Don’t Look Down – The Toughest Races On Earth By Those Who’ve Run Them

The Inferno: Badwater 135

‘Nobody asks if I won that race, they ask if I finished it.’ Having once run 50 marathons back-to-back, Dean Karnazes, 54, knows a thing or two about pushing the human body to the very limits. And the event the American’s name has perhaps become most synonymous with during his glittering career is that of Badwater 135 – a non-stop, gut-churning 135 mile run and climb through California’s Death Valley that makes Tough Mudder look like a veritable egg and spoon race.


RISING You’re from California, but what is it like running in Death Valley?

DEAN KARNAZES ‘Death Valley is otherworldly. Until you feel what it’s like to run in 50ºC heat, it’s just a number. It controls you, it’s intimidating, and you have 135 miles in that inferno. I’ve started the race 11 times and completed it 10 times. The first time, I failed and was lucky to live. I’d passed out on the side of the road and my crew found me. All I thought about for one year was completing that race.’


RISING What’s the biggest misconception of the course?

DK ‘People talk about the heat but they don’t talk about the fact there’s a lot of climbing involved. A little bit past the 40-mile mark you hit Stovepipe Wells, a 15-mile ascent up one of the highest mountains in the contiguous US. It’s ruthless. The downhill can hurt as much as the uphill. Then there are the ferocious headwinds, which feel as if someone has a blow dryer in your face, drying your sinuses out and making your eyeballs gritty. If someone could dump a cooler of ice water over your head, 10 minutes later you’d be bone dry.'


‘People are out there for days - they're delusional, skeletal, they won't recognise you’


RISING What part of the race is most mentally challenging?

DK ‘The final stretch to the finish is a run straight up into the sky. You’re amazed the asphalt could even stick on the floor because it’s so steep. It’s as if a road could not be built there. After 120 miles of hell, it’s the toughest half marathon you will run. I’ve hallucinated so many times out there. There are people who’ve been out there for two days, people I know intimately, and when I’ve said hello to them at the finish line they’ve just looked through me with hollowed eyes, skeletal. They don’t know who you are because they’re delirious.’


'I passed out on the side of the road at night and was lucky to live’


RISING You once ran without sleep for three consecutive nights over 350km – how was that?

DK ‘It was in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of a 12-person relay team in 2005, which I ran by myself. It was tough. There have been occasions where I woke up from sleeping while running. That’s not exclusive to me. I know other ultra-marathon runners who’ve nodded off during a run.’


RISING Do you think Badwater really is the hardest ultra-marathon?

DK ‘Badwater’s right near the top. It’s always hard to quantify how tough a challenge is because there are different sorts of miseries thrown at you. My toughest was probably Atacama Desert in Chile, part of the Four Desert Challenge. It’s the driest place on earth, it gets very hot during the day, but below freezing at night. Self-supported, so you’re running with a heavy pack on. You live on freeze-dried food like astronauts. You need to be very brave to approach these events.’


RISING What advice would you have for anyone thinking of doing an ultra?

DK ‘Knowing when and what to eat is key. I once ran the Spartathlon in Greece, a 153 mile foot race from Athens to Sparta, where I tried to complete it with food the ancient Greeks would have eaten – figs, olives, cured meat, water, so no sports drinks or power bars. During training for six or eight hours that was fine, but after 24 hours of eating nothing but figs I became very ill – I was severely dehydrated and my electrolytes were thrown out of balance, and let’s just say all that fibre wasn’t too good for my digestive system. It’s any wonder I didn’t have more serious medical conditions. I really pushed what I feel is beyond the edge, but I completed it.’


The Big Freeze: Ice Ultra, Sweden

Ever wondered what running from Manchester to London in an apocalyptic blizzard a la The Day After Tomorrow would look like? Well we can’t imagine it’s a million miles from the Ice Ultra, an unforgiving 230km footrace through the barren Swedish Arctic. RISING spoke to Team GB Ultra Runner Robbie Britton, 30, winner of 2016’s event...


RISING What was your game-plan in tackling the race?

ROBBIE BRITTON ‘Unlike most people who had big bags of kit, I travelled light. The temperature was -15ºC but so long as you’re moving you can keep warm. I had a 20-litre water backpack, carried my food and wore a lightweight windproof jacket and trousers. People were surprised I had so little layering but when you sweat too much in those environments, you can get very cold because of the transfer of heat. But I did it. I finished eight hours ahead of second place. It took five days with sleeping between.’


RISING Did you not get cold at night?

RB ‘I’m operating on a reasonably low level of body fat so I’d struggle with the cold once I’d stopped generating my own heat. I’d be shivering at the camp – one night, while sat by one of the fires, I melted my shoes but only realised when I could smell the plastic burning.’


RISING What was the toughest part?

RB ‘The toughest part was the frozen lakes. They had a lot of surface water, and we’d wade through a foot or so of ice cold water, and the second you pulled your leg out you’d have concrete boots. It’d take an hour to warm the legs up. Some locals would even carry knives to chip all the ice away from the feet.’


RISING And did you have to load up on fuel?

RB ‘I survived on a trail mix of nuts, berries and jelly cubes. One of the reasons I do well at ultra-running is that I love to eat. I remember scavenging an energy bar on the trail. The only person I’d seen ahead of me was a dog sledder so it must have been his. It was frozen and a bite was taken out of it. My mind thought it was a mirage.’


RISING What goes through your head when you’re alone in the icy wilderness?

RB ‘It does get a bit lonely out there on your own. Fortunately, the bears were asleep and the wolves were seldom seen. The most dangerous thing is the elk, which are fucking massive. If you get between one and its calf, it’ll batter you. Sometimes you’re in so much pain you try to think of ways to get out of the race, like if I twist my ankle, or if I lie down here I’ll get too cold and they’ll take me out of the race.’


RISING Why do you think ultra-runners can run hundreds of miles at a time – good biomechanics?

RB ‘There are physiological reasons why some of us excel more than others, but it’s as much down to how you manage yourself, how you pace, how you eat, drink, and how you cope with the mental despair at certain points of the race. And the elation as well, there are some really high points. Go too wild and your race is done.’


RISING Do you have a tip for anyone trying to get into ultra-marathons?

RB ‘Allow your mind to wander but not too far. When running long distances on uneven terrain, a split second of losing concentration is often dangerous. Case in point, I once had a race in Leon where I spent too long reading a sign that read ‘Take Care, Dangerous Descent’ in French. By the time it took my mind to translate it, I was face down in the dirt with a hip injury.’


Snakes and Ladders: Jungle Ultra, Peru

If a scramble across 230km of inhospitable Amazonian jungle, dodging animals and rough terrain, doesn’t sound like fun, try telling that to the UK’s Russell Jackson, 45, who finished 15th in last year’s event.


RISING This was your first jungle ultra. What were your feelings going into it?

RUSSELL JACKSON ‘I’m fair-skinned and freckly, so 35ºC heat and high humidity is bad enough, never mind when you’ve got 12 kilos on your back, for five days, carrying your water, food, sleeping bag and a hammock. But I was excited. I’d flown into Cusco, the second city of Peru, two and a half days before the event to acclimatise – it’s 3,5000m. We were picked up by a convoy of minibuses at 4am and driven for five hours into dense jungle, climbing above so many mountains I daren’t look down. It’s so beautiful, they call the base camp Cloud Forest.’


RISING Was the hammock to stop creatures biting you?

RJ ‘I imagine so – it was regulation. There were hammock stations which were just poles in the ground. On the last night before the final stage a dozen of us saw our posts collapse, so we slept on the floor of a laboratory in a nearby research station. Not ideal.'


RISING Did you encounter any potentially dangerous animals?

RJ ‘I saw a couple of snakes while running. We were told to try and not put your hands down when clambering over something, as they might be crawling in the rocks. We’d been warned about jaguars in the area too, but I was so physically tired that the thought of dangerous wildlife was secondary. If the worst happened, we have a GPS device with an emergency button on it, but as soon as you press it your race is over.’


RISING Did the jungle terrain affect the body in a way that other races don’t?

RJ ‘Sore feet. Blisters were the biggest cause of people pulling out. We were in and out of water all day. Those who struggled to dry their feet at camp and would walk around in damp shoes so the feet stayed soft, and when they started to run the skin would rip to shreds. There were some awful feet.’


RISING What was the climbing like in those conditions?

RJ ‘Miserable. A 6km climb would take six hours in the heat. Then it would rain and we had the mud to contend with, making it slippery under foot. On the final 70km route, there was one stretch where I spent two hours chest-deep in a river, traversing on rocks to get to the other side of the rainforest.’


RISING Did you have any slips?

RJ ‘On the second day, I heard what sounded like a monkey, looked up to see it and ended up getting my foot trapped in the ground, twisting my ankle. The adrenaline got me through the day. The scariest part for me came on the final route, two or three hours before the line – it had rained and the descent down the mountain had a path about 2ft wide, one side climbing upwards, the other a 150ft drop. My advice? Don’t look down.’



Don’t risk injury by going straight from a marathon into a 100-miler. Try building up to one instead: ‘My first major endurance event was with Rat Race, says Russell; ‘I ran 69 miles through Hadrian’s Wall country from Carlisle to Newcastle in two days – they put on all sorts of great events across the year.’



Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.