The 5 toughest stage races

Last updated: 11-Dec-17

By Alice Morrison

I thought choosing the toughest single-stage ultras was hard, but it turns out that selecting the toughest stage races is even more difficult. Not as difficult as running them, obviously! The problem is trying to compare them: mountains v jungle, desert v glaciers.

Some like it hot and steamy, some prefer it chilled so that is going to have a massive effect on how you perceive these races. One thing is certain, though, whichever you choose, you will need to be trained, loaded and ready to go because these races will take all you have to give.

5. Fire and Ice – Iceland

I really like the slugline for this one, “Probably the toughest multi-terrain race in the world” and then the next one, “Tougher than the Marathon des Sables – Mohamad Ahansal”. There is a modesty and then a setting out of stalls there that is very appealing.

Based in Iceland’s spectacular scenery, Fire and Ice is a 250km+ 6-day stage race. It is semi self-sufficient in that you need to bring your own food and kit but tents are provided and put up for you and (bliss) there is hot water in camp.

This race is about the differing landscapes you will discover. “In the Fire and Ice Ultra my aim was to create a course that incorporated many of the most spectacular environments I had seen in races all over the world, at the same time bringing the unique, spectacular, remote and pristine Icelandic environment to your Feet,” says the Race Director, Dave Annandale. The race certainly seems to have achieved that as you encounter:

  • Sand Dunes of the Sahara
  • Glaciers of the Arctic
  • Rivers, valleys and Grasslands from Europe and America
  • Volcanic Landscapes, unique to Iceland

The volcanic landscape and the lava fields are the most unique thing about the race and you might even be lucky (?!) enough to see a volcano erupt. One did in 2014 and kept going for many months.


Photo credit: RunUltra.

4. Everest Trail Race – Nepal

With a vertical range of more than 25 km, along a 160km route in 6 days against a backdrop of the most beautiful and iconic mountains in the world. If you want an adventure, this is it. If you want to deprive your lungs of oxygen, sign up here for the Everest Trail Race. The highest point is a lung-busting 4,200 metres up.

The challenge for this race has to be the altitude. The science on where human beings start to feel the effects of altitude varies but 2,400m+ onward is generally thought to be the danger point for altitude or mountain sickness. My personal experience is that up to 4000m is ok at a steady pace – and by that I mean moderate walking – but anything after that starts to get really breathless and heart racing.

The other challenge for this race is the weather. You are high in the mountains with all the unpredictability that brings. Snow and ice and hot sun will make up part of the race. Your reward, though, is the clearest of air and the most spectacular of views. The legs, heart and chest are all going to be burning, but that will be a price well worth paying.


Photo credit: RunUltra.

3. Marathon Des Sables – Morocco

Marathon des Sables deserves its place in every toughest list. Why? You run through the desert and across the dunes. The heat is crucifying. Many people underestimate the race and play fast and loose with their hydration, all of them pay the price. If you want to succeed in this race, you have to respect the environment. The Sahara is not for the weak of will.

It is a 6-day stage race over 250km, semi self-sufficient, with a long stage in the middle of 80km+. For most people it is a life-changing experience and places tend to sell out within minutes of entries being advertised.

For a taste of what you are up against, here is how Harvey Lewis, ultra running champion, found it, “5 km from CP2 and I was walking. Every time someone passed me, I felt like I was giving them a free basket, and losing for my team. I only had a quarter bottle of water. I had half a mile to go. It took every ounce of concentration, every ounce of energy to walk to where the palm trees were. In the shade of those trees, I lay down. I couldn’t speak. It was close but I knew I still had some control. A little Moroccan kid clapped for me when I got up to finish the last bit to CP2.”  Read more.



Photo credit: RunUltra.

2. The Coastal Challenge – Costa Rica

If you want to catch a bit of jungle fever, then book that ticket to Costa Rica. Known locally as the ‘Rainforest Run,’ the TCC is 6 days covering 236km along Costa Rica’s lush and tropical Pacific coastline. Part jungle, trail and alpine race, the TCC is an assault course of topography.

Up mountain, through rainforest, down dirt tracks and following trails over ridges, highlands and coastal ranges, the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge has fantastically varied terrain.

Add wet, wet, wet humidity to the 35-degree heat and you’ll start to see why this one makes the list. There is plenty of climbing too.


Photo credit: Ian Corless.

1.Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ – UK

The legendary Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ follows the mountainous spine of Wales from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. The 5-day route is approximately 315 kilometres long with 15,500 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain.

The first race was held in 1992 and it took 20 years till the next one. Over 4 editions it has achieved mythical status. It is whispered about by the cognoscenti in dark corners of damp pubs. Survivors don’t say much but they look far into the distance with pain-hardened eyes.

What makes it so tough? Well, Wales is a factor. The country is very, very wild. Also you need to be able to navigate well and survive in the ever-changing conditions of the Welsh hills. There are mandatory parts to the route, a recommended overall route, and then your own route, where you can choose to go shorter but even tougher. There are check points to keep you honest and GPS trackers to ensure that all mandatory sections are followed.

Distance is another factor. The days are very long. In 2017 the stages were: 52km, 58km, 71km, 71km, 63km and can I just repeat – 15,500 metres of ascent. The next edition is 2019, so if you give up everything in your life right now and start training, you might just be ready.

"It is whispered about by the cognoscenti in dark corners of damp pubs. Survivors don’t say much but they look far into the distance with pain-hardened eyes"

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.