Are You Tough Enough?: America’s 10 Most Extreme Marathons
So you’ve run a few marathons. You enjoyed the experience, hit your goal race time, and realized that running a full maybe isn’t quite as tough as you expected. (Congrats, because for us mere mortals, this is not true.)
Now you’re ready for a new challenge.
You want to try something even harder. Something that will challenge you not just physically but mentally as well.
You could certainly add an element of difficulty to your race—I’ll never forget the time a guy juggling four balls passed me in my first half marathon. But if you enjoy the idea of destination races – and who doesn’t – finding a more extreme race might be just the challenge you’re searching for.
Look no further if you want a crazy-hard marathon. These 10 will deliver both physical and mental trials, and you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment if you can pull them off.
Here they are – the 10 most extreme marathons in the United States.
1. Pikes Peak Marathon
Any list of tough marathons has to include Pikes Peak. This race in Colorado starts midway up the mountain and winds its way up more than 7,800 feet. You are rewarded with a spectacular view at the top, but alas, what goes up, must come down, in the form of a hamstring-thrashing downhill that is a lot more taxing than you may expect.
2. Equinox Trail Marathon
Held annually in Fairbanks, Alaska, this race goes both on- and off-road. It includes a net elevation gain of nearly 3,300 feet. This trail marathon has a reputation as one of the most challenging courses in the country, not only because of the elevation, but the changes in terrain. The final mile, an uphill, has frustrated many a runner hitting the wall.
3. Black Mountain Marathon
This race starts at dawn at the bottom of Black Mountain in North Carolina. It’s gained a following among trail runners because it’s so tough, and it’s run simultaneously with the Challenge, which runs 40 miles. So if you’re feeling like a marathon up a mountain isn’t quite enough, go for the ultra Challenge.
4. Catalina Island EcoMarathon
This race calls itself “the hardest race you will ever love,” and no wonder. The trail run offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, but it also covers a lot of elevation, and the trail can be difficult to navigate for those without experience. In fact, the race has a high DNF rate. Some of the trails had never even been open to the public before the officials changed the layout of the race a few years ago.
5. Hatfield McCoy Marathon
The Weather Channel and running expert Jeff Galloway have both ranked this race, which starts in Kentucky and winds into West Virginia, one of the toughest in the United States. The race has a lot of fun with the old Hatfield-McCoy feud, with people dressed as the family patriarchs appearing at the race. What makes this race stand out isn’t the hills, though they’re brutal, but the heat and humidity. Navigating those hills becomes ten times more difficult when you’re battling the elements, but the race also gets high marks for organization and fun, so at least you can distract yourself with the historical markers informing you about the great feud along the way.
6. Grandfather Mountain Marathon
In 2017, this marathon will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and its running annually coincides with the local Scottish Games held in Boone, N.C. It climbs through the Blue Ridge Mountains and goes along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the elevation rises quickly. But at least the marathon gives you something to look forward to at the end – bagpipes playing as you cross the finish line.
7. Blue Ridge Marathon
For scenery, it’s hard to beat the Grandfather or the Blue Ridge Marathon, which, as the name suggests, also takes place primarily in the Eastern mountain range. This race starts in Roanoke, Virginia, and it’s been dubbed America’s toughest road marathon, thanks to the more than 2,100-foot elevation increase. The worst hill peaks at mile 7, though others at miles 12 and 18 provide ample challenge. The race finishes near the river, where live music greets finishers.
8. Red Rock Canyon Marathon
While you’ll see lush greenery and beautiful wildlife in the Blue Ridge Races, you’ll encounter an entirely different, though no less gorgeous, view during the Red Rock Canyon Marathon in Las Vegas. The sandstone cliffs will take your breath away – though so will the 900-feet of elevation gain. The race takes place in March, so you won’t have to deal with extreme temperatures, but you may spy a desert tortoise making its way across the Mojave.
9. Running with the Devil Marathon
How incredibly intense is this marathon? So intense that it didn’t even happen in 2013. Race organizers canceled because it was too hot and they worried about the safety of the runners in the event, which bills itself as one of the hottest races in the world (hellishly hot – get it?). This race, too, is held in the Mojave Desert, where temperatures on race day have been known to hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit. You will need to practice hydration and maybe try out salt tablets to compete in this race successfully.
10. Hydroworx Underwater Marathon
Now this race may not feature the tough terrain or punishing weather conditions of the other nine races, but it’s no less extreme. Hydroworx, which uses underwater running therapy to aid in injury recovery, offers an annual race of differing distances, including the marathon, that runners can complete on their underwater treadmills. The company says you don’t have to train nearly as much as you would for a race that takes place on land. It also claims that water’s natural “flushing” ability ensures you won’t be sore afterward.
Can you imagine not hobbling down stairs after a marathon? Me neither, but it sounds kind of heavenly.
No matter which one of these extreme races you choose to enter, you’ll get a different sort of reward as well – the knowledge that you’re tougher than most. But hey, you’re a runner – you probably already knew that.