Top 10 Toughest Athletic Challenges

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Is your daily routine at the gym boring you? Is your jogging route not giving you the same satisfaction it once did? And are you tired of athletic events that only last a couple of measly hours? Then it sounds like you need more pain and suffering in your life! Luckily, there are numerous sporting challenges that have been designed for the sole purpose of torturing their participants with insane demands. Taking part in any one of the following 10 events should be enough to ensure that you never want to exercise again!



10. The Tough Guy

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The Tough Guy is a 12km foot race, but don’t let the short distance fool you. The creator of the course, believing that nature can’t provide a racetrack that’s hardcore enough for him, has built a series of obstacles that combine aspects of American Gladiators with the Vietnam War. Competitors climb up log walls, shimmy up poles to slide across high ropes, run through fire pits, navigate through sewer pipes, wade across chest deep water and crawl under barbed wire while smoke bombs go off over their heads. Oh, and it takes place in the middle of January. Sounds fun, right?

The event, which is held on some crazy British guy’s private land, can attract up to 6000 people each year. Injuries are common, and two people have even been killed, which is why you have to sign a “death warrant” before taking part. All in all, it sounds like an amazing competition to sign your friend up for while you heckle him from the sidelines.

9. The Barkley Marathon

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The Barkley Marathon held at Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee is a 161km run, but that’s not the hard part. It’s the staggering 18,000 metre climb that causes problems; well, that and the fact that there isn’t one of those fancy pants “trails” for you to follow. Oh, and there are tons of thorns and briars, collapsed trees are everywhere, and it tends to rain. A lot.

Since 1986 about 700 people have attempted the annual marathon, but only nine have finished under the 60 hour time limit. The cut-off time seems harsh considering the course record is 55 hours and 42 minutes; you’d think that just letting people complete this gruelling event would be challenging enough. But if it’s too much for you, you could always try the 97km “fun run” instead. You get 40 hours for that light-hearted adventure!

8. Norseman Xtreme Triathlon

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It’s obvious this race means business- just look at how they spelled “extreme.” At 226km it’s about the length of an Ironman triathlon, but there are enough differences to make even seasoned Ironman competitors look like… uh… normal men? Ironwimps? The Norseman is tough, is what we’re trying to say here.

For starters, the race takes place in Norway, so the swim takes place in water that, if you’re lucky, will reach a temperature of 17C. The bike leg is pretty standard, but the run takes you up a mountain, and you don’t get the benefit of a road for very long. The last 17km has competitors gaining almost 2000 metres in elevation, and they’re doing it on a rocky mountain path. Plus, there’s a risk of “extreme weather conditions.” Well, at least it’s not “Xtreme weather conditions,” because then you’d really be in trouble.

7. The Marathon des Sables

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Running a marathon is a nice achievement and all, but if you really want to challenge yourself you should run six of them over consecutive days. And you should do it in southern Morocco, at a time of year where the temperature tends to be around 50C. Oh, and forget about paved roads; it’s rocks and sand dunes for you. And did we mention that you have to carry your sleeping bag, food and other supplies on your back, and that you have to cook for yourself every night? The Marathon des Sables could be the first race in history lost due to culinary ineptitude instead of poor fitness.

About 700 people enter the event each year, which is about 700 more than we’d expect. The total distance ends up being roughly 243km, and the record completion time is 19.5 hours. There is prize money, but most contestants are just interested in finishing the race. Because, you know, running across a desert for six straight days is good, leisurely fun; you’d have to be crazy to try and win.

6. Everest Challenge

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Contrary to what you might think from its name, this two day, 332km bike race actually takes place in California, not on the side of Mount Everest. Don’t worry, it still has a vertical climb of 9144 metres, making it comparable to the Barkley Marathon. There’s barely a flat area on the whole course; you’re pretty much biking uphill the entire way, sometimes at a grade of 20%. And since it takes around 14 hours to complete the challenge, your legs have little chance of coming out intact. That’s assuming you even finish; plenty of people give up after day one, because it’s just too taxing on the body. But at least the route is scenic; there’s something about a beautiful mountain vista that can really put crippling leg injuries in perspective.

5. The Ultraman

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If you’re anything like us, you scoff at normal triathlons and consider Ironman events to be a light warm-up before your daily summit of Everest. You’d also be a pathological liar, but we digress. The Ultraman is an event for people just like that, because why settle for the title of Ironman when you can sound like a 1960s Japanese action hero? Also, there’s probably immense personal satisfaction from completing this challenge or some nonsense like that.

This three day, 515km race has been held annually in Hawaii since 1983. Day one consists of a 10km swim through the ocean followed by a 145km bike ride. Day two has contestants biking for another 276km, and on day three the Ultraman concludes with an 84km run, the equivalent of two marathons. Only 35 people are allowed to compete every year, and the winner usually boasts a completion time of just under 24 hours. Yeah, you know a race is intense when the best of the best takes about a day to finish.

4. The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge

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This is the biking equivalent of the Marathon des Sables, as contestants spend five days cycling across remote parts of the Australian outback. Most of the 590km is spent going over sand dunes and rocky plains, all the while putting up with intense heat and swarms of bugs. The only chance of relief from the scorching sun comes in the form of rain, but that tends to create bogs that are incredibly difficult to bike though. Also, you’re in constant danger of being bitten by a killer spider or having your stuff stolen at night, just like every other visitor to Australia.

The winning time is usually around 40 gruelling hours. On the plus side, participants can have a support crew to prepare meals, do laundry, and so on. Gee, that practically makes this a relaxing vacation.

3. Yukon Arctic Ultra

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What is it with these challenges and being “ultra”? Ultra doesn’t even begin to describe this event: it’s a 702km race through the arctic, which participants can complete on either bikes, skis, or, if they hate themselves, foot. That much distance is tough enough on its own, never mind the fact that the average temperature is -20C, (it can get as low as a horrifying -55C), and that blizzards are common. They might as well use angry polar bears to guard the checkpoints.

This is the only race we know of where you’re required to bring a headlamp, 48 hours’ worth of emergency food, and, most worryingly, an avalanche shovel. And that’s just a small portion of the junk you have to carry around with you, as if wading through heavy snow doesn’t slow you down enough. That explains why there’s a strict time limit of 13 days for completion, although most people end up being forced to retire well before that. Reports of competitors getting lost and forced to eat each other to survive remain unconfirmed, but it sounds inevitable to us.

2. The Iditarod

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Easily the most famous event on our list, the Iditarod is an 1868km dog sled race across Alaska. Of course, it’s the team of 16 dogs that’s doing most of the work, but the whiteout conditions, blizzards and wind chill that can drop the temperature to a balmy -73C makes this event tough on the driver as well. And the sheer length is a huge factor; the record completion time is just under nine days, and it can take as long as 15 for some people to finish. So while “sitting on your keester and telling your dogs to get a move on” may not constitute a sport in the traditional sense, the fact that you’re doing it for a week and a half in a raging snowstorm is enough to qualify this as an athletic event. Plus, the dogs are probably better athletes than most of us, so they deserve some recognition.

1. The Atlantic Rowing Race

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Yes, that’s “Atlantic” as in “The Atlantic Ocean.” Beginning in 1997 and held every two years, the race starts in the Canary Islands and ends in the West Indies. At 4722km it’s longer than every other event on our list combined, and the 2009 edition took contestants anywhere from 40 to 90 days to complete. Any race where you need to quit your job beforehand redefines the idea of serious dedication. It also redefines insanity.

Most of the boats are manned by pairs or teams of four, because if you’re going to put your life on hold to row across the Atlantic Ocean you might as well bring some friends along. A few particularly brave people have attempted the journey solo, however. That’s three months of sitting in a tiny boat by yourself, living off of ration packs and straining your muscles to row across choppy ocean water. You’ll have to decide for yourselves if that’s inspirational or just crazy, because we have no idea.

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7 Comments

  1. All these pale in comparison to the race for the toilet at halftime of a football match…

    • Wow. From the site: “…we are now recruiting for crew for our next ocean row – an E-W crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados, in January 2011.” Yeah, that would be a little tough. 😉

  2. Phffff these are child’s play, I once went to the extrasolar planet HD 209458b and back riding on the back of a small snail equipped with nothing but a paper clip and a rubber band to breathe and fight off alien/zombie hordes.

  3. Extreme Triathlon in South Africa. Comrades is day 1 (88km road run) then Day 2 is start of Freedom Challenge so 2300km of mountain biking (no support just placesd to sleep and eat every 100km) which needs to be completed inside 21 days so you can do the berg River Canoe marathon 4 Days and 280km later.