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Ultra running: 10 of the world’s most INSANE desert races

Stuart Dick
Updated on

Fancy challenging yourself in the most dangerous climates in the world? There are plenty of desert ultramarathons for those runners who want to add debilitating conditions to unthinkable distances.

These outrageous events in the most inhospitable places on earth exist across the globe, challenging the fittest and strongest of individuals who want to take on dizzying heights, cruel terrain and perishing heat. 

From the legendary Marathon des Sables in Morocco to the stunning events of the RacingThePlant 4 Ultras, we take you through some of the most amazing desert ultramarathons from across the globe. 

1. Marathon des Sables (Morocco)

The iconic Marathon des Sables is a 250km, 7-day trial of physical endurance and determination set in the baking heat of the Sahara Desert in the North African country of Morocco. 

The event has been running since 1986 and was the brainchild of French concert promoter Patrick Bauer who, in 1984, made his way through the Sahara Desert alone – a 350km traverse where he wouldn’t come across a single village, oasis or watering place.

Since then, over 22,000 thrill-seeking competitors have competed in the colossal race. The legendary Lahcen Ahansal holds a record 10 victories in the race ahead of the super-human Rachid El Morabity who has nine race wins, including the last eight.

Marathon des Sables 2022 stage five
[Photo credit CIMBALY/MDS2022]

2. Al Marmoom Ultramarathon (UAE)

Known as the longest desert race in the world, the punishing Al Marmoom Ultramarathon took place in 2018 in Dubai, UAE and saw competitors attempt to race 270km in five days.   

Marathon des Sables legend Rachid El Morabity and Magdalena Lewy Boulet won the only edition of the 270km race, with shorter races over 100km and 50km ran in subsequent years.

There are currently no details of future events in the series, including the 2023 events.

3. Gobi March (Mongolia)

The mid-June Gobi March event takes place in the Karakorum region of Central Mongolia and consists of a 7-day, 250km traverse through vast steppes, deep sand dunes and great rock valleys. The race is one of four that make up the RacingThePlanet 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series. 

The gruelling race was initially held in China in September 2003, but was then moved to Mongolia and sees challengers make their way across the battlefield of Ghengis Khan towards the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of the Orkhon Valley before arriving at the ancient city of Karakorum. 

4. Badwater 135 (USA)

Described as the ‘world’s toughest foot race’, the Badwater Ultramarathon is a mammoth 217km challenge which starts 282 feet below sea level in California’s Death Valley. The race annually takes place in mid-July when weather conditions in the area are at their most extreme. 

Al Arnold was the first to take on the immense challenge in 1974 but was pulled off the course after just 29km. He made it 50 miles a year later before suffering injury. In 1977, he eventually completed the gargantuan feat. 

The first race was held in 1987 before it was shortened to become the Badwater 135, with runners unable to obtain permits for the final 11 miles of the original course. Marshall Ulrich has won the race four times, with Jamie Donaldson, Pam Reed and Judy Overholtzer winning the women’s race three times each. 

David Goggins

5. Namib Race (Namibia)

Another part of the RacingThePlanet series, the exceptional Namib Race takes places at the end of April/early may in the oldest desert in the world – the Namib.

The race twists through the Namibia’s Erongo region, within the perimeter of the stunning Namib-Naukluft National Park, with course runners encountering some of the tallest sand dunes in the world along with salt pans, salt lakes and even takes them to an ostrich farm.

The race ends at the scenic coastal city of Swakopmund, where competitors are treated to the lush blue of the South Atlantic Ocean.

6. Last Desert Antarctica (Antarctica)

Want to challenge yourself in one of the most inhospitable places on earth? Then why not take on The Last Desert race in Antarctica, the fourth RacingThePlanet series event.

This unique challenge is the only multi-day event that takes place on the continent, with competitors having to navigate 250km across the Antarctic Peninsula.

There, they they will encounter things few people ever will, from icebergs, Antarctic mountains and research bases to seals and penguins.

Understandably, the brutal course varies year-on-year depending on the weather conditions and accessibility to some islands. 

7. Oman Desert Marathon (Oman)

The Oman Desert Marathon is a four-stage, 165km race that begins at the Oasis of Alwasil and finishes at the Al Jawharat Resort in Bediyah. The desert is situated on the north-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, posing a difficult hot and dry climate for runners to negotiate. 

With an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius during the day, but which frequently hits the sweltering highs of 40 degrees, this race is not for the feint of heart. It traditionally takes place in the early part of the year, with the 2024 iteration set for January. 

8. Atacama Crossing (Chile)

The Chilean leg of the RacingThePlanet desert ultramarathons series, the Atacama Crossing not only tests runners with its 250km distance over seven days, but it adds a brutal 1,683 metres of ascent across the Atacama Desert – the driest non-polar desert on the planet. 

During the race, runners face sand dunes, gravel, loose rocks, river crossings and waist high grass in addition to the mammoth salt flats.

Beginning in the Arcoiris Valley, the race finishes in the isolated town of San Pedro de Atacama, 100km from the South Pacific Ocean.

Desert Rats by UTMB

9. Ultra X Jordan (Jordan)

The Ultra X Jordan, previously known as the Wadi Rum Ultra, takes place in the land of Lawrence of Arabia. Nicknamed “The Valley of the Moon,” runners are met with unique towering rock formations and a location of unrivalled beauty. 

The race takes place near Jordan’s southern border with Saudi Arabia in a breath-taking UNESCO World Heritage site over the course of five days. It consists of 220km with 2,522 metres of elevation, with an average temperature during the October race of 26-34 degrees Celsius. 

10. Grand to Grand Ultra (USA)

Set in September, the Grand to Grand Ultra is a race like no other in North America. It sees runners take on a mammoth six-stage, 275km challenge through the Arizona desert- beginning by the other-worldly Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Terry Madl along with Colin and Tess Geddes designed the inaugural race back in 2012, which now see competitors face sand dunes, red rock, slot canyons, buttes, mesas and hoodoos as they race some of the most remote parts of continental America.

Stuart Dick
Written by
Stuart Dick
Stuart is a graduate of the University of Sunderland with a masters' degree in Sports Journalism. He spends a lot of his time running and cycling around West Yorkshire, England.

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