Running a marathon is hard; ask anyone who’s ever done one. No matter who you are or how much experience you have, the 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers of a marathon are there to test your grit, willpower, and endurance. Less than 1% of the world’s population has run a marathon – that shows you just how tough it is.
But if you’re reading this, you’re either interested in pushing yourself even more, or you’re looking at which marathons to avoid – because we’ll be looking at the hardest marathons in the world.
What makes these races so hard is that they challenge the body and the mind. Whether it’s extreme cold, unrelenting heat, challenging terrain, or insane elevation, each marathon offers something to test even the fittest, grittiest, most experienced runner.
Here’s our pick of the world’s toughest marathons. Advanced runners only!
- What Are The Hardest Marathons In The World?
- Think You Can Handle It?
What Are The Hardest Marathons In The World?
For perspective, don’t expect to find the Boston, Chicago or London marathons on this list. 😉
We’ll be heading through the Himalayas, Antarctica, and along the Great Wall of China…
1. Great Wall Marathon
The Great Wall Marathon is held in May each year and involves more crawling than running. This is because the course includes 5,164 steps, all with very steep declines and inclines with varying heights – sounds challenging, right? Well, that’s not the only thing participants will endure temperatures in the high 90s without the slightest hint of a breeze to cool them down. This is one of the toughest marathons in Asia.
If a runner completes the marathon within 4 hours, it’s considered monumental – it rarely happens. Most people finish the marathon in 5 to 7 hours. But that’s not to say it’s all bad – participants have the privilege of traversing the Huangyaguan section of the Wall. Sure, they must navigate slippery rocks, ancient towers, and narrow sections along the way, but what a unique challenge.
Fun facts about the Great Wall Marathon:
- The 5,164 steps are between 2 and 16 inches tall
- Some sections are so narrow only 1 person can pass through them at a time
- The race has a challenging cutoff time of 8 hours
- The winner of the 2023 marathon did it in 3:30:43
2. Inca Trail Marathon
Some marathons are described as the most extreme, but the Inca Trail Marathon is hands down the most difficult. The race starts at an elevation of 8,650 feet and features over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and 10,400 feet of elevation gain as runners move through the treacherous course. There are two high passes at 13,000 and 13,800 feet elevation. This is exactly why those who complete the distance state it’d be easier to run a hard 50-mile trail run.
The marathon only allows 40 to 50 people to participate, and the host, Erik’s Adventures, has taken great pride in creating a bespoke event that the participants will never forget. The course meanders through the Machu Picchu National Park, leads runners along the 500-year-old cobblestone path surrounded by the Andes Mountains, and finishes in the Lost City of the Incas. You can choose to do the marathon over 1 or 2 days.
Fun facts about the Inca Trail Marathon:
- The cobblestone path is only 4 to 6 feet wide and is steep, rocky, and uneven
- Runners start their legendary journey at 4 a.m.
- One day racers have 13:15 hours to complete the marathon
- The course record is held by Mick Clifford (6:33:05)
3. Pikes Peak Marathon
This unique marathon is called “America’s Ultimate Challenge” and has a brutal accent up the 14,115-foot peak – yes, you read that correctly. The start line is in Manitou Springs in front of the City Hall. Within the first 13.3 miles sees an elevation gain of 7,815 feet. This uphill marathon is so tough that many runners say that the first part of the marathon (to the peak) is harder than a full marathon on flat terrain – and it often takes as long as a marathon.
The Pikes Peak Marathon allows 800 participants, but runners must complete a qualifying event first. Last year’s winners completed in 3:46:40 (male) and 4:29:06 (female). Runners must contend with the narrow, winding trail of rocks, dirt, and gravel on their way up – then do it all again with a steep descent back to the finish line. Some years there’s snow on the peak, so the temperature starts at 60 – 70 degrees at the start and decreases to around 30 degrees at the peak.
Fun facts about the Pikes Peak Marathon:
- The narrow trail has an average grade of 11%
- The 3 miles below the peak are above the treeline, and runners must scramble to reach the peak
- The course record is held by Matt Carpenter (3:16:39)
- Pikes Peak Marathon started in 1956
4. Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon
The moment you read “Everest” in the name of this marathon, you know it will be an epic race. The starting point is at an elevation of 17,598 feet, making this the world’s highest marathon. But that’s just one component! This marathon starts with a 2-week trek just to get to the starting point at Base Camp. The race descends 15,022 feet, ascends 9,110 feet, and ends in Namche Bazaar, a Nepalese village.
Runners are treated to amazing views of the snow-covered Himalayan mountains, which is a great payoff for the effort involved in running the marathon. Participants must arrive in Nepal at least 21 days before the race to allow for the Base Camp trek. After that, runners must contend with rough terrain, temperature changes, and thin air. Most runners take between 10 to 15 hours to complete the race.
Fun facts about the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon:
- The race course runs through the Sherpa trails in the Khumbu valley
- Runners encounter monasteries, glaciers, suspension bridges, and monuments
- The course record is held by Deepak Rai (3:28:27)
- Before the race, participants spend 2 nights at Base Camp
5. Antarctic Ice Marathon
Most people associate Antarctica with cold, unforgiving temperatures and snow covering everything. But most of us don’t know that Antarctica has an average windchill of -20° C. That’s what makes the Antarctic Ice Marathon one of the hardest marathons in the world. Runners must contend with ice and snow while working their way along the route with an elevation gain of 2,296 feet.
The course terrain is predominantly groomed snow, much like running on sand. The Antarctic Ice Marathon is the southernmost marathon in the world, meaning half the marathon’s challenge is getting to the start line. Runners must fly by private jet from Chile to Union Glacier in Antarctica, meaning this race is also one of the most expensive to enter. The race normally has less than 50 entrants each year.
Fun facts about the Antarctic Ice Marathon:
- The winds in Antarctica can reach up to 300 kilometers per hour
- The lowest recorded temperature was in Antarctica at -94.7° C
- The course record is held by William Hafferty (3:34:12)
- Most competitors complete the race in 5 to 7 hours
6. Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon
Where: Tanzania, Africa
This mighty marathon is run in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, and has spectacular scenery that makes the challenge worth it. Tanzania is incredibly diverse, boasting endless plains with wildlife, snow-capped mountains, and golden tropical beaches. Once runners have conquered the race, they can enjoy the rewards of their effort. But first, they’ll need to contend with temperatures that can rise into the 30s. The race alternates down and up years.
The Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon is a point-to-point race that starts at Simba Farm and passes through villages, farms, coffee and banana plantation, and forested areas. The race is run between 5,770 and 12,600 feet. Up years have 9,000 feet of climbing with 3,600 feet of descent. When you pair it with the heat during the day and the height above sea level, this run can take runners’ breath away – literally.
Fun facts about the Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon:
- The event has a cutoff time of 9 hours
- The Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon only allows 60 participants
- Runners require vehicle transport from the finish line
- Cathedral Point (12,600 feet) is the highest point on the route
7. Blue Ridge Marathon
Known as America’s Toughest Road Marathon, the Blue Ridge Marathon has a total elevation difference of 7,430 feet. This race attracts people from all around the world, and they gather on the start line in Roanoke, Virginia, a quaint town nestled in the awe-inspiring Blue Ridge Mountains. Runners are treated to beautiful views as they run along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the finish line in Elmwood Park.
This event sees around 3,000 participants line up for the various distances, with the marathon being the most challenging and popular. The race’s ascent starts at the 5.5-mile mark, where racers will start climbing the path up Roanoke Mountain. Despite being a hilly course, runners can still achieve decent times – but if they’re hoping for a sub-2:30 marathon, they’ll need to think again! This is one of several iconic marathons on the US circuit.
Fun facts about the Blue Ridge Marathon:
- This marathon has more elevation than any other road marathon in the US
- The race has a cutoff time of 7.5 hours
- The course record is held by Tim Gruber (2:44:48) and Lorraine Young (3:13:46)
- The Roanoke Mountain ascent has 780 feet of gain in 2 miles of switchbacks
8. Sahara Marathon
Where: Sahara Desert, Northern Africa
The start line of this desert race is so remote that runners are transported there. As one could expect with a marathon run on sand, participants are in for the lower body workout of a lifetime. The terrain is primarily rocks, sand, and compact earth, and some sections are run on soft sand. While most of the marathon is flat, the 20- to 30-kilometer section has several low rises. The course is so remote that the route is marked with temporary markers, flags, and stones.
The marathon is run in February, one of the hottest months in the desert, and temperatures can reach the high 50s. Water stations are placed every 3 km, and the course is monitored by four-wheel drive vehicles to provide medical assistance if needed. The Sahara Marathon starts in El Ayoun and ends in Smara. Participants can stay at the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
Fun facts about the Sahara Marathon:
- Runners are hosted by Saharawi families in tents (groups of up to 5)
- Participants are required to carry a hat and sunglasses for protection from the sand, wind, and sun
- Most runners take between 5 and 7 hours to complete the marathon
- The Sahara Marathon event has four distances – marathon, half marathon, 10k, and 5k
9. Baikal Ice Marathon
Runners who want a unique, challenging, breathtaking marathon often choose the Baikal Ice Marathon because participants run across the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, oldest, and largest lake. The event is based in Listvyanka, a small town located 65 km away from Irkutsk. The marathon forms part of the Winteriada Nordic Games Festival, which also includes ice golf, ice fishing, sled dogs, snow volleyball, and ice safaris.
Under the ice surface, seismic activity and geothermal springs cause melting that forms holes. The race has an Ice Captain who plots a safe course across the ice. On race day, participants are driven in vans to the Tankhoy train station to be ferried to the start line. The marathon starts with a shot of vodka, true to Russian tradition. The course is flat but uneven and slippery at times. The winds increase the chill factor and can provide major resistance as entrants run. The landscape is featureless, giving no perspective, making this a mental race as much as a physical one.
Fun facts about the Baikal Ice Marathon:
- There are 10 mobile aid stations along the course
- Checkpoints serve water, hot drinks, food, and vodka
- The Baikal Ice Marathon is the only marathon run on ice in the world
- The safety team drive in hovercrafts
10. Jungfrau Marathon
Considered one of the world’s most popular mountain marathons, the Jungfrau Marathon is run in full view of the Monch, Eiger, and Jungfrau mountains in the Swiss Alps. The marathon sees around 3,500 runners participate each year, coming from 35 different countries. The start line is in Interlaken, and the course has over 6,000 feet of climbing before finishing at the Eigergletscher.
The 2007 Jungfrau Marathon included the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge, attracting 4,200 entrants from over 50 countries. In the climb to Wengen, runners endure an elevation gain of 1,476 feet over 5 kilometers – not for the faint-hearted. This is by no means a fast course – the records are held by Jonathan Wyatt (2:49:01) and Maude Mathys (3:12:56).
Fun facts about the Jungfrau Marathon:
- Before leaving the moraine for the final ascent, participants are greeted by a cheery bagpipe player
- There’s a cutoff time of 6.5 hours
- Weather conditions vary from the upper 20s to the lower 10s
- The highest point of the course is 7,611 feet
Think You Can Handle It?
Whether you’re looking for a marathon that will challenge you with heat, cold, elevation, or terrain, the above races have something for you. Trust us when we say these marathons aren’t considered the hardest for no reason and should be treated with the respect they deserve.
They might not be as long as the world’s toughest ultra marathons, but in many ways they are just as demanding.
These marathons are for advanced runners and require months of training and preparation. If you like living on the wild side and pushing your boundaries, then do let us know which you’re planning to enter!