Most marathon runners do not need to prepare for extreme climates, gruelling ascents and natural predators, but for some 26.2 miles simply isn’t enough of a challenge. With the ASICS Manchester Marathon and London Marathon fast approaching, we take a look at 10 of the world’s toughest and craziest off-road marathons and ultra-runs.


Great Wall Marathon, China
When? May

How often do you get to race on a Wonder of the World? This course passes through villages, fields and farmland and over a 3km stretch of the Great Wall itself, covering 5,164 historic steps and 1km of the iconic fortress wall. There is a half marathon option which still includes the breathtaking wall section.

If China’s on your running radar, there is the Gobi March: 7 days and 250km of racing through the sweltering Gobi Desert.

If you enjoy the heat, there is also Morocco’s infamous Marathon des Sables, 6 days and 254km in the Sahara Desert. One stage is a staggering 91km!


Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, Nepal

When? May  

Dubbed as the world’s highest marathon, runners pitch overnight at Everest Base Camp (5,545m) and finish at Namche Bazaar. Participants are required to be in Nepal three weeks before the race in order to acclimatise to the altitude of the Himalaya.

If you want a mammoth challenge with lots of mountains (even if they’re not as lofty as Everest), the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is 168km with 9,600km of ascent, leading you through a total of 3 countries (France, Switzerland and Italy) in a single race. Expect to see the fastest runners crossing the finish line in a remarkable 20 hours.


Midnight Mountain Marathon, Wales
When? June  

Kicking off at 5.30pm in the Brecon Beacons, this race involves 1,315m of ascent, including a tough climb up the highest peak in South Wales, Pen y Fan (886m). This punishing section of the race is part of the notorious ‘Fan Dance’, a running route used by the British Special Forces to test potential recruits.

There is also the option of racing with a 35lbs (men) or 25lbs (women) pack on your back, just in case running an uphill marathon in darkness isn’t quite enough. The course record, set in 2013 by Gavin Fisher, stands at an impressive 3 hours 56 minutes. 

Don’t forget to pack a head torch and spare batteries!

If you want more Welsh mountains, there’s always the Dragon’s Back Race: an epic five-day fell run from Snowdonia in North Wales to the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, covering an insane 292km in distance and 15,665m in ascent. 2012 winner Steve Birkinshaw also holds the speed record for a continuous round of all 214 Lake District fells, which he completed in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes. The next Dragon’s Back Race is in May 2017.



The Big Five Marathon, South Africa
When?  June  

The Big Five is defined by steep inclines almost impossible to run, even more brutal declines (this includes a 3km descent to the Yellow Wood Valley), stretches of rocky, uneven ground and 9 kilometres of deep sand.

You’ll also be running through the natural habitats of elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions and leopards, with no fences or rivers to separate you. Again, a half marathon course is also available.

If you want a more challenging run with plenty of wildlife, try competing in the Beyond the Ultimate Jungle Ultra Marathon in Cuzco, Peru – 5 days, 230km and almost 100% humidity from Cloud Forest through to the Amazon Jungle.



Polar Circle Marathon, Greenland
When? October

Based in Kangerlussuaq, competitors run through a spectacular path of arctic tundra and deserts, ice tongues and moraine plains, with the chance of spotting reindeer and oxen.

The race, however, is not without its dangers. Runners are warned to take extra care on the ice sheet sections of the route and to not deviate from the marked track – you don’t want to fall down a crevasse! There is also a half marathon option.

Not tough enough? Test your resolve on the Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra, 120 or 350 miles from Eagle Plains in Yukon to the icy banks of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, all at -25°C.




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