5 Extreme Marathons Only Superhumans Could Survive (and Two for the Rest of Us)

These extreme marathons span mountaintops, deserts and Arctic conditions - think you're up for the challenge?

Participants in the Great Wall Marathon run up 5,164 steps – no sweat, right?

So you’ve just completed a marathon, and you think you’re hot stuff. Think again

For some marathon runners, the standard run – 26.2 miles (42.2 km) with hundreds or thousands of weekend athletes through the streets of some big city – is for punk-ass amateurs.

No personal listening devices blasting Lady Gaga and namby-pamby day-glo electrolyte drinks for these folks; they won’t even lace up unless the run involves a helicopter shuttle to the site, life-threatening weather conditions and a waiver in case of injury or death.

The following marathons and ultramarathons (with the exception of a couple of novelty marathons for the rest of us,) are well suited to these maniacs. The marathons are standard length unless otherwise noted, and range in cost from thousands of dollars to the price of a gorilla suit.

Top 5 Most Extreme Marathons in the World

North Pole Marathon and Antarctic Ice Marathon


What: The North Pole Marathon run takes place in sub-zero temperatures on arctic ice floes, making it the only marathon run entirely on water (frozen, but still). The Antarctic Ice Marathon (there is also an ultramarathon that is 62.1 miles or 100K) features average windchill temperatures of –20C at an altitude of 3,000 feet.

Where: In the high Arctic Ocean between 89N and 90N latitudes and 80 degrees south in Antarctica, a few hundred miles from the South Pole, respectively.

Why: According to its website, one of the hardest things about the North Pole Marathon is getting there; the actual run can be completed by most people able to complete a regular (i.e. non-arctic conditions) marathon. Less hospitable is the Antarctic Ice Marathon, with winds at a steady 10 – 25 knots. Also, don’t expect to see penguins – they don’t live that far south.

When: The next North Pole Marathon is April 7, 2012; the next Antarctic Ice Marathon is November 11, 2011.


The Great Wall Marathon 


What: The thousands (5,164 to be exact) of steps make the Great Wall Marathon course a challenge even for experienced marathoners. The run takes participants 50% longer to complete than the average marathon; the website suggests you “leave your watch at the hotel, in order not to focus on kilometre averages.”

Where: The Great Wall of China in Tianjin, a rural province three hours outside of Beijing.

Why: The Great Wall Marathon is a chance to see parts of China tourists never see, including villages and rice fields. Plus, Mao Zedong once said, “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” So there you go.

When: The next Great Wall Marathon is May 21, 2011.

The Pikes Peak Marathon


What: An uphill/downhill marathon, the Pikes Peak Marathon takes runners from 6,300 ft (1,920m) to 14,050 ft for an elevation gain (start to summit) of 7,815 ft (2,382m). According to the website the course “has very few stretches which are not going uphill with the average percent grade being 11%.” Hey, call us when you reach the top!

Where: Manitou Springs, Colorado (six miles west of Colorado Springs)

Why: It’s not just the ascent that makes Pikes Peak “America’s Ultimate Challenge” – it’s also the descent (“Along the way protruding rocks are waiting to send you crashing to the ground mangling flesh and only temporarily masking the pain of blood filled blisters,” says the website), and the weather: temperatures at the start of the race average 60° – 70° F (15 – 21° C) and drop at the summit to 35-55° F (2-12° C), not including windchill. In 2005 hundreds of runners were stranded at the summit when a huge storm hit the mountain.

When: August 21, 2011

Valley Badwater Ultramarathon


“The world’s toughest footrace,” Valley Badwater begins at the lowest elevation in North America (Badwater) and covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000 ft (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700 ft (1433m) of cumulative descent over 135 miles (217km) in temperatures up to 130° F (55° C). Competitors travel through places and landmarks that sound like something out of Wile E. Coyote’s worst nightmares: Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Stovepipe Wells, Keeler and Lone Pine.

Where: Badwater, Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, California

Why: It’s an invitational race open to 90 of the world’s toughest endurance athletes, including both ultra-runners and “athletes who have the necessary running credentials, but are primarily known for their exploits as adventure racers, mountaineers, triathletes, or in other extreme pursuits.” In other words, not you.

When: The next one is July 11-13, 2011

And a Couple of Fun Marathons for Us Regular Folk

Gorilla Run


What: People, running (or walking)… in gorilla costumes. Gorilla Run teams are encouraged to enter (past teams have included the Hula Gorilla Team). Don’t have a gorilla outfit? Don’t worry! Marathon organizers supply three adult sizes and one kids’ size.

Where: The 5.6-kilometre Gorilla Run started in Denver but has expanded to include Edmonton and Austin.

Why: The gorilla runs were instigated to bring attention to the plight of the endangered mountain gorilla, and to raise funds for conservation efforts in Rwanda and Uganda. Proceeds go to the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund (participants are encouraged to raise $250 in pledges).

When: The next gorilla run is September 10, 2011 in Edmonton, followed by October 29, 2011 in Denver.

The Tokyo Marathon


What: The Tokyo Marathon is a full marathon open to 32,000 runners in downtown Tokyo.

Where: Tokyo

Why: It’s Tokyo – and you know what that means: superheroes, animals, science fiction and anime characters, even religious figures (Jesus Christ himself participated in this year’s run) all compete to finish the course.

When: The next Tokyo Marathon is in February 2012.

The most grueling, physically demanding and exhausting marathons in the world span mountaintops, deserts and frozen landscapes, all because extreme marathoners will stop at nothing to prove they’re in better shape than the rest of us. But you won’t likely see gorillas and superheroes cavorting with those crazies.