6 Best Endurance Racing Events

Totally Active Editor Nikalas Cook looks back over fifteen years of endurance racing and names his 6 must do events. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

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Tough Guy

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What is it?
Obstacle racing has become massively popular in the last couple of years but Tough Guy, which started in 1987, is the original and arguably the toughest. The main event is held in January and comprises a gruelling cross country run to soften up your legs followed by the diabolically hard obstacle course. Expect multiple dunkings in freezing water, electric shocks, burning hay bales and barbed wire. You’ll cover approximately 15 kilometres but, by the end, will feel as though you’ve done three times that amount.

Why I did it?
I’d just retired from rugby, was doing a bit of running to keep fit and was talked into it by a colleague at work. I loved it and took part in it numerous times over the years to come. I became the one roping in friends and colleagues, even persuading my wife to tackle the summer Nettle Warrior event.

Why you should do it?
You haven’t done an obstacle race until you’ve done Tough Guy. The primal energy and atmosphere at the start is unbelievable and I’ve never done an event that, even at the sharp end of the field, evokes so much camaraderie.

Top tips
1) Enter early as the entry fee rises as the event looms nearer.
2) Include hill reps and plenty of pull-ups in your training.
3) Wear aggressively lugged fell shoes such as Inov-8 X-Talons.
4) Neoprene gloves give extra grip of the ropes and keep your hands warm when soaked.
5) Wear some form of anklets to protect your ankles from rope burns.

Marathon des Sables

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What is it?
Founded in 1986 by Patrick Bauer, the Marathon des Sables is the best known multi-day footrace in the world. It’s probably lost its title as the Toughest Footrace on Earth but, covering 250 kilometres over six stages, including a double marathon day, having to carry all food and equipment and in temperatures topping 50C, it’s still a massive undertaking.

Why I did it?
The same work colleague who persuaded me to do Tough Guy, completed the Marathon de Sables in 1999 and, having followed his progress online, I was inspired to enter in 2000. I’d only relatively recently started running but a solid year of grinding out miles, sauna sessions for heat acclimatisation and obsessing about kit got me over the finish line. It was genuinely a life-changing experience that I’ll never forget.

Why you should do it?
There’s a plethora of exotic endurance events to choose from now but none have the same history and kudos of the Marathon des Sables. The Sahara is a truly humbling place to compete and, now in its 28th edition, Patrick and his team have the logistics nailed. You’ll forge friendships, especially with your tent-mates, that’ll last a lifetime and discover that it’s possible to have blisters on top of blisters.

Top tips
1) Include lots of fast walking in your training. An average speed of just 6 kph will put you in the top third of the field.
2) This event is all about getting your kit and food right. Do loads of research and talk to as many past competitors as possible.
3) The crux of the race is the double marathon fourth day. Push through, don’t bivvy out and take advantage of the rest day that follows.
4) Ear-plugs are essential if you intend to get any sleep.
5) Look after your feet. Even in training, deal with any hotspots before they become blisters and keep you skin soft and supple.

Fred Whitton Sportive

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What is it?
I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that, in my opinion, the Fred Whitton is Britain’s toughest sportive. Taking in almost all the major Lake District passes, including Kirkstone, Honnister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose, it covers 180 kilometres and packs in 3950 metres of climbing. Getting up the 30% gradient of Hardknott pass with 160 kilometres already in your legs is a serious tick for any cyclist.

Why I did it?
Having moved to the Peak District, I’d started to develop some hill fitness and wanted to put it to the test. I had two main goals for the day, to try and get under seven hours and to make it up Hardknott without putting a foot down. I managed the latter but, due to a puncture in the final 5 kilometres, finished in a frustrating 7:03.

Why you should do it?
It’s a truly spectacular ride. I’ve completed sportives in the Alps and Pyrenees and, although their climbs may be longer, none have put the same hurt in my legs as the Fred. There’s a great atmosphere on the day, with plenty of spectators to cheer you up the climbs and the cake selection at the feed stations are second to none.

Top tips
1) Make sure you ride plenty of hills in training. If you live in a flat area, plan some weekends away.
2) Fit low gears or you’ll be walking up Hardknott. I rode a 34t chainring with a 28t sprocket at the rear. If I was doing it again, I’d fit a 32t sprocket.
3) What goes up must come down. The descents are fast and technical. Practice your descending technique and ensure your brakes are well set-up.
4) There are some flat sections, including a fairly long drag on the A66. Make sure you have good group riding skills, sit in the wheels and save your energy for the climbs.

3-Peaks Cyclo-cross

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What is it?
It’s definitely not your average cyclo-cross race! Ridden on cyclo-cross bikes it covers 61 kilometres and, in ascending Yorkshire’s three highest peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-Y-Ghent, logs 1534 metres of climbing. In one event, it manages to combine road racing, fell running (with a bike on your back), time trialling and mountain biking. The rules, including a maximum tyre width of 35 mm and no flat bars, limit it to crossers and you’re really pushing what these skinny tyre bikes are capable of.

Why I did it?
Living in London at the time, I’d dabbled in a few regular cyclo-cross events and was persuaded by the guys at Condor Cycles that I should try the 3 Peaks. I was woefully unprepared, crashed descending Ingleborough and finished bruised, battered and shell-shocked. The next year, I returned, suffered multiple punctures coming off Whernside and again felt that the 3 Peaks had done me over. After a year of living in the Peak District, with real hills and trails to train on, I tried again. Another crash, a snapped shifter and I was stuck in my small chainring for the whole race. I ducked under four hours but still hadn’t cracked it. Maybe next year?

Why you should do it?
Out of all the races I’ve done over the years, this is the one, that has left me feeling the most done in when I’ve rolled over the finishing line. The total body battering is unbelievable. Whether you’re a roadie or a mountain biker, if you like a two wheeled challenge, you have to have the 3 Peaks on your tick list.

Top tips
1) The first five kilometres on the road maye be neutralised but they’re fast. Make sure you’re confident riding in a bunch.
2) Get used to carrying your bike up long climbs in training, the steeper the better.
3) Don’t neglect upper body and core training. It takes on hell of a battering on the descents.
4) Go online for tips about gearing, tyre choice and set-up. It’s a unique event that requires an unique bike.
5) Get some support on the day. You can ride it unsupported but having someone to hand you food, water and maybe even a spare wheel makes it far more do-able.

6633 Arctic Ultra

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What is it?
The 6633 Arctic Ultra is a non stop self sufficient foot race over a distance of either 186 kilometres or 566 kilometres. Both races cross the line of the Arctic Circle, with the longer race continuing to the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Competitors are expected to pull on sleds all their provisions for the race including food, cooking items, clothing, sleeping kit and other safety gear. The Marathon des Sables might have had the Toughest Footrace on Earth moniker but, with only eleven finishers of the full distance event in seven years and having done both, the 6633 takes the crown.

Why I did it?
I wanted to do a cold weather race and originally entered the Rock and Ice Ultra but, with a couple of months to go, the event was cancelled. I knew 6633 organiser Martin Like of Likeys and contacted him on the off-chance he had a place. As it was my first foray into the Arctic, I opted for the “short” 186 kilometre option, which, although I managed to win in just under 39 hours, was plenty far enough!

Why you should do it?
Martin and his team organise this event because of a love for ultra-running and the extreme environment of the Yukon. Only a select few are accepted on the race each year, with applicants needing a proven track record in extreme endurance events. Seeing a lynx hunting a rabbit on the trail, sharing an energy bar with an Arctic fox and finishing under the Northern Lights are just three magical memories from my 6633 experience. I suffered hugely too but still have a long-term ambition to tackle the full-distance race.

Top tips
1) Don’t underestimate the race or the environment. It’s far less forgiving than the heat of the desert with little margin for error or misjudgment.
2) If you’re tempted, give Martin a call. He’ll soon let you know if you’ve got suitable experience and, if not, how to get it.
3) Even more so than the Marathon des Sables, logistics and all of your systems are key. Undoing a zip or buckle is easy on a training run at home but, in -40 C and blast freezer winds, it can be impossible.
4) Training is primarily about long days on your feet but I also included tyre towing and heavy weights work to build robustness.
5) Keep your snacks and drinks bladder close to your body, frozen chocolate is tough on your jaw!

Powerman Zofingen

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What is it?
This 10 km – 150 km – 30 km duathlon is the long course duathlon World Championships. With 200 metres of ascent on the first run, 530 metres on the second and 1800 metres of climbing on the bike, it’s a brutal quad-ripper of a race. It’s a great opportunity to don a GB tri-suit and take on some of the best run-bikers in the world.

Why I did it?
I’d always focused primarily on Standard Distance duathlon (10 km – 40 km – 5 km) but always lacked the top end run speed. I thought that Zofingen might suit me. The long bike played to my main weapon and, with the second run especially being long and hilly, suited strong runners rather than out and out whippets. In 2012, I trained really well, got in the best shape of my life and managed to win my age-group.

Why you should do it?
Duathlon is a great sport, easier to train for than triathlon but tougher to race. Zofingen is to duathlon as Kona is to triathlon. The whole of that picturesque town gets behind the event, the crowds are fantastic and, being held in Switzerland, the organisation is like clockwork. Although tough, the course is stunning with a large proportion of both runs on off-road woodland trails.

Top tips
1) Focus on both uphills and downhills for your run training. The climbing is tough but it’s also the descents on the second run that destroy you.
2) The second run is all about strength and sheer will power. I got into the habit of running, even if just for 15 minutes, after every bike ride I did in training.
3) The three lap bike course does have a lot of climbing but, with the ascent crammed into three main hills, there’s a lot of flat too. A full time trial set-up is definitely fastest.
4) Off-road duathlons through the winter are a great way to build strength.
5) Pace the climbs on the bike, what feels easy on the first lap will be trashing your legs on the third. This is an event where a power meter really comes into its own.

This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.

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