Challenge courses are a relatively new phenomenon in the world but have exploded in recent years. In the 1980s, there were under 1,000 challenge courses operating in the United States. Today there are over 15,000. There are also no formal rules over what makes a challenge course. In the beginning, they were little more than simple obstacles that involved running and rope climbing. Now they run the gamut from simple obstacle courses to complex races that span hundreds of miles in extreme conditions or challenging terrain. They may have themes or set goals. It’s really up to the creator of the course to decide. It’s safe to say that some definitely stand out more than others.
10. Spartan Death Race
The Spartan Death Race is one of several Spartan races a person can challenge themselves with if they’re so inclined. It’s also considered one of the most difficult to complete and has been called the world’s toughest race. Period.
The race can change from year to year because the organizers want to keep it interesting. That said, you can expect things like a 14-hour ruck, which is a run in which you have to carry weights. Then a marathon crawl through barbed wire, 26 miles carrying 50-pound sandbags, 26 miles of rope climbing, 26 miles of burpees, tire dragging, chopping wood for hours, and more.
The 2018 winner broke a world record by completing 31 laps of the track in 12 hours, crawling through mud, rocks and barbed wire the whole time. That was only phase one, of course. The entire race was 60 hours. Eighty people started the race and only 12 finished.
9. The Tough Mudder
If Spartan had a challenger to the throne of toughest challenge course in the world, it’d be the Tough Mudder. In fact, Spartan actually bought Tough Mudder in 2020, so they’re technically the same thing now.
Mudders range from 5K to 10K, and finally 15K for those committed to pushing their limits all the way. Events include some of what you’ll see at Spartan, like crawling through mud or under barbed wire obstacles. For some added thrills, you may also be tasked with running through water and dodging electrical wires at the same time. Another obstacle involved sliding down a pole through a ring of fire. The basic idea is to overcome some of the most primal fears that humans have, and it’s clearly not for everyone.
Mudders are not without their dangers, even beyond the obvious ones. Past participants have come down with serious illnesses after slopping through mud contaminated with cow feces.
8. Rugged Maniac
The show Shark Tank made Rugged Maniac famous when Mark Cuban chose to invest in 2014. It plays out in a similar fashion to courses like Tough Mudder, but Rugged Maniac is known for having some more creative obstacles that are borderline cruel in their ingenuity
Though there are a couple dozen potential obstacles, highlights include the Pyromaniac, in which participants have to leave over flaming logs, the Head Scratcher, a crawl through muddy water under barbed wire, and Off the Rails, which somehow involves zip lining uphill.
The races typically take place over 5K, and they do offer differing levels of difficulty. That said, none are what one might consider easy and the terrain from one place to the next can make them even more difficult.
7. Run For Your Lives
A typical challenge course uses very typical obstacles. Maybe nets and ropes to climb, muddy ditches to jump, and planks to balance on. Even the difficult courses with novelty obstacles like barbed wire and heavy loads to carry have one thing in common – the obstacles tend to all be inanimate objects. Run for Your Lives takes things to the next level. The obstacles in this course are human. Well, sort of. They’re zombies.
Participants in the 5K can race as either zombies or survivors. You can slosh through a blood pit which, in this case, is just red colored water, navigate a smoke-filled building, and more. You can also enter as a zombie, in which case you get decked out in full zombie makeup then chase down the survivors.
(Note: the race was mothballed, at least in the US, but was purchased and seemingly has continued in Asia.)
6. Savage Race
Savage Race takes place in 17 locations around the US. It offers up an abundance of obstacles to test your mettle and brutalize you in one way or another. The Shriveled Richard obstacle involved submerging yourself in a swimming pool filled with 60,000 pounds of ice. In the Teeter Tuber you need to climb up inside a 24-inch diameter tube until you hit a pivot point and it dumps you out again. The savage rig is one a true obstacle course with rings, monkey bars and more that is never rigged the same way twice. Only 50% of competitors make it through. The other 25-plus obstacles will see you crawling, climbing and struggling through miles of the course.
Though races like Spartan are generally considered harder and definitely longer, the Savage Race has been celebrated for having some of the most fun and creative obstacles of any of the major challenge races that are available.
5. Jungle Ultra Footrace
Some people like their challenges a little more challenging and that’s where the Jungle Ultra race comes in. This one isn’t located in an open field one town over, like most other races. This one covers a 230 kilometer trek through the Manu National Park in the Amazon jungle. That means you can run with monkeys, jaguars and more.
Racers have to carry their own gear with them, including food and clean drinking water. In heat that gets up to 30 degrees Celsius complete with mud and humidity, racers have to traverse upwards of 70 rivers and streams, including on zip-lines. All told, it takes about a week to finish the entire race. It’ll also cost you about $3,200 US, not including your flight.
4. Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Jungle Ultra footrace is the Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic. While a trek through the Peruvian rainforest will subject you to brutally hot temperatures, the Alaskan Mountain Classic pits you against a different extreme far up north. The distance changed from year to year, with some versions covering 130 miles, and others up to 280 miles.
The race crosses terrain where grizzly bears are not uncommon. Mountains and valleys and rivers are all par for the course. And while it takes place int he summer months, it’s still up in the mountains of Alaska where things are less than balmy at the best of times.
There aren’t any particular rules on how you finish the race, except that you carry your gear with you and don’t leave any waste behind. You can go on foot, use a boat over water, and people have even used paragliders in the past.
The length of time obviously depends on the length of the course itself. Some have been finished in around three days. Others take up to a week.
3. The Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race
If you’re in the market for a race that almost never ends, maybe the Self-Transcendence 3,100 miles race is the one you’re looking for. It’s the longest certified foot race in the world. Despite that, you never have to leave the same neighborhood to get it done. The entire race takes place on one city block in Queens, New York. You just have to do 5,649 laps. The cut off time for completing the race is 52 days. To finish it in that time, runners need to cover 60 miles a day.
In 2006, a German runner took the record for finishing, getting the job done in a brisk 41 days and 8 hours. That means his pace was an impressive 75 miles per day.
New York in the summer is rarely hospitable, so runners face two months of pollution, angry pedestrians and more. The average runner will burn through 12 pairs of shoes on the route. The course opens every day at 6 a.m. and will continue until midnight, with breaks whenever participants want them. For those other six hours, runners get to have some sleep.
The race was started by a man named Sri Chinmoy, a sort of spiritual guru who believed physical activity could help achieve transcendence and allegedly lifted 800 pounds with one hand when he was 54 years old.
2. Antarctic Ice Marathon
Races that take place in Alaska and the rainforest may seem extreme but they don’t quite rise to the level of the Ice Marathon, which sees participants trying to endure a 100 kilometer run across the Antarctic. The race starts near the South Pole and forces runners to endure average temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius. Elevation is 3,000 feet and the course circuit is actually 25 kilometers, which participants will do four times. The way is marked and there is support on hand so that nothing too dangerous is likely to happen.
If you’re tempted to participate there is the small matter of a registration fee. It costs $17,900 to sign up. That includes being flown from Punta Arenas in Chile to the base camp in Antarctica. You also get three meals a day, accommodations, and unlimited hot drinks.
Aside from the obvious challenges of running a marathon in subzero temperatures, there are other issues to take into consideration. For instance, most runners who are new to these conditions dress too warmly. Once they get out on the ice and snow, they start to sweat. Then the intense cold freezes the sweat and the risk of hypothermia rises. There’s also a serious risk of sunburn thanks to the fact there’s no shade and the sun reflects off of all the snow and ice. Needless to say, this is one race that is not for the faint of heart.
1. Badwater 135
The Badwater Ultramarathon claims to be the toughest footrace in the world and it makes a good case for the claim. The race starts in the Badwater Basin, located in Death Valley, California. It’s 282 feet below sea level there. As the race progresses across 217 kilometers, or 135 miles, to Mount Whitney, it rises to 8,360 feet above sea level. All of this and mid-July Death Valley temperatures that have at times managed to crack 57 degrees Celsius. In 2018, with a record high temperature at the starting line, 30 racers dropped out.
Runners need to learn how to manage the intense conditions. Dehydration can be deadly, and even methods of staying cool can cause trouble. All runners have to have a crew to travel with them and water needs to be constantly available. Ice water melts quickly and many runners pack ice on their bodies, which can be dangerous as it may cause chafing as it melts. The road gets so hot that even shoes have been known to melt. Runners can take well between 20 and 40 hours to complete the race and go through 65 liters of water or more in that time.
Runners may experience some severe side effects of the heat and exhaustion along the way. Hallucinations are not unheard of. One runner who completed the race in 2019 reported that she actually fell asleep while running a few times.