You often hear people referring to anything that takes a long time as a “marathon”. For example, theaters showing multiple films back-to-back might call it a movie marathon. Or a reporter might refer to a chess game that goes on for many hours as a marathon effort. Referencing a marathon gets the point across that whatever thing is being referred to is going to be very difficult and/or take a long time.
For many (maybe even most) people, a running marathon is one of the toughest things they can imagine. A marathon is a run that covers exactly 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers), a distance that can take average runners several hours to cover. Even the fastest runners in the world need at least 2 hours to complete a marathon. For many people, the idea of running 26 miles or for hours at a time without stopping is nearly unimaginable. Check out How Fast Are Marathon and Ultramarathon Runners? The Average, Fastest & Slowest!
There are some people, however, who think running a marathon is no big deal. These folks are so used to participating in endurance sports that they routinely take on multiple marathons a year. Many of these endurance athletes choose to look beyond the marathon for an even bigger challenge.
So, what is harder than a marathon? There are many endurance activities that most people would consider to be even tougher than running a marathon. Some of these incredibly difficult activities include ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons, mountain climbing, long-distance swimming, and obstacle course races.
Any running race that goes longer than 26.2 miles is known as an ultramarathon. Runners who have become comfortable with the marathon distance will often look to the ultramarathon as the next challenge.
The most common distances for the ultramarathon are 50k, 50 miles, 100k and 100 miles. Ultramarathons are becoming more and more popular, with over 600,000 people participating in these endurance events each year. That is a 100% increase in participation since 2012. [Source]
To make things even more challenging, these ultrarunning events often take place over rough terrain. Sometimes the routes take runners on trails that cross streams, deserts, or go over mountain passes.
Ironman Triathlons are legendary endurance events that combine 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and finish with a full 26.2 mile marathon run.
Since their invention in the mid-1970s, adventure-seeking athletes all over the world have been testing themselves in Ironman distance events. The most famous, and possibly most difficult, Ironman Triathlon takes place each year in Kona, Hawaii. The Hawaii Ironman is the World Championship event, and only triathletes who have previously qualified are invited to participate.
There is a 17-hour time limit placed on all competitors to finish the 140.6 mile race, and the fastest that anyone has ever completed the championship course is just under 8 hours. Temperatures on the course can regularly exceed 86 degrees F (30 degrees C), and at times have been well over 100 degrees F (40 degrees C). [Source]
Also, check out our post titled Are Triathlons Harder Than Marathons? Alternatives & Why To OR Not To Race One & Why and When You Should Quit Triathlon? When To Avoid It!
Obstacle Course Races
Obstacle course racing is another endurance sport that has become quite popular in recent years. Events with names like Spartan Race and Tough Mudder can be found in over 30 countries.
To complete these courses, participants encounter challenges like rope climbs, mud pit crossings, barbed wire crawls, and more – all in addition to running a distance from 3 miles to the marathon and beyond. The addition of the physical obstacles requires the athletes to be proficient in more aspects than just running.
Just imagine trying to run a marathon and having to stop every mile or so to climb over a wall, wade through a dumpster full of ice or flip over a gigantic tractor tire!
When it comes to the topic of the ultimate physical challenge, many people will think of climbing major peaks like Mount Everest. It can take months of preparation and days or even weeks of effort in order to reach the summit.
In addition to Everest, there are peaks on every continent that climbers attempt to conquer. There is even a sporting challenge to try and reach the top of all the highest peaks – known as the Seven Summits. The following list shows the tallest mountain in each continent that are part of the challenge:
- Kilimanjaro, Africa (5895m)
- Everest, Asia (8849m)
- Vinson, Antarctica (4892m)
- Kosciuszko, Australia (2228m)
- Elbrus, Europe (5642m)
- Denali, North America (6194m)
- Aconcagua, South America (6961m)
Ascents of that magnitude can be extremely dangerous due to weather conditions, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, and the possibility of rockslides and avalanches. Approximately 800 people attempt to climb to the top of Mount Everest each year, and only a small percentage of those are successful. In early 2022, 2 climbers have already died trying to reach the summit. On average, 5 climbers die each year attempting to climb the peak. [Source]
Open Water Swimming
The sport of open water swimming has several routes which could definitely be considered harder than running a marathon.
Similar to mountain climbing, there is a list of the most challenging open water swims around the world, known as the Oceans Seven. These extremely difficult swims include crossings of the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar. According to longswims.com, only 21 people have completed all 7 channel swims since the challenge was created in 2008.
The difficulty of these long-distance swims lies in more than just the distance itself. Swimmers also must expend energy battling strong currents, crashing waves, boat traffic, and even occasional jellyfish stings. Crossings of that magnitude can take many hours to complete, adding in the difficulty of consuming enough calories to get the swimmer through to the finish line.
A list of the entire Oceans Seven crossings is as follows:
- English Channel, between England & France (33km)
- Catalina Channel, California, USA (32.3 km)
- Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain & Morocco (14.4km)
- North Channel, between Ireland & Scotland (34.5km)
- Kaiwi Channel, between Molokai & Oahu (42km)
- Cook Strait, New Zealand (22.5km)
- Tsugaru Strait, Japan (19.5km)
Stage Cycling Races
Multi-day stage cycling races similar to the Tour de France require athletes to be incredibly fit, both physically and mentally. These endurance events ask cyclists to complete long-distance rides of 50-100 miles (80-160km) or more several days in a row.
The Tour de France is held in the summer, usually the first part of July. Over the three weeks that it takes place, professional cyclists from all over the globe will ride a total of 3328km throughout the European mountains and roadways. The route changes every year. The athletes will have 3 total rest days during the event. The longest days will have cyclists in the saddle for more than 200 km.
Le Tour may be a challenge that is reserved for cycling’s elite, but there are less formal events with a similar setup for ambitious amateurs. (Source)
The Maratona des Dolomites in northern Italy and the Tour of the Bahamas are two great examples. Both of these events are built for amateurs but are designed with challenges that even a pro could appreciate.
So, while running a marathon might not be easy, these are 6 things that I believe are harder to accomplish. I’m sure there are even more difficult athletic challenges out there that I’ve missed that could be added to this list. What’s the hardest endurance event you have ever heard of? Have you given one of these a try?