Every marathon is inherently difficult; 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 in the world.
But, what are the toughest marathons in the world? What factors make a marathon one of the “hardest marathons in the world”?
In this article, we will discuss what makes a marathon one of the most challenging world marathons and then provide a list of the hardest marathons in the world (or at least some of the toughest world marathons) if you really want to test yourself.
We will cover:
- What Defines The Hardest Marathons In the World?
- Here Are The 6 Hardest Marathons In the World
Ready? Let’s dive in!
What Defines The Hardest Marathons In the World?
Before we delve into our picks for the hardest marathons in the world list, let’s briefly touch upon what makes for one of the most challenging world marathons versus any other marathon.
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 gain/loss or, notably, “uphill marathons“ or marathons with long or steep uphills or net elevation gain over the entire course.
- Marathons that take place at elevation or a higher altitude because running at altitude is more challenging due to the lower oxygen availability in the air.
- Marathons with challenging courses from a technical standpoint, such as steep trails, trail marathons with difficult footing, narrow sections, etc.
- Marathons with extreme weather conditions such as very hot or frigid temperatures, wind, frequent stormy conditions, or unpredictable weather, or marathons that experience some other type of environmental challenge alongside the running 26.2 miles.
Here Are 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 even dangers, it is almost universally considered the hardest marathon in the world by marathon experts.
In fact, the Inca Trail Marathon is so difficult that runners 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.
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 that this 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.
This path not only has difficult footing and rubble, but it’s also only 46 feet wide and has steep sections with lots of loose, uneven footing.
And, if you’d like to sleep in, this difficult marathon isn’t for you; the race starts at 4 AM.
The current Inca Trail Marathon course record is 6:33:05, which is held by Mick Clifford.
#2: The Great Wall of China Marathon, China
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.
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 then 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.
Even the average incline gradient of the marathon course is enough to send some runners searching for another marathon: the average gradient of the Pikes Peak Marathon Trail is 11%!
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 trails and can significantly slow down your pace and the skill you need, again making this one of the hardest marathons in the US.
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 of 4:29:53, according to a detailed analysis of marathon finish times conducted by RunRepeat in 2019.
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.
What earns the Antarctic Ice Marathon a spot honest “hardest marathons in the world list“ is the fact that the ice and snow make this a grueling race with difficult footing.
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!
#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.
As the marathon with the highest elevation in the world, runners start the race at an elevation of 17,598 feet.
Unlike other marathons where you can show up the morning of 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 marathon has a huge net downhill—descending 15,022 feet and ascending 9,110 feet—en route to the finish 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.
#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 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.