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For adrenaline seekers, pushing the boundaries of the human spirit — both physically and mentally — is a rich, intoxicating reward in and of itself. Whether by land or sea, on foot or on wheels, certain competitions around the world test those limits in ways that can only be described as superhuman. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has altered plans for some of these races into next year, here are 12 of the most extreme races on the planet to add to your future bucket list.
Marathon des Sables (Morocco)
Over the last 35 years, 25,000 people from 50 nations have participated in the 155-mile Marathon des Sables. The foot race through the Sahara Desert takes place over seven days each April. But back in 1984, it all started with one man. Patrick Bauer — who is now the race director — set out to traverse the uninhabited part of the desert alone with one 77-pound backpack. His 12-day journey inspired the first race, held in 1986 with 23 participants. High winds and extreme weather patterns often punctuate the already challenging route over the sandy terrain, yet finishers have ranged from 16 to 83 years old, including a double leg amputee in 2017.
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (Alaska)
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase in 1967, a dog sled race of about 25 miles was organized in the 49th state. But in 1973, it truly went the distance, becoming what we know today as the Iditarod — a course running about 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, inspired by the Iditarod Trail dog sled mail route from the early 1900s before airmail became the standard in the 1920s. The demanding route follows the Yukon River for 150 miles, crosses the Alaska and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, and winds across rough terrain like the Norton Sound. Billing itself as the “last great race,” Iditarod welcomes more than 100 teams of drivers, called mushers, to compete with teams of 12 to 16 dogs each year.
Patagonian Expedition Race (Chile)
If you’re going to go to the end of the world for a competition, then it better be as epic as the multi-sport Patagonian Expedition Race, which started in 2004 and includes kayaking, trail running, trekking, mountaineering, and mountain biking. As if that's not challenging enough, there’s also no way to truly prepare, since the course isn’t revealed until 24 hours before the race time. The only given is that it's a team race, with groups of four that must remain together at all times — and the scenery is some of the purest unspoiled landscape in South America.
24 Hours of Le Mans (France)
The Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix are just two parts of the Triple Crown of Motorsports. The third, arguably, is the true test of endurance. After all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans isn’t about how long it takes to complete the course, but rather how far race car drivers can go in a 24-hour period. Originally called the Grand Prix de Vitesse et d’Endurance (Grand Prix of Speed and Endurance) when it began in 1923, the race has clocked the winner in terms of laps completed since 1928. The 2019 winners made 385 laps around the 8.5-mile course. Appropriately, the race is held on one of the longest days of the year in June.
Race Across America (California to Maryland)
When four bikers rode from California’s Santa Monica Pier to New York’s Empire State Building in 1982, it started a movement that’s turned into the annual cross-country called Race Across America. The route, which now stretches 3,000 miles across 12 states — from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland — is 30% longer than the Tour de France. Held in June, the race is open both to teams, who have nine days to finish, and individuals, who must complete it in 12 days.
Unlike other endurance bike races, it’s one continual stage, so once the timer starts on the West Coast, it doesn’t pause until the eastern finish line. But racers are treated to some of the country's most iconic scenery as they cross the Sierra Nevada, Rocky, and Appalachian mountain ranges; the Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers; and major landmarks like the Great Plains, Monument Valley, Gettysburg, and the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The cross-country ride has featured participants ranging from 13 to 75 years old and hailing from more than 35 nations. Among the famous finishers: siblings Pippa and James Middleton.
La Ruta (Costa Rica)
Even the natural beauty of its Costa Rican setting can’t make up for just how tough this mountain biking event is. The uneven and unpredictable jungle terrain mixed with 20 microclimates constantly tests the racers’ adaptability — not to mention the high elevation with a cumulative climb of about 29,000 feet! In essence, La Ruta, which was started in 1993 by Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee Roman Urbina, is all about pushing competitors to the extreme. The 140-mile course starts in Jaco Beach in Puntarenas and goes through Carara Jungle and Turrialba Volcano before ending in Puerto Caño Blanco in Limón. While it's now a three-day race, it took Spanish conquistadors led by Juan De Cavallón two decades to make the same journey that inspired the course.
Everest Marathon (Nepal)
If hiking on Mount Everest sounds like a breeze, you could always try running it. The Tenzing Hilary Everest Marathon starts at Mount Everest Base Camp — already quite a trek just to get to — and is considered the highest-elevation marathon in the world. The course winds through the sherpa trails of Khumbu Valley every year on May 29, to honor the day that the late Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary first ascended Everest in 1953. The race, which started 18 years ago, doesn’t go all the way to the peak, but it does have three lengths — a half marathon, full marathon, and extra ultra (37.28 miles). And if that’s not enough, organizers also have launched a two-month long program called Multi Mount Everest, which includes climbing Everest, cleaning the mountain trails, and then running the race.
Wilderness Traverse (Ontario, Canada)
You’ll need a map, a compass, and a fair amount of outdoor skills to participate in the Wilderness Traverse, held in the Algonquin Highlands of Ontario, Canada. Teams of three or four head out on the 93-mile rugged backcountry route, which features 22 miles of trekking, 19 miles of canoe paddling, and 53 miles of mountain biking. Checkpoints must be reached in a certain order until the route is completed, usually in 20 to 30 hours. But beware, obstacles of every kind add to the excitement.
Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race (Queens, New York)
Queens, New York, might seem like an odd place for one of the greatest tests of endurance to take place, but that’s exactly the point. Since 1997, the 3,100-mile race founded by Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, takes place around a single city block in the summer, requiring participants to complete the distance between 6 a.m. and midnight for 52 continuous days. That’s the equivalent of finishing two regular marathons (26.2 miles each) every day, with limited sleep — and dealing with the heat and humidity on top of the monotony of the race route. Dubbed the “longest certified foot race in the world,” most people run the distance, though some choose to walk. Many participants are followers of Chinmoy’s teachings, focused on the goal of always trying to transcend oneself “to become a better human being.”
Mongol Derby (Mongolia)
Called the “longest and toughest horse race in the world,” the Mongol Derby traces the 620-mile horse messenger system that Genghis Khan created back in 1224 through the Mongolian wilderness. Every year, 1,500 Mongolian horses — which are smaller than average, but known for their strength and endurance — are trained for the event. Along the way, riders encounter challenging (and breathtaking) terrain along with 25 horse stations called morin urtuu, where they refuel and switch out horses. With three pre-race training days, the 10-day race is held in August, and riding hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. Not only is it an extremely challenging and potentially dangerous race, the Mongol Derby also costs $14,500 to enter.
Krispy Kreme Challenge (Raleigh, North Carolina)
The extreme part of this challenge comes not from the distance traveled, but the calories consumed as the Krispy Kreme Challenge seeks to test “physical fitness and gastrointestinal fortitude.” And on February 1, 2020, a whopping 5,489 runners participated in the 16th annual edition of the race, starting at Raleigh’s North Carolina State University and traveling 2.5 miles to the Krispy Kreme location at Person and Peace Streets to scarf down a full dozen glazed doughnuts — all before running back 2.5 miles to the Memorial Belltower. Yes, that’s right: 12 doughnuts, totaling 2,400 calories, in a five-mile, hour-long event.
World Marathon Challenge (Seven Continents)
Traversing the planet in seven marathons on seven continents sounds daunting enough, but add a seven-day time limit to that and you have the World Marathon Challenge. The timer starts at the Novo aircraft ice runway in Antarctica, where runners complete eight loops around the runway before getting on charter planes to run another 26.2 miles each in Cape Town, Perth, Dubai, Madrid, and Fortaleza (Brazil), before finishing in Miami’s South Beach. The event ends up being as much of a logistical challenge as it is physical, as the athletes run 183.4 miles, but also spend 68 hours in the air within the week. Also extreme: The price tag. Registration is currently open for the November 2021 competition for €42,000, about $51,427 in U.S. currency.