If you build something painful, they will come.
In the 21st century, it seems the only thing we like better than self-flagellating activities is self-flagellating activities with other folks, competing to see who can, in the words of Dean Karnazes, “survive the fastest.” Fortunately, we have all kinds of outlets when it comes to human-powered suffering over long distances. Here are our picks for the toughest of the tough.
1. Mountain Biking: Tour Divide/Great Divide Race
The world’s longest unsupported off-road cycling race began as the Great Divide Race in 2004, when four racers finished time-trialing the U.S. portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in less than 30 days. In following years, a handful of racers gathered to compete, and in 2008, an additional section of the route was added to the course, starting in Banff, and the race lived on as Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile string of jeep roads, singletrack, and pavement. Most riders start en masse in Banff the second week of June, and half will finish. In 2012, New Zealand cyclist Ollie Whalley sets a course record with a time of 16 days, 2 hours, 46 minutes. Or almost 170 miles per day. 170 miles a day. LINK
2. Road Cycling: Furnace Creek 508
For most mortals, mashing out 508 miles and 36,000 feet of elevation gain would be a good week on a bicycle — it’s roughly four mountain stages of the Tour de France ridden consecutively. Competitors in the Furnace Creek 508 have 48 hours to finish all that, over 10 mountain passes in the California desert. Drafting is not allowed. IV fluids are not permitted. It’s invite-only, with about 90 solo cyclists and 50 relay teams competing each year. Roughly 60 percent of entrants will cross the finish line. LINK
3. Exercising: Deca Ironman
Completed an Ironman triathlon? Ha! That’s nothing. If you want, to paraphrase Kenny Powers, to truly “be the best at exercising,” set your sights on the September 2013 Deca Iron Italy, which is 30 Ironman-distance triathlons in 30 days. You’ll only be considered if you’ve already completed a Deca Ironman, which is 10 consecutive days of Ironman Triathlons — and more than 20 competitors have already signed up. LINK
4. Trail Running: The Barkley 100
The Barkley Marathons is a 60-mile “fun run” and 100-mile run in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. Both races repeat a 20-mile loop for their respective durations, and the 100-mile course includes almost two Mount Everest’s worth of elevation gain — 54,200 feet. There’s no website, it’s kind of hard to enter, and only three people finished last year. The total number of 100-mile finishers since the race began in 1986 is somewhere around a dozen. So it’s not so much a race as it is a contest to see who can actually finish. And it’s timed: competitors in the 100-mile race must finish each 20-mile loop in 12 hours or less. Oh, and the course is also completely unmarked.
5. Canoeing: Texas Water Safari
There’s no prize money, it’s unsupported other than water and ice stations, and the time limit is 100 hours to paddle 260 river miles in a canoe from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico. Teams cannot have any support than fresh water and ice stations. Six-person canoe teams compete, usually half of them finish. Snakes, alligators, insects, heat, humidity, no mandatory checkpoints, and, from the website: “Teams must be prepared to travel day and night, nonstop, to be competitive but teams who occasionally stop for sleep have been able to reach mandatory checkpoint cutoff times and cross the finish line by the 100-hour deadline.” LINK
6. Sailing: Vendee Globe
In 1982-83, French yachtsman Philippe Jeantot had competed in the BOC Challenge, the solo round-the-world yacht race, and thought it wasn’t tough enough because it was raced in stages. So he created the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world yacht race that takes place every four years from November to February (so the competitors will be in the southern hemisphere during the summer). Competitors must race unsupported, and on a race course that takes them far from any normal range of rescue. Usually 12 to 20 competitors start the race, and some years more than half finish it. LINK
7. Running: Self-Transcendence 3100
The world’s hardest running race does not cross a desert in Africa or a desert in California or a mountain range. It crosses a tiny section of Queens thousands of times. Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3100, started in 1996 by Sri Chinmoy, hammer out 5,649 laps of an extended city block in Queens over a 52-day period, averaging 60-plus miles each day. They start in June, and finish, if they finish, in August. The course record is a slightly less-mind-numbing 41 days, 8 hours. LINK
8. Snow Biking: Iditarod Trail Invitational
So, 350 miles on a bike over one week, not so bad. In February? A little tougher. In Alaska? Okay. On snow? Brutal. Less than 50 people will line up at the start line of the Iditarod Trail Invitational each February, a mix of skiers, snowshoers, and snow cyclists, and only a handful drop out each year. We all know how fun postholing is — imagine postholing while dragging a “fat bike” alongside. Two 10-pound drop bags are allowed for each racer, placed at checkpoints along the route. LINK
9. Snow Footracing: 6633 Extreme Winter Ultramarathon
In 2010, seven people started this 350-mile foot race through the Arctic Circle. Two people finished (only one of six racers finished the previous year). Competitors must carry all supplies or tow them on a sled, save for two small drop bags along the course. After starting at a remote outpost off the Klondike Highway in Alaska, the route goes up and into the Arctic Circle, and finishes in Tuktoyaktuk, a tiny hamlet in the Northwest Territories. Competitors are advised to bring wheels for their sleds for traversing extremely windblown sections of the route. And if snow can’t stay on the ground, you can imagine how much fun it is to walk there. Oh, and it’s in March. LINK
Photo by Kathi Merchant/Alaska Ultra Sport