A couple of weeks' ago I closely followed the progress of the 40 runners taking on the famous race that eats its young – The Barkley Marathons. This 100 mile (161 kilometres) ultra-marathon is considered to be one of the most challenging trail runs held in the United States, if not the world.
The mind-bending course features five 30 mile loops, 16,500m of accumulated vertical climb (twice the elevation of Mount Everest), no aid stations and a 60-hour time limit. This year, the race crushed the spirits of every entrant, with not one person crossing the finish line in the required time.
It's the first time since 2015 that no one managed to finish the race as runners faced incredibly hostile weather including freezing temperatures, thick fog, rain and lightning.
Watching these athletes drop away one by one got me thinking – what are Australia's most gruelling runs?
The Buffalo Stampede
With more than 4500m of elevation, The Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon course takes runners on a tough 75.4km challenge through Mt Buffalo National Park in Victoria's Alpine country. Attracting top athletes from around the world, the gruelling race starts in the picturesque town of Bright and follows the fire trails and walking tracks to the event's main attraction – the steep climb to the Mt Buffalo Chalet. If you're not keen on running an ultra-marathon, then sign-up for one of the other four races including a marathon and 10km.
Big Red Run
Experience Australia's Outback like never before by taking on the Big Red Run. Over six days entrants run either the 250km or 150km courses through the Simpson Desert. This multi-day race promises the adventure of a lifetime, varied running terrain including sand dunes, open gibber plains, clay flats, and salt lakes. Runners set off from Birdsville, a small outback town and the area is steeped in history, from aboriginal meeting places to European settlement in the late 1870s and beyond.
Surf Coast Century
Imagine running at the foot of some of Australia's tallest coastal cliffs, while the low tide of the Southern Ocean laps the sand at your now soggy feet. Ahead lies a magical, yet very challenging 100km or 50km trail run journey along Victoria's surf coast and wildflower hinterland. The Surf Coast Century features clifftop trails with endless ocean views, a single track that weaves through the fragrant coastal bush, wild flowers, waterfalls, lighthouses, and jaw-dropping beaches. It can be completed by individuals and relay teams.
Six Foot Track Marathon
The 45km annual race along the Six Foot Track is described as the 'toughest marathon in Australia, if not the world'. This tough terrain course follows the historical trail between Katoomba and the Jenolan Caves, in the Blue Mountains. Each year 850 runners tackle temperatures of more than 30 degrees, river crossings and extreme changes in elevation (including 34 short uphill bursts) as well as the normal challenges of a marathon.
Finishing one marathon is hard, but imagine finishing four in 42 hours. My legs buckle at the thought, but that's the challenge you could set yourself if you chose to enter the Alpine Challenge 100 mile. The event is touted as the toughest, most challenging, most spectacular and rewarding of all mountain trail runs in Australia - if not the southern hemisphere.
The signature 100 mile (160 km) course takes in six major climbs with 7600m of ascent and descent including Mt Feathertop, Mt Hotham, Mt McKay, Spion Kopje, Mt Nelse and Victoria's highest mountain, Mt Bogong plus five river crossings. The 60km course has over 2000m of ascent and descent, and the 36km run has more than 1300 m of ascent.
The four-day Ultra-Trail Australia event features 100km and 50km races along the breathtaking trails of the Blue Mountains National Park. It has gained a solid reputation as a must-do ultra-trail event and has captured the imaginations of runners locally and globally, growing to become one of the most talked about endurance events in Australian history.
The 100km event features stunning views, lots of stairs and an elevation gain of 4,400, while the 50km event is a perfect race for runners taking on their first ultra. If running that far is out of the question, there's also the Pace UTA22 for those wanting to try out trail running and be part of the incredible vibe of the Ultra-Trail Australia party.
Point to Pinnacle
This race is regarded by many as the toughest half marathon in the world. And for good reason, with just over 1270m of ascending, gradients above 10 per cent and extreme changes in climate and weather conditions. Set in Hobart, the Point to Pinnacle is a challenge of the human spirit and sees runners of all ages and abilities try to conquer Mount Wellington.
Great Barrier Reef Marathon
Dubbed 'the world's best adventure course' by Olympic marathon champion Steve Moneghetti, the diverse landscape of Port Douglas offers a combination of beach, road and trail running for all distances. The Great Barrier Reef Marathon also features a half marathon, and all distances start on the flat, compact sands of Four Mile Beach before winding through coastal trails, rainforest and steep hills on the famous bump track.