Since the days of Philippides and the first Olympics in Athens, the marathon distance was the standard for endurance running. But over the last three decades, modern ultrarunning events have swept past the traditional 26.2-mile marathon as the ultimate test of endurance running. But with well more than 500 organized Olympic distance marathon events around the world, a select few are often compared to longer events of up to 50 miles. While the world’s most difficult marathons are certainly not for everyone, even for the most seasoned endurance runners, the unbridled euphoria of crossing the finishing line in one of the world’s hardest marathons is perhaps even more difficult to ignore.
Antarctic Ice Marathon
Clearly the world’s southernmost marathon, the Antarctic Ice Marathon begins just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. Although the marathon begins at an elevation of approximately 2,300 feet, the real challenges are the underfoot terrain, the possibility of strong winds and temperatures averaging between -5 and 10 degrees F. The unpredictability of the wind and temperature has altered the top finishing time from year to year from a record time of 3:34.47 in 2013 to more than five hours the first year it was held in 2005. At approximately $15,000, the entry is also very imposing, but features round trip flights from Punta Arenas, Chile to Antarctica airport transfers, meals and tented accommodations and other amenities. Last year, less than 50 competitors, including nine Americans, signed up for the event, with the majority finishing in five to seven hours. The best way to reach Punta Arenas from the U.S. is to fly into the Chilean capital city of Santiago via domestic carriers like United and Delta or reliable international carriers like LATAM. From Santiago, travelers can then connect to LAN Chile airline to Punta Arenas. The Antarctic Ice Marathon is organized by Global Running Adventures-Polar Running Adventures, the host of three other extreme marathon events: The North Pole Marathon, Volcano Marathon and the World Marathon Challenge.
Great Wall Marathon
Held annually on the third Saturday in May, the Great Wall Marathon is a race that might find more crawlers than runners. That’s because every registered participant will have to climb 5,164 stone steps of varying heights over the course filled with very steep inclines and declines. Add in the possibility of temperatures extending into the 90s with little or no wind to cool off, and when a runner finishes the marathon course under four hours it’s a monumental achievement. Despite being one of the world’s most difficult marathons, the Great Wall Marathon does have its benefits, most importantly the traverse of the Huangyaguan section of the 5,550-mile long Great Wall while negotiating several ancient towers along the way, slippery rocks and sections so narrow no one can pass another. As the hosts of the Great Wall Marathon, Albatros Adventure Marathons offers a multi-day package deal that sells out quickly. This year’s event had a top finishing time of 3:30:43, but most finishers completed the course in five to seven hours. Albatros Adventure Marathons puts on a few other extreme marathons, such as the Petra Desert Marathon and the Polar Circle Marathon.
Inca Trail Marathon
While some marathons are described as the world’s most extreme, the Inca Trail Marathon is unquestionably the most difficult. Starting at an elevation of 8,650 feet, the treacherous course features more than 10,400 feet of elevation gain, 11,000 feet of elevation loss and two high passes of 13,000 feet and 13,800 feet. Often described as the equivalent to running a tough 50-mile trail run, the official Inca Trail Marathon race is hosted by Erik’s Adventures, which offers all-inclusive race packages starting from $2,2249. The package includes domestic air travel within Peru, five nights in a four-star hotel in Cusco, two nights in Aguas Calientes and one night of camping. Because the course runs through Machu Picchu National Park, the marathon is limited to just 40 to 50 people and sells out quickly. The payoff, of course, is the luxury of running (or walking) across the fabled 500-year cobblestone path amid spectacular views of the Andes Mountains and crossing the finishing line in the legendary Lost City of the Incas. A rival marathon event to Machu Picchu is offered by Andes Adventures.
Pikes Peak Marathon
Known as America’s Ultimate Challenge, Pikes Peak Marathon, with its grueling ascent up the 14,115-foot peak, truly lives up to the hype. The race begins in front of Manitou Springs City Hall and proceeds out on an elevation gain of 7,815 feet over a distance of 13.3 miles, which is slightly longer than a half marathon (13.1 miles). The uphill course is so challenging that many say the time it takes to reach is summit is oftentimes slower than to complete a full marathon with flat terrain. Because the Pikes Peak Marathon is so physically challenging, all runners must first complete a qualifying event before they can register. Entry to the marathon event is limited to 800 runners. Last year’s top male and female finished in 3:46.40 and 4:29:06 respectively.
Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon
With a starting point at 17,598-feet, the Everest Marathon is far and above the highest marathon in the world. But what makes this ultra-extreme event is more challenging is the 14-day trek all runners must make simply to reach the starting point at the Everest Base Camp. Held annually since 2003, the Everest Marathon starts and at the Base Camp and ends in the Nepalese village of Namche Bazaar, with a peak ascent of 9,110 feet and descent of 15,022 across snow-covered mountain trails with breathtaking views of the mighty Himalayan Mountains. Because the 14-day trek to Base Camp is mandatory, all participants are requested to be in Nepal at least three weeks prior to the race. Special travel packages are offered through Island Peak Summit.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering national/international travel for CBS Local and all things San Francisco for CBS San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. He may be contacted via Twitter or Linkedin .