Take your next physical challenge goal on the road with these unique races in some seriously incredible places.
Destination Races Around the World
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Signing up for a race in your own backyard is a great way to spend a weekend. But if you're looking for a change of scenery and a memorable challenge, check out one of these destination races around the world that are well worth the flight or car rental.
Photo: Spartan Race
Great Wall Marathon, China
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For those who want to push their marathon running to the next level—and do so in one of the world's most recognizable spots—the Great Wall Marathon in China is the perfect place to show you've been practicing hills. With steep inclines and descents, the route covers 5,164 historic stone steps, usually under a hot May sun. If the unrelenting staircases tire you out, consider this—at least you're getting your sightseeing and your workout in, all at the same time. (For an idea of just how tough yet beautiful the course is, follow along with personal trainer Raquel Holgado's video of the 2017 race. Afterward, she told CNN, "It's great and completely unpredictable. You completely forget that you're doing something difficult or challenging.")
Take in the scenery without the punishing distance of 26.2 miles by entering the half marathon or 8K fun run. For other epic marathons, the company that organizes the Great Wall Marathon also offers other unconventional routes, including the Big Five Marathon in South Africa, the Petra Desert Marathon in Jordan, the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland, and the Bagan Temple Marathon in Myanmar.
Photo: Albatros Adventure Marathons
Spartan Ultra World Championship, Iceland
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When Spartan Race CEO and founder Joe De Sena was deciding on a location for their ultra-distance championship, Iceland in December popped into his head. "My team came back and said, 'No, because there's no light that time of year and it's extremely cold,'" he tells Shape.
For 24 hours, Spartan Ultra World Championship participants race in a quest to log as many miles as possible—30 gets them the official finisher's belt buckle. Along the way, there's an icy mountain to climb up and slip-and-slide down, rings to traverse, sandbags and buckets of gravel to carry for significant distances, monkey bars to cross, and terrain that can change from soft and squishy to hard and icy in a step's time. (Related: Outdoor Adventure Travel Trips for Vacations That Are Anything but Relaxing)
But there are rewards, too. In the wee hours, the northern lights have been known to make an appearance. Those who aren't up for the 24-hour slog can enter the sprint, which is a still-challenging one lap of the course (about 6.6 miles). Either way, the conditions lend themselves to camaraderie. "I like the people," says 2017 winner and 2018 runner-up Morgan McKay to Shape. "It's a really cool bond you build with other racers when you're doing something so hard together."
Photo: Spartan Race
Grand Traverse, Colorado, USA
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The legendary Grand Traverse started in the 1990s as a backcountry ski race with inspiration from a couple of sources, including the Patrouille des Glaciers, a ski mountaineering race organized by the Swiss Armed Forces, and the historic mail routes that connected Colorado mining towns back in the 1880s. Today, it's evolved into three separate races: skiing, biking, and running (complete all three for the Grand Traverse Triple Crown). Whichever high-elevation option you choose involves going 40-plus miles from Crested Butte to Aspen or vice versa, ascending more than 6,000 feet in the Elk Mountains.
The original race, backcountry skiing, is completed in teams of two and begins at midnight under the light of the moon. The weather is unpredictable, but racers can always count on a stunning sunrise and an experience they won't soon forget. "Today was special," said Allen Hadley after finishing the race in 2016. "Just being out there that far from society and feeling like it's okay to be there. I think that's pretty magical."
Photo: Chris Miller
Avon Descent, Australia
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When this two-day, 124-kilometer water race was first held near Perth, Australia, in 1973, there were no rules, no officials, and no checkpoints. Things have changed since then, but the Avon Descent is still the great adventure it was when those 49 intrepid competitors first took to the waves. (Related: The Most Exciting Multisport Races Are More Than Just Swimming, Biking, and Running)
Choose either the power or paddle category, depending on your strengths: power dinghies, single and double kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards are all options. Through the grueling Western Australia course, you'll navigate both long stretches of flat water and intense whitewater rapids, passing by historic farming regions, steep gorges, forest-covered national parks, and verdant wine country.
For spectators, there are lots of spots along the way to glimpse the action, and the Toodyay International Food Festival that takes place the same weekend is a fun diversion when not cheering on the participants. If 124 kilometers (77 miles) sounds a little long, the event has recently added shorter courses that can be tackled if you just want to get your feet wet.
Photo: Avon Descent
Freak'n Farmer Adventure Obstacle Race, British Columbia, Canada
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Being a farmer isn't easy work, but it's easy to love the Freak'n Farmer course at Covert Farms Family Estate in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. The obstacles are a mystery until you arrive for your briefing, but you can expect to prove that you're farm strong. You might flip a tire, push a pickup truck, roll barrels, swing from a rope attached to a tractor, launch veggies with a slingshot, and even shovel a little manure, all in desert-like conditions. Choose from a 20K, 10K, or 5K distance (kids can do a 5K, 3K, or 1K), depending on just how many farmhand chores you want to tackle.
Fortunately, the fun doesn't end when you cross the finish line. The organic grapes grown right here on the farm make for a mighty fine post-race wine to celebrate your accomplishment.
Photo: Chris Stenberg
Rat Race Dirty Weekend, England
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If it's obstacles you seek, it's obstacles you'll get at the Rat Race Dirty Weekend, held every year at Burghley House, an estate two hours north of London. The 20-mile loop is cram-jammed full of obstacles—more than 200, in fact—that test your ability to climb, crawl, swing, swim, balance, and bound through all kinds of situations. If you have a fear, you'll probably face it here. For a little bit of contrast, you'll get down and dirty against a backdrop of Burghley's beautiful Elizabethan architecture. Once the course is complete, the buzzing afterparty (for those who somehow still manage to have energy!) is known for its live bands. (Related: The Only Workout You Need to Train for an Obstacle Race)
"I can't help but laugh pretty much the whole way through," said participant Darren Grigas in a story for The Guardian. Grigas was crazy enough to do the course twice in one day. "And—despite the anguish, lack of breath and fear of what's next—I see smiles and laughter all day long from others around me."
Photo: Rat Race Adventure Sports
Caribbean Running Cruise, Caribbean
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Run your way through the Caribbean, with a little help from a seafaring vessel, on the Caribbean Running Cruise. Setting sail from Miami, this all-inclusive adventure takes you to Honduras, Mexico, and the Bahamas over the course of a week. You'll get started with a 5K at sea—you can cover some serious distance on the world's largest passenger cruise ship—before taking on a 6K/3K trail run in Roatán, a beach 10K/5K in Costa Maya, a pirate-themed Amazing Race–style event in Cozumel, and a final 10K/5K in Nassau. Bonus: You'll never have to worry about carb loading before the runs because the ship's chefs will see to it that you're well fueled each day...and the spa will take care of any aches and pains. (Related: 4 Reasons the Cayman Islands Are the Perfect Trip for Swimmers and Water Lovers)
If you still have energy back onboard, climb the rock walls, zip-line from nine decks, or sail down the world's tallest waterslide at sea.
Photo: Caribbean Running Cruise
Bisbee 1000, Arizona, USA
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Deep in southeast Arizona, not far from the Mexican border, lies an unexpected find: a quirky small town carved into a canyon, formerly a mining hot spot turned colorful haven for the arts. You can get around by electric bike or Lavender Jeep Tour, but what better way to explore the unique surroundings than to run the town's nine staircases and winding roads?
Over the course of the Bisbee 1000's 4.5 miles, you'll cover 1,000 stairs, placed where the mule paths used to be during the copper mining glory days. Along the way, you'll pass bold murals and well-preserved architecture in styles ranging from Victorian to Art Deco. While some people are competitive, others are out there for the fun of it. Organizers encourage participants to "think of it as a garden tour, a home tour, a musical extravaganza, a costume ball, one heck of a party, and a celebration of the community spirit." (Related: How to Stay Healthy While Traveling Without Ruining Your Vacation)
If completing the only outdoor stair climb in the United States isn't enough for you, enter the Ironman Ice Competition immediately after, which involves toting a 10-pound block of ice with a pair of antique tongs up 155 stairs, across a trail, and back down the hill.
Photo: Haley Shapley