For The Armchair Endurance Racer: Inside The World’s Wildest Races

Think you’re in shape?

Imagine this: it’s three in the morning and you’re plodding through knee-high puddles. You’re hungry. The last time you slept was twenty six hours ago, and that was only for twenty minutes.

The pre-dawn air is heavy. Lengths ahead, past a patch of Alaskan fireweed, you hear distant ruffling, darting your eyes just quick enough to see bodies scrambling up the ravine. The first six checkpoints were tough, but this last one has taken nearly a day to reach. With seventy hours of racing left, it promises to be an exciting finish.

Welcome to the world of endurance racing, where elite athletes navigate and compete in courses hundreds of miles long. Equipped with ultralight, weather-resistant gear and using tools most laypeople have never even heard of, like UTM Grid Readers, prusik loops and gaiters, these athletes battle their mental and physiological limits for a first place finish. Training is intense. Strategy is meticulously rehearsed. As competitors plot through the course, bodies become nature-beaten and sleep-deprived.

In college, I raced a few Bonk Hard events in Missouri’s Ozark wilderness, and boy was it fun. Planning food, clothing and gear for a nearly 18-hour day–not to mention the training beforehand–was a downright awesome challenge. Never have I understood the term “fatigued” more than I did at the end of one race, the Bonk Hard Chill. My 4-person team, MAKE WAY, was the last able-bodied team to cross the finish line at 17h 40m. I remember eating cold spaghetti and having a hard time walking. And this was me in excellent shape.

Receiving course instructions the night before the race.

Endurance racing, or adventure racing, is a quirky subculture of ultra athletes that has, over the last thirty or so years, developed into a highly competitive sport. There are small adventure races like the Bonk Hard Chill, and there are ones much larger and more elite. Seemingly impossible events like the Vendée Globe, a non-stop round-the-world yacht race that can take upwards of three months to finish.

Thought by many to be the world’s toughest ocean race, the Vendée Globe takes place every four years. Leaving port off the coast of western France, crews head straight to Antarctica, where they circumnavigate the continent, always clockwise, and race back to France. Over the years, yachts have capsized. Competitors have been lost at sea. In the most recent 2008/2009 race, eleven teams finished. Nineteen did not.

Last-minute gear checking the morning of the race.

Land races are just as ruthless. The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135-mile course that climbs from Death Valley to Mount Whitney; from 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in contiguous America, to 8360 feet above sea level, the trailhead to the highest. Due to the intensity of the foot race (again, deemed one of the world’s toughest), entry is by invitation only, and if you can believe it, demand to participate each year typically exceeds the number of available spots.

While the race organizers do not award prize money, any runner who completes the course in sixty hours or less receives a commemorative medal, and anyone strong (and crazy) enough to finish within forty-eight hours gets a belt-buckle. Yes, a measly belt-buckle. Year after year, even some of the most elite ultramarathoners are not able to finish.

In 2009, nearly forty teams of four competed in Primal Quest, one of the most prestigious expedition-length races in the world. Racers gathered in the Badlands of South Dakota to mountain bike, paddle, swim, climb, cave and foot-race their way across 557 miles of remote and unforgiving terrain.

What drives these athletes to endure such harsh conditions? How do they stay alert and focused? What does it feel like to complete an endurance race, to cross the finish line with your limbs still intact? I imagine only a few people in the world are qualified enough to answer these questions.

Let the training begin.

4 thoughts on “For The Armchair Endurance Racer: Inside The World’s Wildest Races”

  1. These races are super-motivating! You’re right, just when you think you’re fit, you read something like this and realize you can always do better. I highly recommend Dean Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man. Now that’s a tough guy.
    .-= Hugh´s last blog ..Pass (On) The Salt =-.

  2. These things are crazy. I’ve been a triathlete for a few years now working up to an ironman and these are in the same vein. I don’t know how people possibly pull these off with real jobs. You’d need to have escaped the rat race just to train for em! … or be in college. I have a friend who did a triple iron man in 3 days. Awesome!

  3. This stuff is incredibly fascinating to me. I don’t know how these people do it. I did 16 miles one day and 21 miles the next on the AT and I was about to die. I’d like to get more information on these races. Do you have any books you could recommend that I could read?
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..holy crap it’s been a while =-.

  4. @Hugh: Will definitely check that guy out. I feel like I’ve read about him in Runner’s World before…

    @Robert: Let me know when you do the Ironman! I spent 3 hours watching the Hawaii footage this year–truly inspiring.

    @Nate: 21 miles is a HUGE day, even for a seasoned hiker. I haven’t found a book that aggregates all endurance races (maybe I should write it?), but check out the individual websites for each event. That’s where you’ll find the most information. I used Wikipedia for most of the research that went into this article

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