If you’re looking to push yourself beyond your limits and see if you’ve got what it takes to complete some of the harshest environments and races, read on.
Due to an ever-increasing demand for endurance sports and challenges, event organisers have looked over maps (with smiles on their faces no doubt) discovering a wide array of seemingly impossible and certainly painful terrains for the location of an endurance race. Mountains, jungles, deserts and rugged coastlines with changeable climatic conditions are proving to be their favourite places for making sure the endurance athlete knows that they are in an endurance event.
However fit, experienced and prepared you believe yourself to be, these endurance events will make you think again.
Here we take a look at the toughest endurance sports events, by category, from around the world.
The Toughest Endurance Events and Competitions
Endurance running events:
Due to its huge national parks, the US has some of the best, most beautiful and most challenging long-distance running events on just about every terrain imaginable.
1. Hardrock 100-mile endurance run - Silverton, colorado: July
48 hours to complete the 100.5 mile course, ascending in total 33,000 feet and descending the same over and across the San Juan Mountains, the highest peak measures at 14,000 feet
2. Eastern States 100 - Pennsylvania Wilds, August
This 102.9 mile, 2-day race takes the runners over and through forests, coastline and hills.
3. Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon, Manitou Springs, Colorado, September
Just 13.3 miles long… easy right? Wrong. This is a running climb (or a climbing run) which starts at 6,000ft to the peak at over 14,000ft before descending again. The weather is a big obstacle here with dramatic temperature changes, fog and sometimes lightning strikes. Oh and the floor is shifting gravel and rocks.
4. Moab 240, Utah, October
240 miles in 112 hours through Arches National Park. You’ll need plenty of sun protection and a steady nerve as a slip could be very costly.
5. Western States 100, Squaw Valley, California, June
The oldest ultra-marathon 100 mile race. 100 miles in 30 hours sometimes in Californian heat and at others through the snow at the highest points.
6. Badwater 135, Death Valley, California, July
Starting at the lowest elevation point in the US and finishing at the highest mountain in the US. In Death Valley. The race covers three mountain ranges and some of the infamous long stretches of road under the blazing July sun spell an end to even the most hardened endurance runner.
In Europe: Long-distance running and ultra-marathon running events are increasing in Europe but are still quite far behind the US. Still, what are on offer are some extraordinarily beautiful and extremely challenging events.
1. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France, August
Looping 106 miles in the middle of the Alps around the majestic Mont Blanc. Runners will go through France, Switzerland and Italy as they do. The views are spectacular, if you get the chance to take them in, that is.
2. Dragon’s back, Wales, September
5 days of running covering more than 200-miles across the Welsh countryside, and of course the Dragon’s Back. As the picture above clearly shows, this is not for the faint-hearted or sufferers of vertigo. Also it takes place in September. Mmm.
3. Tor des Geants, Aosta Valley, Italy, September
This 200 mile race is set in breathtaking scenery but will also have you seriously tested by the changeable climatic conditions.
4. Spartathalon, Athens, Greece, Sept-October
For those who want to get a taste of the origins of marathon running and salute the original hero. 150 miles from Sparta to Athens through typical Greek landscapes and towns ending at the statue of Philippedes: the Greek messenger that started it all.
5. London Marathon, October
It may not seem like a worthy entry after all the ones above, but the London Marathon is a worthy challenge, and to take part with so many others is a beautiful experience. It’s also a lot closer to home for some of us.
Rest of the World:
1. 6633 Arctic Ultra, Yukon Territory, Canada, February
If you fancy the great outdoors and lots of icey-cold wind then this is the place for you. There are 120/380-mile races on offer here, the latter of which ends at the Arctic circle!
2. Hurt 100 Trail Run, Honolulu, Hawaii, January
It’s a good name but actually stands for the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team. Anyway, there is plenty of hurt as you follow single tracks through semi-tropical jungle and along cliff edges for 100 miles (in a 36 hour time limit).
3. Marathon des Sables, Sahara Desert, Morocco, April-May
Yes. In the Sahara Desert. Approximately 150 miles over 6 days, with one day’s rest. The days are scorching and the nights are cold, but with unbelievably clear star-filled skies.
4. Everest Marathon, Mount Everest Base Camp, May
A traditional length marathon at 26.2 miles but at extremely high altitudes, in the shadow of the highest mountain in the World. This race requires arrival in Nepal three weeks prior to adjust to the altitude.
Endurance cycling events:
There are literally thousands of long-distance cycling events worldwide, with more being added year-on-year. Here we check out a couple of the top picks.
In the USA:
1. Unbound Gravel, formerly Dirty Kansa, Flint Hills, Kansas
The first gravel endurance race of 200miles (320km) in 2006 has since been updated to include a range of race distances, the longest being Unbound Gravel XL which is 350 miles. In 2006 there were just 34 riders but in 2021 it had 2,626 registered riders. This is a one-day unsupported event, although riders can help each other. It’s a race which can alter significantly depending on the weather. If it’s a good day in Kansas you’ll be suffering 30+ degrees, but if there is any rain leading up to the race the gravel tracks can and will quickly turn to mud.
2. Race Across America, RAAM, coast to coast, 3000km
The Great American Bike Race has been around since 1982. It starts from the west coast and finishes on the east coast of America. It’s a non-stop supported race with no official stages like the Tour de France, meaning you decide when to stop. You need to qualify to take part.
3. TransAM Bike Race, coast to coast, 4,200miles
Similar to RAAM above, except this is 1,200miles longer and is unsupported. That means you’re on your own (or in a team) with no support vehicles. You need to carry your gear and get provisions on the road.
In Europe & UK:
1. Badlands, Granada, Spain
This unsupported bikepacking gravel endurance race is a real test of preparation and endurance. Over 750 miles of gravel tracks across the desert of Spain and the heat that goes with it. The Styrkr team knows this Baldlands race one all too well.
2. Coast to Coast, Northern UK
This is one for those just starting out on their endurance cycling adventure. It is a fully supported race, which starts in Whitehaven and ends in Tynemouth, Newcastle. Just over 140miles over four days is pretty manageable and you can have a nice warm bed at the end of each day’s ride. Even still, we are talking about Northern England and all the joys of the variable weather conditions that come with it. There are some exceptional areas of natural beauty that can be enjoyed on the way too, the Lake District being one of them.
3. Mont Blanc Fondo, Valley D’Aosta
This is a road race day event where riders can experience one of the toughest stages on the Tour De France. 109km with almost 4km in elevation.
4. Dragon Devil, Wales
A mixed terrain event through the stunning Brecon Beacons. Not for the faint-hearted as there are some monstrous climbs and rapid downhills.
5. Lands end to John O’groats: The ultimate the UK has to offer
Just look up the route and map - says it all really. A real bucket list endurance cycle for the diehard rider.
Rest of the World:
1. Cape Epic, South Africa
A physically and mentally gruelling mountain bike endurance challenge set in baking hot South Africa. Spectacularly beautiful scenery and staggeringly difficult obstacles along the way.
2. RBC gran Fondo, British Colombia
A superbly organised road race day event set in the evergreen and mountainous British Columbia. It’s a hard day's ride rewarded not only by the beauty of the landscape and the clear roads but also with a fantastic after-party to share your stories and a couple of beers.
3. Silky Road, Kyrgyzstan
This 1900km unsupported endurance trail/gravel ride is a serious undertaking for the pros. There is over 3km of elevation to be conquered, with extreme climatic changes. Wind, snow, rain, the works. If you feel the urge to spend 2 weeks out in the middle of the elements, depending on the friendly locals you pass on the way by chance, this is the real deal of endurance cycling.
Endurance swimming events:
There are a host of long-distance swimming events worldwide. However, here we’ve picked out some of the more ‘romantic’ marathon swims which will be impossible to forget.
1. Manhattan Island, New York - 20/40 Bridges swim
Measuring just over 28 miles, this epic endurance swim literally takes you completely around the most famous island of them all: the big apple. The fastest recorded time for completion is 11:00:17, swum by Rondi Davies in 2019.
2. Alcatraz Odyssey Open Water Challenge, San Francisco
Another race involving an island, albeit this one is way more infamous than Manhattan. The Rock is the starting point for a relatively short 2 mile endurance swim which ends in San Francisco. And we thought nobody ever escaped alive?
3. Istanbul Hellespont Strait
You start this race in Asia and finish in Europe. This 2-mile stretch of water has been competitively swum longer than any other endurance swimming event. Although short, the current makes life a lot harder if you’re swimming against.
4. The Strait of Bonifacio, Mediterranean
One of the more beautiful places in the world for an endurance swim. Here, swimmers cross the 14km gap between Sardinia, Italy and Corsica, France in the turquoise Med. It is just over 6 hours from one sandy beach to the other.
5. North Channel swim, UK
For those who are made of the strong stuff. This endurance swim starts in Ireland and crosses the North Channel to Scotland. The gap between the two points is just over 21miles, and water temperatures are far lower than those found in the Mediterranean. You need a very large helping of hardiness for this one.
So, which one stands out for you? Remember, training and preparation are key to success in any endurance event. Check out our blog if you would like to know more about preparation and the benefits of endurance sports.