Amazing Races

By Dean Stattmann

Most people are content with regular workouts and the occasional run or bike ride. Maybe even a marathon or triathlon for some. But for others, that simply isn’t enough. It has to be an adventure. There needs to be a chance of failure. It’s got to be epic. Luckily, there are races out there that fit this description. So if you’re looking for a challenge, along with some serious bragging rights, read on for five of the most hardcore fitness challenges in the world.

\\\FOR THE TRIATHLETE

Norseman Xtreme Triathlon

The description of this race alone will instantly scare off anyone less than half-serious about attempting it. “You will probably be cold, you will hate the hills, sometimes you will feel lonely and you will probably experience being unusually emotional during the weekend,” reads the Race Info section of the official Norseman website. “If you do the race, you will probably tell your friends afterwards that Norseman was more beautiful, demanding, personal, frightening and to reach the finish line was a greater victory and joy than any other race you have ever done.”

Winding through some of the most beautiful terrain Norway has to offer, the Norseman’s breathtaking course spans the distance of a typical Ironman triathlon – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run. But that’s where the similarities between the two end. The Norseman is the world’s northernmost triathlon – taking place at the same latitude as Anchorage, AK – and ascends 16,404 feet, finishing at Mt. Gaustatoppen, 6,070 feet above sea level. Water temperature normally sits at around 60 degrees and air temperature ranges from 43 to 82 degrees. The race is limited to 240 competitors, about 160 of which typically finish at the top of the mountain before the remaining competitors are allowed to finish at a lower plateau.

And what’s the prize for finishing the self-proclaimed ”world’s toughest long-distance triathlon?” Nothing. Unless you count the free T-shirt. But that’s not why you race the Norseman. www.nxtri.com

\\\FOR THE STAIRMEISTER

The Empire Run Up

If you’re looking for the fastest way to the top, you’ll find the answer in New York City. Each February, hundreds of athletes crowd into the lobby of the Empire State Building for the annual Empire Run Up, a 1,250-foot vertical race to the top of the city’s tallest, most iconic skyscraper.

The average competitor takes between 17 and 20 minutes to sprint up the building’s 86 flights of stairs – a trip that typically takes less than a minute by elevator – to the observation deck, where finishers are greeted by a sweeping view of New York City.

The event has grown in popularity since 1978’s inaugural Run Up, won by Gary Muhrcke – also the winner of the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970 – with a time of 12:33, and racers continue to scramble to beat event records that have been set over the years. Paul Crake of Australia set the current men’s record of 9:33 in 2003, while Andrea Mayr of Austria set the women’s record of 11:23 in 2006.

The current champion, Germany’s Thomas Dold, took the 2010 title to mark his fifth consecutive victory at the event. Think you can dethrone him? Step up! www.nyrr.org/races/2011/r0201x00.asp

\\\FOR THE MARATHONER

Antarctic 100k Ultra Race

Most people will never complete a 100k in their lifetime, let alone trek to the South Pole to go the distance on ice against glacial winds. Then again, endurance athletes aren’t “most people.” And if the prospect of “The World’s Coldest 100” sounds appealing, then neither are you.

The Antarctic 100k Ultra Race begins in Punta Arenas, Chile, where competitors board a flight to the Union Glacier Camp in the interior of the Antarctic. It’s an eight-day experience in total, with five of those days spent in transit – a hefty commute, but the only option for those looking to complete a 100k on the continent.

On race day, competitors line up at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains, 3,000 feet above sea level and just a few hundred miles from the South Pole. From there on, it’s 62.1 icy miles beneath a sun that never sets. Surrounded by ice, snow, mountains and some more ice and snow, competitors must endure an average wind chill temperature of -4 degrees with winds blowing consistently between 11 and 18 miles per hour.

It goes without saying that there won’t be crowds cheering you on, but just in case you were getting your hopes up about hurdling a penguin along the way, sadly the little guys don’t live this far south. It’s just you. And the ice. www.icemarathon.com

\\\FOR THE TOUGH GUY 

Tough Mudder

A pain-free race is usually a sign of good preparation. But when you’re racing the Tough Mudder, no matter how hard you’ve trained, it’s going to hurt.

According to its official website, the Tough Mudder was born out of the need for “an event in America that tests toughness, fitness, strength, stamina and mental grit all in one place and all in one day.” Rest assured, that need has now been addressed.

With locations all over the country, and even some international events scheduled for 2012, the Tough Mudder attracts tough guys (and girls) in the thousands to its notoriously muddy courses that can span anywhere between seven and ten miles long and typically serve up around 20 obstacles. If these specs don’t seem all that specific, it’s because no two Mudders are exactly alike, and each event even comes with its own dreaded “mystery obstacles,” which are kept secret until race day.

So what makes the Mudder tougher than, say, a marathon? Sub-zero underwater tunnels, flaming bales of hay, 10,000-volt live wires and butter-greased monkey bars are just a few ways to answer that question. In fact, the Mudder is so extreme that it doesn’t even consider itself a race, but rather a challenge, and finish times aren’t recorded.

“At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind,” the site explains. Simply put, “fair weather runners should stay at home.”www.toughmudder.com

\\\FOR THE CYCLIST

Great Divide Race

After years of riding and months of dedicated training, you’re finally ready to take on the Great Divide Race, a solo adventure along the Continental Divide. You’ve taken three weeks off work. Your bike’s been serviced. Your gear is packed. You’re about to set out on the biggest adventure of your life.

Sprawled out over 2,490 majestic miles, the Great Divide Race is longer than the Tour de France. It’s a straight shot from Canada to Mexico, running through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and serves up over 200,000 feet of climbing along the way.

The key word is solo. As the name suggests, the Great Divide Race is a race, but think of it more as a self-initiated trip. Riders are entirely responsible for all of their own food, drink, lodging and supplies. Accepting help from friends along the way is forbidden, a single cell phone call equals instant disqualification and don’t even think about bringing your GPS.

Previously, the route has been completed in as few as 15 days, and it’s a good idea to plan as much of your daily mileage beforehand as possible. Once you hit the road, your brain will be in no mood for math.

In reality, the organizers don’t really ‘organize’ very much other than a set of rules, a suggested start date and a listing of results. The rest is up to you, from finding a flat patch of ground on which to lay your sleeping bag at night to restocking food supplies in small towns along the way. It all depends on how real you want to make it. Either way, there’s no free T-shirt at the finish line.www.greatdividerace.com

Photo: Flickr: The Library of Congress
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