Grueling Travel through Beautiful Places: the Madness of Extreme Races

The Crocodile Trophy mountain biking race is off-road, meaning gravel, rocks, ruts, puddles, dust and lots of crashing

These cyclists are enjoying another day on the trail in the Crocodile Trophy, in northeastern Australia, considered one of the most punishing bicycle races in the world. Photo by Regina Stanger/Crocodile Trophy

As the famed grand tours of summer begin rolling through Europe on carbon frames and ultra-light wheels, a number of lesser known but perhaps much more rigorous races are also gearing to go. They include cycling and foot races that take athletes through some of the world’s most spectacular and rugged country, as well as to the boundaries of what humans can endure, physically and psychologically. The more demanding of them allow no rest or sleep—unlike the more publicized stage races—and amount to nonstop endurance tests lasting as long as a week or more. Some of them also allow almost anyone to enter, in case you’re interested in trying your muscles in what might be the most unenjoyable tour you’ll ever take of the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, the American desert or the Australian outback. Here are a few options for your next vacation:

Race Across America. Called RAAM and widely considered the hardest road cycling race in the world, the event starts in mid-June in Oceanside, California and leads several hundred dogged competitors more than 3,000 miles across the entire country to Annapolis, Maryland—without stopping. Last year, Christoph Strasser, now 29, pedaled the distance in eight days, eight hours and six minutes. RAAM soloists (racers in the team divisions take turns riding) may take cat naps totaling an hour of shuteye per day, but the general idea is, you snooze, you lose. The race is so demanding that many cyclists don’t finish at all. Some have died trying. Others begin losing their wits. Some solo riders may even lose their teeth as they eat sugary foods nonstop to replace the 10,000 calories that they burn a day, and for those that don’t brush at each pit stop, teeth may decay rapidly. To get a good taste of what this race offers before you consider attempting it, read Hell on Two Wheels, in which author Amy Snyder elaborates on the many forms of misery that one can expect while pedaling without rest across the continent.

Badwater Ultramarathon. For many foot racers, running one marathon isn’t enough. Nor are two, or three, or even four, and the Badwater Ultramarathon amounts to five—135 miles of trotting through some of the hottest, grittiest country in the world. It begins as low as one can go in the western hemisphere while still keeping your feet dry—at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley. From there, it only goes up, with runners eventually finishing—or trying to, anyway—at Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet above sea level. As though such mileage and elevation gain weren’t strenuous enough, the race takes place in July, when temperatures may easily exceed 110 degrees. No one has ever died in the Badwater Ultramarathon, but between two and four out of every 10 runners fail to finish each year. The record time of completion is 22 hours, 51 minutes.

Western States Endurance Run. What began in 1955 in the Sierra Nevada as a 100-mile horseback competition shifted to a super-marathon foot race in the mid 1970s as men and women began to wonder if they, too, could trot for some 20 hours and 100 miles nonstop. Today, the “Western States 100” takes place every Saturday of the last full weekend in June as hundreds of the hardest-core runners in the world start on the notorious 2,500-foot climb over the first four miles and proceed on old mining trails that ascend a total of just over 18,000 vertical feet. The route goes from Squaw Valley to Auburn, over country so rough that only horses, hikers and helicopters can come to help, in case runners should fall ill or injured. The race begins at 5 a.m. sharp, and runners must cross the finish line by 11 a.m. The next day.

30-minute jog will do
For many of us, a 30-minute jog will do. But this runner, just finished with the Western States 100, has been trail trotting for over 27 hours. Photo courtesy of Flickr user runnr_az

Paris-Brest-Paris. Considered the great granddad of ultracycling endurance events, the hallowed Paris-Brest-Paris was first held in 1891, an 800-mile sprint from Paris, out to the coast at Brest and back again. Like the Race Across America, the PBP is a catnapping affair, with cyclists going nonstop and striving to complete the ride in less than the 90-hour time limit. But unlike RAAM, PBP is a ride, not a race—though it once was. The contest took place once a decade, until 1951. Now, the PBP occurs once every four or five years as a recreational ride, or randonnée. The most recent PBP took place in 2011. While the stakes in the PBP are far less than in pro racing events, cyclists must still abide by some rules. Notably, there is generally no vehicle support allowed, and riders are expected to make their own repairs, fix their own flats and, if they need an emergency recharge, stop for croissants and espresso on their own dime, and clock.

Crocodile Trophy. At more than 500 miles and self-touted as “the hardest, longest and most adventurous mountain bike race in the world,” this one just sounds awful. But the Crocodile Trophy, set in the low-latitude tropics in northeast Australia, is a stage race, offering food, rest and plenty of sleep every single day. RAAM cyclists may seem to have it rougher, but if Croc Trophy contenders had to do it all at once, the effort just might kill them. The late-October race is off-road, meaning gravel, rocks, ruts, puddles (potentially containing crocodiles lying in ambush), dust and lots of crashing. If this sounds like a pleasant way to see Australia, then sign up; the race welcomes men and women over 18 years of age and registration for the 2012 event is open until August 20.

And for a race that’s already underway, World Cycle Racing Grand Tour. Jason Woodhouse is burning about 11,000 calories a day—but unlike most pro racers, Woodhouse does not have a van shadowing him with food, gear and mechanical support. The 24-year-old from England is currently racing around the world in an unsupported journey that will cross every line of longitude on Earth, include 18,000 miles of pedaling and finish right where it began, in London. The fastest recorded time for the same ride is currently 164 days, and Woodhouse—who is carrying camping gear and racing against nine others—is planning to demolish that record with a completion time of 130 days. As he goes, Woodhouse is raising funds for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He also aims to demonstrate that the bicycle can be adequately used in virtually any trip shorter than five miles. On an itinerary that includes about 130 miles of cycling most days—plus a few airplane trips—his point is well made.

Want to train for an extreme race? Consider the Extreme World Races Adventure Academy, which offers five-day courses in long-distance adventuring in cold, icy, miserable landscapes. The academy is in Norway, and the session includes a three-day mini expedition on the ice and tundra. Bundle up, and enjoy the scenery if you can.