The ‘Toughest’ Ultras in the World

With all the hype surrounding Barkley this week and countless threads I’ve read on the Book of Faces about how every Tom, Dick and Harry is going to enter the race next year (yeah right!), I thought it high time to resurrect our toughest runs/races in the world list again.

We did this one last year, so I had a quick peek to see if what I’d written back then still held true. And for the most part, I’m pretty happy with the list bar one or two little changes, so here goes…

Now, ‘toughest’ means different things to different people, which is why these lists cause lots of debate in the ultra community. Some people can eat hills/mountains for breakfast, so for them it’s not tough. Others can’t stand the heat or cold, so that’s their idea of tough. What I aim to do with this list is simply throw a few things out there and get a general consensus. It won’t be perfect, it never is. You can’t please all of the people all of the time (yet, people will still read this little caveat and complain, such is human nature / sociopathic behaviour)…

BUT, one thing you won’t see in here is any ultra globally that gives itself the tag of being the ‘toughest in the world’. If a race believe’s its own hype, it quite clearly isn’t tough. I suggest they tootle along to the nearest JP Morgan 5km corporate cup and market their race there for those who want to drop a few grand to grab a medal and label themselves a hero… Here goes…

#8 La Petite Trotte à Léon

Probably Europe's toughest race
Probably Europe’s toughest race

This is UTMB’s big brother who’s gone and taken a boat load of EPO and can now benchpress 300kgs. At 300kms long and with 26,000m of elevation one of our readers described this as the ‘best DNF ever’. The PTL®, was created in 2008, inspired by French mountaineer, Jean-Claude Marmier. It’s not even regarded as a race, it has no ranking, instead it’s about sticking with your mates and finishing together… if you can.

#7 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

What appeals about this race is its purity. Started in 1982 as a 150-mile (240 km) wilderness footrace, the Classic has crossed various mountain ranges throughout Alaska with some routes covering nearly 250 miles (400 km). Traditionally, the same route has been used for three years in a row.

The rules are simple: start to finish with no outside support, requiring that racers carry all food and equipment; human-powered; leave no trace; and rescue is up to the individual to resolve. The most common form of transportation is by foot and packraft, although bicycles, skis, and paragliders have been used by intrepid racers. Beginning in 2004, racers have been required to carry satellite phones to facilitate emergency rescues.

The organization of the race is grass-roots, having no affiliation to any organization or group, while generally fewer than 50 people enter in any one year.

#6 Hardrock 100

Perhaps one of the better known races in this list, but also quite possibly the Grandaddy of the ‘toughest’ ultras in the world. Everyone wants to run it, and no more evident is this point proven when you look at the field starting for the race in 2014. Kilian, Dakota Jones, Chorier, Seb, Tim Olson, and Joe Grant. Does it get any better? I don’t think so, and what’s great about this race is that it doesn’t care who you are. Some races will throw sponsors a number of places for their elites, this one throws two fingers up and says join the back of the queue. Although I do have a slight issue with the whole ‘ticket’ thing… but we’ll leave that one for now 🙂

#5 Iditarod Invitational

Most people are familiar with the popular dog-sledding side of this race. But fewer know that you can run the Iditarod without the help of a pack of huskies. Those prepared to face the Alaskan wilderness on foot will have to brave the 1600-kilometre trek from Anchorage to Nome. It’s a challenge so demanding that since its start in 2000, only 42 people have successfully completed it.

Sarah Barnett is a great example of someone who can dream big, commit and follow through and deliver on her goal.
Sarah Barnett is a great example of someone who can dream big, commit and follow through and deliver on her goal.

#4 Self-Transcendence 3100

Forget desert running, or following a white line along the road that happens to be a little bit hot. This is the daddy of the flats and here’s why. I have a lot of respect for people who can run around in rings. Personally it doesn’t float my boat, but I can see why people do it and this race is no finer example. Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3100, smash out 5,649 laps of an extended city block in Queens over a 52-day period, averaging 60-plus miles each day. They start in June, and finish, if they finish, in August. The course record is a slightly less-mind-numbing 41 days, 8 hours. Oh and Aussie girl Sarah Bennett won this last year, another reason to whack it in.

#3 Avalanche 50k

Another FatAss style of event that over the course of just 50 measly kilometres, contains more climbing than the infamous Hardrock. Admittedly you’d have to be clinically insane to want to try this, but get this for a stat… 11,500m of climbing (and the same descent too) over just 50kms. That’s just under a 50% gradient, which is just pure crazy. The good news however is that you have 48 hours to finish it. Well that’s OK then… sign me up!

#2 The Barkley Marathons

Until a few months ago, this was my ultimate. The race I dream about and marvel at how crazy it is – I love everything about it. From the mystic of its entry process, through to the simple act of lighting a cigarette to denote the start of this epic. It’s zero web presence and unknown start-times. It’s simplicity and chaos all thrown together in an absolute bitch of a race. All you need to know are these facts:

  • 100 miles and 60 hours to do it in
  • 16,500m of climbing
  • 1% finish rate

I hope one day to ‘have a crack’ if the appetite is still there.

One of the entry requirements, a number plate from your home State or Country

#1 Sennichi Kaihogyo

You’re probably sat there thinking, what the hell is this run? Well this little beauty for us ranks as the toughest run going. I never thought I’d see the day when my beloved dream, Barkley was ever knocked off the top spot for ‘world’s toughest run’, but this is the ultimate – although I’m not sure I want to compete in it – and here’s why.

Everyday... for 7 years
Everyday… for 7 years

See the thing is, if you DNF this race. You die. It’s that simple, but let us explain some more… The Sennichi Kaihogyo is an epic trek through the mountains surrounding the temple of some Japanese monks in Enryaku. It involves walking increasing distances over 1,000 days, divided into 100-day chunks, during a period of seven years. The distances gradually increase so that, in the seventh and final year, devotees are walking 51 miles (two marathons) each day. If for any reason – from blister to boar attack – they should fail to complete a day, the traditional requirement is suicide. And that’s it… no ifs or buts. You pull out a knife and you’re done with yourself. If you want to know more, check out this dude here. He completed this challenge, twice. RESPECT.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

10 thoughts on “The ‘Toughest’ Ultras in the World

  1. One of the better lists. But you missed Spartathlon. That’s the mother of all ultra races with the most strict cut-offs.

    1. hey – Thanks for commenting! We’re massive Barkley fans here at Ultra168… great work on the movie too.


  2. Crazy, great list! I am ramping up/ fantasizing races for 2017 and appreciate the fresh idea’s, there is one in Japan that I’ve got my eye on (Japan Trans Alps Race ~400mi) but I’ve got to learn Japanese first in order to compete haha, that last one you posted though looks insane! Maybe sometime mid-life for me 🙂

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