The world’s toughest trail running races - Jurg Widmer Probst

The world’s toughest trail running races

We all get tired of running on the roads sometimes. It can be monotonous dodging the crowds and the traffic, and the tarmac is punishing on our joints – particularly our knees.

So, what better than pulling on a pair of trail shoes and heading out into the wilderness for a while? Running off road has been around for as long as men and women have loved to run, but trail running is having a real boom at the moment. There are thousands of races and trail running challenges out there – but here, we’ve picked just a few of the very toughest on the planet to inspire you.

1. The UTMB, Switzerland

One of the most famous trail races on the planet, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is a single-stage mountain ultra marathon – which really is as gruelling as it sounds. It is as tough to get into as it is to run – you’ll need to have been competing in ultra marathons for a while, accumulating the necessary points (and endurance!) to enter. But if you do get in, you will enjoy a truly unique experience – a route that covers 171 kilometres (with nearly 33,000 ft of climb!) – over the Alps of France, Italy and Switzerland.

2. The Barkley Marathons, Tennessee

If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary on this infamous race, you might want to before you even think about trying to enter. This race is a true anomaly in the world of trail racing, and is the brainchild of one man, Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell. The race takes place in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee and is approximately 100 miles long. We say ‘approximately’ because the route changes every year and is notoriously fluid and hard to follow.

The race was inspired by the story of an escaped convicted who managed to cover just 8 miles in the woods over a period of 55 hours – the challenge for runners in the Barkley Marathons is to try and run the 100 mile route within a 60 hour cut off. Only 40 runners a year can enter – all you need to do is pay your fee, write an essay entitled ‘Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley’ and bring a license plate from your home country if you are (un)lucky enough to be chosen to race.

3. The Bob Graham Round, Cumbria

Actually more of a mountain running challenge than a set race, the Bob Graham Round is one of the toughest out there. The challenge is to run across 42 of the English Lake District’s mountains within 24 hours – something that guest house owner Bob Graham himself first achieved back in 1932.

It has been a jewel in the crown for trail and fell runners ever since, with professional trail runner Killian Jornet holding the current record. If you can beat his incredible time of 12hr 52m, then your place in trail running history is all but assured.

We hope these races inspire you to try running off road for yourself. While these incredibly tough races might be out of reach for most of us, taking the time to leave the tarmac behind and enjoy the wilderness is something we can all enjoy.

Jurg Widmer Probst

Jurg Widmer Probst

tips for rest days and recovery runs

TIt is one of the strangest sights in sport. Right in the middle of the toughest cycle race on the planet, the riders in the Tour de France have a rest day.

Now, there are plenty of things that we can imagine doing on a rest day after a few thousand kilometres of hard cycling (if we ever got that far) – a spot of sightseeing maybe, a gentle walk or maybe just lying down in a dark room for a few hours. But pretty much the last thing we would want to do is get on a bike again: which is why it is always so odd to see so many of the pro cyclists either out on a ‘short’ training ride or grinding away on a spin bike. But this is what they do – and like every other aspect of their training and racing it is all a part of a carefully planned out system to keep them in the very peak of condition.

Now, we’re not suggesting that any of you are going to be taking part in one of cycling’s Grand Tours any time soon – but the professional riders’ example does offer an interesting angle on the importance of rest and recovery days as we all try to get fitter and perform at our best. So, here are a few quick tips on making the most of those rest and recovery days.

Take them, don’t skip them

It is very easy to give rest and recovery days a miss when you are feeling great. It is particularly hard when you have just taken up a new sport or activity – it feels good, it makes you feel better, and you just want to keep doing it. But it is incredibly important to take a break from time to time – we would suggest at least one day a week off if you can, and maybe even more frequently if you’re just starting out at running.

You don’t always have to put your feet up

There is a difference between rest days (which are pretty much what they sound like) and recovery days, which usually include a ‘recovery run’ of some sort. The principle behind these – a little like the rides that the Tour de France riders do – is to give your body time to repair itself while keeping it moving. The idea here is to run at around half your normal speed, and by keeping the muscles moving and the blood pumping you should actually be recovering even more quickly than you would on a day on the sofa. 

Mix it up

When you are running, don’t run at your limit all the time. While it is good to push yourself, we really don’t recommend that you do it every day. Depending on how many days each week that you are heading out, we suggest that you make at least three of your weekly runs at ‘recovery’ pace. It is all about building some variation into your routine – not only does a change of pace help your body to repair itself, but it also keeps things more interesting.

Don’t just rest on your rest days

‘Rest’ in this context doesn’t just mean sitting in front of the TV all day. Even if you don’t do a recovery run, we still recommend that you try to get out and do some form of gentle exercise. We’re huge fans of walking here – it is a great way to warm up and cool down before and after a run, but it is also a perfect way to keep moving without too much of that damaging impact you get when running.

Listen to what your body is trying to tell you

Our final tip is just learn how to listen to your body when you’re not on a rest day, in order to make sure that you take the breaks you need, when you need them.

We always recommend running without headphones – not only is it safer, but it is also a way for you to focus solely on your body, how it is moving and how it feels as you run, without any distractions. While you hopefully won’t literally hear your body cracking and groaning under the pressure of running, you should certainly feel more in tune with it – so listen honestly to the feedback it is giving you, and do the right thing.

Jurg Widmer Probst
Jurg Widmer Probst

A beginner’s guide to running further

Whether it’s completing a 100km ultra marathon or just managing to jog to work every day, as runners most of will have goals that we want to achieve. It is the way we measure ourselves, and how we set targets that will hopefully push us to improve, little by little. These targets can be about beating a specific time – maybe a sub-three hour marathon – or perhaps you might have a certain number of kilos you’d like to shed. Continue reading “A beginner’s guide to running further”

Jurg Widmer - Runner

How to start running – and the mistakes to avoid

People run for all sorts of different reasons – some with a specific goal in mind, mine was losing weight – but the benefits of running also extend far beyond just the physical well being you’ll feel from getting out on the road. It’s also a fantastic way to beat stress and to clear the mind, as it is an activity that really encourages you to step out of your daily life and to just focus on the world around you. Particularly if you run off road, that time you spend running is an opportunity to get back in touch with the natural world  and to start to feel physically and mentally alive again – in a way that is just impossible in the gym. Continue reading “How to start running – and the mistakes to avoid”