6 Races That Make Marathons Look Wimpy

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Getty Images

I'm currently training for a marathon. When I'm on a long training run and start to think, "This is stupid..." I don't stop and remind myself why I'm trying to run a 26.2-mile race. I prefer to comfort myself with "Yeah, but it's nowhere near as crazy as..." and then fill in a truly absurd feat of human endurance that makes 26.2 miles look positively meager. Here are some favorites:

1. The Barkley Marathons

When assassin James Earl Ray escaped from a Tennessee prison in 1977, he was missing for 55 hours. In that time, he only managed to get eight miles away before being recaptured. Race organizer Gary Cantrell heard this statistic and thought he could make it at least a hundred miles in that time. He organized the Barkley Marathons to test this theory.

Since 1986, elite ultramarathon runners have met in the hills of Frozen Head State Park to have a go at one of the world's most difficult races. Cantrell handpicks the field according to his own whims and applicants' essays on why they should be allowed to run the Barkley. Marathoners have 60 hours to complete five 20-mile loops through the park. Each loop contains over 10,000 feet of vertical climb, and if any loop takes more than 12 hours, the runner is disqualified. The runners trudge along through brambles, unmarked trails, and occasionally both snow and blistering heat during the same race.

Don't think that 100 miles in 60 hours sounds so tough? Since the race's inception over 500 elite runners have tried to finish the 100-mile trek. Seven have successfully finished the race. Cantrell's not a total sadist, though; he also offers a companion "fun run" to go along with his monstrous trail run. Fun runners only have to finish 60 miles of the course in 40 hours. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

2. Badwater Ultramarathon

  The Barkley Marathons have some competition for the title of "World's Toughest Race," though. The idea behind the Badwater Ultramarathon is fairly simple: when it's really hot, it's tough to do anything active, much less run 135 hilly miles. Starting in 1987, though, devoted runners have been trying to make a dash from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the Whitney Portal, Mount Whitney's trailhead, each July.

That's right, Death Valley in July. Temperatures have been known to reach 120 degrees in the shade, and runners have been known to run on the white lines on the side of the road to keep the soles of their shoes from melting.

The elevation gain in the race is similarly brutal. The race was originally conceived as a trip between the lowest and highest points of the continental U.S. Runnes would head from Badwater (282 feet below sea level) to the summit of Mount Whitney (14,496 feet). However, the current race "only" goes to Mount Whitney's trailhead due to Forest Service regulations on climbing the mountain. And that doesn't even take into account the pair of mountain ranges in between the two points.

Runners, who must be invited to participate, have 60 hours to complete the course, and usually 60-80% of them do. Some finish much, much faster, though. Last year Brazilian Valmir Nunes destroyed the course record in his first race; he made the trek in just 22 hours and 51 minutes. 

3. Furnace Creek 508

 This race, started in 1989, is the cycling equivalent of Badwater. Starting in just north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, CA, cyclists take off through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in this 508-mile race. Entrants have 48 hours to finish the course, which includes 36,000 feet of elevation gain. For perspective, that's like riding four mountain stages of the Tour de France back-to-back without stopping.

Interestingly, organizers of the event eschew the typical practice of giving each racer a number, opting instead to give entrants animal "totems" by which they can be identified. The totem presumably gives cyclists a head start on picking an animal to hallucinate after spending two grueling days on the saddle of a bike.

4. Race Across America

 If pedaling through Death Valley sounds a bit soft, perhaps the Race Across America is tough enough for you. This ultra marathon bike race is exactly what the title makes it out to be; racers get on their bikes in and ride from the West Coast to the East Coast. It bills itself as "The World's Toughest Bike Race."

The race, which began in 1982, is even more strenuous than most long bike tours. Unlike, say, the Tour de France or other races of its kind, there are no stages or designated times to stop and rest in most divisions of the race. Once the clock starts at the beginning of the race, it doesn't pause until entrants start trickling across the finish line. Consequently, there's a lot of pressure to keep riding throughout the night without getting adequate sleep. The time limit for the event is 12 days, so riders can't average more than 4 hours of sleep a day and expect to finish.

The course changes each year, but the winner usually rolls in around eight or nine days after the race starts. Some years 50% of entrants fail to finish due to exhaustion or medical distress. This year's race starts June 8 and will cover 3000 miles between Oceanside, CA and Annapolis, MD.

One of the race website's FAQs compares the event to the Tour de France or climbing Mt. Everest. The Tour de France comparisons are brushed aside; this race is 50% longer and doesn't allow drafting or team tactics. On the topic of Everest, the site speaks for itself: "Mt. Everest and the Race Across America are entirely different. Austrian adventurer Wolfgang Fasching has won solo RAAM three times and climbed Mt. Everest. In his opinion, - Everest is more dangerous, but RAAM is much harder."

5. Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

 Running and cycling aren't the only sports that lend themselves to feats of absurd endurance. Swimmers looking for a ridiculously difficult even need look no further than the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Each year a small handful of intrepid individuals meet in New York and brave the waters of the East, Hudson, and Harlem Rivers to circumnavigate giant loop around Manhattan. The course is 28.5 miles long, and takes over seven hours to complete. While continuously swimming for seven-plus hours would be impressive under any circumstances, these athletes have to deal with boats, pollution, and what the event's website describes as "random jetsam and flotsam in the waterways." Probably best not to think about what said jetsam and flotsam might be. To make things tougher, wetsuits aren't allowed, either.

The event is popular, though. When it began in 1982, only 12 people swam the race; last year there were 90 entrants. Due to strong currents and dirty water that hinders visibility, each solo swimmer needs a guide in a kayak or motorboat to steer them in the right direction. There are also unexpected problems. A hard rain during the race can make Manhattan's antiquated sewage system back up into the river, which lead to cancellations in 2003 and 2005.

6. Colac Six Day Race

 As if the aforementioned examples didn't seem challenging enough, a certain small subset of ultramarathon runners have taken on the challenge of multiday races that go beyond the ones listed here. Take, for instance, the Colac Six Day Race. Instead of seeing who can go the fastest on a given course, runners meet up most years in Colac, Australia, and see who can run the most laps around a 440m track. Sure, there are no hills, but the scenery never changes, either. Just six days of running in circles around a track.

The static environment doesn't slow down the competitors, though. In 2005 Greece's Yiannis Kouros, possibly the world's greatest ultra runner, broke the world distance record for such an event by going 1036.80 kilometers in the six days. He needed some help from his competition, though; according to the event's website, Vlastk Skvaril generously gave Kouros his ice vest to help lower his blood temperature when it started to get too high. What these events lack in mainstream appeal, they make up for in sportsmanship and ownership of frozen vests. 

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

7 Tips for Winning an Arm Wrestling Match

iStock
iStock

Geoff Hale was playing Division II college baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, when he sat down and started flipping through the channels on his TV. There—probably on TBS—was Over the Top, the 1987 arm wrestling melodrama starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawke, a truck driver who aspires to win his estranged son’s affections. And to do that, he has to win a national arm wrestling tournament. Obviously.

Neither the worst nor the best of Stallone’s efforts, Over the Top made Hale recall his high school years and how the fringe sport had satisfied his athletic interests, which weren't being met by baseball. “I had never lost a match,” Hale tells Mental Floss of his arm wrestling prowess. “The movie reminded me that I was good at it.”

That was 13 years ago. Now a professional competitor known as the Haleraiser, the full-time petroleum geologist has won several major titles. While you may not have the constitution for the surprisingly traumatic sport (more on that later), you might still want to handle yourself in the event of a spontaneous match breaking out. We asked Hale for some tips on what to do when you’re confronted with the opportunity to achieve a modest amount of glory while arm-grappling on a beer-stained table. This is what he told us.

1. KNOW THAT SIZE DOESN'T MATTER.

A child uses books to help in arm-wrestling an adult
iStock

Well, it does. But really only if your opponent knows what they’re doing. Otherwise, having a bowling pin for a forearm isn’t anything to be wary about. If anything, your densely-built foe may have a false sense of confidence. “Everyone has arm-wrestled since they were a kid and thinks they know what it is,” Hale says. “It looks easy, but there’s actually a very complex set of movements. It’s good to check your ego at the door.”

2. PRETEND YOU’RE PART OF THE TABLE.

A man offers to arm wrestle from behind a table
iStock

When you square up with your opposition to lock hands—thumb digging into the fleshy part, fingers wrapped around the back—don’t lean over the table with your butt in the air. And don’t make the common mistake of sitting down for a match, either. “It limits you from a technique standpoint,” Hale says, and could even open you up to injury.

Instead, you want to plant the foot that matches your dominant hand under the table with your hip touching the edge. With your free hand, grip the edge or push down on the top for stability. “Pretend like you’re part of the table,” Hale says. That way, you’ll be able to recruit your shoulders, triceps, and biceps into the competition.

3. REMEMBER TO BREATHE.

Two men engage in an arm wrestling match
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If you’re turning the color of a lobster, you’re probably holding in your breath. “Don’t,” Hale says. Remember to continue taking in air through your nose. There’s no benefit to treating the match like a diving expedition. The lack of oxygen will just tire your muscles out faster.

4. BEAT THE HAND, NOT THE ARM.

Two hands appear in close-up during an arm wrestling contest
iStock

There are three basic techniques in arm wrestling, according to Hale: the shoulder press, the hook, and the top roll. The shoulder press recruits the shoulder right behind the arm, pushing the opposing appendage down as if you were performing a triceps pressdown. The hook is more complex, varying pressure from all sides and incorporating pulling motions to bend the wrist backward. For the best chance of winning, opt for the top roll, which involves sliding your hand up your opponent’s so your grip is attacking the top portion nearest the fingers. That way, he or she is recruiting fewer major muscle groups to resist. “When you beat the hand, the arm follows,” Hale says. Because this is more strategy than strength, you might wind up toppling some formidable-looking opponents.

5. IN A STALEMATE, WAIT FOR AN OPENING.

A man and woman engage in an arm wrestling contest
iStock

While lots of arm wrestling matches end quickly, others become a battle of attrition. When you find yourself locked up in the middle of the table, wait for your opponent to relax. They almost always will. “In a neutral position, it’s good to stay static, keeping your body and arm locked up,” Hale says. “You’re just waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.” The moment you feel their arm lose tension, attack.

6. TRY SCREAMING.

A woman screams while winning an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestlers play all kinds of psychological games, and while some might be immune to trash talk, it’s likely your rival will be influenced by some selective insults. “You can make someone lose their focus easily,” Hale says. “In a stalemate, you can give them a hard time, tell them they’re not strong. It’s intimidating to be out of breath and to see someone just talking.”

7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, GO SECOND.

A man struggles while losing an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestling exacts a heavy toll on winners and losers alike: The prolonged muscle contractions can easily fatigue people not used to the exertion. If you fear a loss from a bigger, stronger opponent, conspire to have them wrestle someone else first, then take advantage of their fatigue.

If all goes well, you might want to consider pursuing the sport on more competitive levels—but you probably shouldn’t. “It takes a toll on the body,” Hale says. “I’ve got tendonitis and don’t compete as much as I used to. On the amateur level, it’s common to see arm breaks, usually the humerus [upper arm] bone. The body was not really made for arm wrestling.”

Does the University of Florida Still Make Money Off Gatorade?

George Frey, Getty Images
George Frey, Getty Images

In September 1965, 10 freshmen players on the University of Florida's Gators football team agreed to let the school's kidney disease specialist, Robert Cade, assess their hydration levels during practices. He took urine samples. He interviewed athletes. He asked to take their rectal temperature during games.

The players agreed to all but the last request. In analyzing his results, Cade discovered that the wilting heat, coupled with a lack of hydration, resulted in subjects who were very low on electrolytes like sodium and potassium, sometimes losing six to nine pounds of water per practice session—with some footballers having anecdotes of 15 to 20 pounds lost during games. Cade felt that players suffered from low blood volume and low blood sugar. Many, in fact, were being hospitalized after overexerting themselves without drinking enough water, traditionally seen as a way of building toughness in players. Those who remained on field were surely not playing up to their potential.

Cade mixed water, sugar, salt, and lemon juice, then ordered them to drink the solution to keep their bodies in balance. By 1967, the Gators were all consuming "Gatorade," and incidences of heat stroke fell sharply. The Gators secured a 9-2 record in 1966; the team became renowned for their renewed energy during the second half, and ignited a transformation in sports science. Decades later and backed by a massive promotional machine, Gatorade has permeated both professional sports and amateur athletics alike, replenishing electrolytes lost during physical activity. Roughly 632 million cases were sold in 2013 alone.

With the sports drink having been born on the Gators's playing field and invented by a University of Florida employee, it's not hard to see why both Cade's estate (he died in 2007) and the school get a percentage of royalties from sales, an agreement that's still in place today. But if they had their way, the university would be getting all of it.

A University of Florida coach is soaked in Gatorade by his players after a win
Donald Miralle, Getty Images

After Cade and his co-researchers finalized Gatorade’s formula, Cade approached the school's head of sponsored research to see if they wanted to come to an arrangement over the rights to the drink (Cade wanted $10,000) and determine if they wanted to try and sell it to a national distributor. According to Cade, University of Florida (UF) officials weren't interested, so he struck a deal with beverage maker Stokely Van-Camp in 1967.

Stokely's offer was for Cade and his cohorts—now known as the Gatorade Trust—to receive a $25,000 cash payment, a $5000 bonus, and a five-cent royalty on each gallon of Gatorade sold. When UF realized that they had been shortsighted in assessing the brand's mass market appeal—and that they were missing out on profits—they allegedly told Cade that the drink belonged to them.

"Go to hell," Cade responded, a statement that kicked off several years of litigation.

While Cade was a university employee, funds for his work actually came from the government—specifically, the Department of Health. He also managed to avoid signing an agreement solidifying his inventions as school property. For these reasons, and because both sides anticipated an endless and costly legal jiu-jitsu match in their futures, the two accepted a federal ruling in 1972. The Gatorade Trust would continue to receive their royalties, and the school would take 20 percent of the disbursement.

Initially, that meant one cent for every gallon of Gatorade sold, a fraction of the five cents owed to the Trust. In September 1973, following the first full year of the agreement, UF made $115,296 in royalties and earmarked the funds for kidney research and marine science.

Gatorade cups are shown stacked in a locker room
J. Meric, Getty Images

That's a considerable sum, but it's nothing compared to what poured out in the decades to come. When Stokely Van-Camp was purchased by Quaker Oats in 1983, they kicked off a heavy promotional campaign that highlighted Gatorade in commercials and sponsored teams. Coaches began getting doused with jugs full of Gatorade following big victories. When PepsiCo bought Quaker for $13.4 billion in 2000, they leveraged their marketing muscle to further engender the brand.

Consequently, both the Gatorade Trust and UF have profited immensely. As of 2015, the Trust had earned well over $1 billion in royalties, with 20 percent, or about $281 million, going to UF. The five-cent per gallon formula has been replaced by a percentage: between 1.9 percent and 3.6 percent depending on how much Gatorade is sold annually, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell, with the University taking a fifth of that. The funds have been invested in the school's Genetics Institute, the Whitney Marine Laboratory in St. Augustine, and to help disperse seed money for grants.

The school naturally has an affinity for the stuff, but that can occasionally come into conflict with other marketing deals. In 2016, the University of Florida’s women's basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament, which was sponsored by Powerade, a competing sports drink made by Coca-Cola. As a compromise, the players dumped their Gatorade into Powerade bottles and cups. The beverage born on campus—one that's netted them nearly $300 million to date—always comes first.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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