Badwater 135 running in the desert (Getty)Badwater 135 running in the desert (Getty) © Copyright

Top 5 // Insane adventure races

In his new book, Dominic Bliss reveals the world’s most insane adventure races. Here are our top five… 

Badwater 135 California USA runners (Getty)


Badwater 135
Badwater, California, USA
Toughness factor:
Potential hazards:
Heat exhaustion, dehydration, mountain lions, 18 July 2016

My brain was on fire. My body was burning up. Death Valley had laid me out flat, and now it was cooking me. My crew was telling me to get up, but I could barely hear them. I was too busy puking, then watching the stream of liquid evaporate almost as fast as it splashed down on the pavement. It was an hour before midnight, 105 incinerating, soul-sucking degrees.” 

When Scott Jurek, one of the world’s greatest ultrarunners, struggles on a run, you know it’s bad. It wasn’t even the physical torture of the 2005 Badwater 135 race that knocked him sideways, it was the mental anguish. As one competitor once explained, “The first half of the Badwater is run with the legs, the second half with the heart.” 

The Badwater 135 is one of America’s most infamous ultramarathons – held in midsummer, 135 miles (217 km) long, and much of it uphill. “The world’s toughest foot race” is its claim. The race traverses Death Valley – site of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth (134°F/57°C) – and takes in Mt Whitney, the highest summit in mainland USA. No one has died during a race, but plenty of runners have seen their shoes melt in the ferocious heat. 

“Heat illness and heat stroke are serious risks,” the race organisers warn. “These can cause death, renal shutdown, and brain damage. 

“Runners require dozens of gallons of fluid, and altitude sickness can produce various degrees of lung and brain swelling, and even death. Blisters are a problem, too, with ground temperatures up to 200 degrees.”

In 2005, Jurek wore heat-reflective clothing, used an industrial sprayer to hose himself down, and consumed nearly two litres of water every hour for the first six hours. He struggled, but after much soul searching and vomiting, He won the race with a new course record of 24 hours and 36 minutes.

The Iditarod Sled-dog racing Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, USA  (Getty)


The Iditarod
 Sled-dog racing
 Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, USA
Toughness factor:
Potential hazards: Blizzards, gales, freezing conditions, angry moose, 5 March 2016

No one says “Mush!” any more. That’s just for the amateurs, apparently. On the other hand, you can still callsled-dog racers “mushers.” And when it comes to the Iditarod, these are without doubt the most accomplished mushers in the world. The Iditarod Trail Sled-Dog Race, to use its full name, is a brutal long-distance race across the snowy wastes of Alaska.

Staged every March, it sees mushers and their teams – 16 dogs on average – racing over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) between Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city, and Nome, a town on the edge of the Bering Sea, following the route of a traditional winter sled-dog supply trail. In even years, competitors have to head south to north; in odd years, north to south. It has been going since 1973 when just 33 mushers took part – and only 22 finished. Today, there are normally around 50 competitors brave enough to set out into the freezing cold conditions with only a sled and a pack of huskies for company. 

At the time of writing, the record for the race (eight days, 13 hours and four minutes) is held by Dallas Seavey, now star of National Geographic Channel’s series Ultimate Survival Alaska. Seavey and his rivals must face a whole host of cold-weather hazards, ranging from blizzards and gale-force  winds to complete whiteouts and wind chills as low as -100°F (-70°C). One year, an angry moose charged at Seavey. “When moose have no more body fat, they start metabolising their muscles, and it creates a chemical imbalance,” explains Seavey, who was forced to dispatch the huge mammal with his .357 Magnum.

Mushers have their supplies (human food, dog food, dog booties, headlamps, batteries, tools, and sled parts) flown ahead to each checkpoint. They choose where and when to rest, although there are three mandatory layovers. The most exciting stage of the race is normally the last dash to the finish when the leading teams are often within a few hours of one another. The 1978 race was the closest in Iditarod history when the winner, Dick Mackey, finished just a second ahead of runner-up Rick Swenson. Swenson’s body may have crossed the finish line first, but Mackey was deemed champion since his leading dog’s nose was just ahead of the rival pack. “As soon as I knew that my dogs had crossed the finish line before his, I went to flop into my sled, and I missed it and fell on the ground,” Mackey later told Alaska Dispatch News. “And of course, everybody thought I’d had a heart attack.” Not that Swenson didn’t enjoy victories of his own. He had already won the Iditarod the year before, and went on to win it again in 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1991, amassing a record five victories in all. They still call him “King of the Iditarod.” 

Of course, the most impressive athletes in the race are the dogs. Predominantly mixed-breed huskie – bred for their endurance, tough feet, and mental attitude – they burn around 5,000 calories a day during the Iditarod. When you take into account their bodyweight, this equates to three-andhalf- times the calorie burn of a Tour de France cyclist. Dogs have been known to die during this race. 

Ultraman World Championships Hawaii (Corbis)


Ultraman World Championships
 Swimming, road biking and running
 Hawaii, USA
Toughness factor:
Potential hazards: Jellyfish, sea urchins, sharp coral, dehydration, November 2016

An athletic odyssey of personal rediscovery” is how the Ultraman world champs – one of the world’s most testing triathlons – is sold. And you’d better believe it. This legendary Hawaii sports event is so long, it can break the fittest triathletes. There is a total of 320 miles (515 km) to cover: the 6.2-mile (10-km) open ocean swim, a 261-mile (420-km) bike ride on the island’s roads and a 52-mile (84-km) road run.

The event is staged over three days (the bike section is split between day one and day two), with cut-off times imposed to eliminate stragglers. 

The swim is especially testing, with triathletes facing numerous hazards including Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish – “whose stings may cause severe discomfort,” warn the organisers. Ocean swells can be strong, too, throwing the swimmers around, and there is a risk of lacerations from sharp outcrops of lava and coral, or spiky sea urchins. “Since stepping on one of these may cause a painful and bothersome injury that could prevent further participation, caution should be exercised when in shallow water,” the organisers advise about the latter.

There are plenty of other tests in store in the bike and run sections, too.

“I felt very sick and nauseous,” Jack Nosco recalls of his bike ordeal. “I threw up several times and was forced to get off and walk – a first for me. My wife did a wonderful job in convincing me to continue.”

John Girmsey, who competed in 2000, rested for two hours after exiting the swim, but still got into trouble at the start of the bike ride. “The initial climb took its toll and my legs were cramping,” he said. “I started sucking down salt packets after that to stop the cramps but it took several hours before I had them under control again.” On the run section he placed bags of ice under his hat to keep cool. “It proved to be a lifesaver.”

Despite Hawaii’s clement climate, 1998 competitor Rick Kent found the weather extremely unforgiving. “We encountered some of the most brutal side winds I had ever experienced,” he said of his day one bike section. “You could easily get blown off your bike.” And the day two ride threw heavy rain into the mix. “I’m normally pretty fearless,” Kent recalls, “but the rain and wind, along with the severe temperature drop, made it hard to even ride. I was shaking really badly.”

After winning the 1995 Ultraman, Kevin Cutjar described his ordeal as “more a journey than a race! I feel honoured to have been among the few who have experienced what has been called one of the most demanding physical challenges ever devised by man!” 

Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc mountain runners (Getty)


Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc
 Mountain running
 France, Italy and Switzerland
Toughness factor:
Potential hazards: Intense heat, intense cold, 22 August 2016

More than 2,000 runners; 103 miles (166km); and a total elevation gain close to 32,800ft (10,000m). The clearest indication of the danger that awaits during this race, though, is the mantra from organisers.

All runners are expected to “make it their priority to help any other person in danger or in difficulty.” And with hazards ranging from “snow, hail, fog, heat (more than 86°F/30°C) or intense cold (less than 14°F/-10°C),” danger and difficulty are never far away.

Legendary Catalan mountain runner Kilian Jornet has won the event three times. But most surprising of all is his downhill method. Watch him in fast descent mode and you’ll see Jornet adjust his arms and hands like a squirrel moves its tail while leaping from branch to branch.

“Running downhill, it’s not just about your legs,” he explains. “You must use your upper body, arms, and hands, too. Your body goes side-to-side, leans back, leans forward. You move your arms to find the balance and change your centre of gravity.” One of his techniques is to memorise the terrain, close his eyes, and run blind for distances of up to 150 ft (50 m). That takes an awful lot of practice, though – and when you’re running down Mont Blanc, it’s not always wise to keep your eyes shut. 

Vendée Globe sailing race, France  (Getty)


Vendée Globe
Les Sables-D’Olonne, France and around the world
Toughness factor:
Potential hazards: Drowning, shipwreck, 6 November 2016

You’ll need a boat for this one. And not just any old boat. To have a chance of completing the Vendée Globe – indisputably the world’s toughest sailing race – you’re going to need a top-of-therange ocean-faring yacht that will serve you faithfully on your solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the planet. The race starts and finishes in the town of Les Sables-d’Olonne, on France’s west coast.

From there, intrepid navigators head west to east around the Earth, via the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, Cape Leeuwin on the south-western tip of Australia, and Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. Although they are allowed to anchor during their circumnavigation, competitors cannot stop in ports, nor receive any outside assistance. It’s a lonely challenge, that’s for sure.

The first big test is the Doldrums, the area of low pressure that has caused sailors problems for centuries. “Erratic winds, violent thunderstorms, sometimes torrential rain” await, according to race organisers. “Going through the Doldrums is like getting a lottery ticket.” Once around the Cape of Good Hope, yachtsmen then face a long, daunting ordeal across the Indian and Southern Oceans, facing “low light, dangerous seas, violent winds, a cold, wet environment. The change can weigh heavily on [sailors’] feelings. It is a question of getting the right mixture: knowing how to sail quickly without pushing the boat too hard. And above all, knowing how to survive.”

Before rounding Cape Horn, there’s a serious risk of collision with icebergs. As the organisers explain, “This means a stressful watch for the yachtsmen who, although able to detect the larger icebergs on the radar, cannot spot growlers – small blocks of drifting ice, which are sometimes less than a metre above the surface of the water, but which can weigh 30 or 40 tonnes. There is a permanent risk of collision, and the hours spent on deck trying to detect the danger add to the tiredness.” Finally, competitors deal with the violent Pampero (gales) along the South American coast, before negotiating the Doldrums for a second time.

The race was set up in 1989 by Frenchman Philippe Jeantot. He came fourth in his inaugural race behind Titouan Lamazou, who finished in 109 days. (Today’s champions are closer to 80 days.) Since then, dozens of talented sailors have completed the race. Dozens more have failed to finish.

One of the latter was Brit Tony Bullimore who capsized in the Southern Ocean in 1996, and survived for four days with just a bar of chocolate to eat. Bullimore had pretty much resigned himself to a watery grave when suddenly, out of the blue, he heard banging on the side of the boat, and emerged to a rescue operation.

“I was starting to look back over my life,” he explains, “and was thinking, ‘Well, I’ve had a good life, I’ve done most of the things I wanted to.’ If I was picking words to describe it, it would be a miracle; an absolute miracle.”

Read about more gruelling races in Up For The Challenge? by Dominic Bliss, out now, £15, Dog ’n’ Bone Books


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