The 6 Hardest Marathons In The World

What makes a marathon tough, and which are the toughest?

Every marathon is inherently difficult, as covering 26.2 miles on foot will always be a tough physical and mental feat.

While many runners are keen on running the fastest marathons in the world or flattest marathons in the world to nail a PR, others are looking for the hardest marathons on earth.

But what are the toughest marathons in the world? Plus, what factors make a marathon one of the hardest on the planet?

A person running uphill.

What Defines The Hardest Marathons In the World?

Before we delve into our picks for the hardest marathons in the world, let’s briefly touch upon what makes a marathon elegible for this list.

As every marathon runner or aspiring marathon finisher knows, all standard marathons are 26.2 miles, so what qualities do the hardest world marathons have relative to the easiest marathons in the world or any of “regular” marathons?

Factors that make a marathon race course more difficult than another can be somewhat individualized depending on your strengths as a runner, but here are some criteria we considered when putting together our list of the hardest marathons in the world:


  • Marathon courses with significant elevation change that are either uphill all the way or have long or steep uphills or net elevation gain over the entire course.
  • Marathons that take place at a high altitude, as running at altitude is more challenging due to lower oxygen levels.
  • Marathons with challenging courses from a technical standpoint, such as steep trails, trail marathons with difficult footing, narrow sections, and more.
  • Marathons with extreme weather conditions such as very hot or frigid temperatures, wind, frequent stormy conditions, or unpredictable weather. Also, marathons that involve some other type of environmental challenge in addition to the 26.2 mile race distance.
A person running uphill on a trail.

The 6 Hardest Marathons In the World

Although there are tons of challenging marathons in the US and internationally to choose from, here are our choices for the hardest marathons in the world for those looking for an extreme marathon experience:

#1: Inca Trail Marathon, Peru

Although the Inca Trail Marathon may not be the most extreme marathon in the world in terms of climate, weather conditions, or other dangers, it is almost universally considered the hardest marathon in the world by marathon experts.12025 Official 26.2 Mile Inca Trail Marathon in Peru. (2015, September 24). Eriks Adventures. https://www.eriksadventures.com/inca-trail-marathon-race-to-machu-picchu-peru/

In fact, the Inca Trail Marathon is so difficult that racers are actually given a choice whether they want to complete it in one or two days. Those who try to run the marathon in a single day get what seems like a generous 13 hours and 15 minutes to complete the marathon.

Although this is more than double the typical marathon cut-off time, you will need it as you navigate to the most difficult marathon in the world.

A person running uphill.

So, what makes the Inca Trail Marathon the hardest marathon in the world?

For one, the altitude alone is nothing to scoff at.

The marathon starts at an elevation of 8,650 feet, and there are two high passes where the course reaches nearly 14,000 feet in elevation. 

In fact, the Inca Trail Marathon features over 11,000 feet of elevation gain along the course, which is another reason it is likely the most challenging marathon in the world.

Although the allotted 40 to 50 runners in the field are gifted with the opportunity to run through Machu Picchu National Park, which is undoubtedly an incredible experience, the trail to do so is over 500 years old and is composed of ancient cobblestones.

The path not only has difficult footing and rubble, but also is only 46 feet wide and has steep inclines with lots of loose, uneven footing, with terrain more familiar to a mountain climb than a footrace.

Additionally, if you like to sleep in, this difficult marathon isn’t for you, as the race starts at 4 AM.

The current Inca Trail Marathon course record is 6:33:05, which is held by Mick Clifford.

To give some perspective – this is faster than the 100km road ultramarathon record of 6:05:35.2Sorokin breaks world 100km record | REPORT | World Athletics. (n.d.). Worldathletics.org. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://worldathletics.org/news/report/aleksandr-sorokin-breaks-world-100km-record-vilnius

A person running uphill.

#2: The Great Wall of China Marathon, China

One of the hardest marathons in the world is also one of the “bucket list marathons” for many runners who love to see the world via running: the Great Wall of China Marathon.35,164 steps into history! – Great Wall Marathon. (n.d.). Great-Wall-Marathon.com. https://great-wall-marathon.com/

This exotic and demanding course takes place on the famous Great Wall of China.

What makes this one of the most challenging marathons in the world is the ruggedness of the terrain for the marathon course itself.

Runners have to ascend 5,164 steps of the Great Wall of China and then descend the steps with difficult footing and all of the physical challenges of stair climbing.

#3: Pikes Peak Marathon, USA

The Pikes Peak Marathon is usually considered the hardest marathon in the US.4Pikes Peak Marathon. (n.d.). Pikes Peak Marathon. https://www.pikespeakmarathon.org/

This challenging marathon requires nearly 8000 feet of vertical gain over the 26.2-mile course as runners ascend Pikes Peak Mountain in Colorado.

Plus, because the course runs all the way up and all the way down the mountain, this 8000 feet of elevation gain occurs over just 13.1 miles, with some sections of the trail near the summit reaching an incredibly steep grade.

Three ultra runners running over a mountaintop.

The average gradient of the Pikes Peak Marathon Trail is 11%, which is enough to send some runners searching for another marathon straight away.

In addition to the significant elevation gain (and loss on the way down—hello, sore quads!), this trail marathon has notoriously rugged terrain with a narrow and winding path featuring loose gravel, rock, sharp turns, and steep hills.

This adds a tricky element with technical trail running which can significantly slow down your pace, again making this one of the hardest marathons in North America.

In 2022, the average finish time was 7:26:45.

This is nearly three hours slower than the average marathon finish time across all age groups, sexes, and countries of origin, which is 4:29:53 (according to a detailed analysis of marathon finish times conducted by RunRepeat in 2019).5Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

Further demonstrative that this is one of the hardest marathons in the world, not just one of the most challenging US marathons, is the fact that you have to run a qualifying event before you are even eligible to register for the Pikes Peak Marathon in order to demonstrate an adequate level of fitness.

One final reason that this is one of the hardest marathons in the world is that with so much elevation change, runners reach a peak altitude of 14,115 feet, which then imposes all of the challenges of altitude running on top of everything else you are navigating with this gnarly marathon.

A person running at high altitude.

#4: Antarctic Ice Marathon

What earns the Antarctic Ice Marathon a spot on the “hardest marathons in the world list“ is the fact that the ice and snow make this a grueling race with difficult footing.6Antarctic Ice Marathon Welcome to the Antarctic Ice Marathon – World’s Southernmost Marathon. (2018). Icemarathon.com. https://www.icemarathon.com/

Plus, there is unpredictable weather on the glaciers and an average windchill of -20° C (but it is often way colder), and the winds can gust up to 300 kilometers per hour!

The fastest recorded time for the Antarctic Ice Marathon is 02:53:33, nearly an hour slower than the fastest recorded marathon time ever.7Ireland’s Sean Tobin sets Antarctica record at Antarctic Ice Marathon. (n.d.). Www.icemarathon.com. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://www.icemarathon.com/news/irelands-sean-tobin-sets-antarctica-record-at-antarctic-ice-marathon

#5: Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon, Nepal

It’s probably no surprise that the list of the hardest marathons in the world includes a marathon with “Everest“ in its name.

The Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon is one of the world’s hardest marathons due to elevation alone.8Everest Marathon. (n.d.). Everest Marathon. https://everestmarathon.com/

As the marathon with the highest elevation in the world, the start line is at an elevation of 17,598 feet above sea level. 

Unlike other marathons where you can show up the morning of the race or the night before, runners have to do a two-week trek to even arrive at the base camp before getting to the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon.

Although this highest marathon has a huge net downhill—descending 15,022 feet and ascending 9,110 feet—en route to the finish line in the Nepalese village of Namche Bazaar, between trashing your quads on all of the downhill and the extremely thin atmosphere with the altitude, this is certainly one of the hardest marathons in the world.

A runner bent over, hands on knees, in in the heat.

#6: Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon Tanzania, Africa

One of the world’s hardest marathons takes place along the trail leading up to Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro.

With race day temperatures sometimes reaching up to 100°F or more (the upper 30s in Celsius), the altitude, and the 9000 feet of climbing when the race is an “up“ year, the Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon is a beast for even seasoned trail runners.

But, the views and the scenery along the way are reportedly breathtaking, so maybe it’s worth the challenge of training for this entry into the “most difficult marathons in the world list.”

If you’re going to pick one of the running races on this hardest marathons in the world list, you’re going to need a good training plan. Check out our free marathon training plans here.

A person running in the snow.

Honorable Mentions


Why Aren’t The Barkley Marathons And Marathon Des Sables Included On This List?

Whilst these epic US and Sahara Desert races they have marathon in the title, they are in fact ultramarathons, not marathons.


Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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