What flavor ultra do you like best? Do you prefer walking over frozen trails of ice for two days? Perhaps you’d like to pass out from dehydration and heat exhaustion in the relentless heat of Death Valley? Or, do you most enjoy the thought of taking the last few arduous steps to the overlook of an inspiring mountain summit? The sport of ultrarunning has something to offer everyone!
Running 100 miles will never be easy. But, the distance is just one factor when you consider the various environments and locations of the races. Here is a look at some of the most challenging ultramarathons in the United States. These races are among the most difficult 100 mile ultras due to their technical trail, elevation gain, average elevation, and distance. (Yes, there are other challenging races…this is an incomplete list which includes several of the most challenging found in the US.) I offer the following awesome races in no particular order…
Run long and prosper!
Wasatch Front 100
Elevation Gain: 26,882 feet
Total Descent: 26,131 feet
Time Limit 36hrs
Factoid: Race Starts on Friday
The Wasatch 100 is no joke. I witnessed the carnage of this race earlier this year as I paced Trail and Ultra founder Mark Kreuzer in the last 47 miles. The course was ominous and seemed determined to break the athletes until they eventually reached the final few miles and descended to victory. You have 36 hours to finish this monster ultra. Deep inside, I wanted to cry after about 20 miles of pacing this course. Despite this, I kept my mouth shut and Mark dug deep to cross the finish line in heroic fashion.
“The run stretches from Layton, Utah to The Homestead in Midway, Utah and covers some of the most beautiful scenery the Wasatch Mountains have to offer. There is a cumulative elevation gain of approximately 26,882 feet, as well as a cumulative loss of approximately 26,131 feet throughout the course. This is a premier run that will test the endurance of any runner.” (1)
Elevation Gain: 33,992 feet
Total Descent: 33,992 feet
Time Limit: 48hrs
Factoid: Course alternates from “clockwise” to “counter-clockwise” each year.
“The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run is an ultramarathon of 100.5 miles in length, plus 33,992 feet of climb and 33,992 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet, at an average elevation of over 11,000 feet. The race is held on a loop course on 4WD roads, dirt trails, and cross country in Southern Colorado’s San Juan Range, USA.” (2)
For many reasons, Hardrock 100 is often placed among the most difficult foot races in the entire world. One of the most challenging aspects of the race is the elevation itself. Even for ultrarunners who live in Colorado, the race presents a significant physical challenge. At sea level, the oxygen percentage is approximately 20.9%. At the summit of Handies Peak (14,048 ft) on the Hardrock 100 course, the low pressure makes it feel as though there is only 12% oxygen. (3) The physical challenges of Hardrock come from many angles…the elevation, the 33,992 ft of inclination, the steep unrelenting descents, and the dynamic extremes of mountain weather.
The Hardrock 100 course is equally as beautiful as it is challenging. The surreal power and beauty of nature envelops the athletes through every step in their physical struggle to successfully cover the course. The photography and video of athletes on the Hardrock 100 course are more than breathtaking.
Elevation Gain: 60,000 feet
Total Descent: 60,000 feet
Time Limit: 60hrs
Factoid: Over the first 25 years of the race, only 10 athletes completed the 100 mile course. There is no official website. Entry fee is $1.60, a license plate from your home state, and a written essay titled, “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run the Barkley.”
I have such a respect for the Barkley, I considered not even listing it here. In a way, I have no interest in “marketing” the Barkley 100 or haphazardly sharing it with anyone who doesn’t love this sport with all their heart. The best way I can describe the Barkley Marathons is the Artax death scene from The Never Ending Story:
On the surface, I must place the Barkley 100 among the other races in this article because it stomps on them with respect to “challenging” or “technical”. To complete the Barkley 100, you must complete 23 mile loops with about 12,000 feet of gain/loss per loop. Over the 100 miles, you’re looking at about 60,000 feet of gain. Something like, climbing from sea level to the top of Everest, then back down…and then climbing back to the summit again before returning to the bottom. Oh, and you have 60 hours… don’t die.
Elevation Gain: 23,200 feet
Total Descent: 23,200 feet
Time Limit: 38hrs
Factoid: A relatively new event, the 2013 race will be the 6th annual Grindstone 100
Let’s not forget the east coast. The Grindstone 100 is an extremely challenging ultra in Virginia. Boasting a solid 23,200 feet of gain and 23,200 feet of descent, Grindstone offers the type of climbing that will wear down even the most hearty of mountain ultrarunners.
Race organizers describe the course as, “Grit, endurance, temporary loss of sanity. You might need all of these if you want to attempt Grindstone. If you want to finish, well, just keep in mind this is, without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.” (4)
Elevation Gain: 24,500 feet
Total Descent: 24,500 feet
Factoid: “HURT” is an acronym for “Hawaiian Ultra Running Team”
How about a tropical ass kicking? Take a flight to Hawaii for the HURT 100. The course offers a generous 24,500 feet of gain over 100 miles. First-hand accounts of this race include vivid descriptions of extremely challenging trails with roots, rocks, and mud.
“The H.U.R.T. Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run (HURT 100) is a very difficult event designed for the adventurous and well-prepared ultrarunner. It is conducted on trails located in the mountains above the city of Honolulu (O‘ahu, Hawai‘i). The race is noted for its grueling terrain and for a uniquely scenic course, offering views of the O‘ahu coastline as well as the Pacific Ocean.” (5)