Hardest Marathons in the US: Conquer the Toughest Races

The hardest marathons in the US are tests of determination, courage, and human spirit. These races push runners to their limits by combining challenging terrains, elevation gains, and demanding weather conditions. In this article, we will dive into the most challenging marathons that the United States has to offer, their distinctive characteristics, and essential tips to help you conquer these epic races.

With the right preparation and mindset, you will be ready to tackle these epic marathons and earn your place alongside other running legends.

The Toughest Marathons in the US

Pikes Peak Marathon

Pikes Peak Marathon

Location and race description

Widely regarded as one of “the hardest marathons in the US”, the Pikes Peak Marathon takes place in Manitou Springs, Colorado. This race tests runners’ stamina and endurance with its challenging course, which climbs and descends a total of 7,815 feet (2,382 meters) of elevation.

Elevation gain and terrain

The Pikes Peak Marathon starts at an elevation of 6,300 feet (1,920 meters) and climbs to the summit at 14,115 feet (4,302 meters). The steep incline, high altitude, and often unpredictable weather conditions make this race a true challenge even for experienced runners.

Barkley Marathons

Barkley Marathons
By Michael Hodg

Location and race description

Dubbed ‘the race that eats its young,’ the Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon held in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. This extreme event comprises five loops, each approximately 20 miles long, with a cumulative elevation gain of around 60,000 feet (18,288 meters).

Unique race format and terrain

The Barkley Marathons is known not only for its grueling distance and terrain but also for its quirky, secretive nature. Each loop features unmarked trails and off-trail sections, requiring runners to navigate the course with minimal aid. Participants have 60 hours to complete the race, making it one of the most challenging ultramarathons in the US.

Badwater 135

Location and race description

Another contender for the title of the toughest marathon in the US is the Badwater 135. This ultramarathon takes place in the scorching heat of Death Valley, California, spanning 135 miles (217 kilometers) from Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal.

Extreme weather conditions and elevation

With temperatures reaching up to 130°F (54°C) and elevations ranging from 280 feet (85 meters) below sea level to 8,300 feet (2,530 meters) above, the Badwater 135 tests runners’ physical and mental endurance. Participants need to adapt to the extreme heat, dryness, and varying altitude throughout the race.

Leadville Trail Marathon

Leadville Trail Marathon

Location and race description

The Leadville Trail Marathon is held in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the United States. The 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) race takes runners through the historic mining districts and various trails around Leadville.

High-altitude and rugged terrain

Starting at an elevation of 10,200 feet (3,109 meters) and reaching a maximum elevation of 13,185 feet (4,019 meters), the Leadville Trail Marathon challenges participants with its high-altitude course and technical, rocky terrain. Runners experience rapid changes in elevation, further testing their endurance and strength.

The Western States 100

The Western States 100
Photo by Paul Nelson

Location and race description

The Western States Endurance Run, also known as the Western States 100, is a 100-mile (160.9-kilometer) ultramarathon in California. The race starts in Squaw Valley and finishes in Auburn, traversing the Sierra Nevada mountain range along the way.

Distance, elevation, and trail conditions

As one of the most prestigious ultramarathons in the US, the Western States 100 is known for its difficult trail conditions, including snow, river crossings, and scorching heat. With over 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) of total elevation change throughout the race, this ultramarathon is a true challenge for even the most seasoned runners.

Comparison of Hardest Marathons in the US

MarathonLocationElevation ChangeTerrainAdditional Challenges
Pikes Peak MarathonManitou Springs, Colorado7,815 feetMountain trailHigh altitude, unpredictable weather
Barkley MarathonsFrozen Head State Park, Tennessee60,000 feet (total for 5 loops)Unmarked trails, off-trail60-hour limit, minimal aid, navigation
Badwater 135Death Valley, CaliforniaVarying from 280 feet below to 8,300 feet above sea levelRoadExtreme heat, dryness, varying altitude
Leadville Trail MarathonLeadville, ColoradoVarying, up to 13,185 feetMountain trailHigh altitude, technical, rocky terrain
Western States 100Squaw Valley to Auburn, California40,000 feet (total)Mountain trailSnow, river crossings, scorching heat

Tips and Strategies for Conquering These Marathons

Training for challenging terrain and elevation

To prepare for these toughest races, focus on increasing your weekly mileage, incorporating hill repeats and stair workouts into your training program. Doing strength training exercises, such as squats and lunges, can help build your leg muscles and improve your performance on steep inclines and rough terrain.

Adapting to weather conditions

Familiarize yourself with the specific weather conditions of your target race. For hot-weather races, such as the Badwater 135, acclimatize your body to high temperatures by training in similar conditions. For cold-weather races, invest in proper clothing and gear to stay warm and dry.

Importance of mental strength, endurance, and pacing

Mental strength is crucial when taking on the most challenging marathons. Develop your mental endurance through visualization techniques and setting realistic time goals. Embrace the challenge and maintain a steady, comfortable pace throughout the race.

The Reward: What You Gain by Completing Hardest Marathons

Personal accomplishment and bragging rights

Conquering these hardest marathons in the US offers a sense of accomplishment, proving that you can overcome even the most demanding challenges. With the right preparation and mindset, you’ll be able to look back on your achievements with pride.

Improved physical and mental strength

Training for and completing these challenging races can improve your physical and mental strength. These marathons force you to push your limits, developing endurance, resilience, and adaptability.

Opportunity to join an exclusive community of runners

Completing the hardest marathons in the US gives you entry into an exclusive club of talented, dedicated runners. Share your experiences, exchange tips and advice, and forge lasting connections with like-minded athletes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I prepare for a high-elevation race?

To prepare for a high-elevation race, incorporate altitude training into your routine. This can include spending time at higher elevations, using an altitude mask, or training on a treadmill with incline settings to simulate uphill climbs.

Strengthening your cardiovascular system and increasing lung capacity through exercises like swimming, cycling, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can also help you adapt to the reduced oxygen levels at high elevations.

Is it difficult to qualify for the hardest marathons in the US?

Qualifying for the hardest marathons in the US may involve meeting specific entry requirements or participating in a lottery system due to the limited number of spots available.

For example, the Western States 100 uses a lottery system for entry, while the Barkley Marathons has an obscure application process known only to a select few. Research each race’s specific entry requirements and be prepared to plan ahead or have backup options.

What is the most difficult ultra marathon in the US?

While the difficulty of an ultra marathon is subjective and depends on individual strengths and weaknesses, the Barkley Marathons is often cited as the most difficult ultra marathon in the US.

With its unmarked course, challenging terrain, and limited aid, completing the race within the 60-hour time limit is a remarkable feat that few runners have achieved.


 The hardest marathons in the US offer intrepid runners the chance to push their physical and mental boundaries and prove their mettle against the most challenging conditions.

By understanding the unique characteristics of these races and employing effective training strategies, you can be prepared to conquer these demanding courses. Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or an aspiring ultramarathoner, embracing these challenges can lead you to personal growth, satisfaction, and, ultimately, a sense of accomplishment that few can claim.

Arm yourself with knowledge, determination, and discipline, then commit to making your mark on these legendary races.