The 12 Hardest Races in the World

Some of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world are also home to some of the most sadistic running, cycling and triathlon events ever created

April 6, 2012
The hardest cycling, biking and running races
1/13 Courtesy Trans Pyr
Pushing It to the Limit

Running a marathon or cycling a 100-mile century is enough to test the mettle of your average weekend warrior. But some amateurs take it to another level. They run 100 miles at high altitude. They ride their bikes through the jungle from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Some swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles-all in the same day. Read on to discover 12 events like these that push even the strongest, most determined athletes far outside their comfort zones, to a place where mental fortitude is just as important as physical fitness. (Search: Find a challenging race in your neighborhood). 

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
2/13 Courtesy Trans Pyr
Trans Pyr - Spain

While the Alps are arguably Europe's most famous mountain range, it's the steep, rough, and unrelenting Pyrenees that strike the most fear in the hearts of cyclists. Trans Pyr takes the challenge head-on, sending brave mountain bikers on a leg-smashing journey that starts along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in northeastern Spain, and finishes eight days later on the other side of the country in San Sebastian. In between, riders must cross the length of the Pyrenees, traveling 509 miles with 66,601 feet of accumulated climbing. That's like ascending Mount Everest twice, and still having another 8,500 feet to go. Last year's fastest two-man team spent 45 hours in the saddle; the last place squad needed more than 85 hours.

On the web: TransPyr.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
3/13 Reuters/Corbis Images
Ironman Kona - Hawaii

Arguably the world's most famous one-day endurance event, the Ironman World Championship is a true test of all-around ability and fortitude. To complete the famed race in Kona, Hawaii, competitors must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles. (Find triathlon tips and training advice here). And before you can even think about racing Kona, you need to qualify by posting a top time at a different Ironman event. "Finishing [Ironman Kona] gives you something to hang your hat on for the rest of your life," says Kevin Mackinnon, managing editor of Ironman.com. "The winds are insane, the heat is unbearable, and when you put that together with competing against the fittest athletes on the planet, it just doesn't get any tougher."

On the web: Ironman.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
4/13 Courtesy Leadville 100
Leadville 100 Run - Colorado

Colorado's Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race is known the world over thanks to Lance Armstrong, who crossed the line first in 2009. But that event is child's play compared to its fleet-footed cousin, the Leadville Trail 100 Run. "Imagine breathing through a straw for 20 to 25 hours and you get the general idea," says Kimo Seymour, director of both Leadville races. "The entire 100-mile run is above 10,000 feet, so even for the ultra-marathon veterans this a difficult event." And if you really want to show the world what you're made of, try the Leadman challenge. To be considered an official finisher, competitors must complete the 26.2-mile Leadville Marathon, Silver Rush 50-mile bike or run, Leadville Trail 100 Run, Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, and the Leadville 10K run-all in the same year. Ouch.

On the web: LeadvilleRaceSeries.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
5/13 Courtest BC Bike Race
BC Bike Race - British Columbia, Canada

In the world of multi-day mountain bike stage races, BC Bike Race stands alone. Instead of the traditional long-distance affairs were where riders spend countless hours suffering in the saddle, this British Columbia-based event tests riders' technical skills every day for a week. Stages are not brutally long-between four and five hours for middle-of-the-pack riders. But the event billed as the "Ultimate Singletrack Experience" demands razor sharp skills, as riders negotiate trails littered with slick roots, sharp rocks, steep off-camber switchbacks and narrow bridges in such famous Canadian fat tire locales as Cumberland, the Sunshine Coast, Squamish, and Whistler. (Learn more about the B.C. Bike Race here).

On the web: BCBikeRace.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
6/13 Courtest Badwater Ultra
Badwater UltraMarathon - California

This invitation-only event was first conceived as a way of connecting the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States: California's Death Valley (elevation -282 feet) and Mt. Whitney (summit elevation 14,505 feet). As the crow flies, the two landmarks are just 80 miles apart, but the shortest land route is 146 miles with more than 19,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service banned competitive events in the John Muir Wilderness, forcing organizers to shorten the event to 135 miles. But many competitors continue on their own in what's widely considered the toughest running race on the planet.

On the web: Badwater.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
7/13 Courtesy Rouge Roubaix
Rouge Roubaix - Lousiana

For a pro-cycling fan, the word "Roubaix" conjures images of the brutally rough cobblestone farm roads of France's famed Paris-Roubaix professional road race. But Roubaix-style events can be found in all corners of the globe, including St. Francisville, Louisiana, home of the menacing Rouge Roubaix. You wont find any cobblestones here. Instead, the major hurdle is a 106-mile course that's peppered with rough backcountry gravel and dirt roads. "This is a true hard-man's race," says event director Mitch Evans. "Never in my life have I experienced more pain on my bike."

On the web: RougeRoubaix.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
8/13 Courtesy La Ruta de los Conquistadores
La Ruta de los Conquistadores - Costa Rica

Translated, La Ruta de los Conquistadores means "The Route of the Conquistadors." In the 16th century, these Conquistadors were brave Spanish explorers who colonized much of the New World. In modern times, they're courageous mountain bikers willing to take on a mountainous, three-day trek across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. La Ruta bills itself as the "World's Hardest Mountain Bike Race" and with a course that includes dense jungle, momentum sapping mud, and a lung-searing climb up the side of a volcano, it's hard to argue against the point. The good news is that the final day literally ends on a beach, making it one of cycling's best finish lines.

On the web: LaRutaDeLosConquistadores.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
9/13 Robert P. Smith
H.U.R.T. 100 - Hawaii

"Running the H.U.R.T. is like bushwhacking through the Amazon while trying to climb Mount Everest," says race director Jeff Huff.  No man has ever finished this 100-mile trail running race in Hawaii in under 20 hours; no woman has finished under 24 hours. If this kind of tropical suffering (and its 25,000 feet of elevation gain) interests you, sign up early. The race's 125 slots sell out every year.

On the web: HURT100TrailRace.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
10/13 Courtesy of Haute Route
Haute Route - Switzerland and France

Ever contemplated tackling the giant Tour de France climbs of the Alps, grinding up the seemingly endless Col du Galibier ascent, or completely burring yourself on the famed switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez? And what would it be like to ride these mythical mountains day after day? Could you handle it like a pro? Or would you crack and quit? Discover the answers to these tough questions by signing up for the Haute Route, a seven-day road cycling event that starts on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, then heads straight through the Alps, before finishing in Nice, France, along the shimmering Côte d'Azur. 

On the web: HauteRoute.org

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
11/13 Courtesy Cent Cols
Cent Cols Challenge - Europe

"Are you strong enough to ride your road bike up and over 100 mountain passes in 10 days?" asks the Cent Cols Challenge website. Try riding two very hilly 100-mile rides in back-to-back days, then ask yourself if you could do the same thing eight more times. If the answer is yes, check out this event, which has editions that run through the Alps, Pyrenees, and Italian Dolomites. "It'll push you right to the edge," says Lenny Engelhardt, who's ridden two Cent Cols Challenges. "Each day is like a Tour de France stage. Fatigue kicks in really fast and then you just go into survival mode."

On the web: CentColsChallenge.com

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
12/13 Courtesy Savage Man Tri
SavageMan Triathlon - Maryland

While finishing the SavageMan Triathlon is a noteworthy achievement, the real winners are those who can overcome the famed Westernport Wall. This steep climb through the town of Westernport, Maryland, culminates with one block section of road that's permanently closed to vehicle traffic due to its 31% grade. All SavageMan participants who successfully ride the Wall without dismounting or falling over get a brick engraved with their name installed into the surface of the road. "Only about 40% make it up," says race director Kyle Yost. "Even six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Dave Scott fell over."

On the web: SavageManTri.org

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The hardest cycling, biking and running races
13/13 Liam Doran
Breck Epic - Colorado

The crux of the six-day Breck Epic mountain bike stage race comes on day five during the grind up Wheeler Pass, a craggy ribbon of trail that rises above treeline on the west side of the event's host city Breckenridge, Colorado. While much of the trail is rideable, there's a sustained section of soul-crushing hike-a-bike. "That's the moment of dread for most of our racers," says event director Mike McCormack. "The sense of accomplishment from surviving that is pretty huge." Same goes for the rest of the 240-mile race, which never dips below 10,000 feet, has 37,000 feet of total climbing, and crosses the Continental Divide four times.

On the web: BreckEpic.com

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