13 of The World's Craziest, Most Extreme Marathons
While there were more than 1,200 marathons in the U.S. alone in 2014, according to Running USA’s Annual Marathon Report, there are a select few that go above and beyond when it comes to creating a wild running experience.
Some are not as difficult in terms of altitude or incline, but certainly make for an interesting jog. For example, thousands of runners take over the Las Vegas Strip at night for the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon, where you can partake in a run-through wedding and race against hundreds of Elvis impersonators. On the other hand, the Kyoto marathon might just be the most spiritual ever, as the route includes several sacred shrines and temples.
Then there are the out-of-this-world torturous races like The Great Wall of China marathon. With more than 5,000 steps to climb along the 26.2 mile route, it’s no wonder that it takes runners about 50 percent longer than the average marathon time. And while there may not be any steps, runners have to watch for predators when they participate in South Africa’s Big Five Marathon. Did we mention the course runs directly through a lion territory?
For those who think 26.2 miles just isn’t enough cardio, there are ultra marathons to test out, too. Marathon des Sables in Morocco is a six-day, 251 kilometers (156-mile) race through the desert and is considered the hardest of earth. But, that could be up for debate because the Antarctica 100K (62 miles) takes place just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains.
Scared? Inspired? Click through to see 13 of the world’s wildest marathons.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a contributing digital reporter at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @WellTraveler.
Polar Night Half Marathon
While it may only be half the distance of a traditional marathon, this race is still one for the bucket list—it takes place in the beginning of January, during the Polar night-period, when the sun does not rise above the horizon. To make it even more extreme, the route is lit by torches to make it easier to see the aurora borealis as you run. It's also the northernmost AIMS-certified (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) half marathon in the world at almost 70° north.
Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon
When you head to Sin City, you expect flashing lights, quickie weddings and Elvis impersonators. Well, that's exactly what you get along this 26.2-mile route that takes place on the Las Vegas Strip after the sun goes down. The infamous Running Elvi don white lycra, sequins, and wigs to cheer on runners with crazy costumes and a boombox in a stroller that plays Elvis tunes while they run.
Each year the event also includes a Run-Thru Wedding Chapel where runners in love (or not) can say, “I do” during their run. More than 20 bands are also on hand, too, making sure there's no need for an iPod to keep you going. Snoop Dogg even performed one year.
The opposite of a wild party in Las Vegas, this marathon may be the most spiritual. The course takes runners though the gorgeous city of Kyoto, passing by seven UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, several temples, and numerous sacred shrines.
The Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon
The opposite of the Polar Night Half Marathon, this Anchorage-based race coincides with the summer solstice so you have a full day of sun light.
Pikes Peak Marathon
Take your average marathon and then add a mountain onto it. That's exactly what happens at this Colorado race. The event begins at the base of Pikes Peak and climbs over 7,815 feet to the top of the 14,115-foot peak. To make it more difficult, the course consists of dirt trails, rock, and other natural obstacles, and takes place at a high altitude.
North Pole Marathon
Recognized by the Guinness World Records as the "Northernmost Marathon on Earth," this race attracted only 50 runners in 2016. Perhaps the -40-degree temperatures and running over hard snow or the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean had something to do with it.
The Great Wall of China Marathon
Many of us get winded just walking up a flight of stairs at home. Imagine running for 26.2 miles and climbing 5,164 steps along the way. Despite that, the race sells out each year, with 2,500 runners competing on the heart-pumping course.
The Everest Marathon
As if climbing Mount Everest wasn't enough, some crazy folks decided to tack on a marathon in the area to make things a bit more dramatic. Listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest marathon in the world, the start line is at Gorak Shep (17,000 feet), close to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, and finishes at the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar at 11,300 feet.
Antarctic Ice Marathon and 100k
Runners have their choice of the standard marathon distance or of taking it a bit farther by clocking in 100 kilometers in this race. Whichever you choose, they both take place at 80° south—just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. Runners can experience everything from subzero temperatures to 24 hours of daylight while trying to cross the finish line.
Big Five Marathon
There's nothing like the threat of a wild animal attacking you to shorten your race time. The course runs through the private game reserve Entabeni in the Limpopo Province of South Africa and directly through a lion territory.
Marathon des Sables
This race is not one, not two, but six days long across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Over that time runners traverse 156 miles, and it's considered one of the toughest foot races in the world.
Macau's International Marathon
This year marks Macau's 35th International Marathon and while you won't have to endure extreme temperatures or settings, it's still a pretty remarkable route as it includes crossing a bridge and running to China. It's the only way to get there sans visa.
Not your typical street marathon or track race, participants experience an awe-inspiring race across the Kenyan savannah with giraffes, zebras, and rhinos as their running companions.