The popularity of road marathons and obstacle racing has skyrocketed over the past few years. But what happens when you take away the road, the cheerful volunteers handing out energy gels, and most of your sanity? You get some of the gnarliest races out there, where mistakes can be fatal and merely crossing the finish line in one piece counts as victory.These races cover terrain from the jungle floor of the Amazon to spiny ridgelines in Wales, but one thing holds true across the board: none of the events are for rookies. Nearly all races market themselves on the same superlatives: toughest, hardest, coldest, craziest. But if a challenge that teeters on the precipice of possibility is the goal, look no further than these thirteen grueling competitions.
Runners cover 142.6 miles through the humid Peruvian jungle in a five-stage, self-supported race—all while battling temperatures in the 90s and plenty of bugs. The course drops 10,500 feet to the jungle floor and crosses some 70 rivers and streams as it winds through the jungle. “As you are in the jungle you will face humidity levels reaching near 100 percent, making sweating useless in maintaining your core body temperature,” reads the website.
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Challenge
Since 1982, roughly 15 people a year attempt to find the path of least resistance across more than 100 miles of wild Alaskan terrain. There’s no route or GPS, and participants must be skilled in self-rescue (and carry a SAT phone). Some have compared it to combat, and race veterans are quick to caution the unprepared and overzealous. “If you can't get off the couch right now and do an ultramarathon, you shouldn't even think about doing this race,” reads a post on a blog for the event. This year the Classic had its first fatality when a race veteran died while forging the Tana river.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores
From the Costa Rican jungle to high-altitude peaks and active volcanoes, bikers must battle knee-deep mud and sand (and poison dart frogs) over four stages on a course that climbs 29,000 feet over 161 miles. Since 1993, 450 riders a year ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic, tracing the path of three 16th-century Spanish conquistadors—except it took the latter 20 years to do it.
Race Across America
From Oceanside, California, teams and solo-riders pedal 3,000 miles to Annapolis, Maryland, climbing 170,000 along the way. The winners average about 22 hours a day on their bikes (which equates to about 250 to 350 miles per day), in order to complete the ride under the 12-day limit. The shortest qualifying race for the RAAM is 375 miles long, so expect to spend a few years getting to the starting line.
Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile
The Self-Transcendence, now in its 18th year, is not tucked in some remote corner of the world. Instead, it’s held in an unassuming corner of Queens, New York. And it tests competitors' mental strength as much as their fitness. Runners must cover 3,100 miles in 52 days by completing 5,649 mind-numbing laps around one city block. The course is short and mundane, meaning runners must battle the tedium and aching legs. “The serious athlete must have tremendous courage, physical stamina, concentration and the capacity to endure fatigue, boredom, and minor injuries,” states the race website.
Volvo Ocean Race
Every three years sailors race 38,739 nautical miles around the world, crossing four oceans and hitting five continents. This year the 12th edition of the race (formerly known as the Whitbread) kicks off in Spain and finishes in Sweden—nine months later. The longest sporting event in the world pits teams of eight (all-women teams can have 11) against each other as they sail non-stop for days at a time between ports. In 2011, due to concerns over piracy in the Indian Ocean, the multi-million-euro boats were lifted onto armed ships and dropped at a safe port in the Maldives. In total, five sailors have perished while competing.