March 23, 2009
Top 10 Toughest Races
Text by Andrea Minarcek

After ten days of racing across 1,150 miles of frozen rivers, tundra, and jagged mountains, musher Lance Mackey crossed the finish line last Wednesday to claim first place in this year’s Iditarod. Reading the race reports (-40-degree headwinds! Snow-blown trails!), we were reminded of an eternal, universal truth: People will go to great lengths for the sports they love. Many call the Iditarod the Last Great Race on Earth, but we say it’s just one of many. These days nearly every activity has some kind of uber-, ultra-, X-treme race that claims to test its participants harder than the rest. But which are the toughest of the tough? Here’s our take on the Top 10:

10. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race: 'Nuff said. (Check out www.iditarod.com for race footage.)

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9. We're still not sure if this is tough—so much as it is plain gross. But we respect it all the same. Armed with nothing but flippers and snorkels, racers in the World Bog Snorkeling Championships brave a 60-yard stretch of sticky, smelly god-knows-what in the dense Waen Rhydd Peat bog in Llanwrytd Wells, Wales—the smallest town in Britain. Check out these photos from last summer's outing: www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1836069,00.html

8. Imagine pedaling four mountain stages of the Tour de France—back to back, without stopping—and you have an idea of what the cyclists in the Furnace Creek 508 face. (At least Lance gets nightly breaks.) The race starts just north of L.A., in Santa Clarita, California, and passes through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, with 36,000 feet of climb along the way. Sounds tough to us, but don't just take our word for it. Hear it from the '08 racers in these on-site interviews:

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7. Arrowhead 135-mile Winter Ultramarathon: Of the 59 racers who started this "human-powered" challenge February 2, less than half were able to finish. It's no wonder: The 135-mile bike, run, or ski challenge takes place in some of the Lower 48's most extreme winter conditions, along the Canadian border in Minnesota's remote Arrowhead Region. Skating across the frozen finish line on February 4 were 15 cyclists, eight runners, and one skier. Learn more on the race blog, here: www.arrowheadultra.com/blogger/blogger.html.

6. What makes the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim the toughest open-water race in the country? Aside from the boat traffic, frigid choppy water, and long distance—racers complete an entire 28.5-mile circumnavigation of the Big Apple—swimmers have to contend with "random jetsam and flotsam in the waterways," according to the official race site (www.nycswim.org). We don't even know what that means, but… it sounds pretty bad.

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5. If endurance challenges make their names on superlatives, then The Barkley Marathon takes the cake. The 100-mile race has more climbs (52,900 feet of them!), more descents (52,900 feet of them!), and far, far fewer finishers than any of the rest: Since it began in 1986, only 7 out of about 650 have completed the course within the 60-hour cutoff. The route consists of five 20-mile loops through the gnarly terrain of Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park. Judge for yourself, in this flyover video:

4. Visiting the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter is hardcore enough for most. But not for some. For three years now, competitors have come to the edge of the world to race 350 miles from the Yukon all the way up to the banks of the Arctic Ocean in the Extreme Winter Ultra Marathon. Tempted? Learn more here: www.6633ultra.com.

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3. This one doesn't even need much explanation: The Marathon des Sables stacks the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons—151 miles—over six days cross the heart of the Sahara Desert. And to add insult to injury, it's a "self-sustaining" trek, meaning racers carry all their food, gear, and tent on their backs. In temperatures of up to 120 degrees. See for yourself:

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2. The Race Across America is just what it promises: The self-proclaimed "World's Toughest Bike Race" spans the whole danged country, sea to shining sea, making it two times longer than the Tour de France. (This year's race kicks off June 17 in Oceanside, California, and ends in Annapolis, Maryland.) But in this case, size isn't really the issue. The toughest part is the timing. Unlike the Tour, which is broken down into daily stage races, RAAM is a nonstop blur: Once the timer starts at the beginning, the clock doesn't stop until racers cross the finish line. There's a 12-day time limit, too, so bunking up for the night to recover is not really an option. If we didn't already convince you, this will:

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1. A 135-mile foot race is tough enough, in even the best of circumstances. Try running one in Death Valley. In July. The Badwater Ultramarathon starts "in hell," as this racer attests, at the lowest point on the continent, 280 feet below sea level. The blistering course then shoots up 13,000 feet of cumulative ascent to its final end at 8,360 feet on Mount Whitney Portal. All this through a blasting furnace of 130-degree heat. In one word: brutal.

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