NYC Is for Amateurs

Extreme Races: 10 Mind-Blowing Marathons (Photos)

Running 26.2 miles is crazy to begin with. So why not do it in one of the most extreme—and spectacular—places around? Sign up for a race across the alps, the outback, or icy Antarctica.

Ng Han Guan

Richard Taylor/SOPA/Corbis; Kostas Tsironis/AP; Juerg Mueller/Keystone/AP; John Carnemolla/Australia Picture Library/Corbis

On Sunday, around 48,000 runners will converge on the Big Apple to run 26.2 miles through all five boroughs of the city to complete the New York City Marathon. While these highly fit athletes should all feel proud of themselves for their accomplishment, it isn't, say, a marathon through the icy wilds of Antarctica or an arduous jog up 5,164 steps of the Great Wall of China. So runners, after you do a little victory dance in Central Park, check out these 10 extreme marathons to tackle next.


Reproduced with permission from 1000 Ultimate Adventures © 2013 Lonely Planet.  

Ole Reidar Mathisen /Demotix/Corbis

Midnight Sun Marathon

Tromsø, Norway


It’s 8:30p.m., an hour when most might head to the pub. Not so in Arctic Norway when, on one midsummer eve, 1,000 runners head to the start-line. Tromsø teeters up at 70°N; here, from mid-May to mid-July, the sun never sets, bathing the city’s Arctic Cathedral, Polar Museum, and surrounding fjords in an endless ethereal glow. It also provides ideal illumination for the world’s most northerly continental marathon, a late-night loop around Fridtjof Nansen Square, over the 1km-long Tromsø Bridge and beneath peaks still snow-capped in June, before finishing to fervent crowd support in the centre. Then you can go to the pub...


Entry to the mid-June race (www.msm.no) opens December of the year before—book entrance and accommodation well in advance.



John Carnemolla/Australia Picture Library/Corbis

Australian Outback Marathon

Uluru, Australia

 

The indigenous Anangu people own Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and the whole area—from the iconic red rock inside the park to the surrounding Aboriginal bush—is deemed sacred. Consequently, much is off-limits—which makes the Outback Marathon all the more special. On one day in July, 2,000 runners are permitted to tramp through a wild expanse of usually private property, with Uluru and the domed peaks of the Olgas as constant companions. The going is dusty, though (bar a few dunes) flat; the experience is anything but, with the spirituality-suffused ochre earth leaving runners on an almost holy high.

 

The race starts at 7:45 a.m.; mornings can be chilly but average daytime highs in July reach around 21°C. See www.australianoutbackmarathon.com.

Richard Taylor/SOPA/Corbis

Loch Ness Marathon

Scotland

 

You don’t get many spectators along this marathon route—the rolling farmland, shimmery lakeshore and gaping glens that provide the race backdrop are too remote, and Nessie herself has yet to put in an appearance. But what you lose in support you gain in scenic splendor—and possibly a few deer, eagle and red squirrel sightings en route. Best of all, despite being set in the Scottish ‘Highlands’, the race is mostly downhill—though you’ll be grateful for the lone, kilt-clad bagpipers who pop up at intervals, just when you most need a musical morale boost.

 

The marathon (held September) is part of a festival, which includes other races, Highland dancing and a Food & Drink Fayre. See www.lochnessmarathon.com.

Ng Han Guan/AP

The Great Wall Marathon

China

 

The Great Wall of China was once around 6,000km long. Thankfully, this race only requires conquering a tiny fraction if it—but what a fraction. Much of the marathon route lies in the shadow of the ancient barricade, wending between rice fields and remote villages in the traditional Huangyaguan region. The section run on the Wall itself is only around 3.5km long but—completed twice on this looping course—involves 5,164 punishingly steep stone steps, where thighs will scream, heads will spin and views of the formidable fortification snaking across the hills will provide welcome distraction.

 

The race is held in May; independent entry is not permitted—participation is only possible as part of a tour package. Visit www.great-wall-marathon.com.

Juerg Mueller/Keystone/AP

Jungfrau Marathon

Switzerland

 

Though not quite as frightening as it sounds (you don’t actually have to run up the 4,158m Jungfrau itself), this is no race for the gentle jogger. A flat first half, up the waterfall-tinkled Lauterbrunnen Valley from Interlaken, rears abruptly at the 25km mark: a series of sharp zigzags rises 500 vertical meters in five crippling kilometers. And there’s more—the final 12km keep on climbing, though as the air thins the Bernese Oberland’s flagship peaks loom ever closer and more dramatic. Just don’t dwell on the fact that there’s a perfectly engineered Swiss railway that runs right to the 2000m-high finish...

 

The race (www.jungfrau-marathon.ch) is held in September; to officially finish, runners must complete the course before the 6.5-hour cut-off time.

Joel Estay/AFP/Getty

Antarctic Ice Marathon

Antarctica

 

Tough on both legs and wallet, this race across the icy innards of the White Continent costs each participant a cool €10,500. But that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being just one of the 40 souls permitted to enter. Conditions are unforgiving: the snow-slippy route is groomed and given a once-over for crevasses but will still sap your energy. Then there’s the 1,000m altitude, sub-zero temperatures, and katabatic winds. But to run in a land of such pristine wilderness, where the only sound is the crunch of your own footsteps, is breathtaking (in every sense) indeed.

 

The marathon (www.icemarathon.com) is held November/December; the entrance fee includes flights from Punta Arenas in Chile, plus accommodation and meals.

DP/Corbis

Reggae Marathon

Jamaica

 

Trust the Jamaicans to turn a long slog into a shindig. This palm-tree-tickled marathon has water stations along its scenic, sea-lapped route, but also Rasta drummers, reggae bands and DJ booths to keep you pounding a decent rhythm. Think racing comp meets Carnival. The party atmosphere is enhanced by the 5:15 a.m. kick-off, when flaming bamboo torches and the smells of jerk chicken fill the air, and the mercury reads a manageable 20-25°C. You just need to finish before the sun comes up, the temperature rises and the post-race Beach Bash starts mixing margaritas.

 

The race is held on the first Saturday in December in Negril, one hour’s drive from Montego Bay airport. Enter at www.reggaemarathon.com.

Neil Thomas/Getty

Lew Marathon

Kenya

 

If ever you needed motivation to get moving, a rhino charging full-pelt through the long grass in your direction ought to do it. Kenya, famed for its long-distance prowess and safaris, combines both in the annual Safaricom Lewa Marathon, a dirt-track, hill-rippled, high-altitude and animal-infested epic unlike any other. The Lewa Conservancy, a swathe of acacia woodland and sweeping savannah just north of Mount Kenya, is home to more than 100 rhino, plus elephant, zebra, giraffe and buffalo. Luckily it’s also patrolled by armed rangers and helicopters on race day to keep dangerous beasties at bay.

 

The Lewa Marathon (www.safaricom.co.ke/safaricommarathon) is held in late June, when midday temperatures reach 30°C; there are water stations every 2.5km.

Kostas Tsironis/AP

Athens Classic Marathon

Greece

 

The first, the original, the granddaddy of all marathons—the route of this run from Marathónas to Athens retraces the footsteps of Pheidippides. In around 490 B.C., this speedy messenger allegedly dashed the distance to announce the Greek army’s victory over the Persians—then he promptly collapsed and died. The race feels almost as tough today. It’s on tarmac but retains some brutal undulation. Finishing in the capital’s Panathenaic Stadium—reconstructed for the 1896 Olympics from the remains of an ancient amphitheatre—will make you feel like a legend yourself.

 

The race is held in November, with applications opening in the previous January (see www.athensclassicmarathon.gr); up to 12,000 runners can enter.

Arcaid/UIG, via Getty

Big Sur Marathon

California, U.S.A.

 

Pacific peasoupers, ocean-brewed storms, hailstones, landslides, and tectonic ruptures...none of these curveballs thrown by Mother Nature deter 4,500 runners from braving the Big Sur Marathon—probably because it’s so drop-dead gorgeous. Indeed, the 26.2 miles from Big Sur Village to Carmel may be dissected by the San Andreas Fault and exposed to the climatic vagaries of the Californian Coast but they also follow Highway 1, the USA’s first ‘Scenic Highway’ and one of the world’s most distractingly dramatic drives. Best then to run it, to have more time to take in the giant sequoias, wave-crashed cliffs and precipitous bridges en route.

 

The race (www.bsim.org) is held in April. Runners must finish in under six hours, before the roads are reopened to traffic.