Lace up your shoes, hit the trails, and grit your teeth to victory.
Looking for a sufferfest? How about 10? Behold the toughest races in the country—and tips from past winners on how to succeed.
Barkley Marathons, Tennessee
Every year someone finishes the Barkley Marathons, the race director makes the course a little bit harder. “The idea is to keep it barely possible,” says Jared Campbell, the only competitor to have finished three times. Now the “marathon” rings in at around 130 miles with 70,000 feet of elevation gain. And that’s just if you don’t get lost.
The course isn’t marked, and there are no aid stations; everything you need, you carry with you. The only way to prove you’ve finished is to tear a page from each of ten books you pass along the way.
The race isn’t simple, and neither is preparation for it. “People should study the event, learn the history, and read the reports of those who have tried it over the years,” says Campbell. “Don’t just go run a bunch to prepare; actually study. And then practice,” he says, advising prospective competitors to put together a route of their own, figure out food and gear needs, and get from point A to point B with nothing but a map and compass.
“Doing an adventure like that, say 24 hours of thinking on your feet and dealing with the unexpected—that type of training is every bit as important as just running, if not more so,” he says.
More info: The enigmatic nature of the race bars it from having an official site, but this is pretty close.
Hardrock 100, Colorado
The stats alone put the “hard” in “Hardrock”: 33,000 feet of elevation gain, a high point over 14,000 feet, and an average course altitude of 11,000 feet is enough to command the respect of even the most elite competitors. By the numbers, it’s probably the toughest hundo in America, but fickle weather and a 24-year-old reputation round out the resume. The San Juans are sometimes called the Swiss Alps of North America, and this is the race to match that majesty.
“This is a really special race,” says 2016 winner Jason Schlarb. “It’s so remote, there’s a feeling of true wilderness, and it has this culture of being small and intimate despite its massive reputation.” That reputation is what draws the pros back year after year. Kilian Jornet, for example, ran only two races in 2015 as he was training for his speed record attempt on Everest. Hardrock was one of them.
2016 was Schlarb’s first year at Hardrock. He credits his success to his altitude training. Maximizing the vert on his training runs at 8,000 feet and running the San Juan Solstice 50-miler prior to Hardrock prepared him for both the oxygen deprivation and the 5,000-foot ascents and descents. His recommendation for first-timers from the flatlands: Get to the course a week early to check out the terrain, adjust, and get a handle on how your body reacts to altitude. And run a lot of vertical miles.
The course will be brutal and demoralizing but inevitably worth it. “It’s a life event for almost everybody who gets in,” Schlarb says.
Zane Grey Highline Trail 50-Mile Run, Arizona
This one came recommended by Karl Meltzer himself, who’s won more 100-mile races than anyone on earth, as well as a whole slew of shorter races. Zane Grey makes his list for savage 50s.
The elevation profile of this one looks like a cardiograph of a heart patient, but that’s not what makes it tough. “It’s like running on baseballs,” said Meltzer. Reminiscent of a jackhammered cobblestone road, the trail is rocky and technical. The race website helpfully provides a small slideshow of photographed injuries, including an X-ray of a severely dislocated thumb, under the heading “This Run Is Very Hard.”
2015 winner René Rovera said he was drawn to the race because “I could run in America, in a legendary area that I only knew through 1970s Western movies,” and because the technicality was just his style. The Esterel Mountains, where he trains near his home in the French Riviera are “stony, dry, slippery, and hot with short but very steep ascents and descents,” he said.
He has two pieces of counsel for first-timers: Don’t start too fast, and take some time to enjoy the scenery.
More info: zanegrey50.com
Jay Peak 50K Ultra Trail Race, Vermont
Welcome to the trail without flats. To keep things interesting, the Jay Peak course includes everything from sections of the Long Trail to ski slopes and even a little bit of bushwhacking, says 2015 winner and Vermont native Aliza Lapierre. “It’s a lot of varied terrain, and it’s technical,” she adds.
Runners lap the same 25K course twice. Each lap boasts an elevation gain of 3,000 feet over 15.5 miles.
To prepare, Lapierre sought out ski mountains and rocky trails near home to get ready for the climbs and uncertain footing. During the race, she made sure to start out conservatively. “Be patient with your pace,” Lapierre advises. “A lot of people start out really hard, but even though it’s only 50K, it takes a toll on your body, and the time runs much longer than a typical 50K.”
The race website offers the same warning in blunter terms: “Can you complete it? Yes. Will you PR? No.”
More info: jaypeaktrailrun.com/50k-ultra
Cruel Jewel 100, Georgia
Georgia might be the home of southern hospitality, but Cruel Jewel’s course marks a notable exception.
“The elevation gain alone is fitted to a mountain runner. A roadrunner would get crushed. The constant up and down will rip you apart,” says 2016 victor Nickademus Hollon. None of the climbs are enormous (this is Georgia, after all), but they’re persistent. 1,000 feet up. 1,000 feet down. By the end, you’ll have gained as much vert as you would at Hardrock: 33,000 feet.
The cruelty becomes almost comical at mile 50.
“Right at the halfway point of the race, you descend 2,500 feet just to say hi to the aid station people, and then you turn back around and go right back up that thing,” says Hollon. “It’s a little mentally taxing.” Hollon also ran into a bear and
Hollon ran into a bear and leapt over no fewer than 30 fallen logs during the race. Thanks to his position in the lead, he also cleared the course of spiderwebs for the other contestants. “Those spiders were pretty huge,” he says.
To get ready, Hollon focused on repeat training, pounding out 300-foot climbs near his home in San Diego. He also hit the gym, strengthening quads, glutes, and hamstrings with a weight training regime.
More info: dumassevents.com
Hoka ONE ONE Speedgoat 50K, Utah
Climbing nearly 15,000 vertical feet of steep Snowbird ski hills, the Speedgoat 50K is Karl Meltzer’s brainchild, and, in his words, an act of sadism. “As you get to the finish line, it gets tougher, and that’s demoralizing,” he says with a touch of pride.
The route traces exposed ridges as well as a rocky Jeep road that racers lovingly refer to as the Creek Bed. “It’s four miles of nastiness,” says Meltzer.
“To do well in that technical terrain, you’ve got to practice running downhill fast and take risks running on rocky, junky shit,” he advises. “A lot of people who are fearless in that way come from a skiing background.” Fitting for a race designed by a past ski bum. (Meltzer worked at Snowbird for 17 years before his pro running career took off.)
The suffering will be great, but the perks aren’t insignificant: The prize purse is bigger than that of any 50K in the country—$10,000 in recent years, thanks to Hoka’s sponsorship. Plus, Meltzer himself will be waiting at the finish line to give you a high-five. Or take some heat.
“How many people have sworn at me at the finish line? I don’t know, but bring it on,” says Meltzer. “The best races are the ones that make you hurt while you’re out there and smile when you’re done.”
More info: On the Facebook page
Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run, Virginia
Think 100 miles is a sufferfest by itself? Try 100 miles with wet feet.
Angela Shartel, who holds the open female course record for her 2014 Massanutten Mountain Trails race, spent 21 hours and 24 minutes pushing through ankle-deep water. That’s when she wasn’t hopping from rock to rock.
“The course is covered in these jagged boulders,” she said, which makes footing uncertain at best and perilous at worst. Though the elevation gain (18,000+ feet) is nothing to scoff at, the rocks, roots, and mud are what truly make the course an exercise in humility.
A combination of strength training—particularly squats and kettlebell exercises—and spending hours on the rough, rocky trails outside her hometown of San Diego brought her ankle and core stability up to snuff before the race. Shartel also hit the sauna two days a week to acclimate to the humidity.
“The biggest thing that helped me was getting into a headspace where I’m not fighting the course. Embrace where you are and take the moments as they come and try to stay in that positive mental space,” she says.
More info: www.vhtrc.org/mmt
H.U.R.T 100, Hawaii
HURT is more than just an acronym; when it comes to punishment, the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run delivers. The course follows a tangle of converted pig trails through the Oahu rainforest. As such, the terrain is rocky, wet, and crawling with thick tree roots. With hairpin turns, deep mud, pitch-black nights under the trees, temperamental wild pigs, 24,500 feet of elevation gain, and no fewer than 20 stream-crossings, the course goes out of its way to take the paradise out of island running.
“You have to be strong on your feet and watch for the stuff that’s constantly trying to grab you and pull you down,” says Tracy Garneau, who’s won the race three times and currently holds the women’s course record.
To prepare, the Canadian runner spent her winters snowshoeing uphill with a weight vest and training on a treadmill. Packing on mileage in her living room prepared her psychologically for the monotony of the course format, too; runners complete five identical 20-mile laps.
Fortunately, the relatively small race (just 120 people) and the loop format means runners and volunteers get to know each other pretty quickly, and the positive atmosphere makes it hard not to have fun. The other bonus? The race is in Hawaii, and there’s no better recovery regime than laying on a beach.
More info: hurt100trailrace.com
Kendall Mountain Run, Colorado
Sure, it’s only 12 miles, but when the first 6 are straight up, the last 6 are straight down, and you’re running at your half-marathon pace, well… your legs (not to mention your pipes) are in for a beating.
According to lore, the first rendition of this race occurred in 1908 when a saloon owner bet a miner he couldn’t run to the top and back in under an hour and a half. He made it back down, less than two minutes shy of his wager. The bet was $200 back then. Today, the prize purse is $1,000. Not bad for the distance.
Take your mark in Silverton, Colorado, at 9,300 feet. Book it to the top of 13,066-foot Kendall Mountain (some scrambling required). Touch the shepherd’s staff at the top. Pivot. Prepare for jellied quadriceps.
“The turnover between up and down is pretty hard,” says Sweden skyrunner and 2016 women’s victor Emelie Forsberg. “Focus on your uphill training, and do a little bit of downhill training leading up to the race to prepare the legs for the hard pounding down.” Forsberg suggests four, five, and ten-minute uphill intervals with fast downhills.
Badwater 135, California
Billed as “the world’s toughest footrace,” the Badwater 135 chases singletrack from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. Bonus misery: You start at night, so you don’t have to wait long to feel the sleep deprivation set in.
Runners begin in the dark, looking up out of the pit, at the lowest place in North America: 280 feet below sea level. It’s still 70 degrees. When the sun rises, it can get as hot as 115. The course pushes runners over three big climbs that tackle 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation gain each, and 13 uphill miles comprise the last leg to the finish at Whitney Portal.
2016 winner Pete Kostelnick said running consistent 50- to 60-mile days and training in a hoody on summer afternoons prepared him for the heat and the distance. During the race, his crew had a freshly iced neck bandana at every aid station, and his pacer ran behind him with a squirt gun.
Sign on a pacer with good aim; we recommend a loaded Super Soaker for this one.
More info: badwater.com/event/badwater-135