For runners, one of the most storied—and feared—stretches is Heartbreak Hill, 20 miles into the Boston Marathon. The 90-foot elevation gain over one-third of a mile would be a painful climb in any marathon, but here it’s compounded because it occurs at the distance where many runners hit the proverbial wall.
Last April, Erik Rasmussen, a 42-year old trail seeker, runner, and triathlete, finished the Boston marathon at 2:42:35, good for 241st overall. But in August, he became the first to complete what may arguably be the world’s toughest 26.2-mile race: up the face of Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain and the highest in Africa. In this debut run, which was measured to be an exact marathon distance, Rasmussen crossed five ecological zones, from bushlands through a rain forest and up to the glacier-capped summit at 19 341 feet. It took him eight hours and 33 minutes.
Rasmussen’s race up Kilimanjaro was a final test to experience a course he’s measured in pieces in 2016 and run parts of before. This August, through his tour group, Erik’s Adventures, he’ll take a group of similarly adventurous runners up the same route. So far, 19 people, some of whom will hike the mountain a week earlier to avoid altitude sickness, have signed up.
In the US alone, more than 64 million people went running or jogging in 2016, according to recent figures. As more runners than ever look to complete the Big Six—Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York—one of the challenges has been simply getting in. For next week’s race in Boston, more than 5 000 runners who qualified are unable to run because of the space limitation. Roughly 100 000 applied to get in to the New York marathon in November, but only 51 000 lined up for the starting gun.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, running a marathon has gone from something extraordinary—that the very few did—to a popular trend that the average person would take on as a challenge,” says Steen Albrechtsen, spokesman for Albatros Travels in Copenhagen.
City marathons have become such massive, organized events that more and more runners are going off road for a more adventurous 26.2 miles. In recent years, travel companies have expanded running packages to the Arctic Circle, the Great Wall of China, the Petra archaeological complex in Jordan, and the Bagan Temples in Mynamar. These are not “ultra marathons” in which runners compete for extended distances. They are rigorously measured 26.2 mile courses—minus the massive crowds, well-stocked snack tables, and well-paved asphalt. Rasmussen simply calls them “adventure marathons.”
They, too, are selling out in record numbers. Capped at 50 or 100 runners in areas for environmental and safety reasons, there’s already a two-year waiting list to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the world’s southernmost race; Marathon Tours & Travel is confirming runners for its Antarctica Marathon for 2021. (Yes, there is more than one marathon in Antarctica.) The 50 spots in Peru’s Inca Trail Marathon in July have been reserved for months. Albatros’s Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland is almost fully subscribed ahead of its October date.
“Runners in general are goal-oriented people,” says Tim Hadzima of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, which runs a series promoting the “big six” marathons and awards a medal to those who finish all of them. “Once folks run a race, they usually want to do another one and do another one and another one and another one.” So far, more than 1 200 runners have completed all six through Abbott.
The more exotic the location, the higher the cost. The entry fee for Boston was most recently $185 for US residents and $250 for international participants. Costs can add up in any location, depending on travel and hotel needs: A trip to Antarctica, by boat or plane, can easily reach $7 000 without counting the flight to Chile or Argentina.
Every extreme marathon poses unique challenges, whether surviving the gut-churning Drake Passage to run in freezing conditions in Antarctica or the steep ascents, descents, and countless steps to reach Machu Picchu in Peru. And every course incline is examined and discussed beforehand to prepare for the challenge.
Jeff Adams, president of Marathon Tour & Travel, started his career the way many of his runners did: on Wall Street. He gave up a 27-year career at Morgan Stanley to join the operator with which he previously traveled. In 1995, his company created the Seven Continents Club, the adventurer’s bucket list to the road race circuit, with the addition of the Antarctica Marathon.
The organization has been adding races, including one to Madagascar that “sold out within a week.” Adams gets regular feedback from clients about what they want to experience next. In December, runners voted to add Bhutan, Cape Town, Jerusalem, and Patagonia to the offerings, Adams said. Next month, he’s taking a group for the first time to Bhutan’s Thunder Dragon Marathon as a way to see a place that limits tourism. Beforehand, a few will also go with him to the Great Wall Marathon in an extended “Dragon Challenge” trip.
Sharon Venturi, a 42-year-old New Yorker, ran in Antarctica through Marathon Tours & Travel last month. Aside from worrying about race-day conditions and whether she might travel all that way and not be able to race because of the weather, she found the other runners to be less competitive and more supportive than those in big-city races. “It’s a totally different approach,” she says. “Everyone is dedicated to a healthy lifestyle and adventurous—not about times and competition. Though there is still a little of that anytime a time is being kept.”
Ironically, one of the appeals of these ridiculous runs is not feeling as much pressure not to walk during them. Most of the runners who join up aren’t elite; they’re just going off-road to pursue their own adventures, Rasmussen says. “Being hard is part of the draw. Whatever you do is an accomplishment.”
Upcoming Extreme Marathons
Bhutan’s Thunder Dragon Marathon – May 27, The marathon starts on a downhill, passing over a metal swing bridge and along the Paro Chu River in the Paro Valley before climbing gradually above rice paddies. Then it gets hard: After the halfway mark comes a steady climb for 2.5 miles to peak at 8 300 feet up. The final six miles winds through villages on a dirt road before opening up to a view of the iconic Taktsang Monastery, known as Tigers Nest and built into a cliff. The race fee is $225; US-based Marathon Tours & Travel offers packages starting at $3 866 per person for a double -occupancy accommodation, but the cheapest options for the eight- and 10-day trips this year are sold-out.
Uganda International Marathon – June 2, This marathon made its debut in 2015 and has become a major fundraising force that aims to tackle poverty in the Masaka region. About 3 000 will run this year. The event is set up as a seven-day adventure centered around volunteering and learning about the community, including helping organize an event for disadvantaged children. Organizers are accepting reservations for 2019, with options for 10-kilometer and half-marathon distances as well. All-inclusive packages start at $945, and the all-inclusive Gorilla Trekking packages start from $1 145.
Leadville Trail Marathon in Colorado – June 16, The Leadville Trail 100-mile run in the Colorado Rockies is an icon on the ultra-marathon circuit, a run so epic that founder Ken Chlouber, a 14-time finisher, started a separate marathon for those who wanted the challenge without the distance. The latter race is an out-and-back “run” up to Mosquito Pass at 13 185 feet, but you must expect to walk because the rocks up there are tricky. “If you are going to have a grueling, tough, leg-busting, lung-busting race, it’s this one,” says Chlouber, 79. Race registration costs $115, a half-marathon the same day is $100.
Tusk’s Safaricom Marathon – June 30, This running safari in Kenya has drawn elite runners, including Eliud Kipchoge, to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, about a 45-minute flight or four-hour drive north of Nairobi. Corporate teams are welcome and have included BlackRock and Investec. The entry fee for full or half is $285 pounds, plus a fundraising requirement of $2 100. Exceptional Travel offers a three-day package that includes a domestic flight from Nairobi, airport taxes, some meals, and hotel and safari tent accommodations for $2 550 for two people.
Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon, Tanzania – August 13, The course starts with a descent before climbing 16 miles to the highest point in Africa, then sharply plunges from the summit on a course that feels as if you’re sledding through volcanic gravel on your feet. August is one of the best times to go; even then, the weather can swing wildly from T-shirt weather in blazing sun to hail and snow. Temperatures drop with the sun. Altitude sickness is a main concern, so acclimating ahead of time is highly recommended. There is no time limit, and rest stations will be available every three to four miles. Five-day packages from Erik’s Adventures start at $2 795.
Petra Desert Marathon in Jordan – September 1, Starting at the ancient city of Petra, this race is a climb that takes you over paved roads, sand, and gravel, across river bends and stretches beyond rock formations that look as if they belong on Mars. The good news is that the race ends on a downhill, albeit a steep one. The race limit is seven hours. Albatros offers a five-day package for runners that includes an entry to Petra and a dip in the Dead Sea for $1 150.
Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland – October 27-28, Most of this Arctic marathon occurs on gravel that’s frequently snow-covered. A portion will take place across the ice cap in the polar circle. It’s got hills and weaves around the ice sheet. Temperatures will be at or below freezing, with strong winds, and the race is capped at 250 contestants for logistical and safety reasons. Runners can also participate in the Polar Bear Challenge, which follows the Saturday marathon with a half-run the next day. Five-day packages are available directly through Albatros Adventure Marathons for $2 350.
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