For runners, one of the most storied—and feared—stretches is Heartbreak Hill, 32km into the Boston Marathon. The 90ft elevation gain over half a kilometre would be a painful climb in any marathon, but here it’s compounded because it occurs at the distance where many runners hit the proverbial wall.

Last April, Erik Rasmussen, a 42-year-old trail seeker, runner and triathlete, finished the Boston Marathon at 2:42:35, good for 241st overall. But, in August, he became the first to complete what may arguably be the world’s toughest 42km race: up the face of Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, and the highest in Africa. This debut run, which was measured to be an exact marathon distance, was organized by Rasmussen and his wife Myra. During the run, Rasmussen crossed five ecological zones, from bushlands, through a rain forest, and up to the glacier-capped summit at 19,341ft. It took him 8 hours and 33 minutes.

In the US alone, more than 64 million people went running or jogging in 2016, according to recent figures. In India too, the number of marathoners has been increasing rapidly, with lists for popular marathons in Delhi and Mumbai filling up fast.

A participant at the Polar Circle Marathon in 2016. Photo: Photo: Klaus Sletting
A participant at the Polar Circle Marathon in 2016. Photo: Photo: Klaus Sletting

“In the last 10-15 years, running a marathon has gone from something extraordinary—that the very few did—to a popular trend that the average person would take on as a challenge," says Steen Albrechtsen, spokesman for Albatros Travel in Copenhagen.

City marathons have become such massive, organized events that more and more runners are going off-road for a more adventurous 42km. In recent years, travel companies have expanded running packages to the Arctic Circle, the Great Wall of China, the Petra archaeological complex in Jordan, and the Bagan Temples in Myanmar.

These, too, are selling out in record numbers. Capped at 50 or 100 runners in certain areas for environmental and safety reasons, there has been a two-year waiting list to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the world’s southernmost race. The 50 spots in Peru’s Inca Trail Marathon in July have been reserved for months. The Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland is almost fully subscribed ahead of its October date.

The more exotic the location, the higher the cost. A trip to Antarctica, by boat or plane, can easily reach $7,000 (around Rs4.6 lakh) without counting the flight to Chile or Argentina. Going with an outfit is usually better, though more expensive. Every extreme marathon poses unique challenges, whether it’s surviving the gut-churning Drake Passage to run in freezing conditions in Antarctica or undertaking the steep ascents, descents, and countless steps to reach Machu Picchu in Peru. Travel companies experienced in organizing trips for marathoners ensure every course incline is examined and discussed beforehand to prepare for the challenge.

The Petra Desert Marathon takes runners past mountainside caves and tombs. Photo: Albatros Adventure Marathons
The Petra Desert Marathon takes runners past mountainside caves and tombs. Photo: Albatros Adventure Marathons

Sharon Venturi, a 42-year-old New Yorker, used Marathon Tours & Travel for a run in Antarctica last month. Aside from worrying about race-day conditions and whether she might travel all that way and not be able to race because of the weather, she found the other runners to be less competitive and more supportive than those in big-city races. “It’s a totally different approach," she says. “Everyone is dedicated to a healthy lifestyle and adventurous—it’s not all about times and competition. Though there is still a little of that anytime a time is being kept."

Ironically, one of the appeals of these ridiculous runs is not feeling as much pressure not to walk during them. Most of the runners who join up aren’t elite; they’re just going off-road to pursue their own adventures, Rasmussen says. “Being hard is part of the draw. Whatever you do is an accomplishment."

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Here’s a list of extreme marathons in scenic locations coming up in the next few months.

Bhutan’s Thunder Dragon Marathon, 27 May

The marathon starts on a hillside, passing over a metal swing bridge and along the Paro Chu river in the Paro Valley before climbing gradually above rice paddy fields. Then it gets hard: After the halfway mark comes a steady climb for 4km, peaking at 8,300ft. The final 10km winds through villages on a dirt road before opening up to a view of the iconic Taktsang monastery, known as Tiger’s Nest, which is built into a cliff.

Uganda International Marathon, 2 June

This marathon, which made its debut in 2015, has become a major fund-raising force that aims to tackle poverty in the Masaka region. About 3,000 will run this year. The event is set up as a seven-day adventure centred around volunteering and learning about the community, including helping organize an event for disadvantaged children. Organizers are accepting reservations for 2019, with options for 10km and half-marathon distances as well.

Leadville Trail Marathon in Colorado, US; June 16

The Leadville Trail 100-mile run in the Colorado Rockies is an icon on the ultra-marathon circuit, a run so epic that founder Ken Chlouber, a 14-time finisher, started a separate marathon for those who wanted the challenge without the distance. The latter race is an out-and-back “run" up to Mosquito Pass at 13,185ft, but you must expect to walk because the rocks up there are tricky.

Kilimanjaro Trail Marathon, Tanzania, 13 August

The course starts with a descent before climbing 255km to the highest point in Africa, then plunges sharply from the summit on a course that feels as if you’re sledding through volcanic gravel on your feet. August is one of the best times to go; even then, the weather can swing wildly from blazing sun to hail and snow. Altitude sickness is the main concern, so acclimatizing ahead of time is highly recommended. There is no time limit, and there are frequent rest stations.

La Ultra—The High, Ladakh, 23-26 August

Acclimatizing is equally important for this race in the high-altitude desert of Leh, in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region. The race has three categories: a 111km run to be completed in 20 hours; 222km in 48 hours; and 333km in 72 hours. The race starts at 11,000ft and climbs as high as 17,700ft while crossing some of the world’s highest motorable mountain passes at Khardung La, Wari La and Tanglang La. Temperatures can range from 40 degrees Celsius to minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Petra Desert Marathon, Jordan, 1 September

Beginning at the ancient city of Petra, this race is a climb that takes you over paved roads, sand and gravel, across river bends and stretches past rock formations that look as if they belong on Mars. The good news is that the race ends on a downhill slope, albeit a steep one. The race limit is 7 hours.

Polar Circle Marathon, Greenland, 27-28 October

Most of this Arctic marathon occurs on gravel that is frequently snow-covered. A portion will take place across the ice cap in the polar circle. The trail has hills and weaves around the ice sheet. Temperatures will be at or below freezing, with strong winds, and the race is capped at 250 contestants for logistical and safety reasons. Runners can also participate in the Polar Bear Challenge, which is a half-run the next day. Bloomberg

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