Unforgiving weather conditions, brutally
steep climbs, unrelenting terrain, and a mileage count that most people would
only think of completing inside a car are just a few of the criteria that place
some running events in that extreme category that only a select few even think
about attempting to complete.
For those of you looking for a race that will provide the ultimate test of your physical and mental limits, we’ve got just the bucket list. From volcanos to rain forests to the base camp of Mt. Everest, these 10 trail races are without a doubt some of the absolute toughest in the world.
Silverton, Colorado (USA)
The Leadville 100 and Western States are classic ultra races in the U.S., but the Hardrock 100 might just be the most difficult.
Following dirt trails up (and down) the San Juan Mountains, the 2019 race will force runners to tackle 66,000 feet of elevation change, with Handies Peak being the high point of the race at 14,048 feet.
Even though the course changes each year, the race is known for being extremely remote with unpredictable weather conditions ranging from heavy snowfall to blistering heatwaves.
Belfast, South Africa
Is it possible to navigate 400km through some of the toughest indigenous forests and valleys in the world in under 120 hours? This is the question that The Munga begs us to answer by toeing the start line.
Starting in Belfast and finishing on the Blyde River Canyon (the third largest in the world), participants will navigate the route entirely by GPS as a team or as a solo competitor.
Runners can stop to sleep and eat at one of five race villages along the way should they choose, and aside from the other nine water stations along the course athletes will be required to carry any additional supplies that may be needed.
Everest Base Camp, Nepal
While it isn’t as long as some of the others on this list, consider that this race that circles legendary Mt. Everest begins at whopping 18,000 feet of elevation before you call it easy. The good news is it’s almost all the way downhill to the finish at Namche Bazaar (11,306 feet), and there are plenty of jaw-dropping views along the way. However, the altitude and blistering cold should provide you with enough of a challenge, and top finishers are usually around the four-hour mark for the 26.2-mile course.
Dragon’s Back Race
Wales, United Kingdom
The scenery and ancient castles along this route are truly epic, but you’ll have to do some serious climbing if you want to take in the view. You’ll ascend about 50,000 feet over the five-day race and cover about 192 miles, all along a trackless path in the high mountains of Wales.
The race is run every two years, and only about half of those who sign up for the event make it to the finish. Runners must reach all required checkpoints and arrive at camp before the cutoff times to continue running the following day.
La Palma, Canary Islands
Because of the uniqueness of the trail that ascends the Teneguia and San Antonio volcanoes, participants will be able to see the finish line throughout the 74km course along the Taburiente Crater. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you’ve prepared mentally for the challenge.
If you aren’t quite ready for the ultra distance, the race also offers a marathon, half marathon, a vertical kilometer challenge, and a kids/junior option along a similar course.
Madeira Ultra Trail
Madeira Island, Portugal
Starting in Porto Moniz, this sea-to-sea race across Madeira Island features constant up and downs and some very technical descents.
Stunning views of valleys, mountain crests, streams, brooks, and a sea of clouds that sometimes blanket the course are all on the menu for you to enjoy during this soul-searching experience.
The 115km Miut is the main attraction for the professionals among us, but there are also 85km, 42km, and 16km options for the less experienced.
Tor des Geants
Valley d’Aosta, Italy
The world’s longest nonstop trail race, you’ll have 150 hours to navigate 330 kilometers, crossing 25 mountain passes totaling just under 80,000 feet.
If those numbers don’t make you question your lifestyle choices, consider that most runners only sleep a few hours at any one of the seven checkpoint stations, while the winner of last year’s event slept only 35 minutes.
Of course, the backdrop of the Italian Alps — featuring lush green alpines, glaciers, and one-in-a-lifetime views of the valley below — will be the reward for completing this heroic feat.
Sani Stagger Endurance Race
Southern Drakensberg, South Africa
If you’re looking for a marathon that’s definitely off the beaten path, this out-and-back course on a 13.1-mile gravel and dirt road leading up to the legendary Sani Pass is just what you’ve been looking for.
The gradients to the top are so steep that the road is usually reserved for donkeys and 4×4 ATVs, and the trek back down at the halfway point is just as harsh on your legs.
The terrain and surrounding landscape though are truly one-of-a-kind and make for an experience you won’t soon forget.
Dubbed as one of the most dangerous races in the world, the Jungle Marathon in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil is also one of the most difficult. Organizers do their best to limit the risk of competitors, but this wild eco race is sure to include scorching temps, potentially dangerous wildlife, river and swamp crossings, and plenty of steep climbs to navigate.
What this adds up to is an adventure unlike any other, and one that will challenge your mental capacity in order to navigate some of the most brutal terrains you’ll find in any foot race.
The Grand Raid
La Reunion Island, Indian Ocean
With a landscape that is constantly changing, finding your groove during the 162km race on Reunion Island in the Indian ocean can be difficult.
Nicknamed ‘The Madmen,’ you’ll be tasked with climbing vertical rock faces, battling jungle terrain, ascending the Piton de la Fournaise volcano, and crossing sandy deserts — all of which will test your skills as a climber and endurance athlete.
If the roughly 30,000 feet of ascent doesn’t sound like a good idea, the weekend of extreme events will also feature the Semi Raid (93km) and the Mascareignes Raid (61km), which are no slouches of their own.
Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.
Want to start trail running?
This guide features everything you need to know about why and how to start trail running, whether you're completely new to running or an experienced road runner looking to make the transition to trails.