By definition, a marathon is a long-distance running event that is officially listed at 26 miles long. The marathon dates back all the way to the time of the Greeks when a messenger named Pheidippides supposedly ran for miles and miles from a battlefield near the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Persians defeat in the Persian-Greco Wars.
The distance is often questioned and challenged, but in the end the idea of running a long-distance non-stop came from this event. The marathon was not an event in the ancient Olympic games (776 BC to 393 AD); the first Olympic marathon occurred on April 10, 1896 and was won by Spiridon Louis. A standard distance was not determined until 1924, when it was officially made to be 26.22 miles. The first Women’s Olympic marathon was held in 1984 and was won by Joan Benoit.
Aside from Olympic marathons, there are hundreds of events that occur each year around the world. There are about 500 organized marathons, many of them belonging to the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS). The association gives out about $500,000 to the winners of the marathons every year. We all know about the most popular and biggest marathon events in Boston, New York City, Chicago, Stockholm, and so on- but what about those that are a bit more extreme?
Below is a list of 10 marathons that are definitely unique:
10. Big Five Marathon
If you’ve ever wanted to go on an African Safari while running in a marathon, the Big Five Marathon is most definitely for you. In this marathon, you really get up close and personal with some of Africa’s most famous animals, including: lions, zebras, leopards, buffalo, and even elephants. Coming into contact with these animals is where the marathon got its name. Runners are sent on a course in Waterberg, South Africa throughout the savannahs. As scary as it sounds, the route that the runners take goes directly through a well-known lion habitat, but no one has ever been injured as there are helicopters and rangers armed with guns that keep a careful eye on the entire path. Even though the marathon usually takes place in the winter the sun in the African savannahs is still enough to bring some heat.
9. Baikal Ice Marathon
On the other end of the thermometer the Baikal Ice Marathon, in Siberia, is another event where temperature plays a huge role in the success of the runners. As you can imagine, this is a pretty cold race and runners must make their trek in weather that can dip to 39 degrees below zero, and sometimes even colder. The race takes place in Omsk, Russia on roads that are pretty quiet and traffic free. They are flat which makes the race a little bit easier to train for, but it’s definitely not easy to train your body to work properly in such extreme temperatures. Those who host the race provide each runner with a warm cap that will allow the body to retain a normal temperature in the extreme cold. In any case, this is definitely not an easy marathon to run, despite being only half of the distance of a normal marathon. In 2001, 134 runners set forth to make their way through Omsk and by the end of it all only 11 were able to cross the finish line.
8. Midnight Sun Marathon
Founded in 1989, the Midnight Sun Marathon has been around for about two decades and is considered to be quite extreme for the average runner. Today it is said that over 50 nations are represented in the race each year. It takes place in Tromsø, Norway annually, usually in the month of June. Those who participate get the chance to run across the Tromsø Bridge, which is 44 meters above sea level and then run back to the central part of the city. The most exciting part about this marathon is the fact that it takes place during the midnight sun. The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon that occurs only in the summer months near the Arctic Circle. At midnight, runners will be able to see the sun and with ideal clear weather, the sun can be seen for the entire 24 hours of the day. This marathon is ideal for every runner of every age: there are half marathons, mini marathons, and even a marathon that is set specifically for young runners.
7. Everest Marathon
The Everest Marathon is definitely one that is meant for well-seasoned runners. It stands as the world’s highest marathon, starting at 17,149 feet and ending at 11,300 feet. The race ends in Namche Bazaar, a village in northeast Nepal. The Everest Marathon has been held ever since Tony Hunt and Jan Turner took a trek up the mountain for 12 hours without any sort of aid in 1985. Since then the two created an impromptu marathon which then sparked into the marathon it is today. The full race was first held in 1987. This marathon is often considered to be a marathoner’s ultimate goal. Runners have to face sub-degree weather and altitude sickness is also something that they all have to take into strict consideration. Along the way runners get to experience trekking through suspension bridges, several monuments, and even old monasteries. In 2010 the top 3 runners were all from Nepal, the fastest time being 3:41:20.
6. Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon
Kiehl’s, a company known for its cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, herbal products and many other things, hosts an annual marathon that is definitely considered to be tougher than most. It involves a rough 135 miles, starting in Badwater, CA, which is 280 feet below sea level, and ending at Mt. Whitney, CA, 8360 feet above sea level. The marathon begins at the lowest elevation level within the Western Hemisphere and covers three different mountain ranges. This of course means a lot of incline running as well as decline, and the ascent can surely have an effect on those running. The race has been around since 1999 and each year thousands line up to get a shot at the harsh course. Throughout the run marathoners pass through many different locations including Mushroom Rock, Salt Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Devil’s Golf Course. Because the course is so tough, there has never been a 100% completion rate, though it’s not rare to have one within the 90th percentile.
5. The Marathon Des Sables
The ideal marathon would be one hosted on a day when the weather is not too hot, but not too cold; however, with the Marathon Des Sables, heat is definitely part of the challenge, as competitors must run in 120°F or higher temperatures. Because of the conditions and length of the marathon, it’s often been called the toughest on earth. It has taken place since 1986 and is run throughout the Moroccan Desert. The location has definitely wreaked havoc on some of the runners, some participants have gotten lost in sand storms while 2 have died. Translated into Marathon of the Sands, this marathon literally takes place in a desert. This type of marathon is as long as 6 marathons put together and spans over 6 days and by the end of it all, runners will have travelled about 120 miles. As if the heat and distance aren’t enough, those who participate must carry all of their food and belongings with them during the race.
4. Great Tibetan Marathon
The Great Tibetan Marathon is held each year in northern India on the Tibetan Plateau where runners are able to enjoy the surrounding view of the Himalayan Mountains. Throughout the race runners get to experience the scenery within the Indus Valley. This marathon is especially different because it takes place in Buddhist surroundings at an altitude of 3,500m. At such a high altitude, runners have to learn how to deal with low oxygen levels which makes the race even harder to run as it is definitely much more of a challenge than a marathon at a normal altitude. Participants must spend time at 3,500m to allow the body to get used to the conditions before they can compete in the race. Also a day before the race, a 3km run is put into place so that runners can really get a grasp of the change in altitude. Athletes of all types can join into the marathon as they offer a half marathon, a 10km, and then a full marathon run.
3. Polar Circle Marathon
Just by the name, you can guess that the Polar Circle Marathon is definitely a little bit chilly. In fact, in many cases, runners have to make their trek in 14 °F temperatures. The race is held in Greenland every year, in October. Runners have the option to run the half marathon or run the entire length, but no matter which race one chooses, it is most definitely not an easy one. Those who opt for the full race must finish within 7 hours and those with only half should finish in no more than 4 hours. Not only is the temperature enough to slow someone down, there is plenty of tough terrain to go over including tundras, glaciers, and of course the ice cap which really makes the course slippery. While gravel and snow often cover the ice cap, the committee that hosts the marathon warns runners to be careful. Along with a very slippery surface, runners will also come across a few slippery slopes as the ice cap has varying levels of height throughout the race and is said to be very hilly.
2. Dead Sea Ultra Marathon
If you’ve ever wanted to participate in a marathon that takes you to the lowest place on earth, than you most definitely want to try the Dead Sea Ultra Marathon. The marathon takes place each year on the first or second Friday in April starting in Amman and ending at the Dead Sea. During the run, those participating experience a 1,300m drop- from 900m above sea level to 400m below sea level. Unlike most on the list, those who run the marathon are running to raise money for neurological patients who can’t afford the costs of surgery. Since the event’s start in 1993, they have been able to help about 1150 cases. The race winners are also awarded cash prizes. The marathon is home to five different races, each suitable for a specific type of runner.
1. Great Wall Marathon
At the top of the list, the Great Wall Marathon includes a 9km run that takes all of the runners up, across, and then down the Great Wall of China. The race has been going on for close to a decade. It is said that during this part of the race, each runner has to ascend 5,000 or so steps. Not only are the steps a tough challenge, but sometimes the ascents and descents that the runners have to deal with are quite steep. Many times those participating in the marathon are urged to go slowly up and down the mountain and to walk at the highest parts of it. Even worse, if you’ve trained for the full Great Wall Marathon, you complete this course twice- those running half only have to run the Wall once. The run also takes participants through rice fields and villages. The challenges during this leg of the race aren’t as tough, and runners run on gravel and asphalt roads, which make for comfortable conditions. Although, those running the full distance are warned of the ascent around the 21km mark of the race. As crazy as it sounds, those who are trained and fully ready can finish the marathon in 5-6 hours (after 8 hours there is a cut off for those who have not finished). The most recent race was held on May 15, 2010 with about 1,800 participants. The winners were Qiang Tong from China who finished the race in 3:24:44 and Inez-Anne Haagen from the Netherlands in 3:56:38.