People take on extraordinary challenges for many reasons: to challenge their bodies and minds, to break records, to raise money for charity, or even just to see whether they can. While most of us will likely never attempt anything more extreme than a standard marathon, some people want to go a step further.
Here are five of the world’s toughest fitness challenges, taken on by the world’s best athletes as they push themselves to the limit.
Big’s Backyard Ultra
Held every year in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and organized by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the Big’s Backyard Ultra was the original backyard ultramarathon and took place for the first time in 2011.
Participants must run a 4.167-mile loop each hour, and are eliminated when they either voluntarily give up or fail to make it back to the starting line within the hour. In this bonkers “last athlete standing” competition, the only way to win is to outlast every other competitor. The race continues throughout the night, meaning that the final few competitors are often running on no sleep (or very short power naps) for over 48 hours.
In the first Big’s Backyard Ultra, winner Tim Englund completed 18 laps for a total of 75 miles. In 2021, Harvey Lewis completed 85 laps, or just over 354 miles.
To complete any Ironman triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bicycle ride, followed by a 26.2 mile full marathon) is an extraordinary physical and mental feat. But some races up the ante to challenge their participants even more.
Held in Cumbria in the United Kingdom’s Lake District, the various races organized by TriathlonX have a reputation for being amongst the toughest Ironman triathlons in the world.
The UltraX features an open water swim in Lake Windermere, where the water temperature typically ranges from 50F to 60F, a road cycle ride with a total elevation gain of 13,300 feet, and a road and mountain run with a total elevation gain of 6059 feet.
La Ruta de los Conquistadores Cycling Race
This annual three-day cycling race, held in Costa Rica and crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast of the country, is known as the first mountain bike race of its kind. It features approximately 8000 meters (29,000 feet) of total elevation gain and the highest point of the race is the Irazú Volcano, at 3,300 meters (10,800 feet.)
Riders traverse a range of terrain including jungle, rivers, and muddy trails. Though the race is open to amateur and professional participants alike, only the very toughest and strongest endurance riders will be able to complete it.
Sarah Lauzé, writing for I Love Bicycling, describes La Ruta de los Conquistadores as “three days of hell on a mountain bike.”
Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run
The Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run is an ultramarathon held each year in Silverton, Colorado. Its 102.5-mile mountain route passes through some incredible scenery and takes runners through multiple climate zones, with a total elevation gain of just over 33,000 feet. This means that participants have to battle not only extreme terrain, but also the risk of altitude sickness.
With a cutoff time of 48 hours to finish the course, many runners will complete the Hardrock 100 in one continuous push with no sleep. Instead of crossing a finish line, it’s traditional to complete the race by “kissing the rock”—a rock painted with a picture of a ram’s head.
The fastest recorded completion times for the Hardrock 100 are 21:36:24 for men (run by Kilian Jornet in 2022) and 26:44:38 for women (run by Courtney Dauwalter, also in 2022.)
Oceans Seven Swimming Challenge
The Oceans Seven Swimming Challenge was created in 2008 to be the swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. This open water marathon consists of seven channel swims spread across the world:
- The North Channel between Ireland and Scotland (21 miles/34 km)
- The Cook Strait between New Zealand’s North and South Islands (16 miles/26 km)
- The Molokaʻi Channel or Kaiwi Channel between the islands of Moloka’i and O’ahu (27 miles/44 km)
- The English Channel between England and France (21 miles/34 km)
- The Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles (20 miles/32 km)
- The Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido (12 miles/20 km)
- The Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco (10 miles/16 km)
To date, only 21 people have ever completed the entire challenge. The first to complete it was Irish swimmer Stephen Redmond in 2012, who was soon followed by the first female finisher, Swedish Anna-Carin Nordin in 2013. The youngest Oceans Seven finisher to date is Thomas Pembroke of Australia, who completed the challenge at just 29 years old.
A Word of Caution
All sporting activity carries some risk, and the more extreme the challenge, the greater the danger. Never attempt to take on any extreme sporting endeavor without adequate training, the correct equipment, and professional medical advice.