Running a marathon is tough as it is, but running a marathon featuring daunting hills or extreme weather conditions? Yikes. But just in case you’re up for the challenge (or you want to be in awe of the things humans are capable of), check out the 7 of the toughest marathons the world has to offer:
The highest marathon in the world, this race is not for the faint of heart. The race starts at Gorak Shep, close to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal, an elevation of 17,000 feet and finishes in the Sherpa town Namche Bazaar, an elevation of 11,300 feet. The 26.2 miles stretch across rough mountain trails and is only suitable for runners with a lot of experience in cross country and mountain running. Because of the high altitude, the race includes a 26-day vacation to Nepal to acclimatize.
Inca Trail Marathon
Traversing the 500-year old Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains to the lost city of Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail Marathon easily has one of the coolest finish lines in the world—but getting there is an adventure all its own. The race stretches through several difficult ecosystems, including desert-like conditions, mountains, and rainforest, and includes stone steps to climb and over 10,000 feet in elevation gain. And it takes just as much mental strength as physical, since you could easily make a wrong move and fall thousands of feet.
Pikes Peak Marathon
Manitou Springs, Colorado
Between battling rough mountain terrain, steep inclines, and high altitude, the Pikes Peak Marathon is easily one of the hardest in the world. Runners gain 7,800 feet in altitude on the way to the top of the mountain—and that’s just the halfway point. From there they have to run back down, which can sometimes be more difficult since it takes an incredible amount of physical control. The weather conditions—cold and snow—don’t help one bit.
North Pole Marathon
Camp Barneo, Arctic Circle
This one isn’t only dangerous because—hello!—it’s in the Arctic Circle and temperatures will be well below zero, but also because there might be polar bears about. What with climate change affecting their feeding habits, nothing’ll look more delicious to a polar bear than you, and you can be damn sure a polar bear can outrun you. But don’t worry: Barneo camp personnel are armed and ready in case they spot one. Runners race around a 2.6-mile loop atop 6-12 feet thick ice floes 10 times before heading to the finish line near Camp Barneo.
Antarctic Ice Marathon
Union Glacier Camp, Antarctica
Sure, this race is fairly flat, but it’s in Antarctica, which means you can expect temperatures to drop well below zero and wind speed to reach up to 30 mph. But besides the physical difficulty of dealing with such extreme conditions, the race creates a lot of mental strain. The majority of what you’ll hear for the entirety of the 26.2 miles is the sound you make when your boots hit the snow and all you can see for miles and miles is ice.
Great Wall Marathon
Tianjin Province, China
Incredibly steep climbs but incredible views are what runners in the Great Wall Marathon can expect. With more than 5,000 steps in the course, race officials suggest runners walk or run slowly for parts of the race, especially those with steep descents. Though temperatures in Tianjin range around 60–70 degrees in May, the Wall is often much warmer.
Blue Ridge Marathon
Billing itself as the toughest road marathon in the U.S., the Blue Ridge Marathon certainly lives up to that claim. It’s not the uphill that makes the race so difficult, but the downhill. What with more than 7,200 feet of elevation change, race officials actually suggest runners walk the descents. Fortunately, cheering fans are all over the place, which might be just what you need in some of the later climbs.
Written by Sarah Esterman