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Extreme Racing: 10 of the World’s Toughest & Most Unusual Competitions
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 28 December 2015.

There’s something about the human spirit that encourages each of us, in different ways, to see just how far we can push ourselves. Throughout history, a variety of grueling races have given some of the most extreme and daring competitors the opportunity to push themselves to their very limits. Whether it’s on foot, on horseback or in the air, this article examines a selection of the most demanding, adventurous and offbeat of them all. Extreme racing doesn’t get much tougher - or in some cases eccentric - than these unusual competitions.

1. The Self-Transcendence 3,100, United States

Image: Open Street Map; Self-Transcendence 3,100.

Those that run it call it one of the most physically and mentally grueling foot races in the world. At the end of 52 days, participants will have covered 3,100 miles - extreme racing around a course that’s only .5488 miles long.

That course is a single city block in Jamaica, Queens. They run past Thomas A. Edison Vocational and Technical School, and dodge teens as they come out of school for the day. They run past basketball courts, illegally parked cars, and sometimes, they dodge the occasional act of street violence. Over and over again - those who complete the race will have lapped their way around the block a staggering 5,649 times.

And therein lies the challenge. It’s as much about the mental strength needed to run laps around the same block thousands of times, about the ways of coping with the emotional and mental strain, as it is about the physical challenge of running. Started by Sri Chinmoy, the race isn’t just an exercise in running, it’s an exercise in meditation, in overcoming limitations and adversity. To Chinmoy, self-transcendence is rewarded with endless joy, and with competing not against the rest of the world, but against yourself.

When Harper’s Magazine reporter Sam Shaw ran alongside the participants, he got an incredible look at just what it took to run the Self-Transcendence 3,100. One runner, Welshman Abichal Watkins, said: “There are so few things for the mind to dwell on here. It loses its strength.” Different runners have different ways of dealing with the seemingly endless miles around the same city block. When Shaw spoke with Watkins, he had been listening to the same Coldplay song for the past 100-odd miles or so.

And people do finish the extreme race. Currently, the record - set in 2015 - is held by Finnish runner Asprihanal Aalto, who ran his 3,100 miles in 40 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes and 21 seconds.

2. Runfire Cappadocia, Turkey

Image: Brocken Inaglory; Ortahisar, near which Runfire Cappadocia takes place.

As extreme racing goes, the Runfire Cappadocia is fairly short - a mere 161 miles, or 260 kilometers. But the race, which is run over six days, is through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. The course winds its way through Cappadocia, Turkey, a UNESCO heritage site listing.

Inhabited for thousands of years, the landscape is in a rocky desert filled with underground towns, homes, sanctuaries and dwellings carved from the rock itself, and breathtaking formations created by centuries of erosion. Runners make their way past fairy chimneys and extinct volcanoes, over subterranean cities, past the spartan, cavernous rock cells of ancient monks, and past churches carved from stone hundreds of years ago.

Through hot, dry days and cold night, runners make their way through Pigeon Valley and Ihlara Valley, around Mount Hasan and Lake Tuz, and spend the nights sleeping under the stars as they do. Even though the next leg of the course is explained nightly, a GPS is among the required equipment for the ultra-marathon through the Turkish desert.

Some of Cappadocia’s oldest structures date back as early as 1800 to 1200 BC, when those living in the Goreme Valley saw the bloody conflicts and border disputes between the Greeks, Persians and Byzantines. Life was dangerous, and that meant the need to hide - and to tunnel deeper and deeper into the soft, rocky ground. With some of the homes are still occupied and others serving as hotels, restaurants and shops, the Runfire Cappadocia makes for extreme racing through thousands of years of history.

3. The All-Women Transcontinental Air Race

Image: LA Times; Powder Puff Derby 1948 contenders.

It’s better known as the Powder Puff Derby, thanks to a comment by Will Rogers. It’s not clear whether he meant it as an observation or as an insult, but the name stuck. In 1948 and 1949, it became the Jacqueline Cochran All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, but still, in popular slang, it was the Powder Puff. The event ended in 1977, but up until then, it was one of the most well-known extreme racing venues for female pilots to compete in an epic, cross-country air race.

The first Powder Puff Derby was held in August of 1929, when 19 pilots left an airfield in Santa Monica, California and headed to Cleveland, Ohio, with only road maps to find their way. Even getting into the air was a challenge, though, with severe restrictions placed on who could fly. Pilots were required to have logged 100 hours of solo flight and 25 hours of cross-country flight (the same rules that applied to men), but they were also required to only fly a plane that was suitably delicate enough for a woman to handle. One pilot, Opal Kunz, was nearly disqualified because her 300-horsepower Travel Air was ruled to be too much of a plane for a woman to safely handle. She was thus forced to find a smaller aircraft if she wanted to compete - which she did, and came eighth.

The first year’s pilots faced a host of challenges throughout the Power Puff Derby, including a crash that claimed the life of pilot Marvel Crosson in the Gila River Valley. There were rumours of sabotage during the extreme racing extravaganza, too, after some aircraft were reportedly damaged by acid and fire - in one case, a fire started on board the plane of a non-smoker. The source of the fire was found to be a cigarette butt.

4. 1953 London to Christchurch: The Last Great Air Race

Image: RuthAS; this KLM DC-6A was competitor No. 21.

It was dubbed “The Last Great Air Race,” and participants left Heathrow Airport in October of 1953. More than simply extreme racing from London to Christchurch in New Zealand, however; it was also an opportunity for airlines to show just what they could do.

KLM - Royal Dutch Airlines - participated with their state-of-the-art DC 6A Liftmaster, fully loaded with cargo, passengers and mail. As part of the handicap section of the race, they would be granted a win as long as they made the run within 44 hours of their nearest competitor. It was their flight that would be immortalized in the movie “Bride Flight.”

It almost didn’t happen, and it most certainly wouldn’t have, had it been up to the airline. Originally, it was decided that the long-haul (a two-day, nearly non-stop flight) wasn’t suitable for the delicate disposition of women, and it was decided that it would be a male-only flight. Popular opinion was one of outrage, and when they opened the flight to women, female passengers almost completely filled the plane. Most were on the their way to meet their future husbands, who had emigrated to New Zealand ahead of them. The women were advised to “take along your knitting and a musical instrument,” and they boarded the plane destined to take them to their new life.

Every stop the plane made lasted an average of 20 minutes, and during the last leg, the passengers made it a point to completely clean the cabin in preparation for their inevitable win. After bizarre ordeals like having locusts hitch a ride from Rangoon to a mid-air collision with an unfortunate eagle, the extreme racing flight landed safely in New Zealand.

Their final time was 37 hours and 30 minutes; while they technically won the extreme race, the fastest speed was actually attributed to an RAF Canberra jet, which made the trip in just less than 24 hours.

5. The Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett

Image: Roby; the 1906 Gordon Bennett Cup.

When the first Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett race got underway in 1906, 16 teams left the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and around 200,000 people turned out to watch. The extreme race continues today, and it’s a little different than most. It’s not as much about speed as it is skill and distance.

Teams leave from the same point, somewhere in the country that won the race the previous year. They get airborne, and at the end, whoever’s gone the farthest is declared the winner.

It’s more challenging than it sounds, with every mile counting. In 2009, only a distance of 11 miles separated first and second place. Teams have to plan accordingly, keeping in mind the problems that come with ever-changing weather while maximizing their distance and still allowing themselves a safe place to land.

This historic example of extreme racing hasn’t gone uninterrupted. No contest was held during World War One, and thanks to World War Two, the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett was halted for decades. It wasn’t re-established until 1983 with a starting launch from Paris. The extreme race got a major update in 2000, when the movements of participants were tracked and uploaded to internet viewers.

Even before that, such extreme racing was guaranteed to be hugely popular. In 1933, it was organized as a part of the Chicago World’s Fair, which was crammed full of aviation innovations and famous pilots from around the world. Even though tensions with Germany were mounting, one of the biggest celebrities was Fritz von Opel, one of the first daring pilots to experiment with installing a rocket motor in an aircraft.

6. The Mongol Derby, Mongolia

Image: UN Photo; Mongolian wild horses like those used in the Mongol Derby.

Semi-wild horses descended from those that once carried Mongol warriors into battle as they swept across Asia. A secret course. No facilities. 999 kilometers. Extreme racing at its most intense. If that sounds like a challenge, it is - it’s the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race staged by a group called The Adventurists.

The derby covers 999 kilometers of wild countryside, with no place to stop and rest, no showers, no facilities, and only the open sky and small outposts every 40km or so. It’s based around the world’s earliest postal route, established in 1224 by Genghis Khan and crossing through deserts and wetlands alike. There’s no set, concrete route, and the general layout of the course is kept a secret until just before participants put their heels to their horses and set out on their wild adventure.

The horses themselves are half-wild, drawn from among the mounts of local nomadic families who live along the route. The small but strong horses are the polar opposite to the thoroughbreds of the western world, descended from ancient stock that hasn’t been carefully, painstakingly bred with the backing of hundreds of thousands of dollars. When these horses are selected, they’re given a thorough medical and some notes - which might include things like, “wild, kicks at stethoscope - beware.” They’re the heart and soul of the race: feisty, stubborn, and able to carry their riders on the wind.

Race-ending injuries are common, and broken bones the norm. But for those that manage to stay in the saddle, it’s a race like none other. Participants are also helping to save the earth; the race is run with the stipulation that participants must raise money for charity, including Cool Earth, which works to protect areas of the rainforest that are in immediate danger of being destroyed.

7. The MacRobertson Air Race, London to Melbourne

Image: Wikipedia; extreme racing between London and Melbourne.

For Melbourne’s 100th anniversary, an air race was staged between RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and Melbourne. There were no limits as to who could compete, no limits on aircraft size or the number of crew. With two divisions, one for speed and a handicap section, there were plenty of entrants - 64, precisely, from 13 different countries. But only 20 were prepared to fly on the day of the race, and only 11 finished.

There were five stops that everyone had to make - Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville. As long as those stops were made, extreme racers were free to go their own way for the rest of the 18,000 km trip.

Even by today’s standards, the MacRobertson Air Race makes for a grueling flight. The first to cross the Melbourne finish line was the British DeHavilland 88 Comet ‘Grosvenor House’, flown by C.W.A. Scott and T. Campbell Black. The entire trip took them two days, 23 hours, and 18 seconds, with 71 hours of that time spent in the air.

The second fastest time was something unexpected - a Douglas DC-2 airliner known as ‘Uiver’, owned by the Dutch and designed by the Americans. It was clearly not made for speed or extreme racing. Instead, it was built with maximum payload in mind. ‘Uiver’ made the trip while carrying passengers, and even though it made more stops than many other competitors, its time (only 19 hours longer than ‘Grosvenor House’) made the world look at the possibilities of airliners a little more closely.

The MacRobertson Air Race wasn’t just about the biggest and best aircraft of the time; it was an extreme racing event with international fanfare. What’s more, it made international travel via the new, metal-bodied aircraft the way of the future.

8. Extreme Racing at its Toughest: 4 Deserts

Image: Smcmurtrey; 4 Deserts extreme racing across the unforgiving Atacama salt flats.

4 Deserts is exactly that, a grueling series of footraces carried out in some of the most inhospitable regions on earth. The first part is the seven-day, 250km race across Chili’s Atacama Desert. It’s no small challenge, either, with one of the most alien-looking landscapes on earth, so like the surface of the moon it’s used by NASA to test space equipment. It’s the driest place on earth, and it’s been that way for 15 million years. Competitors will cross 30 checkpoints, carrying all they need to survive in the desert. As a group, they’ll consume around 15,000 liters of water during the extreme racing event.

The Gobi Desert leg takes competitors through the rocky mountains, sand dunes, and villages of China’s sprawling wilderness, and about half those extreme racers who run the Gobi Desert leg do it only after completing another section of 4 Deserts. Temperatures can reach 40C/104F during the day and dip below freezing at night. And, like the other legs, runners carry everything they need for all seven days.

The Sahara leg of the extreme race takes competitors through one of the oldest deserts in the world, covering sandy beaches, rocky outcroppings, and some of the world’s largest sand dunes. Fighting temperatures that go from blisteringly hot to freezing cold, there’s also the fog - at times, that fog can be so thick, it causes shipwrecks along the Namibian coast, giving it its nickname of the Skeleton Coast. This extreme racing is so grueling that only about 20 percent of the ultra-marathon runners who attempt it will actually finish.

And for the final leg, competitors head to the literal Last Desert - Antarctica. It’s only after qualifying and finishing two other races that runners get the chance to fight through meter-deep snow drifts and ice fields, through freezing temperatures and across terrain so extreme that it remains among the last frontiers on earth to be explored.

9. 1911 Paris to Madrid Air Race

Image: Library of Congress; aviator Jules Vedrines.

In 1911, flying - especially over long distances - was equal parts dangerous, terrifying and exhilarating. Between May 21st and 25nd that year, 21 competitors signed up to complete the 800-mile course from Paris to Madrid. There were three stages to the race: Issy-les-Moulineaux to Angouleme, Angouleme to San Sebastian, and San Sebastian to Madrid. Only six left the starting line, and only one finished - the Frenchman Jules Vedrines.

Perhaps because the concept of long-distance flying was still new, the extreme race was scarred by tragedy. Planes overloaded for the first of three legs struggled to get airborne, and the French War Minister, Maurice Berteaux, was struck and killed by an aircraft trying to take off. The accident led to complete chaos on the field among pilots and spectators alike, leading to other injuries as other planes tried and failed to depart.

Vedrines, who took off before the tragedy, won the 1,360km race with 15 hours of flight time in a Morane-Borel monoplane. The French aviator had only gained his pilot’s license the year before, but it was the beginning of a long, passionate affair with aviation. After the race, he joined another - the run for a seat in Parliament, campaigning on the platform that aviation and aeronautical development should have a spokesperson in government. Even though he lost, Vedrines made an impressive flight from Paris to Cairo in 1913, and became a pilot tasked with special missions during World War One.

10. The Pedestrian Races of the 1870s and 1880s

Image: via Wikipedia; pedestrianism: not your typical form of extreme racing!

Walking might be the last mode of transportation that comes to mind alongside the idea of extreme racing, but in the 1870s and 1880s, the phenomenon of ‘pedestrianism’ was sweeping the United States. And it was hardcore.

There wasn’t just one race, per se. They were popping up in cities all over post-Civil-War America. NPR reports that some of the first were held in Madison Square Garden, and they were epic. Running from midnight on Sunday into Monday morning, competitors would start to walk - and they wouldn’t stop for six days.

Some would have cots set up to grab a few hours’ sleep a day, but for the most part the extreme racing went on for around 21 hours a day, walking for six days straight. By the end, competitors had walked around 600 miles. Arenas were packed with spectators, who came not only for the walkers, but for the bands and the carnival-like atmosphere that blossomed around the extreme sport. They were also there for the gambling, which became so lucrative that entire organizations ran on fixing races. It also marked the beginning of corporate sponsorships, with famous pedestrians lending their image to everything from salt to newspapers.

One of the most famous pedestrians was Edward Payson Weston, who walked hundreds of miles wearing capes and plenty of ruffles. Weston regularly packed roller rinks with people who paid to watch him do his most famous act - walk 100 miles in a single day. One of his closest extreme racing competitors was Chicago-based Irish immigrant Dan O’Leary, who became the face of an immigrant population struggling to make the best of their new life in America - and who made around US$1 million in today’s money walking in competitions.

Top image: Extreme racing in the Gordon Bennett Cup, 1907. Credit: Milo44/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]