Marathons are 26.2 miles long, and the distance alone can be a huge challenge. In 2011, there were over 14 million marathon finishers in U.S. races, so the sport is growing, and people seem to be rising to the test. For those seasoned or adventurous marathoners, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most difficult marathons you can run in the world. Check out what we found.
Not a seasoned marathon runner? Here’s a great place to start: “How to Get Started Running for Beginners.”
Tianjin Province, China. Running this marathon is tough, lots of steep running, steps to climb, rough terrain and don’t forget the history you can absorb during this run. People in the know advise runners to go slow through sections, and even walk at times for safety purposes. You should plan on taking 5-6 hours minimum to complete this race. It happens in May, and the temperatures seem mild, but the sun beating down on you while on the open wall can become almost unbearable Also, you may find yourself moving forward more as a group than an individual since the wall is only about 6-10 feet wide in most places. But if you love adventure, history, and a huge challenge, this is one you should not miss.
Equinox Trail Marathon.
Fairbanks, Alaska. This marathon happens with the autumnal equinox. In Alaska, that means the weather can be anything. You can end up running it in a beautiful Indian Summer with perfect running temperatures in the mid 60’s, or you could be doing it in a couple of feet of snow. The marathon begins and ends in Fairbanks, but most of the run is in the forest and mountain areas looking at the city from the west. Hills and natural surface trails make up about 20 miles of this race, but a majority of the runners are from Fairbanks and are used to all conditions. If you are a visitor coming to run the marathon, you might consider doing some elevation training and spend time on natural trails for practice well in advance of participating.
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The City by the Bay. San Francisco’s annual marathon.
This marathon usually has open spots available – there’s a good reason for that: all the steep hills. But if you are up to the slower results and the burn of all those steep climbs, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. And as you hit the sixth mile, you get to run across and back again on the Golden Gate Bridge for a little extra excitement.
North Pole Marathon, Camp Barneo, Arctic Circle.
This is an exclusive run with only 40-50 participants each April. Temperatures are sub-zero, and the entry fee exceeds $15,000. This marathon is all about the challenge and location. The scenery is going to be ice and snow – you’ll run a 2.6-mile circle on ice sheets 6-12 feet thick with the North Pole in the center of the track being run. Run the circle for ten laps to complete the marathon. But at the end of this adventure, you will have spent 36-48 hours near the North Pole to run a marathon. You should also note that your entry fee only covers charges after you make your way to the small island of Spitsbergen just off the coast of Norway. Once there, you will be flown to Camp Barneo for a night’s sleep in a heated tent, and the race begins with morning.
Antarctic Ice Marathon, Union Glacier Camp, Antarctica.
Okay, if the North Pole marathon didn’t meet all your ice and snow marathon desires, here’s another cold and adventure run. This one allows up to 50 runners, and the entry fee exceeds $13,000. It happens late in November during the summer season – not that summer means warm in this case. During the run, you’ll experience sub-zero temperatures and winds up to 30 miles per hour while you run on snow and ice. The 26.2-mile course takes you past glaciers and Antarctica’s Ellsworth Mountains. During your five-day trip, you’ll enjoy the land of the midnight sun and gratefully return to your heated tents at night.
Big Sur International.
Runners both love and dread this one. The scenery along the Pacific Coast is wild and beautiful. The marathon is on Pacific Coast Highway all the way, and begins at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and ends in Monterey, California. The most famous and fearsome part is a two-mile stretch climbing 560 feet to the top of Hurricane Point. So just when you think you have used all your breath to hit the summit, you get punched in the face with strong winds stealing even more of your oxygen supply. That may be the biggest hill, but it is by no means the last in the Marathon. At the end of the race, runners will have climbed and descended many times and those hills at the end will take all your willpower to finish.
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Inca Trail Marathon, Cuzco, Peru.
Run the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains and Machu Picchu to reach one of the most amazing finish lines for any race you will ever run. You’ll run through desert terrain, mountains, cloud-covered hilltops, and jungle. You’ll also be running on stone steps for climbing. Most of the run is done at elevations of 10,000 feet or more, so catching your breath will be even more difficult than you can imagine. The top elevation hits 14,000 feet, and much of the race is precarious footing, so slipping could send you falling a thousand feet downward, or more. Not only will your oxygen be more difficult to take in—making your mind a bit fuzzy—your need for clear thinking while running becomes imperative. So this marathon is not just a physical test, but a long mental one too.
Pike’s Peak Marathon, Manitou Springs, Colorado.
Get your climbing mindset ready. You start this marathon at about 7,000 feet elevation and climb to over 14,000 feet before you hit the halfway mark of the race. It is a trail marathon and includes a lot of rocky terrain to run. So you hit the top elevation, now strap yourself in because you will descend over 7,000 feet for the second half of this marathon. If you are not used to the elevation, a race like this can be difficult, so be mindful of the process because elevation sickness is nothing to play around with. Because of the trail conditions for this course, there are places that can take 30 minutes or more just to cover one mile. When you finish this race, you’ll know you’ve accomplished something.
Grandfather Mountain Marathon, Boone, North Carolina.
You know those hills you’ve climbed in other marathons on this list, well hopefully they have prepared you for this one. The Grandfather Mountain Marathon has an 18-mile stretch of continuous uphill climbing. This marathon usually has about 400 participants running, but it happens at the same time as the annual Boone’s Highland Games festival, so there’ll be plenty of people to cheer and encourage runners. The first 10 miles of the marathon are the steepest and hardest climbs, but after 10 miles at higher elevations, you’ll feel that wall in front of you faster than usual. The race happens near both Sugar Mountain and Ski Beech ski resorts.
Lake Tahoe Marathon, Tahoe City, California.
If you go for this one, you have the option of running a marathon a day for three days in a row. It’s usually held on the last weekend of September. The marathons are part of a full sports festival where you could participate in any of 20 or more races, including biking and swimming, or also golfing or other sporting events. The three marathons are all different courses, so if you are up to all three, you won’t get bored with the same ole run. The third run on Sunday includes a climb from 6200 feet to 6800 feet in about one and a half miles – often called the hill from Hell. If you’ve done two days of marathons before this, you might feel the fires of hell licking at your calves as well as them burning in your lungs.
The World’s Hardest Marathons: Which One Will You Run?
Please note the marathons listed are not in order of difficulty: just a mix of some of the most difficult marathons in the world from a number of locations, climates, conditions, and type of scenery. If you are up for a marathon, adding one of these to your mix will not only force you to increase your skills, but could add a bit of wild adventure too. Whether you want to run in the harshest of conditions, climb a lot of hills, see the ocean, experience history, or travel the world, you can do any or all with a 26.2 mile run.