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5 toughest ultramarathons in the USA

The races that will make you want to crawl into the foetal position and cry.
July 9, 2014
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Marathons these days are ten to a penny and as a consequence, people like me are looking for tougher and tougher challenges.  When this happens, Personal Records are not important as we're curiously attracted to races that boast hideous amounts of climbing, impossible odds of completion or their entry process is so difficult, that that alone should put you off.

So after a bit of star gazing, we've selected five of the toughest ultramarathons in the USA. The list isn't exhaustive but gives you a good place to start if you're in need of a midlife crisis or simply want to find out what your limits are.

Barclay Marathons

Barkley 100 from Brendan Young on Vimeo.

Since the Barclay Marathons first took place in 1986, only 16 people can lay claim to be a 'Finisher' of a race that has seen over 800 attempt.  Held every Spring in the Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, those hardy enough to enter the Barclay 100 will attempt to run five 20 mile laps that have no aid stations or water stops, except what you leave in your parked car - all within 60 hours.  And if the  54,200 ft of climbing over the course of 100 miles doesn't sound hard enough, you also need to find between nine and 11 books and remove the page corresponding to your running bib number, to prove you've done the lap.  There is a 'Fun Race' of 60 miles - that when put side by side to the full course, sounds a little more achievable.

If this all sounds like fun way to spend 60 hours of your life, there's a small catch. There are only 35 slots available.  The entry process is secret. There is no website. And you need to write an essay on 'Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley', obtain a number plate from your state and only then will you get an entry form. But you don't know where to send the essay.  Umm! Are they trying to tell me something?  Grab a cup of tea and have a watch of the above documentary. It's riveting.

Hardrock 100


Hundred milers are hard. There can be no doubt.  But some hundred milers are a lot harder than others. The Hardrock 100 is one of them, calling itself a 'post graduate run' and therefore not one for novice ultramarathon runners.  Bearing in mind it's held in the Rocky Mountains, it comes at no surprise that there's quite a bit of climbing - 33,992 feet to be precise, with a similar amount of descent.

But what makes this race particularly hard is the fact that it has an average elevation of over 11,000 feet with a max elevation of 14,000 feet - so altitude sickness or edema is common in many runners.  The race, which alternates in direction each year, was first run in 1992 and has quickly established itself as one of the toughest on the US ultrarunning calendar with a 60% finishing rate and an average finishing time of 41:10.15 - which is only a few hours short of it's 48hr cut off .  And to finish the race, you don't cross a finish line - rather you kiss "kiss the Hardrock", a picture of a ram's head painted on a large block of stone mining debris.  Pretty cool!

However, before you get excited and say 'where do I sign up?', in order to get a place, you need to enter the lottery, which only has a limited number of places.  You also need to have completed one of the qualifying 100 milers, which in itself is a 'who's who' of ultraraces.

Iditarod Trail Invitational

'The world's longest winter ultramarathon by bike, foot and ski'

This race fits brilliantly into the 'bonkers' category. It follows the iconic Iditarod Trail one week before the Iditarod Sled Dog Race takes place, from Knick in the depths of Alaska to Nome.  The full race is 1000 miles, but you need to have completed the 'short' 350 mile version to McGrath the year before to qualify. Unsurprisingly, there aren't many entry slots - 50 in total.  There is limited support, you decide what kit to take with you and there's no marked route - although you must go through the mandatory checkpoints.  As they say on their website, 'This race is not for everyone. A mistake at the wrong time and place in the Alaskan winter wilderness could cost you fingers and toes or even your life.'  Chilling words.

Trans American Footrace

So, we've established that 100 milers are tough. But what about a 3000 mile long race that crosses America? The Trans American Footrace puts everything else into perspective. Running from Los Angles to New York, the race has only only taken place 8 times since it's first outing back in 1928, when it was known as the 'Great American Footrace'. Back then, 199 Americans took part - which is a lot more than the 4 runners that took part in the 'trail' version in 2012 - the Run Across America on Trail.  Sounds like fun? Well, if you're desperate to have a go, then next year's Race Across the USA might be your best opportunity.

Sri ChinmoyTranscendence 3100

"The world's longest certified road race, taking place from 6am to midnight over 52 days."

It takes a certain type of person to be attracted to a 3100 mile race that sees you run around an 883m block for several months. But then again, the Sri Chinmoy 3100 isn't your average race.  Indeed, if you're to complete the 'world's longest certified road race' within the 52 day cut off, then you'll need to average 60 miles per day. At the time of writing, those competing in this year's event are on Day 24 and have already covered between 963 and 1604 miles.  This is a mental race as much as a physical one!

Photo credit: Jorg Hackemann - Shutterstock.com
  • Sarge@Large

    “The races that will beg you make you cry and wish you’d never entered.” Anyone understand that line? Also… it’s the Barkley Marathons… not Barclays.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tobias Mews

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Trail Running, Ultramarathons, Triathlons, Mountain Biking, Adventure Racing
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