since the first edition in 2007, only 11 people have completed the course, so its claim to being the 'toughest, coldest and windiest extreme ultra marathon on the planet' doesn’t seem much of an overstatement.

It starts from the Eagle Plains hotel on the Klondike Highway, pushes across the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean, and runners do this all while dragging their supplies in a sled behind them.

A participant running during the Likeys 6693 Ultra marathon.
There's plenty of time to contemplate life. © Likeys 6693 Ultra

Patrouille des Glaciers

Best for: Bragging rights glory

Distance: 53km
Where: Swiss Alps
Hazards: Exhaustion, bad weather, hypothermia, crevasses
Frostbite Factor: 9
Where do I sign: www.pdg.ch

The Patrouille des Glaciers is a legendary high-mountain dash on skis across the mountains of Switzerland that was originally devised as a way to test the stuff of alpine soldiers during WW2. Revived in the 80s it's now a (heavily over-subscribed) classic endurance race. It begins in Zermatt, passes the shadow of the Matterhorn and finishes in Verbier some 53km and 4,000m of ascent later.

Participants skitouring during the Patrouille des Glacier in Switzerland.
Skitourers in the Patrouille des Glaciers © frperraudin.ch

The Baikal Ice Marathon

Best for: Extreme marathoners

Distance: 26 miles
Where: Siberia
Hazards: Hypothermia, falling over.
Frostbite Factor: 8
Where do I sign: www.baikal-marathon.org

Biting northern winds, harsh temperatures: welcome to the Russian outpost of Siberia, famed for its hostile environment – just the place for a race. Lake Baikal is the world's seventh largest lake in the world and contains 20 per cent of the world's water. Just don't fall in it.

Taking a shot of vodka before the Baikal Ice Marathon is a traditional ritual to help pacify the spirits of the great lake. It's fair to assume it's not something your endurance scientist is going to recommend though.

Andrei Stadnik running during the Lake Baikal Ice marathon.
This man is Russian and clearly very hard. © Louise Murray

Tough Guy

Best for: Obstacle and mud fetishists

Distance: 15km
Where: UK
Hazards: Electric shocks, freezing water, hypothermia, tight spaces, fire...
Frostbite Factor: 10
Where do I sign: www.toughguy.co.uk

Marathons? Too boring. Ironman? Too much lycra. You need to do an obstacle run. The UK's Tough Guy is the original and one of the most challenging out there. It packs 200 obstacles from razor wire you have to crawl under, concrete tunnels, burning piles of peat you have to jump over, rope walks, cold water dunkings and a quad busting uphill slalom course.

If there was a course designed to sap your spirit and will to live, this is it. And because it takes place in mid-winter, you have to contend with freezing temperatures as well. In 2009 Arctic winds brought sub-zero temperatures – almost 600 competitors had to be treated for hypothermia. Competitors must sign a 'death-waiver' before taking part. Yes, really...

A competitor battling against the rough conditions at the Tough Guy Challenge.
Tough Guy? Cold water, ice, electric shocks... © Chris Royle / Colorsport

Vasaloppet

Best for: Classical cross-country skiers

Distance: 90km
Where: Sweden
Hazards: Failure, disappointment, exhaustion
Frostbite Factor: 6
Where do I sign: www.vasaloppet.se

The Vasoloppet is the oldest, longest, and one of the biggest cross-country ski races in the world. Every year 16,500 participants take part, skiing from Sälen to Mora, traversing forests, hills, and frozen lakes fuelled on traditional reindeer stew given to racers the night before.

The race was first run in 1922, inspired by the journey of King Gustav Vasa's 1520 flight from the King of Denmark. Finish and you'll feel like a king too. But the cut off times are ruthless and anyone going too slow will be pulled up.

A huge number of participants skiing during the Vasaloppet marathon.
Vasaloppet is the classic endurance xc ski race © Ulf Palm

The Last Desert

Best for: Aspiring polar explorers

Distance: 250km
Where: Antarctica
Hazards: Hypothermia, extreme cold, crevasses
Frostbite factor: 9
Where do I sign: www.4deserts.com

The Last Desert is a 250km run in Antarctica held over seven stages.  Travelling in Antarctica is only for the most diehard suffer junkies. Expect temperatures as low as -40 degrees and an exhausting and never-ending battle to keep going – both mentally and physically.

The Last Desert is a 250km run in Antarctica. © 4 Deserts Limited/www.4deserts.com

Kitzsteinhorn Extreme

Best for: Uphill lovers

Distance: 17km
Where: Austria
Hazards: Exhaustion, all-over body pain
Frostbite factor: 5
Where do I sign: www.kitzsteinhorn-extreme.at

If you are the type of person who is curious to take your body to the absolute limit of physical strain, you've come to the right place. The Dynafit Kitzsteinhorn Extreme sounds like someone's idea of a joke – instead of skiing down the mountain you go up, all the way from the mountain village of Kaprun to the mighty 3,203m Kitzsteinhorn peak.

It's a sufferfest of 2,500 vertical metres and you'll feel every one. Racers begin on foot, running up the mountain with skis on their backs until they hit the snowline. Then they put on skis for the rest of the way. Finishing is by no means certain...

Competitors battling during the 2014 Kitzsteinhorn Extreme race.
Competitors battle at the Kitzsteinhorn Extreme © Skitourenwinter.at/Tom Bause

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