“Grown men also cry.”- Jeffery Lebowski
“You look like you need your ass kicked.”
- Some guy named Chuck, in a bar
There are times in life when hard just doesn’t cut it; when being miserable just isn’t quite enough; and when the travails of living require higher octane. This is a list for just those times.
After receiving some feedback, here's what I've come up with as the hardest recreational endurance events in the world. My definition of recreational is that anyone may enter. You may have to qualify but that standard isn't based on natural ability. This eliminates obvious events, like riding the Tour de France, but also things like age group world championships and races like Hawaii Ironman. I wanted to a list that anyone could think "I want to try that" and then, with enough motivation, have a chance to do it.
This is my first attempt and it comes to you in no particular order as to difficulty. And I think you’ll see that assigning difficulty in order would be a hard—and somewhat random—task. I've tried to encompass as many different disciplines as possible though with hard and endurance in the same sentence they all generally consist of some sort of human powered locomotion over various types of terrain.
All feedback is welcome.
Badwater 135 (or 146 since you SHOULD continue to the summit once you've come all this way) - From what I can tell, this is the world's must rugged foot race, mainly because it's held on what's supposed to be the hottest weekend of any particular year. In temps that nearly always exceed 120 degrees F, you run through the desert from the lowest point in the United States to the highest (in the lower 48). The entire race is on pavement, adding to its nastiness, since runners must stay on the white lines of paint to keep their shoes from melting. Oddly enough, this race is so popular that it's hard to get in, so get creative with your resume.
Race Across America - This event could also count as the most boring but no one will argue its grimness factor. Just sitting on your bike for 3,000 miles is daunting enough. But you've also got to pedal, and at a decent pace to not get kicked out. Add lack of sleep in extreme heat, cold, snow, rain, wind and then throw in the occasional tornado and you've got the perfect recipe for sheer misery. To give you an idea of what you’re up against, consider multiple-times winner John Howard’s statement “When I can sit on my trainer staring at a blank white wall for five hours straight, I’m just about ready for RAAM.” Anyone can enter but you've got to complete a qualifier of, at least, 400 miles within a respectable time of the winner.
The Norseman - Billing itself as the world's toughest triathlon, it's certainly hard to argue. While it’s only slightly longer than a traditional ironman, the course profile alone looks like an entirely different animal. This is before accounting for the fact that you’ll be swimming in sub 60 degree water and that the run is a rocky ascent (no trail from what I can tell) to the summit of a mountain.
Iditarod Trail Invitational - Dogs? We don't need no stinking dogs! This human powered version of the famously grueling Iditarod really needs no description. It's February in northern Alaska. It's dark. It's really really cold. And you get to ride your bike 1100 miles across the ice. Good times.
The Hardrock 100 - The trail runners Holy Grail, this 100 mile jaunt across the top of the Rockies is a shoo-in. Many life long ultra runners never finish this extreme test of will that features nearly 70,000' of elevation change over rock and snow at an average elevation of 11,000'. Numerous ultra record holder Karl Meltzer calls it "the hardest ultra on the planet."
Climbing Mount Everest – Sure, sure, K2 is heaps harder, as are many peaks, but none of those are available to the recreational athlete. But Everest, most notoriously, is. If you're rich or good at schmoozing pretty much anyone can get themselves a shot at standing on the world's rooftop. But cash and cocktail partying aside, you've still got to get yourself up the sucker and no guide, fixed rope, oxygen tanks or Sherpa can do it for you. Most that try don't make it. Those that do come down changed. And some don't come down at all. Commercial as it gets, high altitude roulette is still a dangerous game.
Primal Quest - According to Rebecca Rusch, one of the sports elders, adventure racing ain't what it used to be. "I'd say, for sure, the old style Raid Gauloises would be on this list. In those days even the organizers didn't know what to expect. It was truly adventurous. Now they run it in stages." Commercialism and a "safety first" attitude aside, AR is still a tough test of the limits we can endure. And none, currently, is tougher than the Primal Quest.
Crocodile Trophy - This 10 stage, 1400 kilometer mountain bike stage race through the Australian Outback is the antithesis to the Iditarod. It crosses Oz through what is famously some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. From rain drenching rain forest to the bleakest desert, the course profile doesn't begin to do this race justice. Most of the competitors are elite, if not pro, yet the most common quote heard throughout the race is "I expected it to be hard but completely underestimated it." Probably why the organizers have dubbed it "the toughest test on two wheels."
Patrouille des Glaciers – “Ski Mountaineering Racing is said to be one of the hardest sports in the world and the Swiss Patrouille des Glaciers is perhaps the hardest of them all,” according to the race web site. This tradition, which began in 1943, may not be as crazy as many modern sufferfests but pageantry and tradition should still count for a lot. And, as anyone who’s familiar with ski mountaineering can attest, it’s not a sport that attracts the meek. Sure, this race is a ‘mere’ 53k with an altitude change of 7,000 meters, but expect every step to be either laborious or scary.
The Nose in a day – What Everest is to the mountaineer, Yosemite’s El Capitan is to rock climbers. The Nose, a plumb line up the most famous rock face in the world, is not only the world’s most famous rock climb, it’s the most sought after and, arguably, the best. So much so that when asked about his future climbing goals, Touching the Void author Joe Simpson stated “to end ones career with having never climbed The Nose would be a travesty.” Style is everything when it comes to climbing and, these days, less than 24 hours is de rigueur for those aspirants of an elegant ascent. Yet it’s still not regularly achieved. The Nose in a day is a rite of passage for an “elite” recreational athlete.
Jungle Marathon – This 6-stage 200km race through the Amazon doesn’t promise that it’s one of the great epics of our time. But this could be a ploy that’s due to the anecdotal reputation of the area and the race organizers not wanting to scare away participants. I dunno, I sorta think “See piranhas, anacondas, the last vestiges of headhunting, and a completely unknown quantity of as-of-yet undiscovered diseases and human parasites!” has a nice ring to it. Regardless, you don’t have to scour the fine print to see that the challenge “isn’t the distance, but the terrain,” that “common sense” is a prerequisite, that your hammock “should include mosquito netting and a rain fly” and that one of the finishers wrote an entire book about the experience to get a notion that your not signing on to an episode of Survivor.
Yukon Arctic Ultra – Apparently, the Iditarod isn’t the toughest dog sled course because, according to the race web site, this one is tougher. Now you can try it via skis, bikes, foot or whateverthehell “skijorer”-ing is. Regardless, it’s supposed to be “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra”. All I know is that the course reminds me of a Jack London novel and those always sounded pretty dammed tough to me.
Everest Challenge – Billed as the hardest USCF stage race it likely also has the highest drop rate. It’s also a “fun” ride for those who want to test themselves on back to back rides that are both as hard as any stage of the Tour de France. This race climbs 30,000’ in its two stages but is even tougher than the elevation gain total would suggest. Hardly a meter of its 200 miles are flat and three of the six climbs are over 20 miles long, at grades up to 20%. Adding to this torture test is the knowledge that the hardest bit you’ll encounter is the final 10k of the last climb. It’s a Sword of Damocles that hangs over you the entire two days. Said former winner, Pam Schuster, “At the end of the first day you’re so wiped out that you think there is no possible way you could ever do it again, much less the next day. But, somehow, you find a way to make it.” Somehow, but not always. Each year many riders who’ve finished the first day don’t even bother with the second. “Mainly due to fear of injury,” adds one its victims, Aaron Baker. “Look up the word ‘suffer’ in the dictionary and I’m sure it will be defined ‘Everest Challenge.’”
Arctic Circle Ski Race - “The ultimate challenge to cross-country skiers” sure looks appealing upon perusing their web site. It features many stunning pics of beautiful landscapes and smiling well-dressed skiers sauntering along at what looks to be a quite civilized pace. It’s only 160km over three days, so why that bit about competitors featuring a “stable mentality”? But, wait a minute. Isn’t it dark most of the time in March in northern Greenland? And isn’t it cold? And if these people are all so happy then why are there quotes like this on page one? “I had to fight myself, my pain, cramps and exhaustion. I came here to win the race. Instead, I have won a personal victory.” Hmm.
Tour de Afrique – Is it a race, a tour, or an expedition? In reality it’s all three. Participants can choose between whether or not they’d like to race so, in theory, it’s can be leisurely and, hence, not all that tough. However, it’s a 96-stage bike ride (yes, 96) dissecting 9 countries in Africa so there is no denying its expedition status. And considering both the physical and political climates of the region there is little chance of not experiencing adventure on the grandest level. If you’re in the position of being able to take six months off and living out of a tent, this is probably one that you don’t want to miss.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores – This 3-day stage mountain bike race across Costa Rica appears, at least on paper, not to be anything special. Due to lack of paper, they hold the actual race on Costa Rica’s less stable terrain which has resulted in a tag line stating it’s “more than a race; it’s a personal journey.” According to US 24-hour mountain bike champion Rebecca Rusch, there’s not a lot of hyperbole in their claim. “The Trans Alp and Trans Rockies both have much harder looking profiles, but it’s my understanding that in those races you get to actually ride your bike. In La Ruta, you often have to carry your bike. And not just on the up hills. I can’t even begin to say how difficult it is but it features brutal mud, intense heat, tough cut off times…. I almost dropped out on the first day!”
The Barkley Marathons – This one’s hard to explain but first just consider the stats. It’s not a marathon as in “26.2”. It’s 100 miles, more or less, with nearly 55,000 feet of elevation gain, and it’s only had 6 people finish within its 60-hour time limit since 1986. Next, consider a format that includes no real trail and check points where you need to tear a page out of a book that’s personally assigned to you. Oh, and there are the briars to consider. Lots of ‘em. Everywhere. And rain. Usually lots of it, too. It’s quite common for sub 24-hour runners to not finish. Some don’t even find their way through one lap and retire “with legs that resemble uncooked hamburger”. One runner, on this eleventh attempt, is targeting two and a half laps as his goal for 2007. That’s about half way. There’s also a shorter “fun run” option. Hardly anybody finishes that option either. And it’s hard to get in. But you can. If you want to badly enough, you can find a way. You just have to really want to. Bad.