Where to run the ultimate ultramarathon

Ultramarathon running events are just a sign that we human beings are really built to go beyond ourselves. It seems that we are constantly trying to see how far we can go — literally. Ultras are races longer than the average 26.2-mile marathon, with runners either trying to cover the most distance they can in a specific amount of time or running a set distance (usually 50k, 100k, 50 miles or 100 miles) in the shortest amount of time.

These kinds of endurance events, just like triathlons, mud runs and adventure races, have become popular with elite and "regular" athletes alike and there are now plenty of venues and event styles to choose from. There are races across deserts, in cold winter areas and even in the jungle, none of them easy. Here are our five picks for the most badass ultras in the world.

Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Western Europe

Carbo-load in Italy, power up on chocolate in Switzerland and celebrate with wine in France. Photo; Pascal Tournaire
Carbo-load in Italy, power up on chocolate in Switzerland and celebrate with wine in France. Photo: Pascal Tournaire

Running the legendary Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc will test every part of your body and mind. The course is a complete tour of the Mont Blanc Massif, passing through France, Switzerland and Italy. Steep, mountainous trails and extreme cold/wet weather during the day and night make the UTMB a true ultra icon.

Around 2,300 runners compete in this race, but in order to even have a chance to run it, you must have earned nine points from three specific qualifying races; this list changes each year.

Distance: 168k (104.4 miles)
Features: Seven valleys, 71 glaciers, 400 summits and more than 38,000 feet of altitude gain. This course is nothing short of legendary.
Max race time: 46 hours

The Track Outback Race, Australia

Not only physically demanding but mentally. This race will play with your mind as you map yourself through this extraordinary long route in Australia's Outback. Photo Courtesy; Roadsign Australia's Blog
Demanding not only physically, but also mentally, this race will play with your mind as you map yourself through an extraordinarily long route in Australia’s Outback. Photo: Courtesy of Roadsign Australia

The Track is a self-supported race through the Aussie Outback that has nine stages over a 10-day span. It's double the distance of the Marathon des Sables in Chile, and only a handful of racers have finished it since the event first started in 2012. The toughest stage, on the last day, is more than 88 miles.

The course starts in the mountains and winds through the gorges of the Finke River, making its way finally to the Outback. Each competitor must carry their own backpack containing food, compulsory equipment and personal gear, and prior to the race you have to show an official medical certificate that verifies you can even take part. Think you have what it takes? The race has no lottery; it’s a first come, first served registration with a 50-runner maximum.

Race distance: 520k (323 miles)
Features: The longest ultra in the world, the track goes through Australia’s Outback. You will run on tough terrain and be in total isolation; your biggest obstacle will be your own mind.
Max race time: 10 days

Sparathlon, Greece

Be transported to 480 B.C as you run through Greece's ruins to alert the towering bronze statue of Leonidas who waits at your finish line. Photo; Mike Hewitt
Be transported to 480 B.C. as you run through Greece’s ruins to alert the towering bronze statue of Leonidas, who waits at your finish line. Photo: Mike Hewitt

There is no other place to test your physical strength and endurance as a runner like the Sparathlon. Make your own chapter in Greek running history by following the steps of Pheidippides, who ran this route in 490 B.C. in 36 hours to alert the Spartans that they needed to defend Greece from the Persians.

In 1982 British Royal Air Force Wing Commander John Foden and four other officers travelled to Greece on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometers in a day and a half. After three individuals finished this obstacle, the race was born. In order to compete these days, a runner must meet one of three requirements: finished a race of at least 100k (62 miles) in less than 10 hours, 30 minutes; completed a race of more than 200k (120 miles); or have previously competed in Spartathlon and have reached the Nestani checkpoint (172k in) in less than 24 hours, 30 minutes.

Distance: 246k (163 miles)
Features: Taking a legendary, historical route from ancient mountaintops to the streets of Sparta, run your way to the statue of Leonidas.
Max race time: 36 hours

Leadville 100, Colorado

Tina Lewis running through the notorious Hope Pass, one of the biggest obstacles during the Leadville 100
Tina Lewis running through notorious Hope Pass, one of the biggest obstacles during the Leadville 100. Photo: Glen Delman

This out-and-back course in the middle of the Rockies is so difficult that nearly half of the field can't complete it before the 25-hour time limit. Its defining feature is a climb to 12,620 feet on Hope Pass — which you have to do twice, and which can chew up and spit out any runner.

This is the first year a lottery has been run to choose competitors; in races past, it had always been first come, first served. The Leadville 100 is one of a series of Leadville races that includes mountain biking, traditional marathons and shorter events held over a three-month span and is one of North America’s premier races.

Distance: 161k (100 miles)
Features: Known as the “Race Across the Sky,” Leadville's lowest elevation is 9,200 feet and reaches all the way up to Hope Pass at 12,600 feet across some of the Rockies' most extreme terrain.
Max race time: 25 hours

Badwater 135, California

Running in the extreme conditions of Death Valley Richard Bray has finished 2nd in this race 2 years in a row. Photo; Richard Bray in 2013
Running in the extreme conditions of Death Valley, Richard Bray (pictured here in 2013) has finished second in this race two years in a row. Photo: Richard Bray

One of eight races in the Badwater series, this invitation-only bad boy used to begin below sea level in California's Death Valley and climb up 8,360 feet to the trailhead at Mount Whitney. (As of 2014, the race now begins in Lone Pine, California, due to Death Valley National Park citing safety concerns.) The race takes place in mid-July, pushing temps up over 120 degrees. (Somehow, even with these extreme conditions, there haven't been any fatalities.)

There are no aid stations along the route, so you'd better bring a crew with you to help you reach the finish line. This race allows 90 competitors chosen by a lottery system entered by some of the world's toughest triathletes, runners, mountaineers and adventure racers.

Distance: 217k (135 miles)
Features: The hottest race in America and also considered the most demanding race in the world, Badwater has been voted No. 1 on National Geographic Adventure's list of the top 10 hardest races
Max race time: 48 hours

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