Toughest road marathons on RaceRaves
When it comes to marathons, the most frequent debate seems to be which are the easiest – after all, if you’re running 26.2 miles, why make it any harder than it has to be? Plus, with a steady stream of runners trying to qualify for Boston, many race directors now design their courses to cater specifically to Boston hopefuls (we recently highlighted several BQ-friendly marathons HERE).

On the other hand, a growing number of race directors are bucking this trend, clearly taking perverse pleasure in extracting as much blood, sweat & tears as possible from their participants. Typically this extraction process relies on high altitude, obscene hills, unforgiving terrain or extreme weather. Not surprisingly, these are also the races that runners tend to recall most vividly and recount most enthusiastically. Because for better or worse, on race day miserable is memorable.

With that in mind, we present here – in chronological order – 8 of the most challenging road marathons in the United States and Canada. We’ve excluded trail/off-road marathons for the simple reason they deserve their own list. And for runners who prefer their suffering in more manageable doses, events that include a shorter distance are indicated by a *.

Got a favorite grueling road marathon we missed? Review it on RaceRaves and enlighten us in the Comments below!

Madison-Marathon-logo
Madison Marathon* (Madison, MT; July)
What’s the challenge? High altitude (low point = 8,300ft, high point = 9,500ft); significant hillsMadison’s claim to being the “highest road marathon on planet Earth” may be outdated, with both the Rocky Mountain High-est Marathon in Leadville (below) and the Ladakh Marathon in India boasting higher elevations. But make no mistake: Madison is high enough. At a starting elevation of 9,250 feet and two brutal climbs in the first 5 miles, you may wonder how Big Sky Country can be so stingy on oxygen.This is no big-city race, as reinforced by the shuttle rides totaling over two hours that transport runners to the start (like riding in a “big, orange maraca,” noted 2012 finisher Dan Solera). But the end justifies the means, with runners being treated to 26.2 miles of open-air freedom on dirt & gravel roads, featuring (literally) breathtaking views and potential wildlife encounters with bears, moose and antelope.

New for 2015, race organizers have added the Big Sky Marathon to the weekend agenda, creating a “double” opportunity for Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics, as well as for masochists whose oxygen-deprived brains may be experiencing short-term Madison memory loss. Registration now open.
(Thanks to RaceRaves member Dan Solera, whose blog post we referenced)

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Crater Lake Rim Runs* (Crater Lake, OR; August)
What’s the challenge? High altitude (low point = 6,000ft, high point = 7,900ft); long climbs & descentsFormed thousands of years ago from the caldera of a collapsed volcano, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the U.S. and a remarkable centerpiece for one of the nation’s toughest road marathons. The course wastes no time in setting expectations, with an immediate half-mile ascent starting at 7,500 feet of elevation. From there the pristine blues and greens of southern Oregon will take your breath away, assuming you have any left once the undulating course has its way with you.But the organizers save arguably the worst for last. At mile 22, runners pass by the finish line and continue on a steep two-mile climb up a road composed of dirt & pumice cinders, before retracing their steps back to the finish. By this final downhill, the unforgiving combination of altitude and hills will leave most runners’ legs ready to crater.

Looking to replicate the Crater Lake Rim Run experience elsewhere? Look no further than the Lake Tahoe Marathon, a similarly strenuous combination of altitude, hills & brilliant blues all centered around the country’s second-deepest lake. Registration for both races now open.
(Thanks to Dave Munger, whose Crater Lake blog post we referenced)

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Rocky Mountain High-est Marathon* (Leadville, CO; September)
What’s the challenge? Extreme altitude (low point = 9,500ft, high point = 10,150ft), long climbs & descentsAt an altitude of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Widely popular among hardcore trail runners for its rugged summer races, it turns out Leadville has plenty of paved surfaces to test road runners as well. The route features several out-and-back sections including the first and last 6 miles, which turns out to be both blessing and curse when the start/finish line is the highest point of the course. With a low point of around 9,500 feet, you’re likely to be nursing a true runner’s high by the time you claim your finisher’s medal.Luckily, as a USATF-sanctioned event your Rocky Mountain High-est result also qualifies you for Boston – which would likewise qualify you for “bad-a** runner” status alongside Gary Krugger of Flagstaff, AZ, who blitzed the field with a mind-boggling 3:02:53 in last year’s inaugural race. Not being produced in 2016.
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Polar Bear Marathon* (Churchill, MB, Canada; November)
What’s the challenge? Extreme cold & wind chill; potential polar bear sightings on the courseKnown as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” the remote town of Churchill sits on the banks of the Hudson Bay at the northern tip of Manitoba. Factoring in wind chill, temperatures in late November routinely fall below -30°C (-22°F) with an average monthly snowfall of 40 cm (16 inches). Frostbite happens quickly in those conditions, demanding that runners dress in multiple protective layers with all exposed areas covered. If you think running 26.2 miles in a singlet and shorts is a struggle, try doing it in a parka and ski pants.Unlike other races that include “Polar Bear” in their name to signify a cold-weather activity, Churchill’s marathon is the real deal. And the race’s selling point is its namesake – the town’s autumn residents who migrate toward the bay in search of food. To guarantee runner safety and discourage curious polar bears and wolves, participants run in pairs accompanied by a support vehicle that doubles as a mobile aid station. Registration limited to 40 runners.
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Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon (Nashville, TN; November)
What’s the challenge? Steep, unrelenting hillsIt’s worth noting that Tennessee boasts not only the most difficult race in the nation (The Barkley Marathons) but also one of its most difficult road marathons. Staged entirely within Nashville’s densely wooded Percy Warner Park, the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey is “meant to be an antidote” to fast and flat marathons. And while the organizers may take themselves lightly, they clearly take their responsibilities seriously with over 7,200 feet of total elevation change, grades of up to 12% and a cadre of dedicated volunteers providing encouragement and guidance along the way.With landmarks like “Three Mile Hill” and “Nine Mile Hill” boasting lung-burning ascents and quad-punishing descents, the HHFM isn’t monkeying around. Or maybe it is. In any case, your legs will doubtless be ready to See no hills, hear no hills, speak no hills long before reaching the finish.

(Coincidentally Gary Krugger, noted above for winning last year’s Rocky Mountain High-est Marathon above, also won the 2014 Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon in 2:44:41. Rock on, Gary!). Registration opens Aug 1 – 8 as weighted lottery.

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Blue Ridge Marathon* (Roanoke, VA; April)
What’s the challenge? Significant hills, including four climbs & descents of 450+ feet eachTalk about putting your money where your mouth is: Blue Ridge race organizers are so confident in their claim to “America’s Toughest Road Marathon”, they even trademarked the slogan. And with 7,430 feet of elevation change, they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. Starting in downtown Roanoke, the race winds through several local parks and culminates in a climb to the top of Roanoke Mountain (2,145 feet) in mile 7. Significant climbs at miles 13 and 19 follow, with plenty of rolling hills sprinkled in to keep the legs motivated.Luckily this pain doesn’t come without gain. Atop Roanoke Mountain, panoramic vistas are the payoff for a jog well run. Likewise, Blue Ridge Mountain scenery and flatter stretches along the Roanoke River help to offset mounting fatigue. And just before the midway point of the race stands the 88-foot-tall Roanoke Star, which at night watches over the city in a blaze of neon from its vantage point in Mill Mountain Park. Registration now open.
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Skagway Marathon* (Skagway, AK; June)
What’s the challenge? Frequent hills with extended climbs, including the “Hill of Endurance”“Alaska’s toughest marathon” proclaims the header on the Skagway Marathon website. Two-time champ Quinn Webber agrees, calling the course “absolutely brutal” and “the 7th circle of Hell.” Skagway owes much of this hard-earned reputation to its frequent elevation changes. But what sets it apart from other difficult road marathons is the Hill of Endurance, a cruel 2-mile/470-foot climb up to (and back down from) the turnaround at the halfway point.The largely paved course mixes in off-road stretches along with – if it’s any consolation to your uncooperative legs – some of the most pristine natural beauty found anywhere in the world. And the Hill of Endurance notwithstanding, the toughest part of the marathon may be getting to the start line, as the town’s geographic isolation means most of its one million annual tourists arrive by cruise ship. Registration now open.
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Running with the Devil* (Las Vegas, NV; June)
What’s the challenge? Extreme heat, with temperatures exceeding 100°FNow’s your chance to break out the reflective, all-white running gear! As the name suggests, Running with the Devil is a celebration of insolation. Resurrected after a three-year hiatus (including its 2013 cancellation due to concerns over excessive heat), RWTD 2016 features a new course through the Mojave Desert. And with distance offerings ranging from 5K to 100 miles, Calico Racing’s event feels like a training ground for Badwater wannabes.Frequent hydration breaks let runners stop and smell the Mountain Roses, plus other high desert vegetation including Joshua trees and Pinyon-Juniper woodlands. And for anyone looking for a silver lining in the cloudless Nevada skies: at a start line elevation of 4,500 feet, you and your overworked cooling systems can take comfort in the fact it’s a very dry heat. Registration now open.
(Thanks to RaceRaves member Dan Solera for his input on this list)

And several honorable mentions from our friends in Marathon Maniacs & the 50 States Marathon Club:
Heart of America Marathon (Columbia, MO; September)
Whiskey Row Marathon (Prescott, AZ; May)
Wyoming Marathon (Laramie, WY; May 24)
Estes Park Marathon (Estes Park, CO; June)
Grandfather Mountain Marathon (Boone, NC; July)

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3 thoughts on “Toughest road marathons

  1. Profile photo of Kate Avery KateRunsColorado says:

    Rim Rock Marathon in Grand Junction, Colorado: http://rimrockmarathon.com/

  2. This is a great list.  But of course the toughest marathon is the one you are doing at that moment. I can tell you did your research.  The last time I saw a list like this most of the races were no longer around and some were not even marathons.Some of these races sound amazing.  I don’t think the Polar Bear Marathon is for me since I hate the cold.  But I would like to try Running with the Devil.  I also checked out the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey marathon on your site and it rained 3 out of the last 5 years.  I am  not sure I would really appreciate the beautiful scenery if I was looking down at my shoes plodding along the whole time.I can’t wait to see your list of the toughest trail marathons. 

Your turn – what do you think?