When hikers or runners want to take their challenge to the next level, they do trail running. The most extreme trail runners train for the 4 Deserts Race—one of the most extreme races in which a runner can compete. It's the ultra ultra-marathon of all marathons. Runners are not only subjected to the longest distances, but also the harshest conditions.
The 4 Deserts Race includes the most extreme environments: The Atacama is considered the driest desert in the world, the Sahara is considered the hottest, and the Gobi is considered one of the most variable deserts with temperatures ranging from 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, to negative 40 degrees in the winter. While we may not naturally think of the fourth location as a desert, Antarctica most certainly is one.
The greatest achievement among 4 Deserts racers is to finish all four races within one calendar year. Upon completing this achievement, the racer receives what is called the Grand Slam award. Ultimately, any single one of the races is a true test of your metal, and even the man or woman who places last has earned the greatest amount of respect.
This race is unique among the four because it gives competitors a diverse range of terrain and climate. It begins in the cool mountains and ends in the hotter, lower altitudes. The Gobi march racers run 250 kilometers (155 miles) over the course of seven days. This means that participants run only a bit short of a marathon every day for seven days in a row. To give you an idea of how far this would be, it's a bit less than 150 miles from the city of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. Imagine running this entire distance in an area that is completely empty of major human development. Stores, hotels, and more importantly hospitals, are nowhere near the course.
The Gobi March is located near the ancient Silk Road, which truly gives those who participate the experience of what it may have been like to make the perilous journey long ago. The course begins along the Tian Shan Mountains, a mountain range that takes up a significant portion of the Asian continent, and runners even cross over the range to complete the race. While running, participants get to enjoy the desert's famous sandstone formations and cultures of the Uyghur, Kazak, and Hui peoples.
The Sahara Race takes place in Namibia. The Sahara poses similar challenges to the other races, but the amount of time running in loose sand makes it all the more difficult. It can be hard for runners to secure their footing, and it's easy to get sand in their shoes and clothing, creating blisters. The highest recorded temperature in the Sahara reached 136 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is considered the hottest desert in the world.
The Atacama desert is considered the driest non-polar desert in the world and covers parts of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. On average, the Atacama desert only receives about a millimeter of rain per year. Due to the complete inability for plant or animal life to grow, many films taking place on Mars have been shot there.
Many consider this race to be the most difficult, even more so than the race that takes place in Antarctica. This is mainly due to the heat and rocky terrain.
The Last Desert
Both the Antarctic and Arctic polar regions qualify as deserts because the definition of a desert is a stretch of land that is waterless, with little to no vegetation. Antarctica as a whole only receives about two inches of rain per year (it must receive less than 10 in order to qualify as a desert). In fact, there are parts of Antarctica that haven't seen a drop of rain for over two million years.
The extreme cold temperature is what lures runners seeking the ultimate challenge (it drops as low as negative 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter). But the unique nature of the Last Desert Race is what makes it the most grueling. All other races cover a vast mileage, and while you may be running in a loop, the sheer distance doesn't make it seem that way. The Last Desert race demands more than physical strength. It demands the strongest mental strength as well.
Due to the legal restrictions of the area, racers are bound to run in a relatively small area because they are not allowed to venture further into the continent. Seeing the same dreary scenery over and over again may be the toughest challenge yet! This race is similar to the others in that it is the standard 4 Deserts 250 kilometers in distance.
In addition to these four races, there is also what is called the Roving Race, which picks a different location every year. This coming year, the race takes place in Patagonia.
All of the races require full self sufficiency. This means that racers have to carry their own clothes while they run, along with their sleeping bag, medical and safety kits, and seven days' worth of food. Most runners try and keep their packs under 9 kilograms.
A fantastic documentary has been created within the last five years that follows the experiences of four participants, two of whom break records in their Grand Slam achievements. The Desert Runners movie captures the pain and joy through all the training and during the race. Dave, 56 at the time, proved that age imposes no limits and received the Grand Slam award. Samatha at 25 was the first woman to complete a Grand Slam. Other notable runners in the documentary include an ex-baseball player and a military man who recently lost his wife. All of the runners involved in the documentary showed amazing character, and they can truly inspire you to face whatever challenge lies before you. The trailer for the documentary can be viewed here.